The Month my Film-watching Stood Still

My film consumption has drastically slowed during my time in London. While I am at home I would say that I average a time-guzzling rate of a film a day, thanks to the fatal cocktail of Netflix, TiVo and Turner Classic Movies. I stocked up on movies at an Amazon sale before I left for the summer, anticipating terrible withdrawal symptoms , but (in part because I have spent most evenings at the theatre) I have barely found any time to watch them. Apart from the much loved "Snake Pit," the only others I have watched in their entirety are "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" (1947), the tale of a widow's love for a salty sailor's (excuse me - seaman's) ghost, and "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951), about a benevolent extraterrestrial diplomat who tries to convince the people of Earth to adopt the ways of peace (which will be enforced by all-powerful, difficult to control robots).

I find myself with almost nothing to say about poor old "Mrs. Muir" - it seemed so very slight. I have liked Gene Tierney in other things - most notedly as the magnetic and manipulated heroine of "Laura" - but here I found her hollow-cheeked and simpering. Rex Harrison provides a much more charismatic performance, largely because, as his admirers often note, he never seems to take himself or the film very seriously. The whole package, unfortunately, feels far too much like a play of a certain era, neither tragic nor comic nor even melodramatic, because it doesn't have enough substance to fill out any of these genres.

I approached "The Day the Earth Stood Still" with more hopefulness. I enjoy the films of Robert Wise, for the most part (my new favorite being his striking subtext-laden horror film, "The Haunting"), and I am keen on science fiction generally. On further reflection, however, I must admit that I almost always find cinematic sci fi less effective than literary sci fi, a reaction that I can only attribute to that old anti-cinematic feeling (some might say prejudice) that the visual effect of film leaves too little air for the imagination to breathe. Sci fi films are rarely successful in navigating the perilous line between unabashed fantasy and the realism of concrete detail.

Actually, the courting of realism amidst the unfolding of an utterly improbable premise was the major (perhaps the only) success of this movie for me. The plot of "The Day the Earth Stood Still" is a thinly veiled plea for international (ahem... interplanetary) solidarity even at the price of national sovereignty. Of the sci fi films of the 50s I have seen ("The Incredible Shrinking Man," "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers") this is perhaps the least metaphorical. It often openly speaks its message rather than filtering its anxieties through a surreal web of sci fi symbolism. As such, it is also my least favorite of a more or less hamfisted genre.

As a native Washingtonian, however, the principal pleasure of watching the film came from Wise's extensive interest in using both mundane and iconic images of D.C. to ground his bizarre plot in the familiar, which is simultaneously "universal" and highly specific to that time and place. Although Wise's stars never left California to shoot in the nation's capital, he planned and shot a carefully choreographed array of backdrops and secondary scenes there to situate the film. Seeing the police chase Klaatu the alien emissary though the street of Washington circa 1950, through locales which are well-known to me and yet alien, highlights the fact that I am seeing the product of a specific, ephemeral socio-political moment that was nonetheless acutely aware of the importance of its decisions and its own lasting historical significance.

"The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" - **
"The Day the Earth Stood Still" ***

3 Responses so far.

  1. Anonymous says:

    On the subject of film technique - I wonder if you could enlighten me on what might be called, rather pedestrianly, a "theory of foot-shots."
    I've noticed that in almost all films of any nationality, and especially in TV drama, there's always at least one, if not many, shots of people's (or horses) feet. What is the purpose of these ubiquitous shots? Is it to demonstrate purposefulness (or hesitation)without having to pull back to a full length shot of the actors? It would be interesting to do a comparative study of different directors' use of this technique.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Talking about film technique - I wonder if you could illuminate me on the common use of what I might pedestrianly refer to as "foot shots".
    In almost all films, of any nationality, there is at least one and often many shots of peoples' (or horses") feet. What is the reason for these ubiquitous shots? Is it to show purposefulness (or hesitation) without pulling back to show full-length (and thus smaller) shots of the actors?
    It might be interesting to do a comparative study of different directors' use of this technique...

  3. An interesting question, and one to which I do not have an authoritative answer. One possibility is that (as in a screenplay I have just read) a "foot shot" builds suspense by witholding the identity of the characters from us (the viewers, who normally associate "identity" with the features and expressions on a person's face, rather than their choice of footwear or nail polish). There is a certain sense of anonymity to be gained by foot shots, although feet can also be very expressive of both emotion and personality (think how recognizable a person's gait can be). "Foot shots" can also suggest a sense of the pressure of crowds (and their claustrophobic sameness) that is enhanced by the pounding sound of feet hitting the floor (which we normally tune out along with many other quotidian sounds). This latter is particularly evident in the classic "foot shot" of horses and/or troops rushing by in battle scenes.

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