Monday, November 2, 2009

Atomic Proportions

Halfway through Jack Arnold's "The Incredible Shrinking Man," it becomes clear how utterly dangerous your average 1950s household really was, Good Housekeeping tips aside. Visualized or at least idealized as hygienic and ordered, your average 1950s home was in actuality a very Darwinian place should you be a man contaminated by radioactive gasses, resulting in your ceaseless shrinking or as I saw it, the atomization of man. Terrorizing house cats, hungry spiders, and the "primeval plain" of the cellar floor tests the ingenuity of Scott Carey, who once enjoyed pie-in-the-sky Life Magazine quintessence-- the beautiful blonde wife, the cushy job, the spacious suburban home-- and in his unenviable condition must now learn to contend with creepy crawlers for breadcrumbs.
Made in 1957, "The Incredible Shrinking Man" is very much a film of its time. It was written by Richard Matheson, a frequent contributor to Rod Serling's Twilight Zone. The actor portraying Scott, Grant Williams, a trained opera singer, has the perfect narrator's voice to build audience empathy and the handsome everyman looks that would lead anybody watching to nod sympathetically, "he's one of us." What seems on surface a popcorn picture is actually a very complex and fascinating examination of the marginalization of the modern man and a bizarre conception of his redemption.

Scott's Lilliputian condition is caused by exposure to radioactive gas while enjoying a lazy summer day on his brother's boat. At the outset, thus, he is prostrate, indulgent, bored, requesting his wife, Louise, go below deck and grab him some beers. It's obvious that he's a made man but nonetheless susceptible to the winds of destruction. The source of these mysterious gases that contaminate Scott are never explained, though its assumed they were leaked by the military, likely through incompetence. In 1957, postwar confidence in American supremacy was waning for the first time. The economy would begin contracting that summer, the Sputnik would be launched into space, and the Russians were on par with the U.S. in the arms race for mutually assured destruction. That our efforts in science might not necessarily protect but threaten us was an idea being explored best in the science fiction, fantasy films and comic books of the time. What afflicts Scott Carey is literal "blowback," a random balancing of karma against our destructive material and militaristic philosophy. Scott is a good American husband, faithful, dutiful, innocent, who has his life inexplicably ruined. The suggestion is explicit: It could happen to you.

The film is composed of two parts, the first half dealing with the social and emotional ramifications of his incessant shrinkage and the latter segment detailing the return of his animal instincts-- the quest for food and self-defense in a primordial universe.

When he is about three feet tall, doctors at a research facility treat him with a serum that interrupts the degenerative process. Having lost his job and needing money, Scott publicizes his story, selling it to a newspaper. The resulting media coverage, even by 1950s standards is humiliating and Scott struggles to rationalize his “freakishness.” He befriends Clarise, a lovely midget of a traveling road show who helps lead him to acceptance of his condition: “The sky is as blue as it is for the giants.” The relationship ends all too soon when the serum fails and Scott continues to atomize.

Having retreated back to the care of his loyal wife and living within a dollhouse in a suicidal condition, the monotony of his declining stature is shattered by the attack of a housecat (the performance of the tabby doing more harm to the reputation of felines than Garfield ever could). Scott survives, only to wind up a prisoner of the basement-- a barren, harsh place typical of fastidious American disposal habits. A leaking water heater is his only water source; stale bread his only resource for carbohydrates; for protein does he dare risk dismemberment and an ignoble death for a piece of old cheese sitting on a classic mousetrap? Luckily, there were no rats to contend with; giant spiders being enough of a nuisance, especially when your only weapon in defense is a threading needle. But this discarded needle (isn't everything stored in our basements one motivated Sunday away from the dumpster?) is the difference for Scott between being prey and predator and just as importantly on an abstract, spiritual level, it connects him to man's warrior heritage. It's not for nothing that the movie climaxes with his slaying of the spider, whom he had tried to defeat with ingenuity but in the end, relies upon instinct and simple strength. His prevailing over the arachnid proves Randy Newman may have been wrong about the little guy. There's one dude in 1950s America who's instincts are working full tilt.

There is no classic happy ending due the travails of our hero. Science changed him and when he needed its help, science failed him. There would be no reversal of fortunes, no more of the good, rich consumeristic life. Instead, the character has managed to recover a humanity lost to his peers, an understanding of the world, one's place in it and ironically enough, a physical presence that he lacked in normal conditions. Is Scott Carey the last warrior or the argonaut into the infinitesimal? It's a question that he answers in full in a monologue closing the film that is as beautiful as any text ever written about spirituality and is worth quoting in full, if only to appreciate the beauty of the language, as well as how it sums up the qualities of a surprisingly poetic film:

"So close the infinitesimal and the infinite... but suddenly I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up as if somehow I would grasp the heavens-- the universe--worlds beyond number, God's silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man's own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature that existence begins and ends as man's conception, not nature's and I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away and in their place came acceptance, all this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something and then I meant something too-- yes smaller than the smallest, I meant something too-- to God there is no zero. I still existed."

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