"Always a better idea-man than a director, Cohen has a knack for killing surefire premises, yet he leaves plenty to salvage from the twisted wreckage." - Scott Tobias, The Onion A. V. Club
A quarry worker discovers a puddle of bubbling white goo in the dirt and does what any normal person would under the circumstances; he eats some. From that humble beginning it isn't long before The Stuff becomes the desert sensation of the decade with a growing cult of Stuffies who refuse to eat anything else. Infuriated by their own dropping sales and hoping to "keep the world safe for ice cream", a conglomerate of Madison Avenue execs hire former-CIA spook and industrial saboteur Mo Rutherford to uncover the secret formula of The Stuff. Much to his horror, however, Mo discovers the secret ingredient in the desert is actually eeeevil! The Stuff is, in fact,... living sentient yogurt from the center of the Earth which controls the will of those who ingest it while parasitically devouring them from the inside. (You don't get to write sentences like that reviewing Children Of Men.) Along the way, Mo finds allies in Nicole (obligatory love interest), Jason (obligatory irritating child), Colonel Spears (obligatory crazed militant survivalist), and Chocolate Chip Charlie (um... whatever). But friends are few to be found as more and more people are succumbing to The Stuff. By the end of the movie, Mo and the gang are on the run in a world where the only rule is DON'T eat or be eaten.
Written, produced, and directed by Larry Cohen. Those are words which can bring a smile to just about any B-Movie lover's face. Now just in case you don't know, Larry Cohen is the man behind a string of low budget classics which include Black Caesar, It's Alive, Q - The Winged Serpent, and God Told Me To. And when I say classics, this time it's in the good sense. Every movie just mentioned is entertaining, thought provoking, and most likely to show up on these pages at some point. The Stuff probably doesn't quite warrant the title of a classic, but it's still has all of the usual Cohen touches that make his movies fun to watch.
First and foremost, Cohen gets good actors; ones whose names may not be big marquee draws, but who have talent beyond what the budget typically allows for. The under appreciated Garrett Morris chews up scenery as Chocolate Chip Charlie, the kung-fu snack maker ("My hands are registered as deadly weapons with the mid-New Jersey police force"). Danny Aiello has a brief cameo as the owner of a Stuff-addicted Doberman who meets a ghastly end once the dog realizes the refrigerator is empty. (How many actors of his stature get to play a death scene where their last words are "I'll buy more! I'll buy more!"?) Paul Sorvino is excellently over-the-top as the ultra-ultra-ultra right wing colonel with his own private army ("I will permit this colored man to speak. But speak one word of the Commie party, or one word in code, and I will blow his head off.") But it's Michael Moriarty who owns the movie with his characterization of Mo. From the instant he walks on screen, shaking hands with the manufacturers ("That's a sweaty palm. Ah, another sweaty palm! We just have a whole roomful of sweaty palms."), his performance is so bizarre and out-there that even Nicolas Cage probably sits and stares at it in gape mouthed wonder.
Still, all that talent would be wasted if the actors weren't given something interesting to work with, (just ask Halle Berry, she knows all to well) and The Stuff doesn't disappoint in the interesting department. The movie's combination of The Blob and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, depicted by surprisingly decent effects, should hold the interest of the sci-fi contingent, while the humor is entertaining enough for the casual viewer. (It's hard not to like a movie where an entire militia travels to New York by taxi, makes sure to give the drivers a 10% tip, and asks for receipts.) But for those who want a little more heady stuff, Cohen always puts some topical ideas into his movies. That's not to say he delves too deeply into his themes or browbeats you with his viewpoint, but it's there if you want to think about it later. As an auteur unwilling to to accept any major studio interference, Cohen can't help but infuse his movies with an undertone of triumphant individualism. His main protagonists in The Stuff include a possible lunatic spy, a racist separatist, a self-employed entrepreneur, and a kid who didn't fit in with his family even before they became zombies; yet it is these people who save the world, not the armed forces, Congress, or anyone else in charge. Cohen seems to place most of his hope for the future of our country in outsiders. And that's fine, God likes outsiders too. It's always good to remember that amongst all the fishermen and farmers, Jesus managed to sprinkle some zealots, a tax collector, and a possible schizophrenic harlot amongst his entourage.
