Tonight, I would like to recommend a film that you’ve probably never heard of, but that (especially if you read my blog regularly) is really worth your time. Jerome Bixby’s The Man From Earth.
The biggest drawback to this movie (to somebody with severe ADHD like me) is that you have to pay attention. There is no action. Really, pretty much none – it’s all dialogue. Almost the entire movie takes place in a tiny cabin, mostly in the living room. You just sit and listen to this amazing conversation. That doesn’t sound all that interesting (it didn’t to me, either) but that’s where you’d be mistaken. It is an incredibly compelling story that is science fiction in a pure sense. Which is unsurprising, given who wrote this.
You might not recognize the name Jerome Bixby, but you might know some of his work. Not only did he write the story for The Fantastic Voyage and the TV series of the same name, he wrote episodes of both Star Trek and The Twilight Zone. Not just any episodes, either; he wrote It’s a Good Life, about a telepathic kid who torments his family to get his way. That episode was so popular it was remade for Twilight Zone: The Movie and was spoofed in an episode of The Simpsons. His Trek cred is even more awesome – you might not recognize the episodes A Requiem for Methuselah or By Any Other Name, but even non-Trekkies can recognize Mirror Mirror.
It’s difficult to break the “plot” down, as it’s just a conversation. Seriously, here’s the story. John Oldman is retiring from his job as a professor. He invites his friends to a going away party: Harry (a biologist), Dan (an anthropologist), Art (a skeptical archaeologist, played by William Katt) and Edith (a history professor and Christian Literalist). There’s also a historian named Sandy who is in love with John and a student named Linda that Art is currently nailing. Later, they are joined by Will, a psychiatrist.
John ends up revealing that he is apparently immortal; he has been alive for 14,000 years. He believes that he was Cro-Magnon. The scholars have an intense, heated, passionate evening debating the plausibility of John’s stories and claims, including John possibly being Jesus. Some believe, some don’t. At the end John leaves and everybody has cried at least once. There’s a twist that I thought was the only bad thing about the movie (I’ll get to it). Aside from that 5 minutes or so, it is amazing and you will not be able to stop thinking about it for quite some time. I can’t recap it more without just handing you a screenplay. Watch it and see where it takes you.
That doesn’t mean I don’t have a lot to say, or that I won’t spoil that awful twist. But the thing is, my take on this movie is going to be very different from the average sci-fi fan, and although I don’t mind spoiling the plot, I don’t want to spoil the movie. So if you’d like a chance to see the movie without my interpretation of it, you should stop here and watch it. It’s streaming on Netflix and it’s only 87 minutes. You can read my thoughts on it after. Otherwise, read on…
So. Now that you have (or have not) watched the movie, allow me to shit my issues all over it. Because when I watched it I didn’t see a fascinating sci-fi movie about a real immortal. What I saw was a psychological horror movie about a charismatic sociopath who ends up emotionally tormenting his victims. Say whaaaaat? That’s right. If you want a condensed version of what it is like to be drawn into Andy Blake’s world of fantasy you have hit the jackpot.
The thing is, pretty much nobody starts out believing him. They comment on a few of his interesting artifacts, joke about his seemingly ageless appearance and ask about his unexplained resignation. He acts unprepared by their questions but pulls out some wine and uses the artifact as an opening to start telling his story. He draws it out, making it seem like the others are pushing him. John claims he has “never done this before” as he begins. He initially uses the cover that he is “writing a book” (which, aside, has always been Andy’s cover to discuss the Others; he’s just actually writing one now).
It quickly becomes an intellectual game – how could a cave man survive? Is it theoretically possible? It sounds reasonable, until John casually mentions (casually and glibly, as if he was very used to talking about this) that he’d had the chance to sail with Columbus but turned it down because he “wasn’t the adventurous type.” This brings the room to a screeching halt. John says “Pretend it’s science-fiction! Figure it out!” He also says he moves on every ten years or so, when “people notice that I don’t age.” The intellectuals are intrigued. Is he trying to spur debate as a game? Is he crazy? Is this just further into the “novel” previously mentioned? They’re interested to hear more and John begins spinning his tale, covering “the first few thousand years” in a gripping, effective monologue, punctuated by questions from his guests that he answers smoothly and quickly. When confronted with the fact that everything he describes could have come from “any textbook,” John retorts with a neat, impossible to argue loophole that allows the story to continue.
How could I have knowledgeable recall if I didn’t have knowledge? It’s all retrospective. All I can do is integrate my recollections with modern findings.
