Tuesday, December 15, 2009

review: the illustrated man

For maximum enjoyment, don't think of The Illustrated Man as a movie. Instead, think of it as an extra-long special episode of Night Gallery, as that's basically what it is. Both the film and Ray Bradbury's original book are what we in the business call metadigetic narrative, or framed tales, and as this is basically my area of expertise it's definitely a format which I really enjoy. That said, the problem with making a film of a book like this is picking which of the stories will be included within the framing story, and that's the unavoidable flaw with this film -- the frame is infinitely more interesting than the three nested stories. In fact, I suspect a much better way to go with this would have been to shoot the entire film as the main story and let The Illustrated Man tell his stories directly. Obviously the producers were very taken with the basically stupid idea that science fiction works as a kind of oracle for predicting the future, so there's a lot of detail to the really quite impressive sets and costumes, but this isn't really where Bradbury shines, and his stories (which are already a bit heavy-handed -- he's a writer with a MESSAGE, after all) really don't function very well in this way. It would be like Kubrick thinking 2001 was a good opportunity to use Clarke's story to explain the technical aspects of how space stations will work in fifty years. What makes this so frustrating is the frame story is amazing -- a young hippie hitchhiker meets a hobo whose body has been covered in tattoos which can tell the future, and tells the hitchhiker about his plan to take revenge on the woman who gave him the tattoos. This is really developed by Rod Steiger, who is fascinating as Carl the Illustrated Man -- he really plays the character to the hilt, and his cat-and-mouse game with the daydreamy hitchhiker, and even better in his flashbacks to his meeting and being seduced by tattooist Felicia, played with a really astonishing manipulative carnality by Claire Bloom. Mention has to be made of Steiger's makeup job, which is not only amazingly detailed but truly beautiful, with a art nouveau-via-Fillmore show poster look. The whole look of the film, the unbalanced dreamlike quality and the score by Jerry Goldsmith, which is one of my all time favorite pieces of music (it really deserves its own post) should result in an absolute classic, but then we go into the nested stories -- one about two kids who use their holodeck-like simulation room to get revenge on their parents (you know, like television), one about a spaceship crew crash-landed on a planet where it constantly rains (you know, like Vietnam) -- and here's where we start to understand director Jack Smight as an alumnus of The Twilight Zone (and a bunch of other TV shows). These set pieces are not bad, they're well-acted (primarly by the three primary actors) and there's some really impressive detail -- but in comparison to the main story they seem stiff and obvious. This is a bit less of a problem for the book, as there's many more stories to help balance things, but it's definitely a problem with Bradbury as an author just as much as with Smight the director, and it's not fair to criticise the film exclusively on that point. To give you a kinda strange comparison, think of the film Barbershop -- the main story in both is so strong that the sideplots (in Barbershop that's all the stuff with the stolen ATM machine) really just aren't necessary, and could easily be chopped out without really losing anything, particularly if that meant more time and attention spent on the main story. It's a film absolutely worth seeing, and the things that work in the film are truly amazing, but if you have trouble with uneven films you're definitely going to have trouble here.

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