2019-03-25

sovay: (Rotwang)
I'm not entirely sure where to start with Simon (1980). It's almost easier for me to describe it by the movies it's not. It resembles Network (1976) by way of Steven Wright; it recalls Being There (1979) with more cynical Jewish humor; it's sort of the whoopee cushion version of The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). Writer-director-producer Marshall Brickman co-wrote his first three movies with Woody Allen, but his solo debut, despite its chronic sarcasm, is notably lacking in the squirminess that made me want to tell everyone in Manhattan (1979) to get themselves an actually good therapist and stop bothering me. I had no idea it existed until it ran last week on TCM, after which I waited until the absolute last minute to watch it off the buffer because I was really afraid that if a sci-fi-tinged black comedy featuring Alan Arkin, Judy Graubart, Austin Pendleton, and Madeline Kahn failed to live up to its star power, it would just depress me. It did not depress me. If you can imagine what a satire looks like when it's simultaneously bleak and gentle and ambitiously indebted to the Algonquin Round Table, okay, that's where to start.

The trouble begins at the super-secret Institute for Advanced Concepts, a streamlined white block on a green hillside occupied by "five of the most brilliant—and twisted—geniuses in America." Originally assembled by the government to solve the standard think-tank problems of world hunger and renewable energy, then left to their own devices with infinite funding and zero oversight, the combined intellects of Dr. Carl Becker (Pendleton) and his colleagues Hundertwasser (Max Wright), Barundi (Jayant), Van Dongen (Wallace Shawn), and Fichandler (William Finley) have devolved into high-concept practical joking with the occasional outcropping of good old mad science, like single-handedly keeping the worst of American TV on the air by use of judicious Nielsen jamming or improving the fragile human genome by crossbreeding with the hardy cockroach. "The Nixon who entered China in 1972," we are nonchalantly informed, "was not the one we sent back." Their imaginations fired by an innocuous NYT item noting the rising belief in extraterrestrials, these Strangeloves of the Carter administration are fatefully inspired to give the public what it wants, if only to see what chaos will reign when they get it: a real live alien. "Find a little orphan, do a little job on him . . . A few changes here and there—blood, various fluids—I have a thought about a primal trauma!" Perfect for their purposes is Simon Mendelssohn (Arkin), a feverishly unsuccessful assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University; introduced bicycling across campus in a flapping camel-hair coat and a knit-browed expression of mental heavy weather, he's the kind of would-be iconoclast who invokes Heisenberg, Zen Buddhism, and Wittgenstein in the same barely attended lecture before declaring that the answer to global warming is to turn the Earth into a spaceship and "move to another solar system where there is food and water and air—it can happen!" The latest craze in his quest for self-actualization is sensory deprivation, which his semi-girlfriend Lisa (Graubart) views with unresigned skepticism: "Do you remember what happened last time with the peyote?" It takes exactly one ego-gratifying sentence from Becker to get him on a helicopter to the Institute, all too easily suckered into believing that his screwloose mediocrity has won him the grant of a lifetime when really he's just being studied for the best cracks into a psyche that already sees no issue with conversational icebreakers like "Do you know that if I hyperventilate for ten minutes, I really do some very interesting things, creatively?" One hundred and ninety-seven hours in a float tank and one Spielbergian false memory later, Simon is ready to make his first pronouncements to humanity—as an alien messiah from the Orion Nebula. Valentine Michael Smith, hang on to your hat.

The thing I really like about Simon is how relaxed it is in its weirdness. I can imagine a much faster, wackier version of this plot, but until the final wind-up it just sort of ambles along to its own off-beat, tongue firmly in cheek unless it's poking it out at some aspect of American pop culture. The Institute for Advanced Concepts looks like a Brutalist greenhouse and is lettered everywhere in trendily lowercase Helvetica. Its on-call supercomputer is voiced by Louise Lasser and resembles, proto-Siri, a gigantic touch-tone telephone. The script's almost reflexive condemnation of disco is a cheap shot even for 1979, but in this our era of hipster beards I feel the allegation that "mutton chops and a mustache look moronic and they give the country a very, very bad image" hasn't dated at all. When Simon unfurls his list of demands for the betterment of humanity, they are exactly the kind of pet peeve writ as the decline of civilization that will never go out of comedy style:

"One—All Muzak in elevators, airports, restaurants, and other public rooms will cease immediately. Two—No more children or animals may be used to sell products. Three—Lawyers who lose cases will go to jail with their clients. Four—No doctor may write a diet book. Any doctor who does will immediately lose his license and become a dentist. Five—I think we don't really need a House of Representatives and a Senate. The Romans didn't have one, so let's just have a Senate, okay? Which reminds me, I think it would be a very good idea from now on all politicians who appeared in public wore a cone-shaped party hat. Not bad, huh? Six—Pollution. Anybody who owns a factory that makes radioactive waste has to take it home at night with him to his house. Seven—Anybody who says, 'I'm trying to get centered,' 'You're invading my space,' or 'Far out' will be fined $50. Make that $100."

Whether giving hermetically sealed press conferences in a three-piece white suit or tramping across dry winter fields dressed like a Russian monk gone feral in New Jersey, Arkin is seamless as the luftmentsh turned starman; he has a bluntly grounded quality that the film plays for extra derangement, as when the Institute's mental meddling leaves Simon regressed "about five hundred million years" and the awestruck scientists plus the audience get to watch him mime-evolve his way from plankton through the Industrial Revolution, complete with ape-bone scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). When he weeps, "Oh, God! I'm a toaster!" it's horrifying, hilarious, and heartbreaking all at once. Even when he falls in with a TV cargo cult founded by a repentant ABC executive who patch him into the carrier wave and get him simultaneous coast-to-coast coverage for his fireside chats with America, the results are dryly close to his original half-baked class notes, now with more theology and kamashastra. You find yourself reacting to about half of them with right on and the other half with aaaagh. Personally, I approve his inclusion of Orange Julius among the great treasures of civilization unjustly withheld from the ordinary citizen ("The secret white powder that makes it a devilishly good drink—why is it a secret? I want that formula!"). This is a film that can afford almost to throw away Madeline Kahn on the part of a brilliant ringer who can do a thing with her tongue and then casually toss in Adolph Green as a cult leader who sermonizes from TV Guide and Fred Gwynne as a hawkish major-general who brightens on hearing that the Institute has invented a "stupid-making gas," albeit one that is now drifting in a cloud toward D.C. Best of all, it knows not to treat Graubart's Lisa as the scold or the straight woman, even though she's the only person in this picture with her head halfway screwed on. "Do you or do you not want me to win a Nobel Prize?" Simon demands early on, approaching his homebuilt sensory deprivation tank in a onesie the color of radioactive pea soup, trailing way too many wires from his shower cap. In the middle of an argument that comes down to him not killing himself in the name of scientific progress, she still doesn't miss a beat: "Yes, if you wear that to the ceremony!" She has a square brush of dark hair and a wonderful toothy grin under her rainbow knit cap and she's actually as clued in as the man she loves only sounds; it holds them together in a way I believe rather than merely accept. Her last look onscreen is like something by Andrew Wyeth.