It sounds reasonable enough, doesn’t it? He touches lightly on the possible existence of God but moves away very quickly from that. When someone asks a question, John turns it back on them, using the question itself as further evidence. The story is fluid enough to raise suspicion, but in response to the obvious question of why? John replies, “A whim. Maybe not such a good idea. I wanted to say goodbye to you as me.” in an earnest and wry way. Making himself very sympathetic. And the movie takes a smoke break for everyone to process, and to allow the love story to grow a little. See, Sandy is in love with John and is obviously hurt that he is leaving. She seems more open to the possibility that he is telling the truth. She confesses her life has been lonely and unhappy and almost begs him to stay, asking if he really believes his story. Perhaps she thinks that it doesn’t matter if he thinks he’s immortal; it doesn’t mean he’s not the same functional, assuredly wonderful man she’s fallen for. He’s just got a little…eccentricity. Or maybe it’s true. Love like this doesn’t happen every day you know.
The story resumes, each professor asking intelligent, probing questions. Egging John on, sometimes taking him through parts of it themselves as they air their skepticism. He keeps his eyes slightly downcast, unless he is making pointed, intense eye contact with people. He talks about his travels, his discoveries, eventually claiming he had studied with Buddha. Dan openly wishes it was true.
The movie takes another break as Will – the psychiatrist, whom Art called in – arrives. (He’s also Tom Smykowski from Office Space for those playing “That Guy” bingo at home.) And then John scores the first open victory: Dan, who seems the most deeply moved by the story, says this:
There’s absolutely no way in the whole world for John to prove his story to us. Just like there’s no way for us to disprove it. No matter how outrageous we think it is, no matter how highly trained some of us think we are, there is absolutely no way to disprove it. Our friend is either a cave man, a liar or a nut. So while we’re thinking about that, why don’t we just…go with it? I mean, hell, who knows. He might jolt us into believing it. Or we might jolt him back to reality.
So, that’s two that he has under his spell, Sandy and Dan. The story resumes, as Will takes a different approach by operating from the assumption that the story is true (which is a fairly standard shrink move with delusional patients). John continues, eyes darting as he gauges everyone’s reactions. He’s sometimes patronizing, sometimes slick, often humble. And it is apparent that he is slowly making inroads to having them believe. Dan even elaborates and supports John’s story. Unprompted.
Will keeps hammering on the negative aspects – the atrocities John must have seen, how many people he must have lost. They are interrupted as movers from a charity comes to take everything John owns except the couch. He says “I’ll get more. It’s the only way to move.” (Another aside – guess who moves like this regularly? Ditching almost everything and stepping into a new life/identity?), but then it’s back to Will asking about death, guilt, families, pain.
Finally Will suggests that John might be something like a “psychic vampire” who “feeds” off the “life force” of others. He puts several modifiers on this (e.g. it’s subconscious), but what he is suggesting is that Will is telling this story in order to “feed” on their attention. Which is exactly what I believe is happening. However, Will goes off the rails and pulls a gun, rather dispassionately asking if that would prove John was mortal. It’s intense and sudden – but then it comes out that Will’s wife had died the day before. Will leaves for a while, ashamed. Though we do see that the gun was unloaded.
John uses this to reaffirm his story, behaving aggrieved and commenting that Will was right to strike back at him. This takes some of the sting (and power) from Will’s arguments and casts Will as the unstable one, allowing John to be sympathetic again. Almost a victim, really. The adrenaline rush and subsequent come-down makes his audience more open, more bonded; they were already a group of close friends and this is just drawing them closer. The story goes on, with more enthusiastic participation. For the first time, John contradicts himself – that he had told one person about his immortality previously. They jump on the contradiction but John dismisses it as “he forgot” and moves on easily.
Then comes the big reveal. The topic of God and religion come up and John dances around the topic, almost taunting them. It is obvious that he is building to yet another big reveal. He holds out until the rest are begging and pleading him to tell them. And finally, John comes out with it. He was Jesus.
Edith is offended by the blasphemy of his suggestion. She is extremely devout, but the very fact that she is so reactionary indicates that she has started to believe John is telling the truth. Another victory; her protestations only seem to feed his story. John is so passionate, so heartfelt that it is difficult not to be swept up in it. He was only trying to share what he had learned from the Buddha. He used meditation to slow his respiration and appear dead when he was crucified, but he was spotted slipping out of his grave. And it snowballed from there. Simple, elegant, logical.
Another aside from the cult-recovery memory book here – there is quite a bit of discussion of cross-cultural mythology and history to bolster John’s claims, especially here. This is something Andy did regularly – he used to joke that we were members of the “Secrets of the World” club. Many of his versions of Bible stories were equally simple, elegant and logical. We all loved hearing the “true” stories behind Bible legends. And it is obvious that almost all of John’s guests believe him at this point in the story, sometimes against their own will. Edith is heartbroken and angry, Art is reluctant, Dan is almost reverent.
