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Monday, August 22, 2011

The Illustrated Man

1969's sci-fi season started off with a film adaptation of Ray Bradury's 1951 book The Illustrated Man (TIM). The book was more of a collection of short stories with vaguely common theme. Warner Brothers' movie used just three of the stories. The three chosen and developed by writer Harold Kreitsek have a dystopic air in common, which fits neatly into the psyche of many 50s and 60s sci-fi. Kreitsek also developed more of a "glue" story for the illustrated man himself, to better bind the three separate tales. Rod Steiger stars as Carl. Claire Bloom plays Felicia. Robert Drivas plays Willie.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Willie is a young man hitchhiking and working odd jobs to get to California where the thinks he'll find a job. He stops for the night beside a rural lake. Carl comes upon Willie's modest camp. Carl has tattoos all over his entire body, from the neck down, except for his left shoulder blade. Carl is testy about them being called tattoos. "They're skin illustrations. Don't you ever call them tattoos." He says he's looking for a particular house and woman who lives in it. She gave him the skin illustrations. He wants to kill her for it. Carl has been an outcast ever since. When people look too long at one of the illustrations, they start to move. They see things. They get angry at Carl. Willie stares at the lion tattoo. The first story begins. Carl and Felicia are a worried mom and dad in the moderne future. Their kids are using the "play room" simulator (like Star Trek NG's holodeck) for grim games with lions eating things. They tell the defiant kids that they're going to remove the play room. The kids protest. That night, mom and dad are awakened to calls from their kids. They go into the play room and are eaten by the lions. Back to hobo Carl and Willie for some banter. Story two takes place on Venus. Four astronauts crashed and are looking for one of the many "sun domes" to take shelter from the incessant rain. They wander around behind Carl's authoritarian leadership. Two end up committing suicide to escape the rain. One is killed. Finally, Carl makes it to a sun dome where a virtual Felicia greets him. Back to hobo Carl and Willie and a bit more back story about Carl getting tattooed. Finally, Willie (unable to resist looking) stares into a tattoo of lips. Story three takes place in an idyllic future. Husband Carl returns to wife Felicia with news that everyone in the world council had the same dream that this would be the last night of earth. Nothing could be done about it, except to give all the children of earth pills so they die in their sleep. This is to spare them any possible agony, should the world end in fire or something. Felicia can't do it. She and Carl have a romantic evening, then fall asleep. Felicia wakes up. The world didn't end. She finds Carl at the children's beds. He wakes up, but the kids are dead. Scream! Back to hobo Carl and Willie. Willie is horrified that Carl would kill his children. Carl dismisses his horror and lies down for sleep. He tells how the lady and the house disappeared after he was all tattooed. "She went back to the future." Willie stares at the blank patch on Carl's should and sees Carl strangling him. So, Willie picks up a big rock and pounds Carl's head. He runs away, but Carl isn't dead, just bloody. He chases Willie. Felcia's voiceover says "Each person who tries to see beyond his own time, must face questions to which there cannot be absolute answers." The End.

Why is this movie fun?
TIM isn't so much "fun" as thought provoking. Ray Bradbury penned some great stories. His imagination shines through even a major studio's adaptation of his work.

Cold War Angle
The undercurrent of dystopia and doom in Bradbury's three short stories are of that Cold War angst mood.

Prophetess of Doom -- As written by Kreitsek, the tattoo artist Felicia becomes a prophetess from the future who traveled back to the 1930s to leave a sort of message in a bottle (all over Carl's skin) about the bad things that mankind will experience in the future. Were they hints and warnings so mankind would (maybe) avoid the missteps? Some viewers criticize Steiger's portrayal of hobo Carl as being too gruff and hard to sympathize with. Yet, this fits too. He did not much like being the message in a bottle about how bad the future could be. People blame the messenger.

Pictures Without Pain? -- The tattoos on Carl seems quick and painless. No bleeding, no weeks of bandages, etc. While it could be a concession to keeping the plot moving, (no time for distracting details) it could also be that Felicia, from the future, had techniques beyond 20th century methods. She was able to imbue them with prophetic message ability. Thus, they're not your average 1930s tattoo.

Forever Carl -- It seems odd, at first, that all three of the visions Willie sees in Carl's tattoos feature Carl as the primary male character and Felicia as the woman. Rather than just being a shortcut on casting costs, it could represent the vision as Willie sees it. Carl and Felicia are the two people most intimately involved in the prophetic visions, so it's not that far fetched that Willie would use their likenesses in his seeing of the visions.

The Veldt -- The first tale is from one of Bradbury's short stories. He was amazingly percent about technology (in the future) being able to serve up virtual realities. It was even a fitting analogy for the battle between children and parents over television. Bradbury also casts an indictment against the modern "enlightenment" in childrearing. Expression, like any other tool in the hands of humans, can have a sinister dark side.

The Long Rain -- The second tale is similarly dark. All four of the astronauts are stressed to the breaking point by the unrelenting rain of Venus. Three of the four reach their limit and die. One exposes himself to lethal radiation. The second drowns himself in the rain. The third shoots himself with his laser to end it all. Only Commander Carl presses on to find the haven of a sun dome. Inside is yet another play on virtual reality -- a projected Felicia to welcome him.

The Last Night of the World -- The third tale is very much akin to atomic angst movies about the end of the world. This was a prevalent theme in Cold War era writing. Here, the story is focused down onto just one family. The means of the end is never explained, but Cold War audiences didn't need it explained. Similar to On The Beach ('59) people are given poison pills to avoid the actual (and terrible?) end. Similar to The Last War ('61), the family quietly awaits their fate. After all the prior movies about doom, the twist ending is excellent. The prophets of doom were wrong about the end of the world. There was a morning after. They killed their own hope (symbolized by the children) for naught.

Bottom line? TIM is not an easy movie to watch. In a distracting environment it could easily seem like it made no sense whatsoever. This quality it shares with Kubrik's 2001. People who prefer a simple action plot with clear good guys and villains will probably not like TIM. Yet, for 50s sci-fi fans, the three Bradbury vignettes are worth the tangle.

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