Saturday, December 16, 2006:

body snatchers mix, part 6

Andy and his painting (Ferrara, 1993)
Andy and his painting (Ferrara, 1993)

When you play a piece of music there are so many different ways you could play it. You keep asking yourself what if. You try this and you say but what if and you try that. When you buy a CD you get one answer to the question. You never get the what if.
--Kenzo Yamamoto in The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt.

I have to wake up in four hours and take a ten-hour flight. Please forgive the lack of description of the tunes.

The tunes are in chronological order, or as near to it as I could get them; if someone knows the recording dates on any of these and wouldn't mind sharing, I'd appreciate it.

These early versions aren't my favorites, though I do like them; my favorites will come later: Ella Fitzgerald, Hank Jones, Keely Smith and Nelson Riddle, Bill Evans, Buddy Tate and Claude Hopkins, Charlie Mingus, Charlie Parker, King Curtis.... Some of those versions want to blow the top of your head off and douse your brain in gasoline.

Wrapup post (or posts? I have over 30 more versions of the song, most of them good, most of them worth sharing) in January.

Big thanks to Reverend Frost and to Girish for making recommendations and helping me track some of these down.

Ray Vega -- Greenhouse
This one is here because greenhouses figured largely in the first two body snatchers films (and a swamp in Ferrara's, sorry) and because I'd already decided on "What Is This Thing Called Love?" for the end when I stumbled onto this track and read that it was based on the same changes. Synchronicity.
[Ray Vega]

Artie Shaw and The Meltones -- What Is This Thing Called Love? (1938/39)
[Artie and the Singers]

Jo Stafford -- What Is This Thing Called Love? (anywhere between 1939 and 1946)
[Too Marvellous For Words]

Anita O'Day -- What Is This Thing Called Love? (1940s)
[And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine ]

Lena Horne -- What Is This Thing Called Love? (1941)
[Stormy Weather: The Legendary Lena (1941-1958) ]

Nat King Cole -- What Is This Thing Called Love? (1943-1944)
[This Side Up ]

Billie Holiday -- What Is This Thing Called Love? (1945)
[Billie Holiday's Greatest Hits (Decca) ]

Django Reinhardt -- What Is This Thing Called Love? (1947)
[The Classic Early Recordings in Chronological Order or, you know, get the box set a la carte @ emusic]

(Spoiler warnings still in effect: plot details, including endings.)

Ferrara's Body Snatchers, in spite of removing the sensational "Invasion of the," does not return to the roots of Finney's story. Of all the versions, it's probably the least like the original serialized story, in spite of having an ending most like it.

The film centers on a teenage girl named Marti Malone, who, like most of the film's characters, has no direct match with any character in the previous stories. Marti is moving to an Army base in the southern U.S., where her father Steve has been sent as an agent of the EPA to monitor use of chemicals on site. Steve's job prompts discussion of chemicals and toxicity, showing a concern for the environment most likely borrowed (like the garbage trucks and those hair-raising alien screams) from Kaufman's film. Yet there are differences with all prior versions of the film, some of them quite striking. Finney's stories were in the first-person; Siegel's mimicked that with the (occasionally cheesy) voiceover. Kaufman's version did not have a voiceover; and Ferrara's version restores it, yet only as a bookending device: two by Marti, at beginning and end, and one at the end by Carol.

Near the beginning of the film, Marti and her family are shown driving across rural highway. When they stop at a gas station somewhere outside the base, looking like approximately the middle of nowhere, Marti goes to the restroom and is rushed by a large man in camouflage. He pushes her up against the door with his hand over her mouth, warning her about people who "get you when you sleep"; Marti manages to slip out the door and away from him, where she screems for her father. Inside the restroom, Steve and a gas station attendant find that there's no one there. It's an odd resolution to the scene, since there seems to be nowhere for the man to have hidden and so it seems to hint that Ferrara is both bending the rules and playing with kid gloves in regards to Marti. This choice, coupled with the choice to have Marti provide voiceover, immediately leads the audience to expect that Marti will most likely survive and therefore reduces the tension in the rest of the film.

Also, by having Marti provide voiceover, Ferrara hints at the possibility of a feminist take on the Body Snatchers story--but it's a version that he is not particularly interested in authoring, though Marti is much more proactive than either Becky or Elisabeth. Marti doesn't share the "wait and see" attitude of the characters in the other films, instead recognizing and dispatching one pod person nearly as soon as she suspected it wasn't human. Siegel's version, on the other hand, is marked by its time, seeming to think that women are mostly for screaming and for being carried. One scene in particular: Miles and Becky in Miles' office, with pod people waiting nearby for them to fall asleep. Miles begins to formulate an escape plan: he'll get the pod people to rush in and then inject them with something to incapacitate them. "It wouldn't work," he says, "I might get one or even two but I couldn't possibly get three of them." And Becky responds: "You're forgetting something, darling--me. It isn't three against one; it's three against two." Every time I see the film, I think that Becky is probably using 1950s-talk for "Goddammit, Miles, breasts don't cause incompetence."

Of all the versions of the story, Ferrara's is most explicitly about the nuclear family. In fact, the shift in focus from a potential couple to an existing family is so striking it causes some critics (like Robert Shelton in "Genre and Closure in the Seven Versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers" to claim that "There are no children or adolescents at all in the Finney narratives or the Kaufman movie." There are; in Kaufman's version Elisabeth is first shown picking a flower as a group of schoolchildren walk past, being encouraged by their teacher to pick the "pretty flowers"; and later in the same film there is a busload of children unloading and going into a building, a young girl complaining that she isn't tired and doesn't want to go to sleep. Similarly, both versions of Finney's novel contain the prototype for Siegel's Jimmy Grimaldi, the son of the farmers who closed the vegetable stand (presumably to grow pods instead): "A nine-year-old boy came in with his grandmother, with whom he was now living, because he became hysterical at the sight of his mother who, he said, wasn't his mother at all." (Finney '55, p. 22; '78, p. 25)

How did this boy reach this conclusion? What did he see, if anything? Finney and Siegel both leave it to our imaginations; Ferrara shows us: at their new home, after the delivery of several boxes supposedly containing equipment for Steve Malone, Andy walks in on his mother, who is sleeping. As he watches, her body crumples and disintegrates, and the closet door opens. A woman looking just like his mother is standing there, completely nude and impassive. He runs, screaming, and his father catches him to ask what's going on. The pod-Carol descends the stairs and says that the boy had a nightmare. This scene is one of the more terrifying in the film, perfectly capturing what it's like to be a child: dismissed and patronized, worries ignored. Andy's situation is complicated by the fact that in Andy's first day at his new day care, the children were told to paint--their paintings are all strikingly similar; his is different. He's an outsider and knows it, and everyone else does too; and now he knows why.

And here, I think, is where the film falters: Marti is a typical U.S. teenager, at that age where she seems to think most of her family is insufferable, including her six-year-old brother and especially her stepmother. She's somewhat alienated, somewhat self-involved, yet most of her troubles seems rather superficial given the broader context of the story. Andy is a more sympathetic character, old enough to know that something is deeply wrong but too young to do anything about it. He is in danger and knows it; Marti is in danger and doesn't know it; the film has an implied sympathy with Marti's point of view; we know that Marti will most likely live; Marti meets a man she is attracted to, whom her father doesn't like; and Marti has pointless arguments with her family about independence.

The trajectory of the story seems clear early on yet, oddly enough, for me the film serves as a counterexample to Hitchcock's ticking-bomb theory: rather than delighting in suspense I checked off items on a list as they happened. It's probably my coolness towards both the plot and the characters that caused this emotional distance; and I know that some reviewers (including Roger Ebert) found the film very effective. For me the film seemed a strange beast, interesting in how it's different from the others, interesting in what it attempts and where and how it succeeds and fails, but not emotionally engaging. It seems a "faster" watch than the others, the plot developing more quickly and arriving at a sprint sooner (though it slows to a trot in the scene with Marti taking a bath--I'll leave it to the viewers to decide whether that's because Ferrara really enjoyed filming those scenes or because he was both paying homage to Hitchcock and trying to exploit that suppressed knowledge that you're most vulnerable in the bathroom).

In spite of Forest Whitaker's overacting and the general predictability of the story, the film is well-crafted and at least never dull, yet at the end of it all I'm left wondering if at heart the film is really a teenage revenge fantasy in horror-film clothes: after her family is destroyed, Marti and Tim fly away in a helicopter, blowing up the pod peoples' trucks and buildings along the way. In voiceover Marti talks about how revenge, hate, remorse, despair, pity, and fear are all human emotions. This retaliation, coupled with the military setting--military destroying humanity, one civilian and one soldier left striking back at the military--makes me wonder what the film means, or if it even means anything. Are we to make anything of the military setting? Is it merely there for, as Ebert points out, somewhere where pod people would seem to blend in?

And what does it mean when Marti and Tim land in Atlanta and Carol's warning to Steve plays back in slowed voiceover? "Where you gonna go?" Carol says. "Where you gonna run? Where you gonna hide? Nowhere. Because there's no one like you left." Is that to be taken as a haunting memory or an accurate omen? I don't know the answer to these questions.

Ferrara fades to black. In a way it's a spiritual brother to Siegel's ending.

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Oldies music.

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