They Live may be the most realistic horror movie you’ll ever see. A train pulls away, revealing a tiny figure in the middle distance, perhaps some kind of modern day hobo with a flannel shirt and a pack, dwarfed by the rail yard, the overpasses, and other impersonal architecture of transport and edges of cities. That figure, of course, is Nada, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, drifting into town in search of an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. Set in a nearby present, Nada’s American Dream has devolved into massive unemployment, industrial flight, tent cities, and radical income discrepancy. “I just want to work,” says Nada, with the incongruously sweet expression that belies his history as a “heel” in wrestling. “I still believe in America.”
Another evening. One much like any other, cars on the road, moon in the sky. Suddenly — something else in the sky. Timelines cross, lives crash. In Another Earth, co-writers Brit Marling (who also stars) and Mike Cahill (who also directs) reflect on the reasons one might have for leaving the comforts of home and venturing into the unknown. One reason might be that home has become that unknown country, and comforts have become correspondingly few.
“What we have here is a failure to communicate.” Or, do we? In the documentary Project Nim, director James Marsh reexamines the well-publicized attempt by Professor Herbert Terrace, a behavioral psychologist at Columbia University, to test whether we can talk to the animals. Nim Chimpsky, his name a play on the linguist Noam Chomsky, would be taken into a human home and raised as one of the family, exposed to all human forms of communication, verbal and nonverbal, while being taught sign language. The LaFarge family was a hippie-bookish blend of kids, dogs and the usual controlled chaos of domesticity. The mother was an ex-student of the professor, as well as an ex-student-affair. No one in the family knew sign language. Mature chimps are aggressive and not shy of biting; an adult male chimp can weigh 150 pounds and be over 5 feet in length. But baby chimps are cute! And it was the seventies. What could possibly go wrong?
Rise of the Planet of the Apes – 2011 – dir. Rupert Wyatt
In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, head researcher Will Rodman (James Franco) takes his work home with him. And not just in the shape of a test tube.
Imagine if you will, a point in the not-too-distant future where high-stakes research has produced a genetic therapy to repair neuronal pathways lost during Alzheimer’s. The delivery mechanism is a denatured virus that can penetrate otherwise resistant cell walls. Imagine further that this therapy has been so effective that it is ready to undergo human trials. Or perhaps not quite ready, but it has performed spectacularly well on chimps, our closest biological relatives, with whom we share approximately 96% of our DNA. Imagine further, that you are the head researcher, and that it is your own father that has Alzheimer’s. Might you be inclined to do a little fieldwork at home…?
In the comic film The Horse’s Mouth, (dir. Ronald Neame, 1958), Alec Guinness plays an irrepressibly antic and irresponsible artist, in what has been called the most realistic onscreen portrayal of what makes an artist tick. When we first meet him, Gulley Jimson is jut getting out of jail, where he has been locked up for harassing his patron, the wealthy [name], for more commissions and more money. The very first thing he does is make straight for the phone booth to call him again. Jimson lives the pure artist’s life, a bohemian existence on a houseboat, concerned only for his painting and the freedom that inspired it. No poseur, he simply lives for art. And despite his not being overly concerned to make friends and influence people, he has friends who look after him, patrons that are mad for his work, and fellow artists who both beleaguer and entertain him, as they reflect all his contradictions right back at him.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – 2004 – dir. Michel Gondry
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (dir. Michel Gondry, 2004), Jim Carrey plays against his quirky, impulsive type as subdued, quiet Joel, who has either just met, or really wants to forget, Kate Winslet’s quirky, impulsive Clementine. In this inside-out romance, the point-of-view zips around from future to past, and from imagined to real, in a race between the persistence of memory, and the true cost of forgetting.
Grizzly Man (dir. Werner Herzog, 2005) is two documentaries in one: the first is video shot by Timothy Treadwell, the self-described bear-whisperer, of himself in the Alaskan wilderness; and the second is edited and narrated by director Werner Herzog, about Treadwell’s controversial life and death. Herzog weaves these two voices together, the naive enthusiast and the experienced adventurer, while the conflict between man and nature plays itself out to its tragic end.
The Magnificent Ambersons – 1942 – dir. Orson Welles
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), based on the Booth Tarkington novel of the same name, focuses on an Indianapolis family around the turn of the century. The most important family in town, with an impressive neo-gothic mansion, horses and buggies, beautiful clothes, and perfect pedigree, the Ambersons represent “old money” at a time when there wasn’t any other kind. “Old,” at least, for Indianapolis. But times they were a-changing, horses were yielding to horseless carriages, agriculture was shifting to the new industrial economy, and the old society, in which you are born to it, was being pushed aside by the new, in which you can become what you make of it.
“Rosebud:” possibly the most famous single word in cinema.
Orson Welles was only 25 when he made Citizen Kane (1941), consistently nominated as the greatest film ever made. Said to be based not-so-loosely on the lives of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and the comedienne Marion Davies, and often taken as a psychological study of Welles himself, Citizen Kane traces a classic American rags-to-riches trajectory, as it examines the true cost of getting everything you want.
Recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made, It’s a Wonderful Life (dir. Frank Capra, 1946) has been variously described as a heartwarming celebration of family values, an historical appreciation of vanished small-town life, “sentimental hogwash,” an indictment of centralized banking, and a communist manifesto. It is all of these things. And yet, it is also something more.