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Friday, September 13, 2019

Beyond the Canon: Invisible Adversaries + Invasion of the Body Snatchers

It is no secret that the cinema canon has historically skewed toward lionizing the white, male auteur. Beyond the Canon is a monthly series that seeks to question that history and broaden horizons by pairing one much-loved, highly regarded, canonized classic with a thematically or stylistically-related—and equally brilliant—work by a filmmaker traditionally excluded from that discussion. This month’s double feature pairs Valie Export’s Invisible Adversaries (1977) with Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978).

By Courtney Duckworth

Women are always doppelgängers. Critic John Berger wrote that a woman is “almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself” through a prickly self-surveillance. Such double vision imbues the oeuvre of Austrian artist-agitator Valie Export—an alias she adopted to shed the encumbering surnames of father and ex-husband—who gummed up masculine voyeurism with her puckish, impertinent performances of the 1960s and ’70s. Export’s energetic experiments infuse Invisible Adversaries (1977), her debut feature, a brisk bricolage of improvised dialogue, sight gags, (re)staged performances, grainy documentary footage, and reenactments of her studio practice that together, she said, “put alternative artistic media into a discourse with conventional film.”

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Threading through this mĂ©lange is a cheapie science-fiction plot—one that pre-echoes Philip Kaufman’s Hollywood horror Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). Both movies open on a woman who suspects those around her are being supplanted by obscure, hostile forces, perhaps aliens; and both struggle to verify their subjective experiences. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Elizabeth (Brooke Adams) observes her slacker live-in boyfriend become a slick, suited automaton overnight. When she brings her concerns to Matthew (Donald Sutherland), a coworker at the health department with whom she shares an unsubtle flirtation, he seeks help from a series of “objective” authorities: policemen, a psychoanalyst (a stony, impassable Leonard Nimoy), the mayor of San Francisco, where they live. In the meantime, Elizabeth becomes enervated, drained of narrative influence, drugged into obedient sleep. Even when she tries to connect with another woman who also believes her lover has “changed,” she is dragged away and urged to be sensible. She can’t forge a connection with other women. Because it is sometimes unclear when the people around her become “pods”—the name for their alien doubles—it is ambiguous whether they treat her concerns derisively because they are part of the spreading, invasive conspiracy or because she is being treated as a hysterical female, incapable of accurate perceptions.

Invisible Adversaries (1977)
In Invisible Adversaries, Anna (Susanne Widl) tells her inamorato (Peter Weibel, Export’s real-life ex-lover, who also co-wrote the film) of her fears about the “Hyksos”—the name for their alien doubles—but she doesn’t look to him to validate her subjective perceptions. Instead, she interrogates the change she sees in herself and the world around her through artmaking, philosophical and sociopolitical inquiries, and conversations with other women, including the pioneering artist Helke Sander, who appears in a recording to answer the question, When is a human being a woman?” Anna wonders whether the Hyksos exist in reality or are the result of a psychic projection. Anna’s mental state is represented through disjunctive montage and motifs of doubling: she encounters a prone cardboard cutout of herself.

Both movies depict dissolving relationships and the way private issues spiral out in the public sphere. Elizabeth gets mad at her pre-Pod boyfriend for not picking up his dirty clothes off the floor, while Anna complains to Peter that while he spouts strident revolutionary ideals, he doesn’t even know how to make eggs and requires her to whip up his meals. In one escalating montage, the latter fight between Anna and Peter is intercut with the disputes between other couples, including her family and friends, before being spliced with documentary footage of explosions and war-torn cities, suggesting the permeability between public and private. This permeability was especially load-bearing in a decade when the public issue of open war was brought increasingly into private, conspiratorial rooms.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
In many ways, Invasion has resonances of Watergate and the disillusionment immediately following the Vietnam War, which had ended three years before the film’s release. In Invisible Adversaries, the conviction that the government is not to be trusted—and that anyone could harbor secret enmity—derives from the haunting remnants of Nazi influence pervading Austrian public life. Anna overhears references to names like Henriette von Schirach (sympathetic ex-wife of the head of the Hitler Youth) and Hans-Ulrich Rudel (a neo-Nazi colonel occupying government positions in West Germany), and she and Peter see jackbooted riot police throng the streets.

Pods and Hyskos are a threat from within—from within the domestic sphere, within women themselves, and within countries that allow remnants of fascism to flourish. Both films thus create a strong sense of paranoia and utilize the motifs of eyes and gazes. For instance, in Invasion, Matthew is first introduced through a peephole. The threat seems to spread everywhere. Watching both films, you might wonder how long these threats have been going on. Rewatching Invasion, notice that the garbage truck that carts off undesirables is present in one of the first shots; similarly, the scream the Pods emit when witnessing those unlike them is buried in the sound mix from the beginning. Invisible Adversaries has similarly harsh, grating sounds and a thrumming electronic score. Both build their paranoia from a whisper to a buzz to a full-on scream, making us wonder if these abuses of power are new—or if we are just now noticing them.

Join us for Beyond the Canon on Sat, Sep 14 at 2pm.

Courtney Duckworth is a writer and editor based in New York.

Upcoming Beyond the Canon screening:

Sat, Oct 13 at 2pm
Dir. Claudia Weill
1978, 86min, 35mm
Dir. John Cassavetes
1970, 131min

Images of Invisible Adversaries courtesy of Women Make Movies and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) courtesy of Photofest.
© 2019 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.


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