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Friday, October 21, 2011

The Monitors

Second City Productions put out The Monitors (M), a dark comedy somewhat satirizing the Cold War culture. In this, M is like America's answer to the recently released British dark comedy satire, The Bed Sitting Room. M was filmed in and around Chicago, naturally. It featured several contemporary comedy actors and cameo appearances by people only notable in the late 60s. The story is one of a near future, in which aliens, all dressed in suits and black bowler hats, have become the always-watching, all-controlling Monitors.

  Quick Plot Synopsis
The story opens with The Monitors already in control of life on Earth. Some time before, the aliens came and conquered earth. With a firm, but unyielding benevolence, they brought peace and order. Some, such as pilot Harry Anderson (Guy Stockwell) chafe at such controls. Harry is a stunt pilot for a movie star: Barbara (Susan Oliver), whom he is also in lust with. She is flirtingly aloof, and manages to get him fired. She is also a Monitors collaborator. On his way home, a radical street preacher (Larry Storch in disguise) gives him a note. At his apartment, Barbara is there to apologize for getting him fired. Harry's brother Max (Avery Schreiber) is there too. The note says to meet him in 15 minutes, so all three go. While Larry preaches his fake Love-The-Monitors tripe, the crowd gets unruly. Monitors arrive to restore order. One of them sprays Max with calming spray, knocking him out. Harry grabs the spray can and spritzes the Monitor down. Since this means "indefinite suspension," they run. Car loads of Monitors have them trapped in an alley, but Larry rescues them, driving away in a big black Lincoln. Larry is Colonel Stutz of S.C.R.A.G, an anti-Monitors underground group. Stutz blasts through a Monitor roadblock. Harry rolls out of the Lincoln to save a Monitor trapped in a burning car. Thus, Harry is captured and taken to Monitor HQ. Barbara and Max go on to SCRAG HQ. They try to teach Max to be a freedom fighter with little success. Harry, faced with Indefinite Detention, opts to attend the Monitor training academy. He's not good at being brainwashed by incessant slogans, so still chafes. He means Mona, a pretty but ditzy trainee who helps him escape. The Monitor leader, Jeterax, allows all this and has his men follow and watch. Harry and Mona meet up with Max and Barbara, who came to rescue him. They all go back to SCRAG HQ. There, they learn of General Blackwish's plan to drop an implosion bomb on Monitor HQ. Harry learns that Barbara likes him, but she's also a Monitor lackey. Harry escapes with Mona (again), but gather groceries first, which they use to subdue the guards. Harry takes the helicopter to see the President, who turns out to be just an idle old man doing crossword puzzles. No power. Harry goes back to SCRAG HQ. He gets out the Implosion Bomb, but somehow activates it. 20 minutes remain. It can't be shut off, so he flies it to Monitor HQ and hopes to force Jeterax and his Monitors to withdraw. They don't. The bomb turns out to be a dud. Jeterax says his commanders told him to leave earth before the whole bomb incident, but he lingered to see what humans would do. Jeterax says humans are too primitive and complicated. Not ready for the benefits of Monitor services, so they poof out. Earth gets back to its good old, bad old days ways. Harry and Barbara kiss and hug. The End.

  Why is this movie fun?
If you're "into" zany 60s style American humor, there are several amusing skits. While not "fun" per se, the serious message underlying the plot is interesting: some people might prefer a world free enough to include evil.

  Cold War Angle
Where the British comedy, The Bed Sitting Room released earlier in 1969 satirized a post-apocalypse earth, M satirized the fate-worse-than-death of a totalitarian take-over of America. There is a strong overtone of Big Brother, ala 1984, but it is an enforced order from outside…by THEM.

Tough Crowd -- The style of humor that Second City was best known for was short skits and improv: a style not easy to do in a feature film. The format comprised many quick cuts, as did its British counterpart, but M carried a more cohesive plot. This made it easier to follow, but not necessarily more funny. The result was a curious dystopia film, which on a certainly level is trying to be serious, with some humor skits worked in.

  I Heart Anarchy -- The premise somewhat reflects the late-60s youthful dislike for "the establishment". The Monitors have imposed peace and order, ridding man of war, hate and crime, but in their emotionless, controlling way. Harry comments that they've taken the fun out of love too. Some people accept the Monitors' controls as a blessing. Other chafe, preferring autonomy, even if it means accepting all the bad side of human nature too. There is something of a hippy mantra in this. In many ways, the plot and premise read like an adolescent's bristling over "grown ups" telling him to do things that were good for him.

  Commercial Breaks -- One fairly effective feature of M, is the use of pro-Monitors television commercials. They're scattered throughout the film. They are a good satire on testimonial ads and government and/or political-boosterism.

  Semi-Liminal Messages -- At two points in the film, an image of a topless red head is flashed on the screen (no pun intended). They only amount to maybe two frames each, but they're still too visible to qualify as subliminal. Public outcry and paranoia about such devious techniques had raged since the late 50s. Were they inserted as a spoof on the paranoia?

  Auto Moments -- Three automobiles get cameos, of a sorts. The first, is the more interesting -- Harry's open roadster. It is an Excalibur, a replica of the 1928 Mercedes 220 SSK, built on a Studebaker chassis and engine. While not the very first "replacer", it was the harbinger of a trend that would gain traction in the 70s. The second car of note is Barbara's Series 1, Jaguar XKE. Starting in 1969, the Series 2 did not have the glass headlight covers. Third is Stutz's big black LIncoln Continental, decked out as an armored "Bond" car.

 Bottom line? The Monitors suffers for two reasons. First, is that it's conflicted between being a serious social-commentary and being a farce. Second, is its comedians' popularity (funniness) were more tied to their times, and didn't age all that gracefully.


Anonymous said...

Regarding the "semiliminal" redhead images, they are of actress Linnea Quigley, taken from a scene in the movie "Return of the Living Dead" which wasn't released until 1985, 16 years after release of "The Monitors".

One can only wonder how they turned up spliced into the currently circulating prints.

Anonymous said...

I agree that this film cannot decide what it wants to be. The satirical elements are at odds with the slapstick comedy, particularly whenever Schreiber and Storch are on screen. It is a pity because, done properly, 'The Monitors' could have been another 'Dr.Strangelove' or 'The President's Analyst'. Best wishes, Zokko