Wednesday, November 23, 2011

DEMON SEED 1977

Back in 1977 I recall asking a friend if she was as eager as I to see the new Donald Cammell film, Demon Seed, opening at theaters that week. Her reply: "Ugh! Hollywood just keeps thinking of new ways to rape women." I took that for a no.

Her response surprised me. My friend and I were classmates at film school, drawn together by a love for thought-provoking mainstream films that veered into the realm of art, and a shared fondness for Cammell's remarkable directing debut, Performance (1971).  Given that Demon Seed was only Cammell's second film in six years, I thought my friend would find provocative the prospect of a director as artistically idiosyncratic as Cammell taking on a film that, in summary, read like something better suited to William Castle or Roger Corman: a supercomputer  imprisons a woman (Julie Christie) in her home, intent on impregnating her and creating a new life form.

I mean, how could my friend so oversimplify what was obviously going to be some kind of meta-commentary on the uneasy relationship between man and machine played out against the life-affirming emotional attributes of the contemporary woman vs. the cold, patriarchal dominance of technology? It was like someone saying Rosemary's Baby was just about a hell-beast raping a mortal woman. Subtexturally speaking, couldn't my friend  see that there had to be so much more to Demon Seed than just the impregnation of a woman by a robot?

And what about the Julie Christie connection? Surely Julie Christie—that skilled, intelligent, serious-minded, movie icon of the 60s, who publicly eschewed Hollywood stardom and cheesecake glamour for serious roles; who turned her back on untold millions due of her level-headed, principled, proto-feminist disinterest in portraying helpless girlfriends and supportive male appendages—surely SHE wouldn't participate in a film that degrades women! Would she?

Julie Christie as Dr. Susan Harris
Fritz Weaver as Dr. Alex Harris
Gerrit Graham as Walter
Robert Vaughn as the voice of Proteus IV
Well, here it is some 34 years and countless viewings later, and as far as I'm concerned the jury is still out on whether my friend's diminution of Demon Seed was a rash oversimplification or simply hit the nail on the head.

The marriage between child psychologist Susan Harris (Christie) and computer scientist husband, Alex (Weaver), becomes strained following the loss of their child to leukemia. Susan fears Alex has grown increasingly remote and unemotional, immersing himself in work she views as dehumanizing technology. Specifically: the creation of an organic super-computer named Proteus IV. Attempting a trial separation, Susan opts to remain alone in their spacious, fully-automated, fortress-secure home, run by an all-seeing computer named Alfred (a.k.a., Red Flag #1).
Marital discord: "Am I so cold?"
In his defense, it is clear that Alex is confronting his grief in the only way he knows how; channeling his energies towards Proteus IV discovering a cure for the kind of cancer that took the life of his child. And indeed it is Alex's disinterest in Proteus IV's financial and political potential that leaves him vulnerable to the profit-motivated demands of his subsidizers who wish Proteus IV to serve man's needs as they dictate. 

Alas, Proteus is a thinking computer with a moral code (of sorts), a man's voice (Robert Vaughn), and a particularly masculine tendency to think he's right in the face of blatant contradictions. When ordered to conduct research into an undersea mining operation that would disrupt the eco-system, Proteus high-mindedly declares, "I refuse to assist you in the rape of the earth!"

A point well-taken were it not for the nasty bit of business he/it feels perfectly vindicated in embarking on just moments later; the raping and impregnation of Susan.
Why? So that it, Proteus IV, who possesses all the wisdom and ignorance of all men, can feel the sun on its face and achieve the kind of immortality that only an offspring can guarantee.
Or something like that.

You see, the objective of Proteus' plan to procreate fluctuates from altruistic to despotic, depending on whom he's speaking to and what it is he is trying to reason/intimidate them into doing.

And therein lies the paradox of Proteus IV. Perhaps intentionally, due to Proteus' inconsistent shifts from sadistic tormentor to world savior, we are never sure if we are meant to side with Proteus' rather logical, humane arguments (the Icon Industries money men are portrayed as villanous fat cats) or if Proteus IV is just a machine gone mad. Perfectly valid to have that point left ambiguous, but the way the film is constructed, it feels less like food for thought and more like a lack of focus and sloppy storytelling. (Proteus has the soothing voice of a yoga instructor and shows trippy psychedelic lights when he speaks, yet employs the psychological games of a wife-beater. He physically abuses Susan, all the while telling her that she brought it all on herself by provoking him.)

Captive-women movies like The Collector (1965) and Tattoo (1981) always have a rough time justifying the amount of time they ask the audience to watch a woman brutilized for the sake of making a narrative point. For my taste, these films never successfully transcend their male-gaze oppressiveness, and after a couple of hours of rape and victimization played out for my horror entertainment, I'm usually left pretty numb to any point they're professing to make at the eleventh hour. Demon Seed holds out hope because of the intelligence of Julie Christie's performance and the validity of the horror film/thriller conflict as initially presented. But as much as I think this is one of Christie's best performances and well worth watching, I can't shake the feeling that I'm not in the sure hands of a director intentionally leading me down a path of provocative science vs. man debates. Donald Cammell fails to leave a distinctive mark and much of what occurs feels like characters manipulated by the demands of the genre.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
I'm not unduly fond of science fiction, but I do enjoy a good psychological thriller. Demon Seed does a lot of things wrong, but what it does particularly well is create a palpable sense of dread and tension from a situation that is the stuff of nightmares. Julie Christie's ability to convincingly take her character all the way from mild annoyance, defiance, rage, bewilderment, to abject terror is a thing to behold.

PERFORMANCES:
The absolute smartest thing the makers of Demon Seed did was to hire Julie Christie. Without question she is the single reason the film works at all, her assured performance never once succumbing to the usual "helpless victim" clich├ęs of the genre. It's a major asset that Christie is an actress of sensitivity capable of conveying a vulnerability that is at the same time very strong. Christie doesn't have a weak bone in her body. And it is precisely the inconceivability of her victimization at the hands of man or machine that saves the film from being unendurably lurid and morally offensive. I can't think of another actress more believable as a match for, and worthy adversary of, a diabolical super-brain. As Mia Farrow's performance transcended the horror genre and elevated Rosemary's Baby to the level of a modern classic, Julie Christie achieves as much here, but the film surrounding her standout performance isn't up to her work. She's so good that she only calls attention to how weak the script is and how poorly she is served by it.
Julie Christie gives one of the finest performances of her career in Demon Seed.
One wishes the screenplay were more worthy of her efforts.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
There's no denying that Demon Seed has an intriguing premise that thought-provokingly meshes the techno-paranoia of 2001: A Space Odyssey with the body-invasion terror of Rosemary's Baby. But unlike either of those films, Demon Seed suffers from the feeling that it is perhaps a couple of story conferences short of fully understanding what it wants to say about it all.  
The computer technicians of Icon Industries
Fans of director Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise will remember Garrit Graham (foreground) as glam-rock star Beef, and Harold Oblong (far right) as a member of the rock group, The Undeads.
Ira Levin & Roman Polanski mitigated a lot of potential criticism concerning Rosemary's Baby (misogyny, sensationalism, violence against women as entertainment) through the firm establishment of a consistent point of view (Rosemary's); a defined moral imperative (Rosemary's lapsed Catholicism reflects the morally ambiguous tone of the film as her love for her child supersedes the immorality of evil); and an understanding of the story's larger social implications (the religious and social patriarchal dominance over women and their bodies is presented as inconsistent with the film's sympathetic view of Rosemary).

Like Rosemary's Baby, Demon Seed has at its center, a vulnerable yet smart and resourceful woman. But instead of heightening audience identification/empathy through the presentation of events from her perspective (an easy enough thing to accomplish given that we've all felt helpless to the whims of machines at one time or another),  Demon Seed keeps us at a remove and puts us in the distasteful position of sharing the voyeuristic eyes of Proteus IV. 

I kept hoping for the film to reconcile in some meaningful way its initial scenes emphasizing Susan's belief in the importance of feelings and expressing emotions with all the test-of-wills/battle-of-wits sequences with Proteus IV. But the film ends without a viable justification, beyond genre entertainment, for asking us to endure the many protracted scenes of physical and psychological abuse perpetrated against Julie Christie for the bulk of the film.  
Nowhere is this more evident than in the mishandling of Demon Seed's final moments, which is staged for maximum dramatic payoff, but does so at the cost of shifting focus from Susan and placing the viewer in the shoes of the science-minded Alex (who registers about three seconds of concern for his wife before becoming near orgasmic at the thought of the scientific miracle in the basement). Yes, the audience is clamoring to see the baby at this point too, but a more skilled director might have taken precautions to prevent Susan from being shunted to the sidelines at the end of the film after she has been front and center throughout.
It's a gross miscalculation of the importance of audience identification, and one of the main reasons why, in the end, I think that Demon Seed is just not up to the task set forth by its premise.  
It succeeds as a more-thoughtful-than-usual sci-fi thriller, but trips itself up on failing to comprehend how uncomfortable (if not downright unpleasant) audiences are likely to find a film that asks one to bear witness to a woman's victimization all in service of an academic techno-geek debate.
The triumph of technology over emotion?
The film ends thoughtfully, if ambiguously, with Christie enigmatically observing her child from the sidelines

2 comments:

  1. Although I haven't seen the movie, I understand the great comments, in part because I know how great Julie Christie is and in part because I have read the Dean Koontz book. It certainly wasn't the best he's written (it was an early one) but it still makes me a bit nervous for the upcoming adaption of "Odd Thomas".
    Anyway, I also just wanted to say that your blog keeps giving me great suggestions for movies!

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  2. I've always wanted to read Dean Koontz's novel, but I understand the 1973 version of "Demon Seed" is even harder to find after his 1997 revision. The film is not perfect, but I'd recommend it to anyone just for Julie Christie alone. I should that YOU for alerting me to a new adaptation of one of his books. I'll keep an eye out. I very much appreciate your comments and kind words. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

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