Sunday, December 11, 2016

Review: Man from Earth

Jerome Bixby’s Man from Earth is a quiet, somber, meditative SF movie. Bixby being the screenwriter, not the director. He wrote the script on his deathbed. His son made sure the movie was produced. Richard Schenkman directed it in 2007.
         Great movie. And an incredibly cheap movie.
The production values are nearly nil. One practical set: a cabin, interior and exterior. Seven or eight actors, one camera. A budget slightly larger than a sack of groceries at Whole Foods. The DVD transfer is as grainy as second-tier 1970s porn.
         The cheapness makes no damn sense now. It didn't in 2007.
Hollywood wanted to do a big budget production with explosions, special effects and mind-bending recreations of the past. Now that makes sense. Bixby’s no lightweight. After all, he wrote It’s a Good Life, one of the greatest SF stories of all time, famously adapted for The Twilight Zone. He also wrote the Mirror, Mirror episode of the original Star Trek series. You know the one I'm talking about. Parallel universe; Spock with a beard; good guys here are bad guys there. A joke on South Park now. A radical, inventive leap of imagination when Bixby wrote it. Heavyweight wordsmith, know what I'm saying? A writer like that, you put his stuff on film, you want to spend some money. You want to think big.
But Bixby thought small. He wanted a small, low-budget picture. Bunch of folks in a cabin talking; one just happens to be immortal. That’s what he wanted. Deathbed wish and all that. His son honored his vision.
That vision’s hard to see at first.
There’s no big point, no big moments. The hero is 14,000 years old. Call him John, for now. He spills his secret to a few friends before he pulls up stakes. But there’s not much to tell. Like the rest of us poor slobs, he’s lived his days one at a time, didn’t get the big picture when it was happening. John can tell you he lived in the Pleistocene Era. Now. But he didn’t know it at the time.
John's friends don’t believe him, naturally. A few entertain the possibility of his story to be polite. Most are pissed, think he’s lying or crazy. They cross-examine John. Our immortal hero responds, but lacks hard evidence. The cross-examination continues. But John lacks extraordinary proof for his extraordinary claims.
A talky movie. Seven characters in a cabin, talking. Single location, might as well be a play. Nothing much happens. But if you listen to the talk and make it real in your imagination, it’s a different story. Yeah, an amazing story. But weirdly prosaic. One long life. A gripping narrative, but it’s still basically one long life. Aside from immortality, John’s life is an everyday story. Or a story of lots and lots of days.
John’s tale reminds me of Olaf Stapeldon’s “Last and First Men” and John W. Campbell’s “Twilight.” The same haunting quality. The same descending elevator feeling in your gut of infinite time.
Man from Earth is philosophical—but only in the negative sense that John’s bucket of truth is empty. Funny thing. Being ridiculously old doesn’t make you wise. It just makes you ridiculously old.
The tale is mostly a meditation on the sadness of immortality: what it means to live and live and never die. Turns out, John was Jesus Christ in one of his lives. Nothing to write home about. He got on the Romans' bad side. They nailed him up. John slowed his heart and faked death, thanks to some Tibetan mediation techniques that he’d learned. When John finally emerged from the tomb, his wide-eyed followers were waiting. John fled to Europe as fast as he could. His left-behind believers layered his story with the mythology of Messianic expectation. So it goes.
An aside.
A throwaway incident.
This pisses a true believer off. But John just shrugs it off.
Yeah, I was Jesus. Big name, fine. Let’s move on.
Our ageless hero isn’t into name-dropping.
Jesus, Buddha, Van Gogh. Who cares?
Those high-profile historical characters are mostly fiction. But they aren’t the real story.
John’s story is all about time. Lots and lots of time. Most of us live on ridiculously small islands in the sea of time. John gets to swim the ocean. By himself.
It boils down to a loneliness beyond words. And boring, practical details every ten years or so. To avoid prison and pitchforks, of course.
So, John keeps moving, changing his identity. He doesn’t want to wind up in a dungeon, lab or freakshow. He doesn’t want to watch his loved ones die, either. John’s strategy doesn’t always work, but that’s the goal.
Bixby’s story is more about mood than stuff that happens.
What it feels like to be immortal.
The incredible sadness.
John is immortal but not invulnerable. If he jumps off a cliff or sets himself on fire, he’ll die. So far, he hasn’t. But the choice is open.
He drives off with a woman who loves him at the end of the movie. He’s done it before. And lived to tell the tale. Again and again and again.
Like a pilgrim in The Canterbury Tales, John spills his guts. And it hits you on a gut level. The tale only lives thanks to six listeners.
SF works that way. Real SF.
Precious few storytellers. A microcosmic audience that gets it. Friends and family, really. A very small circle.
         But it’s a circle of immortality.

No comments: