Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Idiot Wind of the Locusts: SOYLENT GREEN (1973)

"People were always rotten" Edward G. Robinson laments in 1973's sci-fi eco-dystopia cautionary tale SOYLENT GREEN. Referring to the good old days of air conditioning and topsoil, he can't possibly know the irony of his statement. In point of fact, everything else is rotten: the land, the air, the water... but thanks to a revolutionary, preservative-enhanced freeze-drying process, people are the only things left that ain't rotten: They stay fresh and delicious... almost forever... through the amazing soylent processes.

That famous quote, "Soylent Green is people!" is the purloined letter of the film and I don't feel guilty giving it away because it's long been part of popular culture, a 'gotcha' twist to go alongside Chuck's "Damn you all to hell! You blew it up!" rant to the Statue of Liberty at the end 1968's Planet of the Apes. It's hard to imagine a time when these two twists were new --to be the first people to see these films and to be like "wow!" instead of "ugh... finally."

In fact, taken together, these two films are like sci-fi eco-disaster bookends wherein the grim future of Soylent is the distant past in Apes. At least (we consoled ourselves in these scenarios) once we starved our selves off the planet, the eco-system itself might eventually recover.  Even in the 1970s, you see, my son, overpopulation was considered a very real problem. At least they had the guts to think about it! Now the population has already doubled, just as the worried harbingers predicted.

The 70s was a time of returning to earth and going camping and finally learning to stop throwing our McDonald's trash out the window as we drove. The cinema also gave us Logan's Run (where everyone dies at 30, to thus keep the population attractive and unwise), Rollerball (bloodsport sets the trends); that forgotten Bruce Dern film Silent Running (the last plants kept alive in a remote orbiting spaceship) and even, the last ditch version, keeping the plants alive in caverns on Saturn's third moon, Saturn 3). it was all cascading out of our growing awareness of pollution, the hole in the ozone layer (Day of the Animals), the ocean (Jaws). There was that 1970s crying Indian commercial. There was Pogo Earth Day poster. These things made an impact. We kids of the time still remember them... At least I do. Funny thing is - all the dire predictions came true so what did we do? Some things... I guess, to stem the tide. I myself give $$ to Greenpeace every month on the condition they don't bombard me with junk mail. But the movies... the movies all but forgot about it. Why make a movie warning about what's already come true?

What's disturbing about GREEN, looking back now so many years later, isn't the inevitability of cannibalism in a society choked on humans and starved on everything else, but Heston's naive flare-up of morality and outrage over it all. The last chunk of the movie is him desperately trying to warn the public, but the film, the audience, even his friends, are against the idea. We can't even imagine anyone caring either way.  Warn them of what? Would anyone rather starve than succumb to cannibalism? I imagine there are a few, but most of us, forced into the situation, probably would shrug and dive right in. I personally don't see what the fuss is. It's hypocritical, in fact, to get high and mighty about it. The Soylent Corp., the shadowy conglomerate behind it all, is, to my mind, doing a public service by hushing it up.

The Soylent Green itself is--as the movie clearly states--the last gasp of food production in the face of global starvation. The people killing to keep it a secret should be thanked for working so hard to disguise the long pig... it's compassionate. It saves mankind from feeling worse than it already does. Why not tell the delusional Donner party matron shivering in the back of the cabin that its venison, if it gets her to eat it?

By the same token, I know of cancer-stricken old ladies who are malnourished because they're too nauseous from chemo to eat, but they don't want to smoke pot--which would help--since its illegal. They've believed the governmental hysteria all these years, so even their own children can't convince them to try it.  So why should the kids, if they lover her and have some, not mix it in her brownies and just not tell her? Would Heston fight them to make sure she knew, and that the granddaughter who made her the brownies went to jail? He probably would.

