Friday, April 11, 2014

"The Brother from Another Planet" (1984) Dir- John Sayles





What I remember:

Here's the pitch: Starman meets The Fugitive. Whaddya think? No? 

How about E.T. goes to the ghetto? Tagline: "I'll be right here, muthafucka!"

Sayles is an Auteur with whom I've had a very up and down experience, and some of those ups and downs were in the same film. In case you've forgotten, it was my revisiting "Baby It's You" that inspired this blog. I am a big fan of "Eight Men Out", and of "Lone Star", "Passion Fish", "Sunshine State" and "City of Hope". I'm not so high on "Lianna", "Honeydripper" and "Casa de los Babys". 

I did very much enjoy "Brother from Another Planet" when I saw it during it's first run in the theaters. I felt it was original and powerful, and that its star, Joe Morton in his first lead role, was phenomenal. I was certain that he was on his way to becoming a marquee actor. Well, THAT didn't happen. He has had a long and varied career, but pretty much always in supporting roles.

The film's immigrant allegory appealed greatly to me, and Sayles' wry sense of humor coupled with the emotional and stressful situation that The Brother is in gave the film a lot of depth. The decision to make him mute helped give the character some additional purity and innocence. You do strongly identify with this alien almost as much as you do with E.T. and Klaatu; aliens who turn a sharp mirror on us and our society. We need to be better, dammit!

I'm expecting to not be disappointed when I watch this film again. I think its subject matter is even more appropos of today, with all of the debates in this country and all over the world about immigrants and their rights. 

After re-watching:

"I'd rather be a cockroach on a baseboard up here (Harlem) then the Emperor of Mississippi." -Fly

PLOT SUMMARY

An alien ship crash lands in the New York City harbor, near Ellis Island. The surviving alien (Joe Morton) looks like an African American, with the exception that he has three large toes on each foot. It turns out that he is a fugitive, who is being pursued by two other aliens, caucasians dressed in black (John Sayles, David Straithairn). The alien has powers to heal both organic and electronic entities. This, along with a very strong empathic streak, helps him survive and elude his pursuers.

STORY/THEME

"The Brother From Another Planet" works on a lot of different levels. It is primarily an allegory, although maybe not the allegory I recalled. It is more reflective of the story of the escaped slave, the Underground Railway utilizer. In case you missed this analogy, Sayles takes us into a Harlem museum, wherein there is a drawing of a runaway slave being pursued by dogs. The Brother points to the slave, and then to himself; wordlessly explaining to the child he is with (and to us) that this is his plight.

Imagine how difficult it must have been for a person raised in captivity to find themselves a free man in the North, having to make their own way and find employment, a place to live, skills that would help them survive off the plantation. He/she can't read, never handled money, has zero education. All the while, this freeman must deal with the constant fear of being sent back into slavery by Blackbirders. This is terrifying. What's even more profound, is that this situation is far preferable to remaining a slave. 

"The Brother..." is also a story of how an outsider can have the perspective to see the roots of a problem. The Brother's empathy helps him to understand that the drug situation is a major cause for the iniquities of the ghetto. He feels that sharing that empathy with the wealthy drug purveyors will help stem the flow, and takes it upon himself to do so. 

Heavy stuff, right? Especially for a flick named "The Brother From Another Planet". With a name like that, you'd think that the movie would be a soulful version of "Earth Girls are Easy", not an allegorical exposition on the state of racism in the latter part of the 20th Century.

 And yet even with all this gravitas, "The Brother..." is a great comedy. It made me laugh out loud multiple times. And it wasn't  just "fish out of water" humor...in fact, that is the least of it. 

Here's an example:
When the Men in Black, the two white aliens chasing The Brother, track him down to a New York City Social Services office, their attempts to get information is deluged in a sea of red tape. They are inundated by forms and requests, and their response is to run out of the office immediately and dump all of the forms in the trash.

I also adored the scene when the Brother lands in a bar, and the bartender and his patrons try and figure out what and who he is. Smokey, the inveterate drunk, runs a test to see if The Brother is "deaf, a wino, or crazy". The Brother reacts to a loud pop of a paper bag. Next, he spits out a sip of whiskey. Smokey walks back to the bar and says simply, "Definitely crazy."

