Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Rant: Pure Pulp Power

Rewatching The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) I was bowled over again by that closing soliloquy, courtesy of Richard Matheson.

... So close, the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly, I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet, like the closing of a gigantic circle ... And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!

Heady stuff for a sci-fi tale that gives away the game in the title. But that’s the genius of Matheson, providing a textured, philosophical climax without skimping on the thrills. Scott Carey’s epiphany occurs after he’s fought a battle royale with a giant (to him) spider, for Christ’s sake.

Matheson works similar magic in I Am Legend. Robert Neville spends pages killing the vampiric creatures that have taken over the Earth, only to realize that they are not the monsters of his world – he is the demon of theirs. It’s a demanding notion that survived, albeit in muddled form, into last year’s blockbuster movie adaptation, only to wind up an alternate ending on the DVD after test audiences gave it thumbs down.

Shrinking Man was remade once as farce, and a second such treatment is in the works with Eddie Murphy. Thus proving that the famous dictum “Dying is easy, comedy is hard” applies only to execution and not signing on the line that is dotted; half the remakes cited in the trades nowadays are “comic reimaginings.”

Such is the way of the world. I don’t expect studios spending millions on popular entertainments to spring for existential wrap-ups. What bothers me is how few Oscar bait movies attempt to convey ideas as nuanced as Matheson’s anymore. Once you got food for thought in the story of a man who almost becomes food for a house cat. Now most films aimed at adults can’t convey an idea more sophisticated than “Love endures” or “Families are good.” Yet another sign that we are no longer a serious society, and that we are fated to end in ruin.

Rant over.

ASIDE #1: The Shrinking Man DVD also included The Monolith Monsters (1957), featuring ISM’s star Grant Williams and a story by that film’s director, Jack Arnold. I saw Monolith once as a kid and never forgot it. The monsters of the title – fragments of an asteroid that grow to skyscraper heights when exposed to water only to collapse and start the process anew – are the very definition of implacable. The movie doesn’t hold up completely, but damn, are those rocks still scary.

ASIDE #2: Irving Gertz, who composed the music for both movies and plenty of others, died this month at age 93. Margalit Fox offers a sterling example of the obituary writer’s art.