The Curmudgeon


Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Man From Earth

Richard Schenkman 2007

The screenplay was the final work of Jerome Bixby, who is probably best known for his horror story "It's a Good Life", about a community tyrannised over by an infant with apocalyptic powers of telepathy and telekinesis. The tale was adapted - not by Bixby - into one of the most famous episodes of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone, the only notable changes being that the child, Anthony, is a bit older in the TV episode, and his pranks more explicitly presented. In the story, Anthony "entertains" his subjects by making meaningless, undefined shapes appear on the television screen; in the TV episode, he treats them to a stop-motion dinosaur fight. At the climax of Bixby's story, when one of the adults incurs Anthony's wrath, the child transmogrifies him "into something nobody would ever have believed possible"; in the TV episode, the victim is turned into a rather unconvincing jack-in-the-box.

Happily for The Man From Earth and The Twilight Zone, and less happily for the oeuvres of Peter Jackson, Jerry Bruckheimer, Danny Boyle, Steven Spielberg and their ilk, it is easier for a good story to carry a bad special effect than it is for a spectacular special effect to substitute for a good story. David Cronenberg once summarised the plot of his film The Fly as "three people in a room talking": the gruesome visual effects are used with flair and imagination, but their effectiveness is augmented by the equivalent flair and imagination devoted to such cinematic luxuries as character and dialogue. Jacques Rivette's Céline and Julie Go Boating, one of the greatest and most beguiling fantasy films ever made, has no special effects at all beyond the writing, the performances and the editing. The Man From Earth also utilises no special effects, and its eighty-seven-minute plot consists almost entirely of eight people in a room talking.

The people are a group of academics gathered to bid farewell to their colleague, John Oldman (David Lee Smith), who has rather abruptly announced, after ten years, that he is upping stakes and moving on. One of his friends remarks on how little he has aged; another notices what seems to be an unknown work by Van Gogh among the possessions being piled into Oldman's pickup. After a drink or two, Oldman announces that he's going to let his friends in on a secret: when he was about thirty-five his body stopped ageing, and he reached his present biological age as a Cro-Magnon man, fourteen thousand years ago.

The resulting interrogation is as riveting as the best of Nigel Kneale, who might easily have come up with a similar scenario. As one of the characters points out, Oldman's claim is as impossible to refute as it is to prove, and the ambiguity is beautifully sustained with the help of some fine supporting performances ranging between the hopeful half-belief of Tony Todd's anthropologist to the aggressive scepticism of William Katt's cradle-snatching rationalist and Ellen Crawford's conservative Christian. Although he causes some theological difficulties, Oldman is unable to provide any earth-shattering revelations about the nature of man or the world, but then he never claims to be anything other than human: "I never said I was immortal," he answers quietly at one point; "just very old." Asked where he was during a particular year in the thirteenth century, Oldman parries with: "Where were you on this date a year ago?"

Despite one trite line about the need for people to take care of the environment, Oldman is never presented as either an all-wise moral superman or as a Faustian demonolater; which works greatly to the film's advantage. The possibility that he may be a lunatic is handled very well, through the character of a psychiatrist (Richard Riehle) whom one of the sceptics calls in when it becomes apparent that Oldman isn't joking. It's a pity that Bixby felt the need to use this character as a means to an over-emphatic dénouement in which the story's ambiguity is thrown aside in favour of a melodramatic twist - the only significant flaw in this minor masterpiece.


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