Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Salt of the Earth: The Monolith Monsters

John Sherwood's The Monolith Monsters of 1957 is strange only if one doesn't know the language of the Bible: salt, water, rock, are words describing the spiritual state of the soul, and it can be used positively or negatively. Knowing the states of the soul and the parables used to describe it makes The Monolith Monsters a powerful film, describing for Christians the way sin attacks our soul and spreads throughout the world.
Let's begin with a spiritual analysis of salt.
In the Old Testament, at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, God saved Abraham's nephew Lot and his family from His wrath by leading them out of the cities as they were being destroyed by fire and brimstone, on the condition that they would not look back, for surely they would be destroyed if they looked back; Lot's wife, of course, turns as she flees, and was turned into a pillar of salt.
The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by John Martin, 1852.
In Matthew 5:13, Jesus tells us, You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. How do we reconcile the views of what happened to Lot's wife with Jesus' command? Salt is essential to the biological system to have, but even more so in ancient times because it preserved food. When Lot's wife turned around and looked at the city being destroyed, she was preserving in her heart Sodom and all its sinfulness, not that they Lord had delivered them and preserved them from destruction. 
The legendary pillar of salt known as Lot's Wife on Mount Sodom, which looks very much like a monolith monster from the film, doesn't it?
On the other hand, when Mary, the Mother of Jesus, left Jerusalem with John the Evangelist, she preserved within her heart the Stations of the Cross, the Divine Sacrifice that had been made by Her Son for the world. Lot's wife was preserving the food of sin, Mary was preserving the food of holiness and righteousness. The wages of sin would have destroyed Lot's wife anyway because she did not know how to live according to the ways of the Lord because she desired only that food that pleased her, not the food she needed to sustain her on her journey to salvation. This is the important role that salt plays in The Monolith Monsters.
The Jordan River, one of two possible sites where Jesus was baptized. By looking at the landscape you can tell how important water is and its presence would not have been taken for granted.
Next, the important role of water.
Sacramentally, it is very easy to understand water: just as water is essential for the body's survival, so the grace that water symbolizes is essential for the survival of the soul. Grace, not only as it comes to us from baptism when our soul is cleansed of Original Sin, but the constant Grace--God's own Life--that we receive in moments of temptation and weakness, is essential to sustain, strengthen and renew our souls. Responding to Grace builds our bond with God; denying Grace distances us from God.
Baptism of Christ, Francesco Alban, 17th Century.
Culturally, water signifies sex.
Spiritually, water-as-grace is life-giving to the soul as culturally, sex is life-giving to the body. Because the sexual experience is equated to a renewal of the senses and the generation of biological life as Grace gives the soul life, water as a sexual symbol can be both positive and destructive.
Yul Brenner as Ramses in The Ten Commandments which was released only one year before The Monolith Monsters came out in 1957.
The last of the important symbols is rock.
When the Lord decides to call the Israelites out from the Land of Egypt, he "hardens Pharaoh's heart," and makes it like stone, but then in the New Testament, Jesus is compared to a rock, that "rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone supporting all the rest," so how do we reconcile these two oppositions? When there is no grace, the heart becomes hard like rock (as in the view of the surrounding desert in the photo of the Baptism site above) but, when the heart is full of Grace, the heart is also fully resolved in all of its endeavors and becomes as stable as a rock: strong and supportive.
Now that we have working definitions of these symbols, we can understand The Monolith Monsters.
Just as he starred in The Incredible Shrinking Man, Grant Williams also stars in The Monolith Monsters which director of TISM Jack Arnold helped to write the screenplay.
The beginning of the film opens with a scientific discussion which was a stylistic tool in the Sci-Fi films of the 1950s: they build up the role of science (because science ended World War II through the Manhattan Project) only to spend the rest of the film presenting a problem that science can't solve. Ben Gilbert (Phil Harvey) drives along the deserted old San Angelo road in the desert of California. He stops the car because it's overheating; we will see this device of the car running out of water employed again in 1963 when Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier) drives up to the convent in Lilies of the Field and will ask for water because his car is thirsty. Meanwhile, Ben gets out to fill the tank with water and grabs a stone to keep his car from rolling back down the hill; as he fills the water tank and water drips down, touching the meteor stones beneath the car. 

The road is the road of life, the road of salvation, the San Angelo road, i.e., the "angelic road" that we will discover has been abandoned. Ben making this journey up the dusty desert road has waited too long to give his car (symbolic of his soul) water (grace). When he gets out of the car, he grabs the first thing he can to keep from back sliding in the spiritual life: one of the rocks. In and of themselves, the rocks aren't bad things, but when Ben pours the water into his car, he's waited so long to fill it that he makes a mess and drops some of the water, i.e., he isn't capable of receiving all the grace that his soul needs up on this part of is spiritual journey and he loses some of the grace he needed.
