Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Thing from Another World: MOMA, June 17

My first mission as a young cinephile was to absorb the filmography of Howard Hawks; as a result, I often find that I've practically memorized a Hawks film, yet haven't gotten around to revisiting it in decades. It can be a lot of fun to bring one's more mature sensibility to bear on a film that's part of one's DNA.

I saw The Thing from Another World last week at MOMA for the first time in 21 years, and found it even more brilliant and organic than before. This time around, I was struck by how political the film was, and how completely the politics were a function of form. Hawks and his scriptwriters (Charles Lederer and the uncredited Ben Hecht) conceive the movie as a struggle for supremacy between two genres: the fairly new 50s sci-fi genre, and the adventure/action genre that his protagonists improvise. In the movie's rendering, the sci-fi genre is intrinsically liberal: the scientists are consumed with the wonder of extraterrestrial life, think only of making a mutually enriching contact. But the protagonists are soldiers whose instincts, even before the Thing's agenda is clear, are conservative: assume the worst, be armed, head off catastrophe. The struggle between genres is not just a nuance: scenes are built around the collision between different styles of acting, different ideas about where the plot should go. (The genre conflict peaks in the hilarious scene where Carrington, the head scientist, declaims in theatrical terms the urgent need to keep the Thing alive, only to be hustled unceremously out of the frame when commanding officer Hendry mutters under his breath, "Get him out of here.")

The film's stand is unambiguous: the conservatives have the correct opinion in every dispute, the conservatives win in the end and can afford to be generous to the defeated liberals. One cannot legitimately call the film fascist. Not only does Hendry talk a good game about not enjoying giving orders, but the film demonstrates its openness in action, most concretely in the very funny plot thread in which soldier Dewey Martin, who comes up with most of the film's good ideas, eventually stops waiting for Hendry to rubber-stamp his decisions, with Hendry's approval. The film enjoys deflating the cult of authority.

More than any director I can think of, Hawks depends on genre for his effects, needs to play against an established genre backdrop. He devotes a fraction of his cinematic resources to building up genre presence, but the bulk of his resources to executing dialogue and action in a casual style that explodes the genre mood, releases the potential energy in the genre abstraction. Todd McCarthy's bio of Hawks mentions that RKO was puzzled about why a powerful director like Hawks wanted to waste time on a cheap sci-fi thriller. I'm not surprised at all: I can imagine Hawks thinking, "Cool! A new genre to play with!"

Godard (or was it Truffaut?) once called Hawks the most intelligent of American directors. It seems like an odd comment at first: Hawks certainly does not give the most intelligent interviews among American directors. But The Thing illustrates the point beautifully: Hawks felt empowered to construct an entire movie around a series of problems that are solved on-screen, quickly and without fuss.

The Thing will screen again at MOMA on Sunday, June 17 at 3 pm.


Noel Vera said...

Hi Dan. The pity isnt' that Hawks wasted his time on cheap genres; the pity is he only did one science fiction film.

Can you imagine him doing, oh, say, Matheson's I Am Legend, or Clifford Simak's The Big Front Yard? or maybe Heinlein's The Puppet Masters?

Noel Vera said...

And come to think of it, The Puppet Master would make an interesting counterpart to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Ferociously optimistic, even perhaps fascistic where Invasion is pessimistic, perhaps nihilistic, I'd imagine Hawks would prefer doing this novel to Invasion. It even has a Hawksian redhead for him to cast.

Dan Sallitt said...

Noel - I'm not too familiar with the sci-fi canon. From what Heinlein I've read (The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger In a Strange Land), his taste in women does seem a bit Hawksian: formidable gals who are nonetheless there to be drooled over.

In general, I'd say that Hawks cares less about adapting interesting genre material than he cares about doing interesting things with (or in front of) iconic genre material. Many have said that The Thing throws away the interesting aspects of Campbell's short story: I've never read it, but I find the charge easy to believe.

Noel Vera said...

If you read some earlier Heinlein (Stranger is a shapeless mess), you'd find slimmer, leaner fare.

Not that I recommend it. Heinlein's not all that interesting, I think. I'd see his films again, if Hawks had adapted them.

That most interesting thing's what Carpenter restores to his version, that bit of the alien being indistinguishable from the humans.

Still--if he can do several great Westerns, at least two great romantic comedies, so on and so forth, he could have done at least one more science fiction film.

craig keller. said...

err, "super-human" flora, I meant to say above — though in this context the dividing line's maybe not so perceptible...

Another thing I wanted to add: Moto the puppy from the Air Force cabin has multiplied in The Thing from Another World into an entire fleet of huskies!


Dan Sallitt said...

Craig - I guess you and I are the only ones still reading this old post. Or maybe it's just me now, since you're so busy hanging out with Chris Marker and all.

I dunno, I get the feeling that Hawks is pretty much down with Hendry's fondness for alcohol. As you're in rhe process of watching Hawks films, did you catch The Road to Glory? There's an interesting compare-and-contrast scene there, where Fredric March, the new officer on the front, observes that commmander Warner Baxter is living on "cognac and aspirin," or something like that. The observation inspires one of those Hawksian moments where a military inferior (Victor Kilian, in this case) speaks his mind plainly to a superior officer, without violating protocol: the soldier doesn't want to talk about how Baxter is holding himself together; all he knows is that Baxter is the best officer in the army. In that film (working from a much darker script, credited to Faulkner and Joel Sayre), the commander's situation is clearly depicted with ambivalence: he's admirable, but the war has destroyed him, he's not going to make it out alive. In The Thing, I think Hendry is expected to comport himself well in career and marriage, maybe after a rowdy bachelor party. As in the earlier film, Hawks even seems to have confidence that the military can absorb and appreciate intelligent insubordination from a good soldier.

The thermite bombs are funny: after the damage is done, the brass's order to use the bombs comes through, getting the unit off the hook. "Standard operating procedure," as someone explains to Scott the reporter. When I said that Hawks doesn't feel fascist to me, it was because he routinely deflates authority, even authority he believes in - not so much because he's rebellious as because he seems to feel that the mobile, intelligent observer is valuable even to the system. And that's his career, too: he never credited the idea that a good director had to buck the system to do good work; he didn't feel an ultimate conflict between the studio heads and himself, even though he needed to assert himself against them continuously.

Haven't seen Gerry, but that fall sure sounds like an illustration of Bazinian ideas from your description.