One week in 1953, things went very badly for military scientist Frank Olson (played by Peter Saarsgard in reenactment footage). After he’s given LSD at a cabin getaway, he does something wrong (“they laughed at me”) then asks to be fired from his job. Instead he’s escorted to NYC, taken to see a psychiatrist (actually an allergist) and a magician, and one night he goes out the window of his hotel room and falls to his death. Few specifics are known for sure – what happened in the cabin, who else was in the hotel room, what the NYC trip was even for – but Frank’s son Eric has spent six decades learning all he can, trying to piece it together. So the film follows his investigation, fleshing out the story more and more as he learns details over the decades from court cases and document searches and unofficial visits.

Eric’s collage art must have inspired some of Morris’s compositions:

Dr. Balaban… I thought this was Morris and his interrotron when I first saw it:

Saarsgard is lost in the reenactment scenes, dazed or drugged or having a breakdown, and we barely see or discuss him behaving normally before the fateful week. Other actors hover about, such as Tim Blake Nelson as sinister boss Gottlieb (who once tried to assassinate Lumumba) and Bob Balaban as the allergist, but these scenes never quite come together, because the investigation doesn’t. We get close enough to make assumptions – that Frank was dropped out the window, staged as a suicide – but it all leads up to the terrible final moments of the Eric Olson interview:
“I remembered my father but I forgot who I was… you become lost in a sea of questions, all of which pertain to the other, none of which pertain to yourself… Because the value of the lost one is infinite, the sacrifice becomes infinite.”

It’s a powerful ending, and I love some of the editing tricks, echoing and split-screening the interview images. But something is off with the big-picture editing – the episodes were either meant to be watched a week apart (watching two in one sitting yields too little progress, too much repetition) or they had enough material for four good episodes and extended it to six when they got the netflix deal.

The Tabloid television setup:

chemist Robert Lashbrook:

Lawrence Garcia in the new Cinema Scope:

Uncertainty, unknowability, and the nature of truth are subjects that Morris has revisited throughout his career, specifically in relation to (American) structures and systems of authority. And despite its overt epistemological explorations, conspiratorial tone, and more unconventional trappings, Wormwood still bears the hallmarks of traditional journalistic reportage. But there’s been a marked change as well: the relative certainty of something like the Randall Dale Adams case — built around a clear miscarriage of justice, with a self-evident corrective goal — has been traded in for McNamara’s fog, Rumsfeld’s flurry of memos (nicknamed “snowflakes”), or the recurring image of the sea in The Unknown Known. It’s a shift from thin blue line to churning, Rorschachian haze.

Wasn’t planning it this way, but I guess my viewing of Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers, and last year’s SHOCKtober screening of the 1956 original (and I suppose The Invasion) were all prelude to this wonderful Alamo screening of the best Body Snatchers movie. It loses the 1950’s prudishness, ramps up the energy and paranoia (and humor, when Jeff Goldblum is onscreen) and lands on an even bleaker ending than the original tried to imply. It could almost be a sequel instead of a remake – the 1956 ends (not counting the dumb framing story) with Kevin McCarthy screaming on the highway, unheeded, and early in this version McCarthy appears on a city street yelling “We’re in danger – you’re next!” just before getting killed.

“A disquieting paranoid thriller informed by the conspiracy theories of the period and the jaded cynicism that followed the death of the counterculture movement,” per Adam Cook.

Donald Sutherland is our new McCarthy, a San Francisco health department investigator and the boss of Elizabeth (Brooke Adams: The Dead Zone, Shock Waves). Donald likes Liz but she’s married to Art Hindle (lead dude in The Brood), who is the first to be invaded – not counting their psychiatrist guru friend Leonard Nimoy, who was probably a pod from the start. While uncovering the plot and figuring out what to do about it, they huddle with friends Goldblum and his wife Nancy (Veronica Cartwright, in The Birds as a teen, later Alien and Witches of Eastwick).

The Shaun of the Dead trick of pretending to be a zombie and walking among the others seems to work, until Donald and Liz get shocked by something and scream. Donald spotted a pod next to a homeless dude (and his dog) and kicked it – a few scenes later the dog is walking around with the dude’s face. As in the original, Liz is only left alone for a few minutes when she falls asleep and gets replaced, melting in Donald’s hands as her pod version rises up, telling him to join them.

