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Intelligent '80s Sci-fi Films, 'Man Facing Southeast' and 'The Quiet Earth', Question Life on Earth

The Quiet Earth (1985)

These two films, now on Blu-ray, are early examples of dwelling in the possibility of multiple subjective realities.

The Quiet Earth

Director: Geoff Murphy
Cast: Bruno Lawrence
Distributor: Film Movement
Year: 1985
Release date: 2016-12-06

Man Facing Southeast

Director: Eliseo Subiela
Cast: Hugo Soto, Lorenzo Quinteros
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Year: 1986
Release date: 2016-12-13

"Why are human beings resigned to tolerate what's destroying them? And why do they do so little to improve things? Is your stupidity making you commit suicide or are you paying for your sins?"

One of the most valuable qualities of cinema is to ask questions we cannot answer, or are afraid to answer. The best science fiction can do this. Two of the quietest and thoughtful sci-fi films of the '80s, both made far from Hollywood, have now resurfaced on Blu-ray to provoke us anew. A character in one of them pronounces the above dialogue, as you will discover, but it could just as easily have been a line from either film. Both movies follow a strategy of pitting scientific characters against spiritual or mystical ones and finish by blurring the differences. We'll chart other curious and revealing similarities as well.

The Quiet Earth

New Zealand's Geoff Murphy unleashed the chilling low-key catastrophe of The Quiet Earth, which opens with a glorious ball of yellow fire rising from a blood-red horizon of sea and sky. At one point, as John Charles' majestic music surges, the oceanic reflection makes the ball resemble a mushroom cloud more than the sun. If this gives viewers the impression they're about to watch a post-apocalypse movie in the tradition of Five (1951), The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), Last Woman on Earth (1960) and other sparsely populated epics, they're not far wrong.

Next comes an overhead and upside-down shot of Hobson (Bruno Lawrence), naked in bed except for an I.D. tag around his neck. He rises for work and soon notices an odd thing: everyone has disappeared, leaving himself as the only living animal he sees. We will gather that he worked for a secret project that has something to do with this general vanishment.

At first, he goes through the consumer fantasies of this kind of wish fulfillment, although we don't know what he plans to do with all the TV's from the mall. In his binge of champagne and suicidal self-pity, and around the time he begins wandering around in a frilly slip and waving a shotgun and screaming in a Catholic church (more overhead upside-down shots), we sense marbles being lost. Finally, he pulls himself together and finds a nice seafront house for his survivalist retirement.

This wouldn't fall into the tradition of the aforementioned movies if he didn't soon discover a pretty woman (Alison Routledge) to kick the plot into higher gear. A third wheel appears in the form of a tall strapping Maori (Pete Smith) with a shark tooth earring -- nor is any of this a spoiler since three actors are listed in the opening credits. Although "the Effect" is never explained, they speculate on possibilities of the "Are we dead?" variety, thinking that perhaps they are the only ones who nudged into an unpopulated alternate reality for various reasons.

A huge spoiler might be the image on the Blu-ray cover, although the ending remains, in its modestly budgeted way, a gloriously unpredictable and baffling homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

With its calculated jump-scares amid the eerie empty streets, The Quiet Earth remains a model of a tight, brainy, humane, psychologically credible three-person mind-bender on a budget. Murphy had previously made another three-person road movie, Goodbye Pork Pie (1981), and the acclaimed action / revenge "western" Utu (1983), about a Maori warrior, with Lawrence appearing in both films. After The Quiet Earth became an art-house hit, especially in the US, Murphy went on to specialize in action films, working in Hollywood for many years.

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This 2K digital restoration looks and sounds excellent. The only extra is a desultory commentary track by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Odie Henderson, who drop in a few appreciative remarks. Tyson, the scientist, is especially interested in the film's spiritual dimensions while vetting the scientific concepts. Henderson, a film critic, seems to believe The World, the Flesh and the Devil is a 1965 movie and that it doesn't end on the implication of Harry Belafonte doing his bit to repopulate the world.

Man Facing Southeast (1986)

Man Facing Southeast

Appearing in art houses around the same time was Argentina's Man Facing Southeast, which is about either an extraterrestrial studying human stupidity or a mental patient with profound depression and elaborate delusions. Or possibly a Christlike messiah. It works on all levels, although it may tip its hand too much with two scenes where the patient demonstrates telekinetic powers, as scored by Monteverdi vespers on the soundtrack.

The mysterious Rantes is played by a dark, intense, hollow-cheeked Hugo Soto with a thousand-mile stare and, as cinematographer Ricardo De Angelis explains in a bonus interview, key lights reflected in his eyes. One day, Rantes manifests himself in the loony bin that employs Dr. Denis (Lorenzo Quinteros), a burned-out, possibly clinically depressed mirror image of Rantes, except the doc gets to wear the white coat and hand out the drugs and no longer believes in anything.

He certainly doesn't believe Rantes' claim to be a hologram beamed from another planet, a case of literal alienation. Denis seeks to work out the metaphors and subtexts of this man who comes and goes as he pleases, at least when he's not frozen in place for hours "transmitting" to the southeast. Yes, Rantes is the fellow who makes the kind of tart observations and asks the kind of disturbing questions quoted at the top of this review.

Both films are early examples of dwelling in the possibility of multiple subjective realities that have overtaken millennial cinema, a trend I've called "millennial unreality". It's a narrative terrain that questions consensus reality and suggests it ain't what you think it is, with plots that keep redefining what characters think is real and who or what they are.

This film, also like The Quiet Earth, becomes a romantic triangle as the lovely and enigmatic Beatriz (Inés Vernengo) who, for some reason methodically changes her shoes when she visits, is introduced halfway through the picture. She too will have something to say about reality and identity.

Something else the films have in common is René Magritte, the Belgian surrealist painter. One of the early images in Man Facing Southeast is Dr. Denis' flash thoughts of Magritte's "The Kiss", the famous image of two lovers whose heads are each covered by cloth. It's an early signal that this film may indulge in the surreal. The New Zealand film shows a poster of Magritte's La Reproduction Interdite ("The Forbidden Reproduction", 1937), in which a mirror reflects the back of a man's head, in a wiggy, wall-crawling, shifting-reality sequence that throws in an M.C. Escher print for good measure.

Writer-director Eliseo Subiela shot Man Facing Southeast in Buenos Aires' Borda mental asylum, where he'd shot his first short film and where he'd film again. Soto was also familiar with the place since childhood, since his father had been committed there. Notwithstanding these grim realities, the film presents a romanticized picture of mental patients who, in their distraught madness, uniformly recognize Rantes as a magical messiah who inspires them to burst into a spontaneous musical riot-parade via long-distance when he conducts Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" in the park.

Because the film is so dark, grainy and low-budgeted, and so suffused by the traumatic hangover of Argentina's recently ended military dictatorship, Subiela gets away with elements that come across as shallow in a glossy Hollywood item like K-Pax> (2001), which Subiela sued for plagiarism. Only De Angelis alludes to the film's Argentinean "collective unconscious" and behind-the-scenes debates on cultural specifics, like showing the flag in a scene where the institute's director says it's a good thing Rantes didn't provoke a headline about a lunatic ordering a military attack, to which Denis snaps that's already happened.

One of the most powerful images is an absence: a photo of a younger Rantes and the woman. The left side of the photo is torn off, but a shadow on the ground tells us someone was there -- man or woman, relative or friend, we don't know. Someone used to be there and now is gone as effectively as one of the country's desaparecidos, and the evidence of their passing is a shadow and the fallout of trauma. That tear, that absence, that shadow could explain Rantes as eloquently as all the obfuscation about other worlds, but the film can only remain dumbstruck by the possibility.

Aesthetically, the most problematic element isn't Pedro Aznar's expressive and intriguing score, but the meandering saxophone solos played by Andrés Boiarsky. Associated with the sax-dabbling Dr. Denis, these are mixed so intrusively as to nearly drown out the dialogue in several of his scenes. Fortunately, this Spanish-language film has subtitles. Oh yes, The Quiet Earth also has its hero pull out a big saxophone in one moody moment!

Subiela's dialogue duly credits Adolfo Bioy Casares' classic Argentine novel The Invention of Morel for the hologram idea. The film became a surprise hit in Subiela's homeland after success abroad, and it fits his general output of "suspicious realism", as he calls it in his excellent interview. This must be another reason it seems as timely as ever. He also credits Jean Cocteau as a significant influence.

Soto is heard in a 1993 interview shortly before his death from AIDS, a fact lending more retrospective melancholy to its image of a man alienated from society and its definitions of madness and malady.

Another influence on the film might have been Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth (1977), based on Walter Tevis' novel -- and by a coincidence of cosmic proportions, that film too is scheduled for an imminent Blu-ray release. Mind you, it's already been on Criterion Blu-ray since 2008, but Lionsgate has just announced a new repackaging for January 2017.

Kino's Blu-ray of Subiela's film offers an HD transfer of what's unfortunately an unrestored print, with highly visible deterioration throughout the last part. The bonus interviews with Subiela, Soto and De Angelis are very informative and not just gushing about how wonderful everyone was. There's also a booklet essay by Nancy J. Membrez, who has written about Subiela's entire career from his acclaimed TV commercials to his features. Southeast is by far the most famous, but it seems like more of them deserve to be released on Blu-ray to our modern suspicious sensibilities.


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