But cop Heston doesn't want to hear my rationalizations. Near the end he even sneers to his chief, "soon they'll be breeding us like cattle," and it's fitting that the stupidity of that remark is completely lost on him. One asks: With what, Chuck, will they be feeding these human cattle? If there were any feed or grass left, people would be standing in line to be bred like cattle. And 'breeding' us kind of defeats the whole point, doesn't it, Chuck? Like breeding locusts to feed an incoming swarm of locusts... or carrying coals to Newcastle, wherever that is... I assume a place that's already rife with coal.

But for every perceptive, accurate, and nihilistic prediction in Green, there's a few that have dated, badly. I dig that the film is not racist--Heston was on point in such matters, even marching with MLK in '63--but it is most definitely sexist. In the future, it seems, women are all sluts, heh heh, that are called 'furniture' because they don't move or pack when one man moves out; they just stay behind for the next man who moves in, and none of this is in the novel by Harry Harrison, which is perhaps why it comes off so half-baked, if you'll forgive the expression, and misogynistic. The film makes sure we know that the girlfriend of the murdered Cotton will have to service the new tenant's broheims when they come over for parties. If she has a problem with that, out she goes. Yeesh.

I also wish to further point out the hypocrisy of Heston's outrage over the "big" secret when he's shown to be a remorseless carnivore even when he knows "where" the meat is coming from, i.e. the scene wherein he brings home a pound of confiscated fresh beef to Edward G. Robinson. Old enough to remember when beef was ubiquitous, Robinson weeps when he sees it. No one even mentions, thanks, or says a prayer for that poor "final" cow, who died just so Eddie and Chuck could get a taste of the old world. I wonder if Heston's relatively young cop (who missed out on the heyday of livestock) would get outraged if he knew that the meat was from... you know.... a fellow mammal. I can see him exploring a whole new avenue of indignation: "Beef is.... cows?! Damn you, apes!"

He, you, we, should relax, man. Stress makes people gamey. We all should all agree to put our outraged moral muskets down and admit it: we're fascinated by cannibalism. We secretly, deep down, don't see what the fuss is. We know we've eaten each other in some distant primordial pre-language miasma past, and that we may end up eating each other in the over-populated future, so why not recognize the enemy we're facing isn't our instincts but our own antiquated morality? All those meat sticks starving to death because they'll only eat non-human animals --they're the worst kind of hypocrites. To paraphrase Dylan's "Idiot Wind," we're lucky we can even eat ourselves. After all, nearly ever other species of carnivore probably does it now and again. Sharks do it. Spiders do it. Know what happens to the principled objector to cannibalism in starvation conditions? Yum Yum! The tragedy is that decency prevents us doing it except as a last resort, by which time we're all skin and bones --the worst parts!

But before Chuck's climactic bout with civilization-tanking hypocrisy, SOYLENT offers one of those very touching and legitimately moving sequences that sometimes show up in the darndest of films, even when least expected. This one involving the disillusioned Eddie Robinson's trip "Home." It's the real climax of the film and if you haven't seen it, stop reading here as it could count as an AMBER SPOILER ALERT!

I got this off some Christian blog, hence the hilarious subtitle
When people can no longer take the heat of dystopia there is a nice available option in Soylent Green: 'Home' --a chance to stop out of the claustrophobic grim and into a giant white (air-conditioned!) edifice, a kind of fusion of airport and hospital, that draws the shambling elderly in like the clean white light at the end of a very long and filthy tunnel.

It's no coincidence that once one decides to shuffle off one's mortal coil everything becomes suddenly magical and precious. It's just like when you're tripping and have been having a terrible time, clawing at your tombstone in a third ghost Scrooge miasma, and then you finally realize--in a moment of glorious Xmas morning Scrooge awakening--that you're not actually dead --you're alive! But you're not afraid of dying anymore, either. You get the full picture at last: it's only by relinquishing that which you most love that you yourself become that love. As Glinda says at the end of OZ, "that's all there is" to "home." Thus suddenly, for the first time, it seems, in decades of this old man's life, there is air conditioning, and cleanliness, and nice people, and room to swing a cat.

