Thursday, October 17, 2013

What I Talk About When I Talk About The Blob (Yeaworth Jr., 1958)

It's kind of sad that Steve McQueen doesn't look nearly as engaged or interested in this film as I am. Maybe it's a good thing. Maybe his attitude, in contrast to the fun and earnestness in which the other actor's play their parts, further defines the campy strengths. You can see in his eyes that he'd rather be anywhere else. When he overacts it's fueled by exasperation that these are the lines he's been given in his first starring role in film. You probably wouldn't blame him. Before all this he'd been a Marine, a motorcycle racer, and a student of the Sanford Meisner method of acting. And now at 28 years old the future "King of Cool" was playing a pretty tame teenager who doesn't care to race cars and doesn't make the moves on the girl. He's probably right. He's much too cool for this type of film. No matter. The Blob eats his condescension and only grows stronger.

The Blob feels like it took its cue from other teen exploitation movies of the era. Films like High School Confidential (Arnold, 1958) and Untamed Youth (Koch, 1957), that propagated fears that the nation's youth were out of control and needed the reinforcement of good ol' American Values to set them straight. At the same time these pictures were cashing in on those teens who showed up to the drive-ins to watch rambunctious rabble-rousers raise hell and race hot-rods. But Steve McQueen's character isn't much of a rebel and neither are the other teens, who'd really rather just hang out and watch spooky movies. The teens in The Blob do run into the same problems as the ones in Rebel Without a Cause (Ray, 1955), another film originally meant to exploit the fears of juvenile delinquency (though director Nicholas Ray decided he was firmly on the side of the kids, setting it apart from all the others). Just as James Dean fails to communicate with his elders about what's going on in his life as it spins out of control, Steve McQueen and company are unable to convince prejudiced adults that there's a monster on the loose about to ravage the whole town. An adolescent experiencing the pain of being misunderstood because he feels lost - an adolescent experiencing the pain of being misunderstood because he's talking about a red mass that grows larger as it absorbs people and cannot be easily stopped. Same difference, you see.

The threat of the red menace is always present in the film. The color palette is mostly blue hues, with some earth tone exceptions inside a couple of homes. But in nearly every shot there's something or someone bright red to reminds us the creature could be anywhere.
In the following shot we see Mooch's red shirt and Nick's red car lurking behind the blues of Steve's car. When Steve races the car backwards it leads to him being reprimanded by Lieutenant Dave. It's this initial mistake by Steve that create seeds of doubt for the police officer of the film. They think he's just another delinquent trying to get a rise out of them for kicks.



Here we have Mrs. Porter, dressed in red. Her character enters the crime scene and explains with certainty that Dr. Hallern is off to a convention. No matter what Steve says, she has an alternate explanation as to where Hallern is and how he's getting there.



Here Nick and his date are trying to explain to a group of adults that there's a monster on the loose, but the party goers are too inebriated to pay him much attention. The red lantern, hanging over the heads of all the party goers, both signifies the threat of the Blob and represents the obstacle keeping the kids from being understood - the party itself.



It's hard not to look at the Blob as a metaphor for the threat of communism, especially given the time and place, and of course the big red creature that's threatening to absorb everyone you know and love. As the threat of the Blob becomes obvious to everyone in town, all characters young and old unite to fight against it. The cure for juvenile delinquency and the age gap is something to fight against, and what better enemy than the communist threat of Russia.

The final battle between the town and the Blob is reminiscent of Godzilla (Honda, 1954). When guns fail the small town police, they shoot down a power line in an attempt to electrocute the red mass, and, much like the electric fence failed to stop Godzilla in Japan, The Blob continued its reign of terror. Only through dumb luck does Steve realize that the only way to combat the extraterrestrial threat is freezing it, thus waging a "cold war" to stop the monster. But you can never kill it, you can only contain it. Before the military drops the creature off in the arctic, far outside our borders, Steve tells us that as long as it stays cold, we'll be safe - a line that Al Gore would surely shake his head at now. The insinuation is that this threat will always be out there and that our fight against it will be indefinite, a philosophy that has fueled our military industrial complex ever since. This is a stark contrast to Godzilla (Honda, 1954). In that film, a Japanese scientist invents the ultimate weapon - the Oxygen Destroyer - that only he knows how to create. When the weapon is detonated the scientist sacrifices himself so that the secrets of the weapon will be forever lost - a gesture meant to convey that wars and arms races will end in tragedy and must cease. It's inconsequential whether these messages were intended by the director or writer of The Blob. Viewing the film within the context of history makes it difficult to avoid such readings.

Despite my, admittedly indulgent, negative interpretation of The Blob's "message", I still enjoy the film. It still feels innocent and unaware of its influences - a film that's just wanting to have a good time, yet still a product of a nation's misguided fear of anything outside its borders. I blame nurture over nature. The joy in The Blob comes from its pride in just being a film. It displays reverence for the art form. When Steve asks his friends to walk out of a scary movie they look at him incredulously "Get up? In the middle of a movie?" And it's not until the Blob attacks the sanctity of the cinema that the townspeople realize how much trouble they're in. The theater is still regarded as a sacred safe zone today. It's within its walls that we can experience anything and everything with complete freedom. The pain of loss in Amour (Haneke, 2012), the thrill of adventure in Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1981), the fear of an unstoppable red mass that absorbs everything in its path. And we can do it, (and this is the sexy part) with a room full of other people doing it at the same time. When those sheltered boundaries are breached, as they were in Aurora, Colorado where a young man fired on an innocent film audience, it is most disturbing.

Maybe what I love the most about The Blob is that, despite the camp and kitsch, it still manages a reaction deeper than it probably intended. The best films are the ones that help us communicate with each other, and while The Blob may not be what many consider "high art", it certainly facilitates a conversation or two. And in the technology age, which sometimes feels like the age of isolation, in which we hide behind smart phones, earbuds, and a host of other borders, a little conversation sounds like a great idea.

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