CAST: DAVID LEE SMITH, TONY TODD, JOHN BILLINGSLEY, ELLEN CRAWFORD, WILLAIM KATT, RICHARD RIEHLE, ANNIKA PETERSON
DIRECTOR: RICHARD SCHENKMAN
RUNTIME: 87 min.
GENRE: SCI-FI, DRAMA
In Tarkovsky’s masterpiece Stalker, the Room is a place where only the innermost wishes are fulfilled, wishes that might exist embedded in the deepest safest corner of your heart, wishes you might not even fully realize you had. The world that Tarkovsky portrays in that film is bleak and glum, but I believe I would be speaking for majority when I claim that man, even in those grim circumstances, would wish for humanity’s strongest desire, immortality. I have often wondered if the stalker in is actually immortal, and if the wish room is nothing but a simple scientific instrument to provide immortality, the stalker being an obvious product of that.
Now, according to my unwritten manual of writing reviews, this is usually the part where I tend to give a glimpse of the story. But the manual is for more usual fare and The Man from Earth, penned by the late sci-fi writer Jerome Bixby as his last script, is unusual in the least. Having treaded through the first paragraph, it is obvious to the reader what the film is dealing with. I would not want to reveal anything more. But The Man from Earth is an independent film, one of those numerous productions that aren’t fortunate enough to flood the theaters, forget foreign distribution rights. In fact, as I learn it from IMDB, the foreign rights, both theatrical and DVD release, are still up for sale. And that, in a way, makes it necessary for me to shed some knowledge of its premise. Let me give it a brave shot, without compromising on its style or its substance. Kindly read it with a lot more than the usual attention for the premise is scattered below, literally.
John Oldman (David Smith) is a history professor, leaving his job and his friends of 10 years, to move over to a new place. It is a time for a final goodbye, few final hours of reflections of the past. As it turns out, its time for a shocking revelation – Oldman is a caveman who has survived the past 14,000 years. And as events follow, the scholars around him consisting of fellow academics who seem to have pretty much arrived at ‘final conclusions’ as far as their respective fields are concerned, have their thoughts truly provoked like never before.
There’s a clever observation the film makes early in the film. Dan (Tony Todd, Candyman), an archaeologist, asks John that the seemingly authentic burin in his home is one of those artifacts he has kept with and for himself as a well, memento. Dan replies that it is indeed from a thrift shop. Our primary instinct as audience is that he’s obviously lying. Yet, seldom is it do we keep mementoes of our present. If we go back in time, we might treasure it then via mementoes and relics, for we’re living in a time frame significantly different than us. But, if we’re living in the present, all the time, it is a whole different ballgame. By means of such insightful and often brilliant observations, the film tends to break many notions we seem to carry of immortality. Put in front of an immortal, we would shoot questions that would primarily have to do with a lot of historical events. And, even for a man living in those times, he never would know everything about it. We seldom learn and know the present; most usually, and this is a solemn truth of humanity, we tend to learn about the present by realizing about it once it is past. Most often we experience that realization by means of books and art when the brilliant elite of humanity show us the way.
It is this knack of consistently keeping us engaged in the discussion after having captured our imagination that makes The Man from Earth as riveting a drama as it is a thriller. Often we find ourselves part of the discussion when one of the characters raises our questions, and often we revel in the journey the scholastic discussion is taking us through. The film doesn’t have boring conversation like Lions for Lambs, ridden with dull, dry points. Courtesy the script an equally adept direction by Schenkman and most importantly good performances, we know these characters, we realize their biases, we realize how their arguments are a result of their inner selves and the shock their intellect has received. Brilliantly blending conventional editing under a tent that is essentially an extended sequence, the film, in many ways, plays out like an extended sequence in an adapted for mainstream Tarkovsky film, who loathed rapid montage and believed in prolonged shots and long takes. I was reminded of the brilliant third act of Stalker, its ability to keep us intellectually alert without keeping the human aspects of it at an arm’s length. As a minimalist science fiction it is gripping, but as an intellectual discussion it is that rare film that is stimulating.
The color of the film is essentially brown, even the under-lit sequences having a brownish tinge to the proceedings. Set amongst the woods, the film manages a nice little setting, evocating the kind of settings our protagonist usually likes. Or would like, since I guess brown is nature’s most common color after green. The visual flair reminded me, yet again, of the serenity of Stalker. By means of close intense shots and its low-key lighting, the film grippingly creates a cozy, warm environment of thought provoking discussion we feel home at. It reminded me of those nights in college, few friends wrapped under blankets, as we discussed the mysteries of space, the existence of God, the dimensions of space-time and what not. There were a few arbitrary grainy shots, but I guess working on such a low budget is bound to have its effects. Or was it my copy?
Part of the brilliance of the script, and it is one of the most stimulating of recent times, is its conviction in what it stands for. In rudimentary terms, The Man from Earth is essentially a film whose intellect thrives on issues of faith. As the film progressed, a background process was constantly thinking about the end, and another was constantly praying that film should not have ambiguity, anywhere. And to my great relief, this one believes in its stand, often taking strength from its protagonist’s assured belief. It is a film that through a scenario of immortality, which we would like to exist, tries to disturb long-standing beliefs. It is never what the film believes that matters, it all boils down to how much of it we can believe and how much of it we can, well, consider in terms of mere “interesting discussion”.
There’s an interesting question that is worrying me no end – why did John feel the need to reveal his secret? It is a question as puzzling as his more obvious secret. He claims a lot, some of it feels like the bragging part of a very true claim. He could be a man in the laboratory of time, a product of an aberration of time like the one suggested in Stephen Baxter’s Time’s Eye. Does his psychology work the same way as us? It wonders me no end.
There’re few films – Solaris, 2001, Stalker – that I felt should never end. This film made me feel that. Going through the various threads on IMDB, the film is generating spectacular reactions of the same kind. That it has achieved it without a single special effect is all the more wondrous. It is interesting, very interesting for what could be a greater achievement for a film on immortality than making us want to run it forever, and ever. By the way, I wonder what made them name the film The Man from Earth. I guess Bixby and director Schenkman see him as a prospect to explore outer space. Man from earth would be just about perfect for those species to address him. And if the species by an outside chance happen to know English, John Oldman wouldn’t be bad either. Probably they’ll appreciate the sense of humor.