Seems like heaven. Upon entrance to your special room in "Home," which is just a cool rounded white room with a comfy bed and a rounded full wall screen on all sides of the room, a man and a woman in white flowing robes let you pick the color of the blazing light you want to subsume you, and you get a full 20 minute film to bask in, all around fields of flowers and flowing  blue skies, orange sunsets, and all the wonderful things earth used to have. You lie in bed while the drugs drain the last gasps from your lips and then are free... your now useless corpse gently whisked off to the soylent plant.

Man, I want to encourage the building of just such a room in every hospital, as a place not just for dying, but for tripping, instead of the usual clinical hospital setting where most legally approved medical experiment therapeutic tripping is done. Man, how groovy.

Most of all, I wish my dear old granny could have access to an assisted suicide set-up like that one. They won't let her just die in her nursing home and she's fairly healthy for a 97 year-old. She can barely hear or see anymore, and can't walk because of a bad hip, and can't really think straight for long periods ---and she's been that way for 20+ years; but she could be good for another 5 or 10 years. I know she'd at least like to have the option, some button on her remote she could hit that signals a nice trippy out. Her own mom died at 107--and the last 17 years (!) were, as she put it even then, shamefully superfluous. (PS -2017-  my granny finally died --at 102- g'head on, Dorothy - I hope when I see you you're all young and foxy in your WW2 nurse uniform again!)

But anyway, it gets better. Heston shows up at "Home" halfway through Eddie's process and when he realizes it's too late to prevent his going, has to says good-bye to Robinson through the chamber's viewing window. When he realizes it's inevitable Heston pulls out a piece of acting that's so beautiful and touching it contrasts the general misery of the rest of the movie to such an extent we can hardly bear to return.

And turns out there's a reason it's some of the best acting Heston has ever done:

"This was the 101st and last movie in which Edward G. Robinson appeared; he died of cancer twelve days after the filming, on January 26, 1973. Heston was the only member of the crew that Robinson told of his cancer (immediately before filming the scene of Robinson's character's death), knowing that this knowledge would deeply affect Heston, and therefore his playing of the scene. Robinson had previously worked with Heston in The Ten Commandments (1956) and the make-up tests for Planet of the Apes (1968)." (WIKI)
John Nesbitt at Old School Reviews put it this way:
Those ARE real tears falling from the Chuckster's eyes when he gazes upon Sol's poignant farewell. Heston need not resort to his Ben Hur technique of burying his eyes to feign heartbreak; this time the tears flow . . . effortlessly and honestly. Immediate "method acting" is forced on Heston naturally since he knew that Robinson truly was dying and that this would be the last scene that the legendary actor would ever perform. Thus, the tears are real—a gut wrenching fusion of fiction and real life drama. That alone makes the film well worth examining.

Robinson's devotion to his chosen craft was full and total, so it's fitting and courageous that he uses his impending death to transform what might have been just a so-so or even hammy or merely macabre moment into something very, very beautiful, something braver--in some ways--than Bergman. The film never spells out directly what's to come as Robinson enters "Home" but we have a pretty good idea and it makes the kindness of the assistants and the comfort of the air conditioning extra comforting.  For all the sorrow and misery in the rest of the film, before and after--all the sweaty packed-dusty starving, sweaty unrest--here, finally, is some grace. Just knowing that Robinson will at least have a beautiful 20-minute drugged-out voyage into the yawning blazing white yoni light of death is enough to make us happy for him. He can finally appreciate his legacy, like a painter who at last steps back to see the big picture.

