Monday, February 11, 2008
The Last Goddam All-American Alpha Male Omega Man On Earth
The Omega Man was one of those hypnotic television movie experiences I had as a kid. The kind where you wait through every commercial break to see what happens next. Where you turn your appliance off, changed forever, given a transmitted glimpse of a world where fake monsters are perfect avatars of the ones from real life. And you don't even know you're watching in chopped-off cropped-off pan & scan full frame.
Last night I saw the film for about the first time since I was 16, at the fabulous New Beverly Cinema of LA. The double-bill was with Silent Running, which I haven't seen since an Environmentalist middle school teacher took it upon himself to preach through the movies in my 6th grade science class.
The film has been recalled lately in a number of reviews for I Am Legend, along with 1964's The Last Man On Earth starring Vincent Price. Omega differs the most from Richard Matheson's source novel I Am Legend. Why? The other two are mostly accurate adaptations of a story whose themes are timeless: the last man on Earth is forced to survive in the remnants of civilization while besieged by armies of mindless marauding killers - vampires, in fact. Published in 1954, it's a fair bet we would've have had George Romero's zombie movies without the groundwork laid by this novel.
Omega Man is an EXPLICITLY political take on the material, circa 1971. Unsurprisingly the struggle between a loner individual and the armies of The Other is an American one. European and Canadian philosophers praise the unknown Other as a god, a deity to be worshipped at our own genuflection and submission. They bristle at mentions of American exceptionalism and individuality. It's everything they hate about America, the reticence to conform and sign away your life to the faceless and all-knowing government bureaucracy. "Individuality? Is that why you all have GUNS?" they snort.
Guns and self-reliance in the face of failed state and government aid are inexorable from zombie movie mythos.
Charlton Heston has guns up the yin-yang. And his enemies aren't merely zombies or mutants or vampires. They're a Marxist and Post-Modernist cult.
Rather than drinking blood or eating flesh, the diseased cultists come out at night (sunlight hurts) and move from one house to the next, torching the remnants of Western Civilization. Books and paintings are emblems of the old society that failed. Heston lives up in a fortified penthouse, surrounded by books and paintings and a game of chess he plays with a bronze bust of Julius Caesar. It's time for a (ghoul) people's cultural revolution reseting the clock to Year Zero, and he's the last holdout.
You hear a diluted form of this fascist desire to erase history from Liberal academics, themselves citizens of Western Civilization when they speak of the brave new post-Western West that we can live in if we only destroy enough of the past.
And what's the past, anyway? History is propaganda, knowledge is propaganda, nothing means anything.
WE SHALL CLEANSE THE EARTH WITH FIRE.
You're with the revolution or you're not. The cultists call themselves The Family, an obvious shout-out to the Manson murders only two years earlier. They wear revolutionary style sunglasses. They speak in vague platitudes about the "peace" that will come when guys like Charlton Heston are finally exterminated.
They HATE machines. Machines and technology and "knowledge" are what turned them into freaks, so it all has to be done away with. The anti-modernist streak runs through all religious forms of fascism, though like Islamic Jihadists, they're not above being hypocrites and using the tools of the heretics for their own means: one cultist pulls a gun, while none of the others can see. The hypocritical hatred of machines is also allegorical to the environmentalist movement: the idea that humanity's inventions are corrupting our supposed purity, not to mention the supposed purity of the Earth itself, and we must de-modernize to save the world. Rhetoric that all fits well into an e-mail list, read on your iPhone and surrounded by affordable electric light.
Thinking about this film for the first time in many years, I was able to recall that the cultists truly frightened me as a child because they were so unreasonable. Heston has a way to bring them back to normality, but since he's outnumbered, he's abnormal (true to the book.) Superficially, what the cult says about erasing and rejecting the past to prevent war is well-intended fascism, like all fascism. Long before reading Kafka, this was my earliest conception of a Stalinist court - to plead your case before an elite chamber of psychotic bureaucrats with ethereal, quasi-religious prose about how the world needs to be remade in their image, starting with your elimination.
In the following whatever he says, the cult leader has a condescending deconstruction not of his arguments, but of the illegitimacy in the definitions of his very words...wow! Sounds like every debate I've ever had with a smug, nihilistic university student or professor!
When Heston eventually runs into some fellow survivors, amongst them a cute lil' dying kid who suggests to Chuck that he go talk to the cultists and hash things out, since they're people too. Chuck says they're homicidal maniacs. The kid says they probably feel that way about him, too. Everyone's a victim, no one's at fault. Later the cultists kill his naive ass. SPOILER ALERT.
Heston's real feelings on that subject are actually displayed in the opening scenes of the film, when he stops into an abandoned movie theater to hook up the projector and catch a show.
Chuck soon after grumbles, "They sure don't make pictures like these anymore."
Compounding all the political self-awareness of this adaptation is the casting of a cute black chick as Heston's love interest, which in typical 1960s-70s is remarked upon with gentle ribbing for the sake of easing into equality. The girl makes a lame reference to not saying "spooked," and when Heston has to give some of his blood to inoculate the other survivors from the virus, he remarks that it's 100% Anglo-Saxon proof. That's actually pretty minor compared to some other movies where white guys get in on with black chicks. Self-conscious but not overbearingly so. Then again, she does have a huge Afro and sports a Zulu Nation evening gown during a tender love scene.
Funny thing was, I was with a Canadian friend who said Heston would never get it on with a black chick because of his "politics." That never crossed my mind once. Such is the folly of equating identity with politics - the personal is the political, all that shit. Identity politics are crammed hard into people's minds in left-leaning liberal societies and institutions, so I don't blame him for thinking that because Heston's a gun nut, he must hate niggers.
Tangentially to the subject of blood and race, while most reactionary PC interpretations of this aspect would argue Heston's pure White Blood, it's really the racist mentality which posits that human beings have different types of blood at all. Chuck's character's dumb joke aside (this movie has plenty of dumb jokes) the scenes of him giving blood to save the black kid's life is a sweetly subtle gesture of human solidarity.
Identity politics. Us and them. The mutants and the last man on Earth, Charlton Heston. The apes and the last man on Earth, Charlton Heston. The socialist kleptocracy and the last self-employed man on Earth, Charlton Heston. The Omega Man in unquestionably the most confrontational of his late 60s/early 70s sci-fi apocalypse trilogy that began with Planet of the Apes and concluded with Soylent Green, where in each film he's the lone individualist up against totalitarian rule and conformity.
He's not a great actor, but starring in a cycle of libertarian dystopic sci-fi action films is such a weirdly personal statement that I can't help but admire. More than Moses, these are the roles that defined him. It's a thin line between "Don't tread on me" and "Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape."