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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Idaho Transfer

In the early 70s, popular themes included: dystopia, government conspiracies, the righteousness of youth, environmentalism and (as mentioned a couple posts ago, mathusian doom. Idaho Transfer (IT) has all of them. IT is an obscure film that had only a limited theatrical release. A group of teens time-travel to after some devastating ecological disaster, to see if the earth can be repopulated. It's the second of only three films directed by Peter Fonda (of early fame for writing, starring, producing Easy Rider in 1969). The story and screenplay are by Thomas Matthiesen. The cast are mostly unkowns, save for Keith Carridine who plays a minor role.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Dr. George Braden has a secret project going on up in the wilderness of Idaho. Originally, it was on matter transporting, but they discovered time travel as well. Also, they discovered that some disaster befalls mankind in the nearer future. Braden is sending teams of college-age men and women 56 years into the future to find out what and why. They study the flora and fauna and report back to 1973. George's daughter Isa is one of the young scientists. His other daughter Karen joins the team. Isa shows Karen how to operate the transfer machine. Apparently, some event called the Echo Crisis devastated the earth and nearly wiped out mankind. George's young time travelers are trying to figure out what future-Idaho is like. The vague plan is, if the future is habitable, to send a colonizing group to reestablish mankind on the Earth. Isa falls and is badly hurt. Karen transfers her back, but there's deeper trouble. Bureaucrats plan to order the project shut down. Just before that, however, a dozen or so of the youngsters manage to transfer to 2029 with backpacks of survival gear. They get to the future, but the transfer machine's power fails. They're stuck in 2029. The project's doctor transfers too, but apparently, anyone over 20 suffers kidney damage in the transfer. He eventually goes off alone to die. Karen has some off-camera trysts and eventually thinks she's pregnant. Ronald and others break the news to her that they're all sterile. Their kidney survive the transfer, but not their reproductive powers. No babies, no future of mankind. They set out to on a 500 mile hike to Portland. Karen becomes despondent and returns alone to the original transfer camp in the Craters of the Moon, lava fields. She is attacked by Leslie, one of the group who did not leave. Karen takes shelter in the transfer machine. Leslie rants outside that everyone (1973 folks) "used everything up." The power lights come on. Karen transfers back to 1973 in only her panties. A startled technician see her and alerts guards. Karen locks the door and resets the machine to a further date in the future. She transfers. No one is left at the lava field station. Karen wanders alone, hopeless and exhausted. Eventually, she is picked up off the ground by a future man. He puts her in the trunk of his future car. Karen screams. The girl in the back seat wonders aloud what they (the future people) will do for fuel with all of the "other" people have been used up. Text-on-screen: Esto Perpetua. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Actually, it's rather depressing, so it's not "fun" in the usual senses. It is very thoughtful and well done as far as conveying the intent of bleakness and doom.

Cultural Connection
The Roots of Malaise: President Jimmy Carter was criticized for his famous/infamous "Malaise" speech, given in July 1979. In it, he said, “The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.” Carter spoke of America's cultural malaise -- a lack of hope for the future, rampant consumerism and self-absorption. The energy crisis did not cause the malaise. The roots of malaise can be seen in early 70s sci-fi. America was convncing itself that the environment would crash and we were all doomed to death and dystopia. Little wonder that "eat, drink and be merry" (buy and consume stuff) ruled the day. America had ben putting itself into a funk for over ten years. Perhaps the trumpets of Global Warming Doom should take note. Instead of spurring action, they may only create another malaise.

King Mathus -- As mentioned before, the Cold War's ever-impending nuclear doom created a lot of fear in people. The threat of nukes faded after the Cuban Missile Crisis, but that much fear did not subside quickly. Thus, the preachers of environmental doom found a receptive audience. All that fear needed something to be afraid of. Thomas Malthus wrote in the early 1800s about impending collapse (famine, starvation, death) as population would outstrip resources. It was an old message that had a habit of not happening. Despite its poor track record, It found a ripe audience in the late 60s and early 70s. It took 150 years, but eventually Malthus was king.

Soylent 2: Energy Source -- The surprise twist ending is much akin to Soylent Green ('73), except that in the future, people will be a fuel source instead of a food source. The girl in the backseat pretty much says the world will become Soylent 2 when she asks what they'll do when the supply of 'them' is used up. "We'll use each other then, won't we?" The parents don't answer. They already knew. This just hammers home the malthusian angst. We are consuming all our finite resources. When they're used up, we'll turn on ourselves. This is driven home by the final text: Esto Perpetua, latin for "It is (or, let it be) perpetual." I.e., mankind will not learn, but keep on over-consuming. This is also the state motto for Idaho.