It's in that spirit that I feel right about mentioning my last golden moment with my dying dad, a week or so ago, down in his and my mom's retirement home in North Carolina, drinking and watching LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, shivering in the air conditioning and stark brilliance of each actor, their ebbs and high tides of drunken dysfunction rendered into black magic poetry under Sydney Lumet's alchemical care. If the "Home" sequence in SOYLENT was lengthened into a whole 3-hour film it might look like this. Lumet creates in this tight, long film something eternally free, yet at the same time crushed before it has a chance to fly. It's also a great, reverse funhouse mirror to mine own family (two brothers--neither married or with kids--alcoholism, one's a poet, one family member realizes he's going to maybe die very soon, etc.). Anyway, my dad and I bonded big under the black-and-white brilliance of it all, attuned to each others' rapture in a way that brought us together as film (on TV) always had, from when he first showed me GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER on afternoon UHF TV when I was five or six.

And during a pause button moment he told me about how his doctors wanted to give him an enzyme treatment that might extend his life by as much as a month (and maybe not at all), but he had decided to save Medicare the $200,000.00 price tag. I thanked him on behalf of future generations of taxpayers. Without the staggering power of Lumet's film, the magnificent acting and O'Neill's fearless dialogue, that conversation might never have happened. I was proud of my dad for his decision, and it seemed the magnificent, brooding dysfunctional drama unspooling before us was inspiring us to unleash all our boozy courage and wit to bear on the most painful and eternal of all topics...

And then the next morning I didn't even have time say goodbye, as he was in the shower when I left and my mom was hustling me to the airport.

The next time I saw him, he was a bag of ashes.

If he came back as Soylent Green, I'd have a few honorary nibbles. Why not? He'd do the same for me. We're not fussy about food. Why the hell shouldn't my dad get the same sacramental props as the Big Jesus with his bread and blood red wine? Farmers can bond with their future breakfast, it's not that hard. Native Americans pray to their kills. Are you daring to say my Big Daddy's not as tasty as a cow or a buffalo or Jesus? (PS - I get my sense of gallows humor from his side of the family, so don't worry about me offending his ghost).

Long Day's Journey into Night (1962)
But sparing that, to be able to mourn and say farewell to him as he actually died, arranging it all in a beautiful farewell ceremony ending like the scene in Soylent... why wouldn't that have been more humane than just doping him up and waiting out the clock, for him to slip numbly away, by himself, at four in the afternoon, in a sterile hospital bed, a few weeks after I'd returned to NYC?

The hypocratic oath and fundamentalist bible thumpers would never let "Home" happen, of course. For them death must be a desperate, miserable, lonesome ordeal, every last inch of ground and time fought over, all so doctors can bankrupt our unborn grand children's Social Security. I say Euthanize the Vote! Naked Lunch of the future, it's time to write your last menu and testament. Then again, the doctors of our world do dish out opiated hospice-strength cocktails to the truly terminal (my mom crushed up and threw away my dad's before I could swipe it, alas), and there's angelic visiting hospice nurse Phillip Seymour Hoffman, in MAGNOLIA (1999), pretending to light LONG DAY's Jason Robards cigarette as he dies of cancer. I hope someone does that for me.

Like Robinson in SOYLENT, Robards was really dying during the filming of MAGNOLIA and to see him transmuting his real-life dying pain into a deeply, terribly moving final extended death scene is once again to marvel at the deep courage our best actors show in using their immanent real life death in their art. Maybe we can use his and Robinson's examples to encourage our medical establishment to go a little deeper with the idea of assisted suicide and the chance for death to be more than just an ugly abject bodily function. To paraphrase Bing Crosby, death is agonizing, inevitable, a heartache either way, but beautiful... 

If we ever find the courage to actually look it in the twinkling eye, I imagine we'll find it all but irresistible.


  1. You make brilliance seem like a such a casual thing. Seeing that you've posted something new always makes me clap my paws together in delight. Keep up the good work. ( Oh, and did the Trickster steal Cinemarchetype #12? )

  2. Thank you! #12 is coming... it's the sage and I've been stuck on it, so I figured it would be just like 13, the skeevy boyfriend, to cut in line. I''m glad you're keeping count!

  3. Ever seen Teletubbies? It looks just like what Edward G. Robinson watches as he dies.


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