Thursday, March 8, 2012

Mirroir Noir: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

The iconic image of the film which never actually happens. They run all the time, deeply symbolic, of course, but Becky wearing that dress, which Miles first sees her in after the passing of five years, and them running, doesn't happen. It is fitting that Becky be wearing that dress, however, because she is wearing that when we first meet her, and that verifies that she is the villain of the film.
I've been afraid a lot of times in my life but I didn't know the real meaning of fear until I had kissed Becky. A moment's sleep and the girl I loved was an inhuman enemy, bent on my destruction. That moment's sleep was death to Becky's soul. . . . Their bodies were now hosts harboring an alien form of life, a cosmic form which, to survive, must take over every human man. So I ran, I ran....
Don Siegal's 1956 sci-fi mega-thriller Invasion of the Body Snatchers (which spawned an incredibly good and successful re-make starring Donald Sutherland, Leonard Nimoy, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright and Brooke Adams in 1978) is really the ultimate in sci-fi thrills in the 1950s. Why? The title for this post, Mirroir Noir, comes from a poster in the house of Jack (King Donovan) in the film, but it's apt for the film because it holds up a "dark mirror" in which we can gaze and see ourselves as we really were in the 1950s, and that's what the very best films always do.
Like all the great sci-fi films of the 1950s, the opening credits scene of Invasion of the Body Snatchers gives us a clue to what is the real setting of the story: because of the clouds in the sky, it may seem that it invokes space, but that's not it, rather, the "cloud of unknowing" the veil of the symbols and the language that will hide what the film is really about. And what is the film really about? Invasion. Post World War II, with American forces invading Europe, invading the Pacific islands and Japan and the Philippines, "invasion" was an idea so common place in American psychology that the war-ideology of the science fiction films of the era went by unnoticed. What is the war being waged? As I have been demonstrating in this series, that atomic radiation from the bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima were a source of unending guilt and fear for Americans (the links to those posts will be at the bottom of this post) and films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers were trying to illustrate and explore for Americans what the fears were and how to overcome them. Eventually, they added a third item to the agenda: what not doing anything about the guilt was doing to us, and that's what Invasion of the Body Snatchers does so well.
The great encoding device the film uses is to reverse who the villain is and who the hero is. It may seem that Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) and Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) are the heroes, running for their lives, but in truth, just as in The Monolith Monsters, this atomic age Adam and Eve are the villains and the rest of the town, the rest of the world, is suffering for their sins and mistakes and are the real victims. Why is this effective? Because we are forced to see what has been taken away from us and so that we will realize how desirable it is and we won't want to lose it, in this case, Christianity.
Madness is a terrific theme running throughout the film. In the opening scenes, when Miles is being held in a hospital, he worries that everyone thinks he is insane. Later, when they are realizing what has happened, they think they are mad or everyone will think them so. When Miles is wanting to spend the night with Becky, she tells him, "That way lies madness," and in that nutshell, she delivers the thesis of the film: "To have sex outside of marriage is to descend into madness because it destroys us."
Psychologist (called a "witch doctor" in the film) Dr. Dan Kauffman (Larry Gates) tells Miles and Becky: "Santa Mira was like any other town, people with nothing but problems. Then out of the sky came a solution. Seeds drifting through space for years took root in a farmer's field. From the seeds came pods which had the power to reproduce themselves in the exact likeness of any form of life. . . . They'll absorb you and suddenly are are reborn into an untroubled world" where all of your problems disappear. What the "witch doctor" is talking about is the destruction of the soul, the renunciation of our creation being in the likeness of God; when our soul is dead, we are "free" to do what we want without the burden of guilt or anxiety about what will happen to us in consequence.
The best image of one of the pods I could find. At the gas station, the attendant puts two pods in the truck of Miles' car, which Miles realizes he did. After Miles and Becky pull out, they stop off the road and get the pods out, setting them ablaze to destroy them. The "fuel" of Miles' and Becky's relationship is that they both think they are free to be together, since both are now divorced, but they have baggage, symbolized by the pods in the trunk of the car. Both of them should have sacrificed for their marriages the way they vowed they would, and since a person is their very word, not keeping your word means loosing your self, your very identity, and the "false doubles" the pods represent means that Becky and Miles can't go on which is what the car symbolizes (the future they want to plan together). Miles setting the pods on fire is the idea of purgation, that I have done penance for my past mistakes and the fire of that trial gives me the right to be free to do what I want, but Miles and Becky both made vows contrary to that idea and that's why the pods will reappear.
But the better we understand what the pods are, the better we understand where the film is going. The pods are both an artificial womb giving birth to a likeness of a person and the invoking of the sin in the Garden of Eden. After Adam and Eve had sinned, and realized they were naked, they made clothes for themselves from leaves (like the large leaves of the pods) to cover themselves because they were ashamed of their nakedness.
Adam and Eve by Titian.
Why would there need to be an artificial womb?
If we are born in the likeness of God, then we have to be reborn in the likeness of the world and the pods, the symbol of our Original Sin and hence, our separation from God, is the "sacramental passage" from being children of God to children of the pod.  But what is the catalyst for all these tragic events?
Becky Driscoll.
Theatrical dramatization of Miles finding "Becky."
Becky arrived back in town before these things started happening, but how could a native woman, dearly loved by all be the cause of such terrible chaos and death? She was getting a divorce from her husband. This isn't my morality I am preaching, this is the film's: when Becky comes and sees Miles, they are "going down the stairs," i.e., they are going into the lower regions of the mind, the passions (it's in the cellar, the lowest place in the house that Miles first sees Becky's "blank," as they call them), and instead of coming out and saying, "I'm getting a divorce," they have to use encoded language. "I was in Reno," she says, meaning of course, the famous town for getting a divorce and mentions that Miles had also been in Reno a few months ago. (To emphasize this, just a few years later, in 1961, Marilyn Monroe starred in The Misfits and Kevin McCarthy (Miles from Invasion of the Body Snatchers) played her husband she was divorcing in Reno, and she says that it was because even when he was there (with her) he wasn't there; just like people in Santa Mira, talking of the impostors).
Becky's pod "double" Miles discovers in her cellar.
The correlation with The Misfits makes it perfectly clear that audiences in the 1950s understood the connection between the rampant divorce rate which had begun accelerating and the science fiction concept presented by the Invasion of the Body Snatchers that being able to divorce someone, instead of sticking it out and fixing it, was eroding people and society (there are perfectly legitimate reasons for getting divorced, but it's obvious that Miles and Becky didn't have really good reasons and by not talking about it, it says volumes that they would not say otherwise). Just as in The Monolith Monsters, it's not just about sex or divorce, but the way in which the massive destruction of people by the atomic bomb dehumanized us all, we became tools to be used and thrown away at will. Becky and Miles both threw away their spouses the way Pat and Nikki have a casual sexual relationship in The Thing From Another World, because people had lost their value.
Miles in his greenhouse just after discovering the four pods placed there to replicate them; looking at Becky's pod, he holds up a pitchfork to destroy the pod but can't bring himself to do it. This moment is imperative to understanding the moral structure of the film because at this moment, Miles would rather have a fake Becky than have no Becky at all (just as characters in art who end up dieing are all ready dead, so the people in the film who become "empty" are all ready empty, it's just a matter of course to see how they became empty).  But when Miles goes and destroys his own pod likeness, he saves himself (unknowingly), because he's not enslaved to the "easy life" the pod beings want him to have. With Becky, however, Miles knows she is empty and that is really the reason why he loves her, she is empty, but then, towards the end, he truly understands what he has done in not saving her, and we can understand that through the use of very traditional symbols.
A good argument against this theory is that it's when someone falls asleep that the pod takes over, not when they get divorced; but "falling asleep" is spiritually symbolic for not keeping to the moral path in life, letting yourself become dull to people like Sandra Fluke, instead of staying awake to what it is they are really doing and the damage and harm it causes others and society at large. Remember, Miles himself says, "That moment's sleep was death to Becky's soul."  Yet there is another aspect to remind us of Adam and Eve: the garden.
Becky, Jack, Teddy (who would go on to play Morticia Addams in the Addams Family TV series) and Miles in his greenhouse when they first see the pods and see them trying to reproduce themselves.
Just as the pod is an artificial womb, the greenhouse is an artificial garden and there are two of them in the film. The first one is at Miles' house, where they first find the pods. Why? Because Becky spent the night with Miles and they are not married (but, depending on your denomination, you may or may not believe that even after a divorce, a person can re-marry without committing adultery). So they are in a state of sin for "pretending to be married" when they are not, and Jack and his wife Teddy are in a state of sin for not caring that Becky and Miles are violating marriage laws.
A pod "hatching" in Miles' greenhouse.
The second greenhouse in the film is towards the end when Miles hears music and follows the sound out of the cave and sees a large greenhouse filled with pods being loaded into trucks to be shipped all over the world. Why is this greenhouse here now? Because of what happens when Miles returns to the cave.
As I mentioned in the beginning, the film performs an expert job of flipping the heroes and villains in the film because it's really Becky and Miles who have wrought the terror and destruction, not the townspeople. But the running Miles and Becky have to do now perfectly illustrates for us the command of St. Paul to "run the race," because each day that we make sacrifices, we study Scriptures, we pray, we fast and do penance, we are conditioning ourselves for the trials and tribulations which are inherent in our destiny. If we have practiced and stayed spiritually fit, we are not at risk of lagging behind, becoming exhausted, "falling asleep" as Becky does, and we will be saved. But Miles has "miles to run" and he hasn't gone to the Divine Physician because he's been too busy being a physician, which doesn't do him any good now. When they run into the cave (which is, by the way, the most famous cave in Hollywood because it's been in nearly every film or TV show that calls for a cave setting) they find a place to hide underneath boards and the towns people come in looking for them and run over them in the hole, searching, then leave. The boards symbolize the Cross, and the hole is humility and lowliness, because the towns people "running atop of them" illustrates people running all over us and why the Lord permits it because of the virtue it permits us to learn and display. So that's why they are saved in hiss scene but it's not enough to save them from their lust for each other.
