Tuesday, October 11, 2011

THX and Don Pedro Colley Superstar

I purchased a copy of George Lucas' redigitized "directors' cut"
of THX-1138 for Christmas.

It is a fascinating time capsule but way more work than I am
inclined to invest in most cinematic offerings. Frankly, I fell
asleep during the first viewing which was akin to watching
Shakespeare performed by mimes. I employed the directors'
commentary option for my second viewing, which was like
watching a foreign movie with subtitles. Lucas admits that he
wanted THX-1138 to look and feel like a movie not only from the
future but from another country using another film language. On
this point he succeeds masterfully.

Watching THX-1138 is initially a disconcerting experience as
pictures and the audio often do not match. Sometimes you hear
a sound for which there is no visual cue and vice versa.
Apparently, Lucas edited the film and his collaborator Walter
Murch edited the "sound montage" in the same room at the
same time but working separately, then Lucas would re-edit his
film to capture the sound and Murch would remaster his sound
to "match" Lucas' visuals. It takes a bit of getting used to. I can't
even imagine how disconcerting it would have been in 1971
without the subtext of the internet and one hundred and fifty cable
channels to orient you. The remastering with THX Dolby sound
is sumptuous.

THX-1138 originally cost one million dollars. By comparison
"Beneath the Planet of the Apes," made at approximately the
same time, cost six million. Lucas managed to get all of his
money on the screen by use of some fortuitous circumstances.
Filming in the San Francisco area turned out to be among the
most fortunate. Lucas was able to use the finished by not yet in
commission tunnels of the BART subway system and a regional
AT&T switching station that was still functional but about to be
decommissioned, as AT&T prepared to switch from rotary dial
service to touch tone service, as sets. Also, Lucas was able to
satisfy his need for hundreds of bald-headed extras by using
members of San Francisco based Synanon, a AA type self-help
organization for drug addicts that morphed into a religious cult.
Synanon required all of its members to shave their heads.

For all of the refurbishing and remixing, THX-1138 never quite
sheds its origin as a student film. The humor that Lucas and
Murch speak of in their commentary is so "dry" and film student
insular that you would not know anything funny was going on if
they didn't point it out to you. Also there is a mishmash of "big"
ideas that must have seemed bigger while on campus at USC.
It must have been hilarious in late 1960s and early 1970s to
create a society where the government would jail you for NOT
using drugs.

Still, many aspects of the THX-1138 paradigm are startlingly
prescient. THX-1138 (Robert Duvall) works at an extremely
dangerous robotics factory (one of golden robot torsos looks
startlingly like a precursor of C-3PO) where the workers are
routinely drugged to steel their nerves and to steady their hands.
Still there are tragic accidents - Duvall's unit is commended for
only having a 158 casualties. A cog in a consumerist society,
Duvall stops on his way home to make an obligatory purchase
and to stop at a prayer kiosk.

THX-1138 lives with his roommate LUH-3417 (Maggie McOmie).
On first viewing it appeared he was trying to hide his purchase (a
red diamond-shaped carton) from his roomie when, in fact, he
was doing an obligatory discard so he could purchase the same
thing again the next day. Murch explains that THX and LUH are
pronounced phonetically as "sex" and "love," and that is the
crime these two state-sanctioned platonic roommates are guilty
of -- being in love and having unsanctioned sex (not to mention
not taking their drugs which allows them to break the laws
against having sex and making love).

After work and his obligatory consumer and spiritual
consumption, Duvall vegetates in front of the holograph
projector, channel-surfing through the offerings that consist of
soft porn, sadistic violence and insipid sitcoms. The soft porn
channel features fetishistic naked nubians while the comedy
channel looks like "Amos and Andy in the 21st Centry." The
channel Lucas dubs "the Rodney King Channel" features a
robotic policeman repeatedly beating a defenseless citizen with
his nightstick. This is the channel the anethesized Duvall
returns to repeatedly before settling in to watch it.

SEN 5241 (Donald Pleasance) is the serpent in the garden
(SEN=Sin) except he doesn't tempt the couple until after he
witnesses them having sex. Pleasance develops a lust for
McOmie and plots to get her as his roommate. His actions and
Duvall's undrugged reactions lead to all three of them going on
trial. Duvall and Pleasance end up in state prison, a white-
washed void with no walls, ceilings, windows or doors. Duvall
eventually discovers that if you "free your mind, your ass will

Enter the "Magical Negro."

Like Punjab the genie from "Little Orphan Annie," SRT, the
hologram appears. SRT (Don Pedro Colley) is like something
out of Stephen King. He is out-sized, bald-headed, "magical"
and loves him some white folks. He shows Duvall and
Pleasance the way out of the void and back into the "free" world.
For some reason Colley is a surprisingly clunky "hologram." He
can be seen; he can't walk through walls; he can't drive a
souped up rocket car (but, not so surprisingly, Duvall can). Still,
Colley is an arresting presence. Such an arresting presence
that it is surprising his acting credits are as scant as they are (he
played "Negro" in "Beneath the Planet of the Apes" and Sheriff
Ed Little from Chickasaw County on "The Dukes of Hazzard").
With his height, stature and baritone voice, it is surprising Lucas
didn't think of him when casting Darth Vader.

THX-1130 lives in an orderly society and when the cost of
pursuing him exceeds by 20% the amount the state allows for
recapturing escapees the search is called off. And that is the
way the movie THX-1130 is - ending, perhaps, when the money
ran out. The actual ending is one that may have been shocking
when the movie was made but has become almost cliche thirty
odd years later.

Some interesting themes in the movie that hold resonance
today: in THX-1138 there is no evil empire or cabal. The Society
is the villian, but it is a suprisingly benign one (As Walt Kelly in
the guise of Pogo says, "I have seen the enemy, and he is us").
The police-robots are unfailingly polite and the state prison can
be walked away from if only one has the imagination and the will
to do so.