The film unravels a little toward the end; it goes over a different top than I thought it was aiming for and it settles somewhere satisfyingly (and not too mean-spiritedly) ironic, but I blame the 1980's that NASA got involved. I don't expect all jokes in a movie to land equally, but there are a couple here where I'm not sure how they ever would. I happen to find it funny that the luminous flying saucer memory programmed into Simon by the Institute sounds like a Jewish mother routine by Fanny Brice, but I am not sure it was dramatically or artistically necessary for Becker to conceive a passion for Doris, the supercomputer, and then try to make it with a giant phone receiver. That said, I have loved Austin Pendleton ever since the original cast recording of Fiddler on the Roof and I was delighted to see him cast against type as a mad research director. Slight and boyishly greying in echt-'70's turtlenecks and leather blazers, "this Becker person" has a self-deprecatingly goofy grin, a natural bent toward smarm which he works very hard to channel into scientific authority, and generally looks like the worst he could do is corner you at a party and mansplain Philip Roth; then he says calmly of their latest experiment who is by now requesting a joint audience with the President, the Premier of China, Walter Cronkite, and the Pope, "I'd like to have him terminated." And, I mean, if you have always wanted to see Austin Pendleton make it with a giant phone receiver, this is your movie. I am just more charmed by the nefarious government conspiracy that escalates to a shuttle launch and is still mostly deadpan. I like the punctuation of scenes with classical music which is sometimes spoofing and sometimes not; I like the gags it has going on in the background, whether mad science or just immature scientists; I like that every now and then something real, wintry, and touching happens in it that a punch line can't break. The richly colored cinematography by Adam Holander keeps just as much of a poker face as the script. Even walk-ons like the gangly, Disney-sweatered grad student played by Keith Szarabajka get quotable lines: "Well, when he came out he was convinced he'd turned into a six-foot-tall penis named Bob. Other than that, he's perfectly normal." It lived up to its character actors, which was what I wanted it to do, and then some, in that now I have a few more to keep track of. I did not die of anti-intellectualism when it finished by thinking that philosophy is still important. I have no idea if I should watch anything else in Brickman's non-Allen filmography. Anyway, when I hear even a brainwashed pseudo-alien saying, "Save the world? I can't even get a regular checking account!" I sympathize. This visitation brought to you by my far out backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey)
I used to read imperviously on all forms of public transit. Increasingly I find myself just watching the world as it goes past, I worry as if I'm afraid it'll disappear or I will. This evening there was a cyclorama sunset just starting as the bus came up over the top of Winter Hill, long sandbars of cloud as precise as pastels in grey and blue and cream-gold. I watched it instead of reading more than the first ten pages of Henry Green's Party Going (1939), which I got from Raven Used Books with the last of the gift certificate from [personal profile] nineweaving.

I think I passed briefly through an M. John Harrison novel on my way out of the bookstore. A youngish white-haired man in a dark coat with a dramatically bright scarf—my memory thinks in the fuchsia range—had been talking to the clerk about existentialist philosophers; he stepped aside and I had to explain the multiply crossed-out and recalculated gift certificate and in the meantime an older woman in a beige raincoat suddenly began talking to the man, very loudly and distinctly. I thought for a moment I was overhearing a play. "No spies," she said. "We have no spies in this country. Haven't you noticed? Nobody whose business—" and then the clerk was handing me change for the dollar extra and I lost her for a moment. I can't describe her accent with any more precision than mostly British; her hair was short and I think not a natural brown. I would have placed her age above my mother's. As I put the book away in my computer bag and moved past the two of them to the door, she was saying to the man, who had not interrupted her, "You're too young to remember, but after the last war . . ." Imagine my brain hitting a record scratch. Which last war? Have we had a last war? I thought we just had a kind of perpetual one going on. What decade was this conversation taking place in anyway? What country that doesn't have spies? I was already out the door of the bookstore. I still don't know.

I was in Harvard Square to meet [personal profile] a_reasonable_man. We went to Café Gato Rojo; he showed me family photographs and told me stories while I drank herbal chai. Afterward I caught up with [personal profile] spatch on his break and we had dinner from the Pokéworks in Davis while listening to various sound effects from Us (2019). The Broadway Bridge is now closed for the Green Line Extension, so the 89 bus detours by way of Highland instead of coming straight through Ball Square. I keep meaning to see what's left of my walking route to the library, but I have been saddened enough by the gutting and dismantling of the old Reid & Murdock warehouse, the concrete lion's face above its lintel long gone. Every time I hear the MBTA-recorded announcement about "bridge work," I hear it as one word and think of dentistry.

For various obscure reasons we are now the owners of a Roku Ultra. Anyone who can tell me how to be sure that I have turned off motion smoothing on it will have my eternal gratitude. I found instructions for a Roku TV, but they do not appear to apply to our box. I miss dumb technology.
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