Dumb USA

I have seen some quite stupid US movies lately. First, two versions of The Body Snatchers, of which many copycat remakes have been made since the first screening in 1956 of Jack Finney's SF novel of the same name. It was, already then, perceived by many as an indictment of the Soviet Union and its collective ethos leaving but little breathing space for the individualistic pursuit of happiness heralded by the American Way of Living.

In a sense, the movie's subtext would have been more explicit if it had been called The Mind Snatchers. The real threat coming from the alien invaders, apart from all the very physical and technical wranglings to get rid of the creepy beasts that make up most of the film, is that they take hold of their victims' minds and transform people into robots whose "minds" are being fused into mass thinking of the worst (that is Soviet) kind. Well, no wonder. At the time, 1956, the Cold War was not an abstract concept.

Relentlessly, Big Brother

It comes a bit as a surprise, then, that some fourty years later the same kind of Hollywood propaganda is rehashed. True, The Puppet Masters is based on a 1951 Robert A. Heinlein novel berating communist mind-control but the movie, starring Donald Sutherland, is a 1994 production. The plot is as stupid as it can get. An alien spaceship is downed for whatever reasons in some godforsaken rural area of the US. No crew is found on board and no wonder: the aliens, very gory stingray-shaped beasts, are in fact all around, they unknowingly jump and glue themselves to the back of the innocent bystanders and thereby take control of their minds in order to make them one of their own. They become zombies, and of course the "disease" is spreading fast.

There are some cute scenes, for instance when one CIA operator is about to have the inevitable sex rodeo-exhibition with his charming colleague and, just when the love play is getting hot, the horrid beast creeps up and peeps above the infected lady's shoulders, ready to hit.

All the rest is utterly boring. But here's the catch: in David Schmoeller's 1994 movie, the new aliens retain their former ideology. It is, just as in 1956, very collective and communist. If we all think the same way, everybody will be happy. No way, is the Hollywood message, loud and clear.

Well, sit tight. Wind the clock forward to 2007. The USSR is dead and unkicking since 1991 but the cold war nevertheless rages on. With the same pic. It's been renamed Invasion, now, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and James McTeigue, its main caracter being doll-faced overrated Nicole Kidman. It's the same story all over. Some kind of alien virus, brought by a crashed NASA space-shuttle, is spreading fast, people are turned into zombies and relentlessly hound the yet uninfected humans. And again, the threat is ideological: individualism, equated with strife and war, must be eradicated and be replaced with a fused peace & love conscience. You even see scenes of former muslim fanatics in Iran turning en masse into peace-loving Woodstock hipsters: one cannot but wonder how American moviegoers managed to swallow this kind of claptrap.

Red scare, anybody?

But there it is. The red scare remains a surefire box office asset in the US. It raises a few questions. For one, the obsession of US propaganda machine for communism. It does seem crazy that they still bother. The USSR is dead and buried. Western communist organizations are so tiny they don't even scare a stray cat. So what's the point? Some mischevious commentators suggest that if so great an effort is still mustered to fight the old spectre of communism, well, perhaps the threat is actually real. History may be on its side - in the long run. It's worth to ponder.

Another question is why the US makes such dumb movies. At the same time, see, I also happened to watch Alexander the Great (1956, Robert Rosen) and The Robe (1953, Henry Koster), both starring poor Richard Burton (how he got into that mess is a mystery). The first was filmed in Spain and is crowded with unbelievably coarse bare-chested extras who jerk around their plastic swords with unsurpassable ridicule. This one I cut off after less than half an hour. The second, almost as childlish, tells the story of a Roman nobleman who, assigned to watch over the crucifixion of Jesus, is so moved by what he has seen that he joins up with Jesus' followers, then a small Christian sect (Saint Peter plays a part here, another laughable extra). The movie ends in tear-jerking music showing Burton full-screen going happily to his death with his fiancé after having refused to abandon his freshly proclaimed new faith. Subtext: Americans are a God-fearing people who resist oppression, be it long-forgotten Roman tyranny or oversea blood-thirsty Bolcheviks.

It is hard to imagine the French, the Swedish or the Italians doing the same kind of imbecile crap. It also make one wonder why heroic portrayals in Soviet movies have been considered a laugh when Hollywood actually goes way further in the self-serving melodramatic cult-making itself, up to this day. Also worth to ponder. Why the double standards? Is it because Hollywood has "mind-snatched" us with more efficient viruses?

The efficiency of idiocy

Perhaps Hollywood has been more subtle. The body-snatcher movies are a good example. What most people see is the riveting, scary action. It's the frantic steps taken by the humans to fight back the invaders. It's the suspense arising from the fact that it's hard to distinguish between friend and foe; that is between "uninfected" and "infected" fellow citizens: the aliens seize the mind, not the body of their victims: no fullproof way of knowing beforehand who you can rely - and who you'd better shoot down quick. And so on. As a consequence, most viewers get the message almost sublimally, without really taking notice, it just sinks down, drip-drip, into their conscience: the communist system is bad, fucking disease-spreading aliens, all the bunch.

It's all the more subtle given that the business of movie reviewing hardly never bothers about the message the film-maker wants to get across. They usually stick to technicalities (plot, acting performance, tempo, special effects & so on). There are a few exceptions: the Swedish movie reviewer Hans Isaksson and his French colleague, the late Jean-Patrick Manchette. The first and last defining issue they bring to the fore is: what is the film-maker trying to say to us? what point is he or she striving to make? This is, of course, the question we all ought, first and last, to ask ourselves when watching a movie. Unless we do so, our minds will be - er - snatched.

A final word on dumbness. The Americans of the US generally are. Don't take my word for it, take Evelyn Waugh's. When asked in 1963 what he thought of Edmund Wilson's remarks on a book of his, he said "Is he an American?", then added, informed of the fact: "I don't think what they have to say is of much interest, do you?" (quoted in the TLS, issue 5891, dated February 26th, 2016). The problem, of course, is the sheer breadth & depth of the hold dumb USA (very much through its Hollywood department) has gained on our snatched minds.