The meaning of this can be understood if we forward a bit to when Ben talks to town newspaperman Martin (Les Tremayne) and talks about making an original discovery. Grace isn't enough to keep Ben going at this point, he wants some worldly excitement the way Martin wants some exciting news to report, and that's the first important lesson of a film of this kind. Whenever somebody dies in a film, it's because they are all ready dead, and the lead-up to their death is to show us why they are dead and cannot, like the hero, go through the steps of conversion necessary to complete their journey.
When Ben gets into "The Office of the Interior" (and we should take that symbolically to be the "interior life" or the life of the spirit), it's hot and he opens a window; the heat is a sign of a spiritual trial, because when impurities are going to be worked out of metal they are subjected to high heat in order to purify them and the same is true of the soul, but instead of cleansing Ben of his impurities, Ben's impurities will be brought out for us to see just before it ruins him.
There is more that Martin doesn't understand than just geology jargon. "The desert is full of things that don't belong. Take the salt flats out there. Used to be an ocean bed. Now that ocean knew the middle of a desert was a pretty silly place for it to be so it just dried up and went away." The salt flats and the mining going on are the "flock of Christ" compared to the "flock" of black rocks Ben finds out on the road. The Christians in the town use that salt to preserve their faith and the salt is there because of the ocean that was there, the ocean of Christ's mercy; later in the film, it will be water filling in this space left by the "dried up ocean" that will save the town and the world from the attack of the monolith monsters.
This isn't staring into the abyss, rather, staring into the mirror of the soul. Dave should be realizing right now that he needs to be converted, because what has happened to his buddy is about to happen to him.
When the storm comes in through the windows, we have a good idea of what has happened because of a side comment made by Martin. Just as in The Incredible Shrinking Man when Louise left the door open and the cat got in to attack Scott, so in The Monolith Monsters, leaving the window open (because earlier in the day it was hot) shows that Ben hasn't been vigilant, rather, like sleeping through too many geology classes in school, Ben wasn't keeping guard for everything that could come in to harm him. In this case, Ben has been working too hard, and that's why it is a clipboard falling over to trigger the chain reaction to start the rocks multiplying (please see Se7en and the Eighth Deadly Sin for a review of the Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman film and the harms of over-working). It's rather surprising to see Ben sleeping there in the office, but that's because his life and work are one, and when the cold blasts of loneliness come into his soul, he doesn't have any counter-balance to off-set the work with the relaxation he needs to rejuvenate.
When Dave Miller (Grant Williams) gets out of his car, he throws away his cigarette. This is one of those great moments of screenwriting and directing when the purpose of the hero is revealed in the first moments of him being introduced to the audience. In order to survive this ordeal, just as he tossed away his cigarette, Dave has to get rid of an appetite he has been hanging onto, specifically, the relationship he is having with Cathy Barrett (Lola Albright).
This is a great shot because it describes for us what caused Ben to die: being caught between work (the area of the geology lab) and between his personal life (where he sleeps) petrified him so he could no longer do either one of them well. The moment Dave touches Ben to try to get him to "wake up," Dave realizes there is no life in him, which is the constant theme running throughout the film.
When we go to the desert and we meet Cathy and Ginny Simpson, it's the conversation that lets us know, through the eyes of the innocent child, what is wrong in the town of San Angelo. Cathy and Dave are having a relationship, specifically a sexual relationship, and they aren't getting married. Today, when more than half of the couples in the United States are cohabiting without being married, this probably doesn't seem like such a big deal, but that is precisely one of the social evils films such as The Monolith Monsters were trying to avoid (and we will see this in the next posting in this series on Howard Hawks' The Thing From Another World of 1951).
The desert can invoke two different things: it came be the place where the spiritual athletes of God go to purify themselves of sin and temptation, or it can denote those who have lived a life without grace and their soul is as parched of God's Life giving Grace as the desert is parched of water.
Cathy should be embarrassed when Ginny points out that lizards don't get married, because having sex without the covenant of God binding a man and a woman together puts us on the level of the animals; animals don't get married, so don't act like an animal, Ms. Barrett. Men and women get married because they are God's children, so act that way.  "Why don't you and Mr. Miller get married?"and perhaps we find out the reason later: Dave's bad coffee. "The reason for my prolonged bachelorhood," he says, because anyone who drinks that kind of mud can't be easy to live with. But the mud he drinks is symbolic more than anything, because instead of drinking the pure water of grace, he drinks the muddied waters of sin.
