December 9, 2014
Inside each hand, a miracle. Starman (1984) and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013) both envision the ineffable, of presences that transcend our earthly domain. But both also celebrate the joys allowed to those bound in flesh, of Dutch apple pie and a frolic in the woods. Odd things happen when movies are viewed in quick succession. As I watched Starman and Kaguya, their stories seemed to be the same story. Both features follow an alien lifeform adapting to Earth. In Starman it’s a crash-landed alien anthropologist trekking back to his rendezvous point, while in Kaguya it’s a princess who was discovered inside of a bamboo shoot, and presumed to be a gift of the heavens. There are comic fish-out-of-water segments in adapting to their new environments, as well as doomed romances that spark and snuff out due to the whole long-distance relationship problem (it’s tough when you’re in different galaxies). But they are bittersweet films, ones that make the transcendent visible, only for it to disappear in the end.
Starman (1984) was a cursed property at Columbia Pictures. It was the project the studio chose to make instead of E.T. They were developing both, but the head of the studio at the time, Frank Price, prioritized Starman. Spielberg moved E.T. to Universal, where it became the highest grossing film of all time up until that point. Trying to escape the stink of lost money, Columbia shelved Starman for a year, until it was resurrected by John Carpenter, who had just directed the Stephen King killer car adaptation Christine (1983) for Columbia. It was a change of pace for Carpenter, who had not strayed too far from his horror wheelhouse. He was a student of film history though, and admired how the studio directors could have a go at every possible genre, often in the same year. On Starman, Carpenter tried to make his Capra movie. He told New York Magazine that:
Starman meets this widow, played by Karen Allen, and falls in love. But he’s an alien, and she doesn’t know how to react. It’s like Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night. I wanted to create that same kind of romantic tension.
Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen) is speechless to discover her dead husband alive in her living room. The “Starman” had crash landed in the field outside her house, and taken on human form by melding itself with her husband’s DNA.When she recovers from the shock, she realizes that this is an impostor. The eyes are glassy and blank, his movements ungainly and staccato, like a baby bird. His English vocabulary was gleaned from the album included in the Voyager satellite, their communication reliant upon body language and intuition. Jenny, still in mourning, is hypnotized by this specter, and reluctantly helps him on his trip from Wisconsin to Arizona — where he will rendezvous with his mother ship and return home. Despite the sci-fi trappings, the bulk of the film is a road trip romantic comedy in the It Happened One Night mold. They are a duo thrown together by circumstance who flirt their way across the U.S., with Jenny initiating him into United States culture. He learns to kiss from studying the late show on TV of From Here to Eternity. Shot on location in Monument Valley and the Meteor Crater in Arizona, along with stops in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, it’s Carpenter’s most American movie. And he doesn’t move the camera too much, keeping things in medium shot and letting the landscapes and actors do the work. And Jeff Bridges, who was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, is entrancing. He’s an actor that allows you to see him think – which is essential for the part of a quickly adaptive alien being. He’s constantly computing, weighing and evaluating, conveyed in his bird-like head bobs and the gentle querying in his gaze. Karen Allen is quite moving as his straight woman, her arc from exasperation to indulgence to affection demonstrated in her wide-set searching eyes. For a feel-good romance, Starman is awfully downbeat. The government is an exploitative war machine chasing Starman to use him as a lab rat, while the romantic union is an impossibility. They live on separate planes, the gorgeous heartbreaker of an ending closing in on Allen’s face, expressing a terrible kind of wonder and loss.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, the latest and probably final film from anime master Isao Takahata, is another tale of a fantastic visitor who embeds themselves in human concerns. It is based on a tenth century Japanese folktale, one of the oldest narratives in the culture. It concerns a lowly bamboo cutter who finds an infant the size of his thumb inside of a glowing stalk – named Kaguya. He brings her home and raises her as his own. She grows at an exponential rate, so the local children nickname her “Little Bamboo”. The bamboo cutter is convinced the gods desire the child to become a princess, and feel confirmed in that fact when he is gifted with a treasure. He tears his family away from their country home and tries to raise her as a noble, with plucked eyebrows and deference to her elders. Instead, Kaguya would rather be chasing kittens and tending to her garden. She pines for home and her childhood love Sutemaru, until one day she is forced to return to her real home, a place not of earth or of heaven.
The animation is drawn in with colored pencil and watercolor, a vibrantly beautiful aesthetic. The lines are loose and flowing, and the delicate, minimalist aesthetic seemingly leaves landscapes half formed, as if developing along with Kaguya. When she dreams of escape from her gilded city cage, the form deteriorates into rough sketches. As she imagines herself running away, bull-headed through the city streets and back to the country, her body is formed by a few strokes, the forest rendered in thick lines of charcoal, the world seemingly convulsing around her. It’s a tour de force sequence, and one that shows Kaguya’s control. Starman is a victim of circumstance, but Kaguya can shape the environments in which she lives. When required to take a husband, she puts them off with impossible tasks, guaranteeing herself a preferred life as a spinster, tending her gardens and living inside her head.
Kaguya’s departure to her home world is remarkably similar to that of Starman. There is an approaching cloud that resolves into an interstellar conveyance, one which elicits awe and dread. This is the final departure, the end of transcendent possibilities. In both we are granted the POV of the humans who are left behind, left with our conflicted emotions and vulnerable bodies. Starman is an essentially optimistic film, Jenny left with a hopeful gaze into the future. The ones Kaguya leaves behind are bereft, left with nothing but memories of their miraculous child, now gone forever. What in Starman is a possibility, in Kaguya is a rebuke.