Saturday, 20 September 2014

Do androids eat electric sheep? Soylent Green (1973)

This film has haunted me since I saw the poster stuck on the side of cinemas in Liverpool and Blackpool as a child… I was far too young to see it but the images of an over-crowded future population fighting for food obviously chimed with my nascent awareness of these issues. Has it really been over forty years since Hollywood started to take climate change and over-population seriously?

Legendary sci-fi author Harry Harrison was clearly ahead of the pack with his 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! But then Malthus got there first. Soylent Green is an adaptation of Harris’ book and was another chance for Charlton Heston to rail against “the fools, the damn fools…” that were spoiling humanity’s future (some of them carried arms Mr Heston) after his previous movie encounter with the “monkey planet”.

Another green world altogether...
Directed by Richard Fleischer the film is a grimy police-procedural in the manner of Blade Runner several years later although it lacks the latter’s period charm and invention.  It is 2022 and there are 40 million people living in New York or, in many cases, just surviving.

There is little food and so the majority live of a combination of soya and lentil, “soylent” which is delivered to the largely homeless masses in bulk deliveries protected by the local police. One of these officers, Thorn (Charlton Heston), lives in a cramped apartment with an old man Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson in his last film). They’re an odd couple and we’re never quite sure of their connection: Sol’s an intellectual, a reader and thinker whilst Thorn keeps the peace, just about.

Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson
He has to clamber over dozens of people somehow living on the stairs of his building and outside the air is thick with pollution: the World’s gone green but not in a good way.

A young man is seen collecting an ice pick from another in a run-down area - it’s not looking good for someone, somewhere…

How the other, 100,000th, live
But, just when we think New York is a mass slum, we’re shown the wealthy few who exist behind high concrete walls in plush modern apartments. A young woman Shirl (the lovely Leigh Taylor-Young) is shown playing a computer game which looks suspiciously like the early arcade classic Asteroids! She turns and smiles at an older man, Simonson (Joseph Cotten).  Simonson is an important man involved in one of the businesses that keeps the new world spinning, Shilr is “furniture” - part of the live-in luxuries of the apartment block..     It’s better than the outside.

Shirl plays Asteroids
Simonson has a body guard, Fielding (Chuck Connors) who takes Shirl off shopping – they but some meat and it’s clearly a rare occasion. Whilst they are away the young man with the ice pick gains access and kills a strangely accepting Simonson: whatever he’s hiding, he clearly agrees it’s worth killing for.

Chuck Connors and Leigh Taylor-Young
Enter Thorn, who arrives to investigate the crime and to relieve the property of whatever little treats he can. Morality has clearly been impacted by the circumstances and whilst Thorn has a job to do – he’s lucky he has one at all – he sees nothing wrong in getting what he can. And yes, he has noticed the rather smart furniture and will return for a more complete viewing.

He returns home where he and Sol enjoy a splendid meal made from the meat Shirl had bought.

Brock Peters and Charlton Heston

He reports back to his commander, Hatcher (Brock Peters) and following a hunch that Fielding is somehow involved pays a visit to his flat where he finds his lover Martha (Paula Kelly), eating strawberries from a jar… that is expensive jam indeed. Something’s afoot.

Thorn goes rooting for clues... Martha hides her jam.
Thorn goes back to Shirl in the apartment and finds her hosting a party for all the buildings “furniture”, the commissar beats them in disapproval but Thorn wards him off… a good heart after all? Thorn and Shirl get closer but there are forces at work beyond just the obvious…

As in all goof cop stories, Thorn’s superiors try to ward him off the case: there’s no mystery he’s told, just a routine break in that went wrong. By Thorn’s not convinced: Simonson didn’t put up a fight and there’s nothing valuable missing. Like all good cops told to lay off he digs in deeper: his instincts being proved correct when someone tries to kill him at a food riot – it’s the man who killed Simonson (although Thorn doesn’t know it…).

Leigh Taylor-Young
How is this all connected and how is the sinister looking Mayor Santini (Whit Bissell) involved? There’s something rotten in City Hall and mush more besides…

Thorn had presented Sol with a large book from Simonson’s flat – a detailed analysis connected with Soylent Green, the new superfood. Sol takes it to a group of elders who preserve what they can of the old learnings in an old public library: there’s an awful truth that not only keeps society going but which could threaten its very existence.

