Director: Richard Schenkman
Writers: Jerome Bexby
Starring: David Lee Smith, Tony Todd, John Billingsley, Ellen Crawford
“I’m going home to watch Star Trek for a dose of sanity.”
The Man From Earth is a textbook lesson in how a unique idea and an engrossing script is all you really need to make an interesting film. Then again without a big budget, big name stars, or any gratuitous skin to inspire the evenings big wank, no bugger is going to watch your interesting film anyway so whats the point?
The Man From Earth’s painfully small budget tells straight from the first shot, the image quality closely resembling a family friendly American TV drama from the 1990s. Soft lighting, bright warm colours, and the no frills editing are hardly the best way to build atmosphere. Add to this the limited locations which are restricted to an internal and external shot of one single room and we are not exactly lookign at striking visuals which will draw the average punter in. The well meaning TV career actors, who seem frustratingly familiar but at the same time difficult to place, are full of heart and experience but noticeably lack in subtlety or a sense of realism. What we are essentially looking at here is a bunch of eager actors performing in a mates country house as a student friend films everything.
Yet 10 minutes into the film all of these technical limitations disappear into insignificance as the central concept unfolds and pulls your sense of disbelief straight into the drama through the basic mechanic of dialogue.
The set up is incredibly straight forward: just a simple guy telling a story to a group of friends, spilling his heart out and revealing something about himself which at first appears as incredible as it is preposterous. But somewhere along the line the characters listening to this impossible tale start to wonder, gradually being won over by his sincerity and inability to falter under the weight of heavy scrutiny – and so does the audience.
A gripping hour and half of relentless dialogue unfolds as a conflicting group of characters willingly pit their wide range of personalities and philosophies against what they assume to be an intellectual game. As they delve deeper into the discussion the controversial ideas begin to chip away at each of their beliefs and academic assumptions. It’s as simple as that.
It could be argued that the idea occasionally proves too ambitious: the acting is at times awkwardly melodramatic, the reactions of characters unrealistic for the sake of drama, and the more human dialogue is occasionally unconvincingly delivered, but at no point do the flaws drop the listener out from the grip of the central orator.
What is truly remarkable about The Man from Earth and its simple adherence to good story telling is how it subverts all of our assumptions as to how modern cinema should be. And that is not just in respect to the high production blockbusters but also the overly stylised and pretentiousness of the more cerebral independent films. To some degree we have become a needy and demanding audience addicted to striking aesthetics and gimmicky punch, blinkered to the core elements which actually make a visual story worth watching.
Hopefully films like the Man from Earth can touch enough people to inspire a new approach in some dark corner of the film industry – a more earnest and modest approach, devoted to story telling and unconcerned with how cool it comes across. Perhaps this wouldn’t be a true enough devotion to the ideals and techniques built up over generations within the world of cinema. Perhaps it wouldn’t fully exploit the possibilities posed by advanced photography and computers. Probably hardly anybody would bother watching such films, but for fucks sake it would be good for those of us who would.