Youth Rules -- A common enough theme in early 70s movies is that the "world" of the "old" will suddenly crumble and fall away. The young (alone) shall inherit the earth. This was the premise in Wild in the Streets ('68), Gas-s-s ('70), and Glen and Randa ('71).  This last one was also an indie film picturing teens as inheritors of a bleak ruined earth and in the northwest too!

Get Naked -- A curious bit of exploitation by Fonda, was that time travel required the young women to take their pants off and straddle the time machine. This was explained (somewhat) as having to do with metal (rivets in the jeans?). But, rather than select pants with no metal, they keep them, but strip down to their panties (or less!) whenever they transfer. There seems to be no plot necessity for this. Instead, it seems it's just there for exploitation -- a half-baked reason to get some teen girls naked.

Symbols -- Fonda was having a go at artistic directing. There were many, but a few were quite blatant. Shortly after the teens realize that they're trapped in 2029, Karen plucks up a young flower, roots and all. Get it? They're young flowers uprooted. Then there was the pointless brain-teaser puzzle (some interlocked metal rings) that Karen played with, but could not solve. She asked Ronald if he knew how to solve it. He said no. Get it? Their future is a puzzle they cannot solve? There are several others. Fonda was having an artistic go at it.

Bottom line? IT is a very depressing film. The lead character survives all her ordeals, only to end up as fuel for some guy's futuristic Caprice. As with most time-travel films, there are some points to muse over. The acting is modest, since most were young amateurs. The directing is mediocre, but the mood is quite effective. People who dislike depressing-ending films, should skip IT. Fans of the foreboding 70s will find gloom galore, government conspiracies and confirmation that mankind will consume itself into a desolate doom. If you want to know WHY American was in malaise in the 70s. Watch this film.


Unknown said...

Actually Carter's Great Malaise speech was vigorously opposed by his closest advisers and was a big contributor in his not getting a second term. Those who watched it live like myself felt as though Carter was blaming US the viewers for his own failings and for Washington's inability to govern.

The seventies were turbulent and troubled. There was Watergate, the repeated attempts on President Gerry Ford. The endless Iranian hostage crisis We lost Vietnam and the O.P.E.C. oil embargo affected just about every aspect of our lives. We elected Jimmy Carter because he promised answers. Instead we got. "The nation's falling apart folks and its YOUR fault!"

While there WAS much truth in what he said the way he said it was tactless and counter productive.

Seventies movies are such a wonderful window into those times. Things looked bleak. Things WERE bleak. We needed a leader who offered us hope. I despise Ronald Reagan but there is no question that his message of hope resonated with Americans in a way that the great malaise speech never could have.

Idaho transfer captured the dread and hopelessness of the seventies very well. It was an era of, if not outstanding movies, some deeply influential ones. It is no accident that today's directors are turning to seventies films when looking for remake material

Delos D. Harriman said...

Saw this "diamond-in-the-rough" at a Star Trek convention more than 40+ years ago and it impressed me enough to recall having seen this film when I stumbled across it last night on Amazon Prime. This is a quintessentially 70's artwork, full of that peculiar existential angst from an era steeped in disillusion, paranoia, cynicism, impotence, and despair. Other Sci-Fi films of the period were equally grim (Soylent Green, Silent Running just to name two) but no more grim than the collective national failures of Vietnam, Apollo 13, the Peace Movement, or the American Economy (again, just naming a few here...large scale failure was rampant). So it's fitting that a slightly graying, burned-out and disillusioned hippie, Peter Fonda, (the son of Henry Fonda, a once highly successful and socially activist actor who by 1973 had fallen so low as to resort to TV commercials for a third rate camera maker) would crank out one big bad bummer of a bad trip for all time. This film delights in it's highly imaginative, near unique, and ahead of it's time script. Special effects are dirt cheap, yet things look and feel "real". High-tech doesn't start to look good until long after it's been invented (ever see the first semi-conductor?) and isn't foolproof until right before it's obsolete. And so it is with the future and the future tech shown in Idaho Transfer. Not a great film, yet not bad enough to be campy. Consider this for the cult classic 70's time capsule it is. (B-)