But Cohen's main theme throughout The Stuff is obviously a broad swipe at the culture of consumerism in the United States. It's an easy target. These days, advertising has grown into an ever-present 130 billion dollar a year industry. A recent study estimates that the average person will see 576 or more commercials each week on television alone. 576! And that doesn’t even include the ads on the internet and radio or in print. Sure, that’s a lot of propaganda, but, so what? Everyone recognizes an ad when they see one, right? And just because they’re advertising Chia heads doesn’t mean we’re forced to go out and buy the things are we? No, but maybe force isn't what's being used on us.
Way back in 1933, a study was conducted called “Motion Pictures and the Social Attitudes of Children”. It used a simple testing procedure. A topic was chosen and then a movie dealing with that subject matter was shown to a group of children. Measurements taken before and after the kids had seen the film noted any change of attitude due to the contents of the movie. As you’ve probably guessed, changes in attitude, often very big changes, were common. For example, after seeing "All Quiet on the Western Front", the children became noticeably anti-war, no matter what scenario was offered them. The effects were also found to be cumulative. The more movies a child watched that held a certain viewpoint, the more likely the child was to agree with that particular view. Now that may not exactly represent a use of force, but it sure sounds like what the Encyclopedia of Sociology Volume 1 calls situationally adaptive belief change and thought reform. Our crazy friend Colonel Spears would likely call it brainwashing.
Luciano Benetton, founder and chairman of Benetton Clothing rather unwittingly confirmed that marketers engage in this sort of thing when he claimed that "the purpose of advertising is not to sell more. It’s to do with institutional publicity, whose aim is to communicate the company's values (...) We need to convey a single strong image, which can be shared anywhere in the world." I think it's fair to say that the majority of advertisers engage in this sort of "communication of values". In fairness, Benetton was commenting on his company's controversial commercials dealing with Aids and child labor laws, but are the values communicated by ads always so good intentioned? Not according to recent studies like the one from Arizona State University which researched the effects of "thin imagery" from magazines and television. They found that the more a woman was exposed to this type of advertisement, the greater the likelihood she would develop the symptoms of an eating disorder.
The communication of these kind of values is one reason why some Christians, like the Amish for example, try to literally separate themselves from mainstream culture. (“And be ye not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” Romans 12:2) After all, much like The Stuff, it's hard for consumerism's messages to get inside you if you don't partake in them to begin with. Catholicism, however, does not stand aloof from "the world." As Catholics we are called to live in, or at least beside, the culture while retaining the right to judge its products based on our own values. And help "convert" them if we can.
Archbishop Barry Hickey of Perth put it this way, "If the principles outlined in the Catechism are to evangelise or re-evangelise the Western world, Catholic thinkers must be at the intersection of religion and public life. It is not sufficient to withdraw from current moral and ethical debate and to work only at the level of personal faith, because culture is so pervasive and influential. The only answer, it seems to me, is to enter the philosophical and moral debates of our age, to penetrate them with the spirit of Christ." (Man, where was that quote when I was writing my reasons for even attempting this blog?) Uphill battle all the way? To be sure, but as Pope Benedict XVI recently said, "This is the only way you can help them form a Christian conscience capable of resisting the increasingly insidious and invasive enticements of consumerism". Like Mo and his gang of misfits, those of us on the "outside" (as Christians seem to be more and more these days) may just be the ones called on to save the day.
Before we Christians get too holier than thou over the mote in the advertisers' eyes, however, it might be a good idea to take a look at the beam in our own. Craig M. Gray writes in his book Consumerism-The Complete Book, “The rise of denominational, and now religious, plurality in modern societies has led to a situation in which we are increasingly encouraged to ‘shop for,’ and so to be consumers of, religion itself. The consumption of religion, furthermore, suggests a fundamental change in the meaning of religious belief such that it has increasingly less to do with conviction and more and more to do with personal preference. Many churches and religious organizations have responded to the changing meaning of belief by obligingly repackaging religion to make it conveniently and easily consumable. Such trends have contributed to the emergence of a kind of religious marketplace in which modern consumers are faced with a veritable smorgasbord of religious options”. Ouch.