Blind John at the Movies

November 10, 2008

The Day the Earth Stood Still

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The 20th Century Fox remake of the classic 1951 science fiction movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still, opens December 12, 2008. When I was growing up in the early 1950s, the original film was a must-see for boys my age (12 at the time)—and now, nearly 60 years later, I expect the new version will have the same power for kids of this generation. My love for the movie inspired a scene in an unpublished novel. In my tale the protagonist and first-person narrator, on the recommendation of a fellow newsboy, takes a blind schoolmate to “see” the movie. Here is an edited version of that scene:

Wilson said I had to see it, so when Blind John asked me to go, I went. Wilson claimed that The Day the Earth Stood Still was a bombshell movie to hit Baltimore. He said after I saw it I’d understand why we had to duck under our school desks once a month for atomic bomb practice. “Also,” he said, “Billy Gray is your twin brother, right down to the freckles and messy red hair.”

In the movie a flying saucer from space lands in Washington across from the Capitol Building. It comes down with crazy music and gets surrounded by Army guys with guns. I put my mouth close to Blind John’s ear and whispered, “It’s night. Beautiful shadows. The flying saucer is silver and—” Blind John cut me off with a little grunt. Next thing in the movie a nervous soldier shoots the alien guy in the shoulder, and the alien’s robot, Gort, disintegrates their rifles. The tall alien tells a government man, “We have come to visit you in peace and with goodwill.” His name is “Klaatu” and he sounds like a radio news guy from England. “I merely tell you the future of your planet is at stake.” He also says, kind of snotty, “I’m impatient with stupidity. My people have learned to live without it.”

Later—Klaatu escapes from the hospital and goes to live in a rooming house with Patricia Neal and Billy Gray so he can learn humans better. Klaatu tells her his name is Mr. Carpenter and she believes it. I whispered to Blind John, “You can tell she likes him.”

“It’s that background music,” Blind John said, “plus the music in his voice—she lets him seduce her with it.”

“Seduce her?”

“She’s unhappy—a widow—she’s lonely.”

“But he’s an alien from outer space!”

“So what?”

Pretty soon Klaatu—Mr. Carpenter—he stops the electricity in the whole world for thirty minutes to teach us a lesson. The crazy music comes back. I told Blind John how the pictures showed everything on the planet screeched to a halt, but he just sighed. “Patricia Neal looks worried,” I whispered. Blind John squirmed in his seat. We both stayed quiet until the part where Klaatu gets shot again. “Patricia Neal looks sad,” I said. And then, all of a sudden, Blind John threw a handful of popcorn in my face, popcorn I had paid for out of my newspaper money. “Why’d you do that?”

“I ain’t deaf! I know from her voice and the music how she looks.”

Klaatu tells Patricia Neal to run to the space ship and say to the robot, “Gort, Klaatu barada nikto!” She asks Mr. Carpenter what it means but he says never mind and dies. Later Gort brings Mr. Carpenter back to life on the spaceship. At the end Klaatu makes a big speech to warn us to be good before it’s too late. The movie had real good shadows but didn’t make sense. If we were about to blow ourselves up with atomic bombs, why would Klaatu want to burn us up to save us? But at the end Blind John was on the edge of his seat and had a tight grip on my arm, one fist at his mouth. “Beautiful!” he said. “Patricia Neal was transformed!”

“Big deal,” I said. “Her guy gets back on his spaceship and leaves.”

“Yeah, but now she feels loved.”

I shrugged. “Didn’t get that part.”

As a huge fan of the original The Day the Earth Stood Still, I can only hope that the remake at least comes close to measuring up thrill-wise, but realistically I know that Hollywood doesn’t have much of a positive record in that department (think Psycho, etc.). We shall see. Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.


Marginalia #2

September 4, 2008

The Tale of the Hare

If I were playing the part of a movie pulp fiction detective (think Bogart’s “Sam Spade”), and a leggy blond perched on the end of my desk asked me to take the “Too Happy for Words” case, a mystery in the form of an essay, the first question I would have is: Why in the world did someone (me, in real life) doodle a guy chasing a hare (or is it a rabbit?) on the last page of an otherwise straightforward essay about marriage, motherhood and fiction writing? I’m sure of one thing, the real me didn’t unconsciously doodle the image as an audition to illustrate the text. If by some chance I were to get such a gig, a rabbit would be the last thing to occur to me. I just re-read the McDermott essay (excellent, by the way), and there are no rabbits or hares in it; and discounting human babies, no small animals of any description. So far, then, my investigation has dead-ended.

The “Too Happy for Words” essay by novelist Alice McDermott (“A Bigamist’s Daughter, “That Night,” “Charming Billy”), is collected in the book The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work, a paperback published in 2003. From the rereading I’ve concluded that the essay is concerned mainly with the different attitudes to marriage and motherhood held by some wary young feminists and their older “sisters,” many of whom have married and are, on the surface at least, happily raising kids. It seems the question the younger women are asking (and some of the older women are asking themselves), is to what extent, if at all, does familial devotion stunt their ambition and creativity. Here’s how Ms. McDermott puts it: “I wonder if it’s superstition: if we feel that to admit to such contentment in life would compromise our status as artists—perhaps recalling the poor actress in The Portrait of Dorion Gray who fell in love and lost her talent.” And Ms. McDermott goes on, “As a writer I recognize that much of this can be accounted for by the demands of plot—no doubt all happy mothers are like happy families: alike. And as Tolstoy warned us, sustained joy doesn’t make much of a story.”

This final McDermott quote I marked provides the clue I need to solve the case. On the last page, just above my doodle, she writes: “Fiction requires the attendant threat, the dramatic reversal, not only because these are the things that make for plot and tension and a sense of story, but because without them any depiction of our joy might appear overstated. We hesitate to include in our fiction what so often strikes us in life as something too good to be true.”

Put another way, Ms. McDermott is talking about conflict, the device that drives all story telling. And with that I think I’ve found my little insight, the knowledge which logically leads to a solution of the original query. Rabbits are famous for having lots of babies, right? In fact, they are the very symbol of fecundity—motherhood squared, so to speak? And is there anything cuter than little bunnies hop, hop, hopping in a field of flowers or down the road? But what happens when you add a man pursuing the bunny with something else in mind, perhaps something sinister like dinner? With those questions in mind I think I can say that the mystery of the connection between and among marriage, motherhood, fiction writing, and my doodle, is solved. My unconscious illustrator seems to have come up with an idea my conscious mind would have surly missed, or rejected: The “attendant threat” of a man on the hunt, and the joy he finds in that, contrasted by the sheer terror felt by his prey. Case closed.

“The Tale of the Hare” is the second in a series of occasional posts under the title Marginalia. In these posts I will display and comment upon a full-page scan from one of my personal library books on which I’ve doodled and/or underlined—or, as some would claim, otherwise defaced a scared text (to the true bibliophile all text is scared). These folks, shocked by the desecration, predict (and seem to wish), that I will suffer some vile punishment for my transgressions. Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.