“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Man from Earth

"The Man from Earth" is one of those out-of-the way movies you're lucky if you ever hear of. When my girlfriend's coworker started telling me about it, my mind went first to "The Selfish Gene," in which I remember Dawkins discussing Peter Medawar's point that aging can be seen as a genetic illness (pages 40-1, in the edition I stole from my brother), and then to the "Highlander" movies and TV series. I went to Blockbuster that same night to rent it, but, despite being able to confirm a movie of that title existed, the clerks told me none of the stores in town carried it. Naturally, at this point I wanted to see it even more, so I ordered it from Amazon (where I see it has inexplicably gone up in price by more than two dollars since I ordered it).

When the coworker heard how excited I was about the movie, he tried to lower my expectations. It isn't a big Hollywood movie, there's no explosions, and it's really no more than a bunch of people sitting around talking. A thoughtful sci-fi movie, based on a screenplay by a guy who wrote for "Star Trek" and "The Twilight Zone" (Jerome Bixby, who supposedly wrote it on his deathbed), with no Hollywoodism, well, now I wanted to see it even more. I did, however, take his point that my expectations shouldn't be too high regarding the acting, directing, and editing.

Finally watching the movie, I was immediately annoyed by the character Harry (John Billingsley) and had a moment of panic, thinking he might be signalling how hokey the rest of the movie would be. Fortunately, that moment passed pretty quickly as Harry was made to tone down his obnoxiousness by the gravity of the conversation. Harry is a biology professor, who along with an anthropologist, an archeologist, and a couple of other academics, has dropped in on John Oldman, a history professor who has just skipped out on his own going away party at the university in Arizona where they all work. Right away, it is clear that John has something on his mind, and his colleagues, sensing this, encourage him to explain why he's leaving his job, especially in light of his being in line for chair of the history department.

John, after some resistance, poses a hypothetical question: what would a Cro-Magnon man from the Magdalenian be like if he were alive today? Dan (Tony Todd), the anthropologist, takes it as a prompt to an intellectual exercise--perhaps inspired by John wanting to write story along the same lines. But before long, John is claiming to have been around to refuse setting sail with Columbus because he feared falling off the edge of the world. The plot progresses as John's colleagues try to figure out if he's psychotic, playing a game with them, or telling the truth. Meanwhile, he goes on telling them about his experiences.

Harry, being the biologist, provides one possible answer to how this type of immortality could occur. Unlike Dawkins, who writes that, "A gene that is lethal in an older body may still be successful in the gene pool, provided its lethal effect does not show itself until after the body has had time to do at least some reproducing" (40), he focuses on the role of the immune system, suggesting that aging is somehow a gradual accumulation of regenerative or immune failures. The mechanism underlying John's immortality isn't very important to the plot, but somehow just mentioning it puts "The Man from Earth" in a different category than "Highlander."

"Highlander" is really just a James Bond fantasy: a guy who knows enough to put everyone else to shame. Though I still like that Duncan and Connor spent eternity training and reading rather than running for office or playing video games, the wish-fulfillment of the premise is too overwhelming to take the stories seriously. Witness the success rate of the McLeod boys when it came to wooing women. John Oldman, on the other hand, spends a significant portion of his last moments with his friends stressing how little he knows.

And that is one of the most serendipitous elements of the plot, the tension arising from the fact that there is simply no way for John to prove what he's saying. He's forgotten much of what he's known in course of 14 thousand years. And what he does know he could have learned from any number of books. Of course, Harry wants to take him to a lab, but John is leery lest he get stuck there. John says he met another immortal only one time in all his life, and they both doubted whether the other was telling the truth. So, while "Highlander" somewhat absurdly suggested there could be immortals all around and we wouldn't know it, "Man from Earth" shows that even if they weren't trying to remain incognito, we still wouldn't know about them.

We wouldn't know, that is, unless we knew them long enough to see that they didn't age. John claims that he "moves on" from wherever he is and whatever he's doing every ten years to avoid just this eventuality. For most of us, this would be difficult, but as he tells his girlfriend Sandy, "I've gotten over it too many times." Time feels different to John because he's had so long to habituate to its passing. All of this provides great fodder for conversation among the highly educated gathering, but then comes the big twist; John was Jesus.

Having studied with the Buddha, he figured Rome could use a little Buddhism and got crucified for his trouble--but with ropes, which "don't make as good of religious symbols as nails." Now, he's pretty hostile to Christianity, which has little to do with what he originally tried to teach. "The mythical overlay," as he calls it, has completely distorted what actually happened. Sure enough, Edith (Ellen Crawford), whose specialty is never mentioned, takes issue with the sacrilege and adds another layer to what the groups sees as John's sadism in stringing them along--even as they enjoy the unfolding story.

This part of the movie could have easily gotten really hokey--everyone with a story of past lives knows Napoleon or some other significant historical figure--but because of Edith's resistance, and John's constant downplaying of the importance of what he did, it proves thought-provoking. Who's ever thought of a caveman Jesus?

And that's what I found so satisfying about the movie: it's really just the working out of an idea through skeptical but open-minded and educated conversation. It has its dramatic moments, but I for came away with much the same feeling I have when I've just had a conversation of my own with a similar group of friends.


caynazzo said...

Netflix streams it.

I give this film an A for resisting the flashback sequence.

I think the guy in black leather was a philosopher, the blamer a psychologist and Edith likely came from the demonology dept.

Biologists are often coarse in social settings so I was annoyed with Harry for a different reason. Perhaps I'm biased but a biologist would have had the skill-set most useful in determining the truth of Oldman's claims.

For instance, the first thing I thought was Why isn't Harry representing and demanding a buccal swab from this caveman? Imagine how pissed the guys at Max-Planck would be when some no-name Arizona prof sequenced a Cro-Magnon before their Neanderthal. Zero props to modern molecular biology. Harry did get some good digs in on Edith though. Every group needs a clown.

This was a minor quibble in an otherwise great movie that proves you don't need visual distraction for a good time in front of the boob tube.

Thanks for the recommendation

Dennis said...

Harry was, aside from Dan, the most willing of the group to play along with the idea, so his failure to demand evidence may have stemmed from his unwillingness to be a party-pooper.
And I can't believe I wrote on the movie without mentioning the briliantly acted scene in which Edith repeats, "YOU ARE NOT JESUS!"
Also, I wonder if the screenplay predated microarrays, in which case would swabs have proven anything?

caynazzo said...

Microarrays would be handy, but I would be interested in sequencing his entire genome, or at the very least short reads in regions that regulate telomere shortening or other such againg-related candidate regions. Maybe micro RNAs too, since they repress oncogenes expression. All males get prostate cancer eventually.

Even if the Harry the biologist wasn't up on his basic genetics, he could have asked to see Oldman's dentures since 10,000 years of chewing would have left him toothless.

Suffice to say I still enjoyed the movie for what it was.