by JIM KNIPFEL
February 16, 2020
Iíve mentioned this before, but as much as I fucking hate NPR, the Smugger Than Thou radio network has been good to me over the past few decades.
††††††††††† Well, this past November, a producer at an NPR affiliate in Connecticut came across a dumb story I wrote about three years ago for The Dumb Kids site, and went to some great lengths to get in touch. The piece was an overlong account of the sometimes tangled legacy of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, from Jack Finneyís 1955 novel, through Don Siegelís 1956 film, through all the official and unofficial remakes that followed. My supposed expertise on the subject apparently made me the perfect guest for an upcoming show this producer had in mind.
††††††††††† Okay, it was a daily hour-long show. Each episode focused on a seemingly banal topic, like toast or spoons. Over four fifteen-minute segments, through interviewing four carefully selected guests, each with a different perspective on the matter at hand, the host hoped to come to a much deeper, even profound understanding of something we take for granted.
††††††††††† The topic of the show Iíd been tapped for was pods. Suddenly it seemed pods of one form or another were everywhere, from coffee and laundry pods to pod hotels to iPods, so what did it all mean? I would be the fourth and last guest, there to talk about, of course, pod people.
††††††††††† That was fine by me. Lord knows Iíd been obsessed with the ideas at play in the book and the film adaptations since I was a kid. I could pontificate at length about how and why the story has been interpreted the ways it has over the past sixty-five years, while dropping in a few interesting little-known anecdotes. I may not know much about much, but I know my Body Snatchers.
††††††††††† The show was set to air live two weeks after the producer, Saul, got in touch, and he promised to give me a call a few days beforehand for the standard pre-interview, during which he could confirm that I was coherent, could speak in clear sentences, and actually knew a bit about what Iíd written. Heíd also let me know what kind of questions I could expect over the course of that fifteen minutes so I wouldnít be dumbstruck by an unexpected curveball from the host.
††††††††††† Relieved that I wasnít being asked to say anything at all about blindness for once, I went back and re-read that dumb story Iíd written to refresh my memory. I also re-read Finneyís novel for the first time in decades. Then I began jotting down some notes I thought might come in handy. The term ďpod people,Ē for instance, never appeared in Finneyís novel, nor in Don Siegelís film. It was instead merely something, a kind of shorthand coined by reviewers and fans over the years, but a phrase that quickly infiltrated the public consciousness. We all knew what a pod person was, just as we all know what C.H.U.D. stands for.
††††††††††† Iím not going to waste everyoneís time here by pausing to lay out the plot of the book and film, trusting you know already. If youíre such an ignoramus you donít know what Iím talking about, go watch the fucking movie then come back to this.
††††††††††† When Finney published his novel in 1955, the idea of invading aliens who could pass for not just human, but humans we knew personally, was hardly a new one. In 1951 Robert Heinlein published his novel The Puppet Masters. Two years later William Cameron Menziesí film Invaders From Mars was released. And the same year the novel came out, the BBC aired Quatermass 2, a miniseries based on a script by the great Nigel Kneale. All dealt with the same basic storyline, but two things made Finneyís novel stand out. First, being a workaday pulp writer, Finney wrote mysteries as well as science fiction, and he combined the two forms here. When it came to adapting it for the screen a year later, Siegel took that idea and ran with it, making a movie that was essentially a film noir about an innocent man who gets drawn into a web of paranoia and alienation as per the standard formula, but with a few science fiction elements at its heart. And second, along those same lines, the book and film remain timely and relevant because theyíre so believable. There are no spaceships here, no aliens with tentacles, just normal people who may or may not be what they appear to be, and an overwhelming atmosphere of menace and foreboding.
††††††††††† While the film is usually held up as a perfect example of Cold War paranoia reflecting the American fear at the time of insidious communist infiltration, that was a pretty simple-minded and short-sighted interpretation. At the same time in mid-century America, it was also read as a commentary on creeping tyranny in the wake of the McCarthy Era, the increasing conformity and suburbanization of the Eisenhower years, or as a broader warning about dehumanization in an increasingly mechanized world.
††††††††††† Finney denied all these interpretations, insisting he was just trying to write an exciting story, thatís all. But speaking from personal experience, you should never pay the slightest attention to anything an author says about his own works. What matters in the end is how individual readers interpret them. It is telling, though, that early in the book, our protagonist and narrator contemplates his telephone. He pines for the day when you could have a personal relationship with the local switchboard operator. Rotary dials may save you a few seconds when you are making a call, but they did away with that human connection. At the end of the throwaway paragraph, he concludes that technological advances are accompanied by a loss of humanity. Push that idea ahead into a world dominated by smartphones, and there you go, right? All these dead-eyed drones shambling through the world experiencing life through screens, with no direct connection with other flesh and blood people.