Screenplay by W.D. Richter, later director of Buckaroo Banzai with Goldblum. Fun angles and shadowplay, and perfectly balanced tone of terror and action – no wonder a couple movies later Kaufman’s The Right Stuff got eight oscar nominations. Sutherland was later in the quite bad Puppet Masters, in which Earth is invaded by mind-controlling alien parasites, and McCarthy would reprise his role yet again in Looney Tunes: Back in Action.

Film Quarterly:

Visually, the movies couldn’t differ more. Siegel’s unadorned black-and-white has yielded to Kaufman’s lyrical color, tilts, handheld shots, and high key lighting. Michael Chapman’s photography is both lustrous and penumbral, with deep shadows and crowded, mobile frames. Annexing the genre’s salient mood of engulfing dread, he has made the new Body Snatchers a film noir in color.

The “stars” are Ashley Judd (Frida, Heat) as a hopeless burnout and Harry Connick Jr. (Excess Baggage, Mad About The Mouse) as her abusive ex just out of jail, but the star performance here is by Michael Shannon as a single dude who shows up one day wanting to be Ashley’s friend and ending up in bed with her.

right: H.C. Jr.
image

That’s when the part I knew from the trailer kicks in… new dude (Peter) sees bugs. They are in the hotel room, in the air and under their skin. He watches ’em with a kids’ microscope, sprays the place constantly and talks about the secret government project that unleashed the bugs upon him, while Ashley confides about her missing son and bad husband, and clings more and more to Peter.

Turns out there are (probably) no bugs – Peter is a bug-crazy paranoid lunatic, and Ashley is so love-desperate she starts to see what he sees. At the end after Peter knifes his doctor who comes to talk sense into him, he easily convinces Ashley they should set themselves on fire.

Doctor threatened with knife! Peter all bloody! Walls covered in tinfoil!
image

Movie looks real good. Not particularly tense or scary, but the crazy, oh there is so much good crazy. Camera stays on our heroes, gets shaky and blue when Peter hallucinates helicopter-spies. Based on a play – no surprise there, given the movie’s single location (not counting a few flashbacks). As for Friedkin, he made French Connection, Exorcist, then ten+ movies that everyone’s either forgotten or wish they had forgotten. This is a good adaptation, an exciting movie, but nobody oughtta claim the Second Coming of Freidkin unless he pulls it off again.

Ashley’s head hurts from looking at imaginary bugs
image

Rivette was working on this from 1957-1960. In ’57, Chris Marker did Letter From Siberia. In ’58 we had Le Beau Serge, Elevator to the Gallows and a couple shorts. ’59 brought Pickpocket, Hiroshima Mon Amour and The 400 Blows, then Breathless and Shoot the Piano Player were in 1960. So Rivette might have started everything, in a sense, but by the time he’d made his statement public (in ’61, along with Cleo From 5 to 7 and Last Year at Marienbad), the whole “new wave” was in full swing in the theaters.

Betty Schneider (of Mon Oncle) is young innocent Anne with brother Pierre (Francois Maistre, later of a buncha Bunuel films). She meets theater director Gerard (Giani Esposito of French Cancan), paranoid American Philip (Daniel Crohem) and mystery woman Terry (Francoise Prevost of Rivette’s 1981 Merry-go-round). Movie gets more disturbed and paranoid (as well as loose and rambling) as it progresses, ending with the deaths of a buncha characters. Somewhat like The Dreamers. Incidentally, “Paris Belongs To Us” would’ve been a better title for that movie.

Interesting parallels with Out 1, both being about theater groups and city-wide conspiracies. In this one, we never find out if the conspiracy even exists, and in Out 1, the group does exist and is partially uncovered, but the group has no sinister purpose, never even did anything together and have been long dormant.

Much is made of the cameos by Godard, Chabrol, Rivette and Demy in the promo material, but I can’t say I noticed any of those.

Michael Rowin in Reverse Shot calls it “a fascinating disappointment”.

the calm:
image

the storm:
image

the intrigue:
image