What's important about this scene is what is important about all the 1950s Sci-Fi thrillers: what has it done to the children? What is the next generation going to suffer as a result of what we are doing? The black rock that Ginny takes from the "scene of the crime" with Ms. Barrett is symbolic of what is in Ginny's heart: men and women don't have to get married, they can live like the lizards. If Ms. Barrett thinks Mr. Miller is so special, why won't she marry him? We know Dave has asked because we find this out later but we also know from The Incredible Shrinking Man about the increasing independence that women are gaining; Cathy Barrett can provide for herself, and Dave Miller provides that "animal comfort" for when she gets lonely, but just like Louise in TISM, Dave Miller isn't worth the sacrifices Cathy would have to make of Dave sometimes being grumpy, and so it's easier to just live like the lizards.
When Mrs. Simpson tells Ginny to leave that rock outside, she knows exactly what she is talking about: she can see the "dirt" on Ginny's hands and knows that Ginny needs to "wash" before joining the rest of the family. Mrs. Simpson knows that Ginny has been contaminated by what she has brought home, but doesn't realize how powerful it is nor how even she and her husband have been contaminated by it all ready. Ginny dropping the rock (sin) into the water (immersion Baptism) is an oxymoron, because it's Ginny who should be receiving Grace, but that  illustrates for us something more startlingly: a "baptism into sin." we normally think of these things with horror films such as House of Dracula but given what happens, the death of her parents and destruction of her home (and her own near-death experience) we cannot underestimate what Ginny "really learned" at school today and it wasn't about irrigation canals.
Jumping forward, we see Ginny having to be placed in an iron lung, all too familiar to people in the 1950s because of earlier epidemics of Polio which effected entire towns. This image is incredibly important because so many families were directly effected by polio, especially when it was discovered that it was fecal matter entering into the drinking water of communities that was the source of infection (Dave's "drinking mud" fits in nicely here). When Ginny drops that black meteor in the water, and then she's in the iron lung, the disruptive and wide-spread damaging effects of what is happening in the film would have had a more immediate impact on film audiences in the '50s more so than today: sin spreads as fast as polio and is as dangerous.
This is where the "science build-up" I spoke of in the beginning gets undermined by the film, and is, again, a typical technique of the era.
When they drive out to the Simpson farm, it's so hard for Cathy to find Ginny that she passes her by, and then she has to peer into the darkness to see her, contrast this with the brightness of the day and how close they were sitting during the field trip (pictured above). This great directing technique demonstrates the shock children all over the country were slowly going into at the ways their lives were changing (we will see the exact same thing happen in Them! and Invaders From Mars in upcoming posts). When Ginny is in the doctor's office and he notes that her temperature is "sub-normal," we will reference this when we discuss The Blob, but it lets us know that, just like her teacher Ms. Barrett, Ginny is becoming cold-hearted, because it doesn't matter that Cathy thinks Dave "is special," the lesson Ginny learned is not to let Dave know he's special, and that's cold.
Mr. & Mrs. Simpson petrified. Note, please, how they are lying side by side but in different directions. This shows how Cathy's and Dave's relationship is effecting married couples, because sexual relations was an impetus for getting married, being able to have sexual relations without marriage is a plague to those who sacrifice for the sake of their marriages. What's the point of getting married, then? And this position we find them in illustrates for us what some people address as "bed death" in marriage, when husband and wife stop having sex because they are growing apart (lying beside one another and yet worlds apart). The Monolith Monsters puts forth that the monolith monsters are Cathy and Dave, a nice couple that no one would suspect of bringing devastation onto their town, but who are because of the way they are behaving and refusing to conform to social norms for their good, the good of society and the good of the children.
It's not enough to know that Ginny, and everyone, needs salt, the "salt of faith"; they also need the grace of baptism and the day-to-day grace that sustains us in our journey. Whenever the rocks start multiplying because of the water, that's a sign of the multiplication of sin (specifically, sexual sins, like Sodom pictured above) and the growing of those sins details for us how easy it is for one sin to spread and the destruction it causes, not only to the sinner's soul, but all those with whom the sinner comes into contact and influences by their sin.
It's lifeless, and when we realize, we each individually realize for our self how sin destroys life within us, that is the moment of our real and genuine conversion.
The Monolith Monsters is an incredible example of utilizing the language of the Bible to instruct about its lessons using the methods of the day; it was a better film in the 1950s, much more appreciated, but when we understand its effectiveness and the truth it communicates, it opens up another means of instruction for us. Like Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments the year before, The Monolith Monsters shows us how we can either have hearts of stone that God can write His commandments upon, so that we may live, or we can be the stone statues like Lot's nameless wife and condemn others to share our fate.