††††††††††† But thatís just me, and a twenty-first century perspective. The question of what constitutes ďhuman,Ē and what makes humans so special, is as old as philosophy and is continuously evolving. With each subsequent generation of viewers, the interpretations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers changed. At heart, a pod person came to be understood as someone who could pass for humanósomeone who looked and talked like us, but was missing something fundamental, some little sparkóemotion, compassion, opinion, humor, or personality. A pod person could also be seen as a true believer, a religious or political zealot, a cult member or the like, someone so completely devoted to an idea or a group they come to see anyone who isnít a fellow traveler as the enemy. So over the years the novel and filmís pod people could be read as communists or fascists, yes, or in later years as suburbanites, employees of huge corporations, QAnon followers, Trump supporters, anti-vax people, climate change deniers or, on the flip side, hippies, Social Justice Warriors, environmental extremists, or Democrats. Or NPR commentators. It all depends on whoís doing the interpreting.
††††††††††† Then of course looking ahead we have the imminent role A.I. may play in these interpretations, as we fast approach a world in which the question of who is or isnít human isnít a sociopolitical one, but a real and tangible one.
††††††††††† I had plenty of other little notes jotted down, other brilliant insights and some interesting and telling stories about the problems Siegel ran into while making the film, but Iíll stop there. I had far more than fifteen minutes worth of discussion points at my fingertips.
††††††††††† As promised, a few days before the scheduled broadcast, Saul the producer gave me a call. I was drunk at the time, but figured I could still carry myself through a silly pre-interview. Instead of a pre-interview, however, he was calling to say the show had been pushed back a month, given so many other episodes had been pre-empted by the impeachment hearings. Most of the episodes were evergreen, could run whenever, so they wanted to get those out of the way first.
††††††††††† I could understand that. I set my notes aside and thought about other things for awhile. Whenever I was told the show was going to happen, Iíd pull the notes back out, scan through them a couple of times and Iíd be good to go.
††††††††††† Three weeks later in mid-December Saul called again, and the show was set for that Thursday. Again I was drunk when he called, but the pre-interview was a breeze. He wanted to concentrate on the film, not the book, and that was fine. The questions were open and basic enough I was able to bring up all those points I thought were most interesting. Things apparently went okay, because he didnít abruptly change his mind about including me in the lineup. The phone rang that Thursday about one-forty in the afternoon.
††††††††††† As is usually the case with these things, I sat there on the line for a few minutes awaiting my introduction. As I waited, I listened to the show as it was happening.
††††††††††† The guest at that moment was an Asian philosophy major at some East Coast college who was a big fan of what had been termed ďpod-napping,Ē that is, taking brief naps in a specially designed high-tech chair that was enclosed in some kind of opaque plastic bubble. Apparently his school had installed a couple of these chairs in the library.
††††††††††† The problem I could sense straight off was not only that this philosophy student had nothing of interest to say, he said . . . it . . . very . . . slowly.
††††††††††† Host: So describe these chairs to me. How do they work?
††††††††††† Guest: Well . . . you sit down . . . and set . . . the . . . timer . . . for . . . however long . . . you . . . want . . . to . . . nap . . . Then you . . . close . . . the . . . pod . . .
††††††††††† My segment was scheduled to run from one-forty-five to the end of the show at two. But as I sat there listening to this fool, I could sense my Time slot shrinking as this charter member of The Slow Talkers of America hobbled his way to making any kind of point. Then the host went back to an earlier guest, a Russian professor of design, to ask her about the various designs of sleeping pills, particularly capsules.
††††††††††† As my time continued to dwindle away, I at least thought of what could be a snappy opener, namely that in the film, we are transformed into pod people as we sleep. Okay, yeah, that was cool, I thought.
††††††††††† Host: Do you think you prefer to sleep in that opaque pod because thereís a stigma about sleeping in public, and you donít want to be seen?
††††††††††† Guest: Yeah . . . I . . . suppose so . . .
††††††††††† Finally he was gone. I had seven minutes left to make all my brilliant and sparkling observations. But before introducing me, the host decided to play a long clip from Philip Kaufmanís (admittedly excellent) 1978 remake of Siegelís film, in which the connection between sleep and podification was made evident. So much for my opening salvo.
††††††††††† By the time the host introduced me, I had five minutes left. Okay, so Iíd consolidate and fit in what I could.
††††††††††† Host: For those who havenít seen it, why donít you describe what the movieís about?
††††††††††† There was a long and sharp shriek inside my head. A fucking plot synopsis? Fuck you! I have no time for such nonsense!
††††††††††† But I did what I could. Then, before I could dive headlong into the reasons why the film remains relevant, the host started talking about that 1978 version. Then he asked me about how psychotropic drugs might work into a modern interpretation.
††††††††††† Psychotropic drugs? I was never told thereíd be anything about psychotropic drugs! Or the 1978 version! What the hell?
††††††††††† I began to stammer and blurt out some incoherent gibberish from the talking points Iíd prepared, but before I could get very far, my time was up. As he brought the supposed interview to an abrupt end, the host made fun of me on the air for thinking way too much about a silly science fiction movie.
††††††††††† I guess I couldnít very well argue with him on that one. I hung up the phone knowing Iíd blown it again. But blow it or not, I was still better than that pod napping fucker.
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