There is some fascinating deconstruction of Christianity in general here, which is worthwhile in and of itself (especially to an Atheist). Around this point, Will comes back, insisting that he doesn’t believe and that John still needs help, but he couldn’t stay away. Which is what always is the case with a charismatic speaker (like Andy). You believe even though you don’t want to, and you can’t make yourself turn away because it’s so goddamn fascinating, and seems so fucking plausible.
We miss a few minutes here as Will is brought up to speed on the whole Jesus thing. He keeps pushing, saying he believes that John is perfectly sane and trying to get him to say why he’s spinning this story. When John takes a few things to his car with Sandy, the rest discuss, ruling out drugs and certain types of insanity. Will seems to be the only holdout on believing. Even skeptical Art is wavering at this point and Edith seems unable to cope – she doesn’t participate much, other than to weakly defend the Bible.
When John returns he puts on Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, 2nd movement as “mood music.” The firelight, the music, the lateness of the hour…John speaks softly about the Sermon on the Mount. The feel becomes very intense, very raw, incredibly intimate as Edith breaks down in tears, her faith shattering. I cannot capture the intensity of this moment and I honestly think this scene deserved an Oscar nomination.
At Edith’s anguish Will turns on the lights, furious. The light reveals that almost everyone is in tears. Will is not. He makes John turn off the music and calls him out for his story. The camera catches everyone’s raw, open emotions, all of them believing, but struggling with the weight of what they have learned. Suspicious. Hurt. Dazed. Frightened, though it’s impossible to tell if they are afraid it is true or afraid it’s not. Will demands that John admit that his story is a fraud, or else he will see to it that John is committed. There is a long thoughtful pause before John drops the bomb. “It was just a story.”
The looks of betrayal and horror on everyone’s faces is powerful. They are enraged. Unable to process why someone would lie like this. Glibly, easily, John explains how he came up with the story – Dan noticed the artifact, Edith said he didn’t age, Art gave him a book on early man…they’d asked about religion…He says he ran the idea past them, they took the bait and he went for it, but he took it too far. “You were playing my game! And I was playing yours!” He’s laughing about it as they cry, seemingly energized by their rage while making it seem like they somehow invited this.
Art storms out, taking his cute little ingenue with him. The others are far more shaken and slow. Except for Sandy, who still believes him completely, calling him a liar for refuting his own tale, going outside with him to flirt and giggle as the rest gather their coats and wits. Edith and Harry come out, trying to be lighthearted and teasing him a little. But before they go, Edith kisses him on the cheek and touches him gently. Reverently.
Here’s the thing about Edith that we don’t see: her life has completely changed. Forever. She’s a Christian Literalist. Her life was that religion, and now she cannot believe. Not the way she could, not ever again. Her entire worldview, which is the basis for her identity, her self and everything she believed in is damaged. She might find a way to deal with it that allows her to return to her faith, but it will never again be the same. Further, she believes in her heart that John was Jesus. That is not going to just fade away after a good night’s sleep. I can’t say how she would react to John if she saw him again – but from my experience I’d put the odds 70/30 in favor of her doing anything she can to help/support/be with him. Meanwhile, Harry seems far less agitated, but it is still clear that he is hurting as well. Harry too will have many sleepless nights. Dan, on the other hand, openly says he’s not sure what happened there that night. Though he doesn’t outright say he believes, he does invite John to contact him.
And then there’s Will, and the terrible fucking twist. Because as he’s leaving, he overhears John and Sandy are talking about other name’s he’s gone by and realizes that John was his own father. And John immediately confirms it – and seconds later Will keels over from a fatal heart attack.
Once you know the twist there is just TONS of foreshadowing. Like how Will “barely knew” his father, that he has a heart condition, that he’s not as young as he used to be…there’s more, but you get the idea. My problem with this isn’t that it “proves” that John is telling the truth. That’s fine (although I think the ambiguity makes it more powerful – for obvious reasons). What I find so fucktarded is how abrupt and cheesy it is. It’s just…it’s so weak compared to the power of the rest of the film. As this screenplay was literally completed on Jerome Bixby’s deathbed (he had worked on it since the sixties), it kind of makes me wonder if this scene was incomplete. The foreshadowing makes it clear that it was a part of the story, but the tone and execution are so different from the rest of the film.
Anyway, after the ambulance takes Will’s body and so on, John gets in the truck to drive away. Sandy looks after him longingly as he starts to drive off…and he stops the truck and opens the door for her. Ta-da! Somebody’s got a new full-time caretaker!
And that’s where the credits roll. Like I said, my take on things is deeply personal (and fucked up), but this is a very personal story. All the characters who were in that room was changed by what they heard. For the rest of their lives. Well, except for Will, but I daresay the rest of his life was pretty dramatically altered. No matter what you think of this movie – my take on it or otherwise – you will think because of this movie. Your life probably won’t change, but it’ll give you something to ponder.