When Miles returns to the cave (you can watch the video clip of it here on youtube) he picks up Becky because she is too weak to go any further and Miles and Becky fall, they fall into a mud puddle, and then he starts kissing her. When he stops kissing her, all he has to do is look at her and he knows she has been changed. What happens? The cave, a deep and dark tunnel, symbolizes our primitive urges because that was the shelter (house/home) for early uncivilized man, so as the soul is symbolized by the home today, the cave can be taken as symbolic of our primitive soul (i.e., the soul before the birth of Christ, the soul before the Prophets and Abraham).
Note, please, Becky's outfit: a white shirt and a skirt with flowers. The white blouse indicates that she should be pure and innocent and she's not; the flowers on the skirt symbolize (like a bridal bouquet) the virtues a woman is supposed to have and that Becky does not have. She is, instead, exactly what a woman should not be: covered in mud.
Miles carrying Becky invokes the state of marriage (when a groom carries his bride over the threshold). When Becky and Miles falls, it means The Fall, as in, the sexual act, and his kissing her lets us know that physical affection is exactly what we should be thinking of (consequently, this could also be taken as a Freudian moment when we are faced with death, we also experience the sexual urge to reproduce). The fall into the muddy water puddle clearly indicates sin because water, while a symbol for the Holy Spirit and Baptismal Grace, is also a symbol for sex (because in the secular world, sex is the answer to all our problems, but in the spiritual world, Grace is the answer to all our problems).
Miles stops kissing Becky and realizes that she has been changed. We get this great close-up on Miles because the face is really the defining area of our physical identity, so while Becky still looks the same, we know she is not because of the vacancy in her eyes (her body is vacant of her soul) and we see Miles' eyes enlarge because his soul is staring into a body without a soul.
This is actually the moment when Becky's soul falls to sleep because she gives into Miles' desire for sex with her and that means Becky's death. Why is the woman being blamed instead of the man? Because women are created from spirit; yes, it is a man's responsibility to not want sexual relations outside of marriage, but a woman has the advantage over the man in her very nature and being, and when she acquiesces to a man's desire for sex, she is actually becoming his enemy, bent on his destruction, just like Miles said in the opening quote. He may love her, but not enough to suffer the mild torment of abstaining from sex for her.
At one point in the film, Miles says: "In my practice, I've seen how people allow their humanity to drain away. Only, it happens slowly instead of all at once. They didn't seem to mind," and Becky replied, "Just some of them, Miles," and he goes on, "All of them, a little bit." We harden our hearts and become callous to what really matters, and then, when it's threatened, we have become so morally lazy that we don't have the spiritual energy, like Becky, to "go on" and fight, just like in today's political battles. When the witch doctor, Dr. Kauffman, tells Miles that he will no longer be controlled by his emotions, and Miles gets upset about not being able to be in love with Becky anymore, Kauffman says, "You were in love before. It didn't last. It never does. Love, desire, ambition, faith, without them, life's so simple, believe me." Why does life become so simple? Because you no longer have to sacrifice for any of the people or things (such as freedom) that you love, like Christ's sacrifice for us. This is a direct reference  to Miles' and Becky's failed first marriages.
Foreign release poster featuring Becky.
Why does Invasion of the Body Snatchers still resonate today?
As Miles says, "Someone wants the duplication to take place," because the more people who "die," and become fake, living in a fake morality, the easier it will be for the fakes; the real people, still living and working through their problems,will become so outnumbered they will start to doubt themselves and eventually give in and die, becoming fake themselves. This is, again, the importance of running the race and being "alive" to the teachings of Christ and how the political age is trying to erase us, and our beliefs, out of existence.
In Jack's house when the first "blank being" is found there on the pool table and Miles has been called to see what is going on (the poster I named this post after is on the wall between Jack's and Miles' heads). Why does the first blank being we see happen at Jack's house? Jack is a writer, so he is used to having "doubles" for himself in his stories.
If you haven't seen this film, it has held up really well over time, earning a place on the national film registry and a 97% approval rating from critics at Rotten Tomatoes (and, as I said, the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is excellent as well). These two films are so good (albeit there is brief nudity in the remake) that they would make good Christian film night selections. Anyway, even if you don't see it, the symbols used in this film are a constant and incorporated in film and art so we will be seeing them again!
When the film is ending, Miles escapes despite Becky's attempts to denounce him to the towns people. As Miles makes it to the highway, one of the people ask about stopping him and Kauffman says, let him go, nobody will believe him. Trying to stop cars and get someone to listen to him is a lot like trying to preach the Gospel: everyone is too busy with the traffic of their life, and just "drive by" to their own detriment and the one trying to "save everyone" is treated like a mad fool.
Other posts in this series are: The Second Original Sin: Art In the Atomic Age, The Decade Of Turmoil Film In the 1950sLove In the Sonic Age: Attack Of the 50-Foot Woman,  One Of Us Has To Die: The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Salt Of the Earth: The Monolith Monsters, And the Beasts Shall Reign Over the Earth: Them!, Promiscuity & Gender In the 1950s: The Thing From Another World.