The book group...
Sol is stunned as he leaves the group and then signs in at a mass euthanasia hospital: is he giving up or is he looking for more answers. Thorn arrives just as the process is beginning and as images of old green, vibrant Earth are projected around the dying old man, he gives his friend the direction he needs to solve the puzzle…

No spoilers…
What is the secret of Soylent Green?
Dusty verdict: Soylent Green doesn’t have the techno-flash of Blade Runner or that film’s more open-ended and un-resolved fundamentals. It’s a well-told police procedural mixed with some striking images of how the world might become but there’s an edge of tension missing in comparison to the later film. Perhaps Charlton Heston is the wrong kind of lead maybe he’s just too much of a hero to be the slightly self-serving Thorn. He’s certainly a tad too old for Shirl.

Too old? Charming...
That’s not to say that he doesn’t act well and, whilst his chemistry with Leigh Taylor-Young doesn’t entirely work his scenes with Edward G Robinson are engrossing. Robinson was a true great and died not long after filming was completed making his cinematic death scene all the more poignant. Needless to say Edward G is superbly moving.

Richard Fleischer directs well creating a run-down world of dowdy contrasts as Richard H. Kline cinematography sees New York cloaked in a haze of green smog. The claustrophobic uncertainty is completed by an anxious electronic score from Fred Myrow.

Sol sees the World as it was
Overall, I’ll keep my VHS and transfer it to digital media… it seems fitting technologically: Soylent Green’s world is not hi-tech and Blu-ray but rather techno-make-do and mend: it just about works.                    

But if you want the clean screen view, Soylent Green is available on DVD and Blu-Ray form Amazon.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Keep your head... The Committee (1968)

At least in 1968 there was a paranoid belief that someone was controlling things behind the scenes: actually in charge. Now such thoughts are perhaps more optimistic than anything else in a world in which random structures follow on from the instinctive, monetised, drive for technological development.

Perhaps it was no different in the sixties when grander developments were more visible – today we’re on a micro-level with personalised technology eroding still further the possibilities of consensus: we’re isolated by our very connectivity. But in 1968 the space race, vertical take-off, computerisation were all viewed almost universally as good things with the caveat that they would allow a monolithic establishment more room to exert control.

The Committee was written by an economist and social scientist, Max Steuer, then as now a lecturer at the LSE and a founding member of the Centre for Philosophy and Social Science. It was his only film but it is not surprisingly a reflection of his concerns about the way society is managed. It’s not clear whether the committee(s) in question make decisions or whether they are large-scale focus groups to help the powers that be command and control through informed opinion testing, but there’s a sinister management elite behind them alright… though they smile and may villains too.

The thoughts of Joseph Shumpeter
The film begins with a lengthy quote from Joseph Shumpeter which lays out the agenda... our likes and dislikes do not amount to a programme of independent action: are we really more concerned with the strategies of games than living a clear-headed existence?

The story opens with a car driving through country lanes, the driver (Tom Kempinski) incessantly chewing wine gums as he blathers on to a seemingly hapless hitch-hiker – the Central Figure (Paul Jones) – about the inconsequentialities of his life. They stop in a glade so that the driver can check his engine and he carries on his prattle as he does so. The Central Figure is impassive, smoking a cigarette and wandering around the clearing – seemingly relaxed.

Paul Jones and Tom Kempinski
Then, almost out of nowhere, we feel unease as the driver sticks his head under the sharp edge of his car bonnet… the Central Figure looks intent for a brief second and then slams down the bonnet completely severing the man’s head. In the silence that follows he remains calm, continuing his smoke and his even-paced stroll. Finally he drags the body into the car and, bizarrely, sews the head back on.

Clearly we’re dealing with metaphor… Operation completed he thanks the stunned car owner for the lift and walks on alone.

