The Man from Earth (2007)
This viewing was a suggestion from Nicolas Poilvert. Nicolas: Merci.
The Man from Earth is certainly no grand production. A cast of 8, sitting round an increasingly emptying cabin. Only a few interesting shots and angles (the image above has one of the more interesting framing and angle). Yet the concept is fodder for the inquisitive mind. I will not write much about the plot as I think the enjoyment partially owed to discovering it. I will say that this is a new way to tell a very old story, and perhaps state a few observations. I knew nearly nothing about this film going in, at Nicolas’ urging, except perhaps something about Jesus because he let that slipped once.
The first thing that struck me about Richard Schenkman’s The Man from Earth was how much it reminded me of 12 Angry Men, an excellent film by Sidney Lumet. The entire cast in one setting for the duration of the film, and the film consists entirely of dialogue. We observe the reactions of all characters as one man - John (instead of Henry Fonda’s Davis) - tries to logically combat the illogicality of the others. Stages of curiosity, anger, disbelief, fear, and despondence are explored by John, and exploited by Schenkman and writer Jerome Bixby. However, Schenkman’s direction is nowhere near the superb artistry of Lumet’s striking and claustrophic camerawork, which complemented a compelling narrative by Reginald Rose, and in concert, kept the audience spellbound in its intensity. And the acting was not impressive, good enough for basic television. As such, this production was closer to an extended episode of The Twilight Zone. Yet The Man from Earth has its merits.
As someone with a background in biology and a great adoration for history, I found the concept engaging. The dialogue was both expected and unexpected; the former because the questions raised by the inquisitors are the same ones that crossed my mind, the latter because many of the answers given by John did not. Though incomplete, I think the decision to have a circumstantial “tribunal panel” of an archeologist, a biologist, an anthropologist, an art historian and devout Christian, a historian, and a psychiatrist is clever — certainly appeased my liberal arts college educated mind. In my opinion, the panel would have benefited from a physicist’s pragmatic mind. I think time and space are such central elements to this story, and yet they lacked a proper contributing expert. Regrettably, these aspects were left largely unexplored. Along the same vein, an academic theologian would have added an intellectual aspect to religious doctrine, rather than having a devout Christian who happens to be an art historian. Yet, the choice to give her two descriptors, and to combine a medical doctor with a psychological specialty, suggests that the author already sensed an overcrowded quorum. Perhaps he was right. Perhaps figuring out “how” this could be true is beside the point. Like John said: “I don’t want to prove it.”
I couldn’t help but smile when Buddha & Jesus intersect. I was raised learning Buddhist lessons and “priorities”. I think one major difference between these two world religions is the definition of “fulfillment”. In Buddhist teaching as I understand it, each being comes from a place of “suffering” and each strive to journey away from that place. And so one questions “what is the cause of our suffering?” One answer lies in how the Buddhist monks live their lives. They relinquish all titles, all properties, all family and relationships, even their own name. Just like John at the end of each settlement. Buddhist monks leave behind everything that could tie them to their earthly existence and human emotions as they search for “enlightenment”. Is Christianity then a failed adaptation of Buddhism? And is the empowerment of ecclesiastical institution the cause? The Christian art historian was the weakest character I think. Do all of this serve to underline the author’s criticism on Christianity and its followers? Still, this is a motif, and at most, an undercurrent, but not the point.
Is the point, then, to offer the academics - and in extension, the audience - an existential crisis? No, I don’t think so, because that is too obvious. I think the more potent existential crisis is John’s. He is the loneliest man. Humans (of all historical genus and species) are social creatures. We are meant to live in communities, build relationships, seek companionship, and find our place and usefulness amongst our society. Perhaps that is why John is a frequent nomad. Perhaps that is part of his innate nature. It is one way for him to maintain some privacy and still integrate into a social structure. But humans are also, by nature, suspicious. It’s the other side of the coin. We identify with our community, but that only holds true if there is an “outsider” to guard against. And John is the eternal self-imposed outcast.