Sayles and Straithairn doing the Men in Black are reminiscent of the Red Lectroids from "Buckaroo Banzai". which also came out in 1984, so I'm not sure if this was intentional. Maybe it was just the comic ethos of the period to represent aliens as stiff legged, super powerful nerds. AHHHHH...that's right. This is all from The Coneheads! 


FILMMAKING

Nobody is going to mistake Sayles for Terrence Malick, or Stan the Man Kubrick for that matter. He is no visual stylist, yet his films always correctly reflect the story. "Passion Fish" was a bit soft-focused to give that southern air feeling. "City of Hope" had a dingy urban edge to the imagery, as did this film. The film was shot by Ernest Dickerson, who has since become a fine director in his own right, having done many episodes of some of the top series on TV; The Wire, Treme, Dexter and Walking Dead. As Cinematographer, he has been Spike Lee's main camera guy since Lee's debut. 

There are some striking images, and some very haunting ones too. The opening scenes in an empty Ellis Island Museum are beautifully shot. Every time the Brother comes in contact with a column or a bench, he hears the voices of immigrants past speaking in some vague Eastern European language. The camera shows the cavernous hall, and the reverb heavy voices echo through the expanse. 

An inventive visual is utilized by having The Brother pop his eye out, and leave it someplace as a kind of video recorder. When he is attempting to find out the root of the drug supply, he leaves it across the street from where the dealers hang out. When he pops the eye back in, it plays in a filtered and processed manner the events that occurred.  
This leads one to wonder, what other parts of his body can he leave to do stuff for him while he's off working? 

I loved the use of sound in this movie. With our hero being mute, the sounds of other voices and the city and video games take over. As for those video games, we are talking classic '80's. I believe the word used is "vintage". What probably seemed cutting edge at the time, seems so corny and dated now. And those sounds! Wow. What counteracts this archaic theme, is the very cool steel drum centered score by Mason Daring. Sadly, the original songs are not quite of the quality of the incidental music. The Brother's love interest, Malverne (Dee Dee Bridgewater) sings an absolutely TERRIBLE song that sounds like it was written in 5 minutes. It's almost as bad as that piece of garbage by U2 that they sang at this year's Academy Awards. No reflection, by the way, on Ms. Bridgewater, who is a fantastic vocalist, and who made the crappy song sound much better than it deserved.  

PERFORMANCES

As I said before I re-watched, Morton's pantomime job as The Brother is one for the ages. He conveys so much meaning and emotion with just gestures and expressions. His timing is immaculate, and that is true for both comedy and pathos. He conveys an air of innocence at the same time as a great sense of maturity. I see now why I thought he was going to be huge. One of the great comic moments comes when two midwestern white guys get lost in Harlem, they stumble into our bar, and sit next to The Brother. Trying to make small talk, they ask him where he's from, and he gives them the same answer he gives to everyone; he shrugs and points up. Like everyone, they don't get that, so they follow by getting to ask what they really want to know, where the Subway is. He pauses, then points down. Timing!

The supporting roles are all pretty solid, with the exception of the white collar drug lord, who is totally unbelievable. The best of the acting is by the barroom ensemble, especially the two older guys, Smokey (Leonard Jackson) and Walter (Bill Cobbs).  Cobbs you've seen a million times; he is one of the great "that guys". Jackson, too, is someone you know; I remember him as Basquiat's father. Dee Dee Bridgewater does a nice job in her love interest role, playing a Mary Wilson type on the downslope of a once great career. There are also early cameos by Fisher Stevens and Josh Mostel, two Showbiz legacies. Stevens' little turn as the card trick artist on the subway is fantastic.



ON SECOND LOOK

Sayles' films can become dated, no question. I was really afraid that would be the case with "The Brother From Another Planet". In some ways it was true, particularly all the video game stuff, and also some of the jive talk. But the main theme, the lead performance and the comedy seemed to have enough freshness and clerverness to withstand the decades (30 years!). Let's also not forget how gentrified Harlem is now. It's hard to recall the neighborhood it was in the '70's and '80's. Trust me, I remember it well!

On First Look: ✭✭✭ 1/2      On Second Look: ✭✭✭

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