The scene shifts to an office where a group of business men are discussing the composition of a series of committees. They are led by the confident, calmly-assured Committee Director (Robert Langdon Lloyd) who talks his men through the routine in generalities based on contemporary business-speak: it’s impossible to work out objectives, agenda and outcome…

Robert Lloyd convenes a committee...
Then we move to the CF’s flat. He breakfasts, collects his post and walks to work. He sits in a long room in which he sits as part of a long line of draughtsmen. He opens a letter and looks thoughtful… He has been selected to be part of one of the businessmen's committees. He goes to ask his boss for leave of absence and this is quickly granted once his superior understands the purpose: he too has been on a committee and, again in vague terms, talks about the importance of such activity… He concludes by asking the CF to go for an after-work drink: “there’s a film I’d like to discuss with you…”

The Central Figure at work... all mod cons
This is the second time that cinema is discussed as the Driver had also made reference to the opening sequence of The Hustler… a not so subtle hint from Steuer and his co-screenwriter, director Peter Sykes, that they’re aware we’re watching a film in which film is being discussed… a reinforcement of their artificial reality and the film is seemingly more pressing than the Committee?

Next we see people arriving at the hotel come conference venue where the committees are to be conducted. Many of us will have attended similar functions for training and the feel is familiar, people milling around, chit-chat, finding their rooms.

Members of The Committee - the Central Figure is in the centre
The CD strides through greeting his colleagues with confidence… whatever they’re doing will be done well and there will be some useful outcomes he’s sure.

The CF encounters the Driver who appears not to recognise him: he asks him how his teeth have been (of course). Then the Driver sits next to a man at lunch who tells him he looks exactly like his wife – poor man… poor wife! Maybe an in-joke too far?

Arthur Brown performs Nightmare!
The CF encounters someone who is probably his brother and talks about his fear that his committee is to stand in judgement on his beheading… he is thinking about escape.  But he sticks around for the evening party and its curious highlight of Arthur Brown in full, flaming headgear, giving a close-quarters rendition of Nightmare

This is a dislocated vision a place just one notch kicked away from our reality in a narrative environment in which everything does not have to add up. Yes the man was beheaded but only in principle to tech him a lesson, shock his senses to wake him up to the life he is sacrificing to routine and inconsequence.

CD and CF
The Central Figure malaise runs deeper and in the film’s closing section he walks and talks with the Committee Director about rationality, reasoning and responsibility. Is he being pulled back in?

At the end, the guests depart as they had arrived and the Central Figure accompanies a young woman (Pauline Munro). As they drive down similar country lanes to the opening sequence, she asks if he is plays bridge…

Do you play bridge?
 On the DVD there is a fascinating interview with both director and writer and it’s difficult to be too hard on them after so long and especially as their enthusiasm for the project is still very evident.  I would agree with them that that even though some of the story now feels a little forced, its central theses are still relevant in a society in which free will is eroded by an excess of amusement and not just the corruption of agenda-less administration.

Max Steuer and Peter Sykes
I also have to confess that perhaps the most important part of the film for me is the soundtrack from Pink Floyd. Syd Barrett had been first choice but his old band stepped in to record the music. The post-Barrett period was one of adjustment for the group as they continued their psychedelic experimentation with Gilmour’s more disciplined guitar work gradually coming to the fore as Roger Waters took over composition and control of the overall sound-scapes.

Mason, Gilmour, Waters and Wright: Pink Floyd in February 1968
It’s pretty rough and ready in comparison to their seventies hi-fidelity but there’s an energy and freshness that is compelling. There are brief traces of the under-rated and highly-influential Careful with that Axe, Eugene as well as the extended live versions of Interstellar Overdrive or unreleased freak-outs such as Reaction in GThe Committee soundtrack has never been officially released and is one of the holy grails for collectors so; it’s great to have a decent - legitimate - copy. There are, of course, plenty of bootlegs still out there...

Recordings of Indeterminate Origin...
Dusty verdict: The film still stands and there’s an impressive lead performance from former Manfred Paul Jones who’s convincingly neutral. We’re all conflicted between conforming and free expression and must find the “will” to manage our own agendas… that thought has most certainly not been left in the sixties!

A no-brainer for fans of early Floyd: the original head candy… The Committee is available through Amazon.