Sunday, February 3, 2008

Them! (1954)

(Directed by Gordon Douglas, USA, 1954)

For those of us of a certain age, watching 1950's sci-fi/horror films on television became something of a rite embodying somewhat ecstatic religious heights. Let's see: there were killer shrews, giant behemoths, a rampaging prehistoric lizard imported from Japan and creepy crawly spiders. And also those films involving predatory aliens in all sizes and malevolence. All of them involved either atomic mutilation or consequences of atomic bomb testing or interplanetary exploring (or hazards thereof). The average viewer can read into this the cold-war paranoia of 1950's-1960's Cold War politics: or US against them.

Them! was the first 1950's film to deal with gigantic mutant monsters: in this case monstrous ants irradiated by desert A-bomb testing and is one of the best. The predatory giant killer ants were not seen until midway through the movie and only alluded to by a weird high-pitch electronic signal, or a very high frequency noise.

This is particularly eerie and haunting in the very beginning of the movie, when two cops pick up a small girl in the desert, listlessly wandering around, clutching a doll. She only responds when she smells a beaker of folic acid and screams: "THEM!!!"

That's one of this movie's most effective highlights. One of the cops (played by James Whitmore) is joined by an FBI agent (James Arness) and an eccentric old scientist/doctor (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter (Joan Weldon). The movie involves the standard plot of tracking the killer ants as they migrate westward to sunny California, after laying waste the girl's trailer and family, decimating a general store for sugar and other mayhem. It is gradually revealed that the ants were the products of atomic testing in the New Mexico desert and along the way, the doctor gives a lecture on ant behavior and organization. If only the Bush administration were so organized...oh wait, take that back.

Now for the ants: before CGI and special effects, the 1950's movie monsters were extra-clunky and completely low-tech: the ants of Them! are basically puppets that don't exactly look like ants, (a bit too many pipe cleaners and puppeteers) but who cares? The movie still is great 1950's escapist fun and easily enjoyable. With a grand showdown in the Los Angeles sewers, how can one go wrong?

Them! is great escapist movie for a dull weekend morning. It is enjoyable as a great nostalgic return to low fi horror.

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

(L'Annee derniere a Marienbad, directed by Alain Resnais, France 1961)

Last Year at Marienbad is one of the most audacious experiments in post-war film. Alain Resnais' film, based on a script by 'nouveau roman' novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, dispenses with what we normally expect from viewing a film: a linear narrative or storyline, continuity editing (or having the filmic story make sense) and a story arc: or clear beginning, middle and end. This film exists in some sort of temporary present with echoes of a past that the main characters may or may not have experienced. In the filmic case the 'Man' (Giorgio Albertazzi) trys to convince the 'Woman' (Delphine Seyrig) that they have had an affair, while her dessicated husband (Sacha Pitoeff) looks on in menace and concern. The upper-class elegant milieu and the glamorous emptiness of their surroundings entrap all of them somewhere in post-war Europe (read: an above-ground mausoleum).

The end result is a demanding art film full of ellipses, obfuscation and romantic sentiment of the order of one of Alain Robbe-Grillet's 'nouveau roman' experiments. That it works is due to the directorial eye of Resnais and the sexy, insouciant and mysterious persona embodied in the great French actress Delphine Seyrig.

"Last Year at Marienbad" is a classic of the French "New Wave" cinema, and has been successfully reshown in revival twice (as of this writing) at the Film Forum in New York. It generally polarizes audiences as a real head-scratcher, or "one of the most pretentious movies ever made". For this cinema goer, it will forever show the potential for film, experimental film in particular, long after the blockbusters are forgotten.