Thursday, July 23, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: The Mind of Mr. Soames (1970)



The late Pauline Kael once dismissed the British sci-fi film The Mind of Mr. Soames (1970) with the descriptor "dreary," which seems, frankly, a bit uncharitable. 

I much prefer the reading of New York Magazine's critic, who noted (on November 2, 1970), that the Alan Cooke film represents "top grade" science fiction and features a "superb" performance by Terence Stamp. 

Indeed, this is very much how I view the film. 

But even New York's description is merely the tip of the ice-berg. The Mind of Mr. Soames is a thoughtful, intense, and deeply sad film about human nature.

To its credit, The Mind of Mr. Soames works simultaneously on two fronts regarding that theme.

In the first case, the film explores the character of a grown man -- Soames (Stamp) -- who has been asleep in a coma his whole life, and has therefore never known love, or any social connection at all, for that matter. He awakens as a child in a man's body, and is "educated" by two very different parents: a cruel, stern doctor, and a permissive, loving, but often absent one.

Secondly, The Mind of Mr. Soames revolves around the social value (or lack of said value..) of the press: 20th century television, newspapers and other mass-communications.  Upon Soames' awakening from his coma, a camera crew follows him everywhere, and the masses get to vicariously experience his every success, his every failure. His permission is never sought. 


In this case, we must wonder if those of us raised in "civilization" actually possess the quality of empathy, or, rather, simply like to watch the suffering of others as our entertainment.

So poor Mr. Soames can't be whole without the tutelage of society, nor can be accepted in a cruel, fast-moving, technological world of little surprisingly little empathy.  He is, simply, damned twice.

 The Mind of Mr. Soames may "drag in spots" and be "occasionally self-conscious," like the authors of Twenty All-Time Great Science Fiction Films note (Arlington House; 1982), but I prefer to see this work of art in another way.   

It's a genre classic from a more patient, more cerebral age.



At England's Midland Research Institute, Dr. Maitland  (Nigel Davenport) and a brilliant surgeon, Dr. Bergen (Robert Vaughn) embark upon a unique experiment. John Soames (Terence Stamp) has been in a coma since birth, and never once opened his eyes. 

Now, a new surgical technique allows Bergen to awaken the thirty-five year old man for the first time. 

The surgery is an incredible success, and before the eyes of a curious TV camera crew, Soames enters the world of the conscious.. 

Maitland enrolls the grown “baby” into a rigorous instructional program, attempting to teach him all the knowledge and important lessons of life in a mere six weeks.  

Soames soon stops thriving, however, burdened by the cold, loveless life demanded by Maitland's harsh regimen. 

Bergen attempts to teach Soames how to have fun -- how to play -- but the lesson goes awry when John escapes from custody and into the world at large, a world he is ill-prepared to understand.

There, outside the hospital, Soames is gazed upon with fear and disdain.  He realizes, even in his arrested emotional state, that he doesn't belong there.


The Mind of Mr. Soames is a thoughtful, lugubrious film that wonders about what it means to be human, and in particular, what happens to one of us who has never been nurtured, never known the love of parents, or family of any type. 

In the film, a cold and unemotional man, Dr. Maitland (Davenport) takes professional responsibility for an adult coma patient who has just awakened for the first time in his life.  But Maitland is not a fit parent. He is not able to contextualize himself as one, and provide the patient, John Soames, with the one thing he requires most: affection

Instead, Maitland nearly “teaches Mr. Soames to death” according to a more kindly doctor, Bergen.
        
Because Mr. Soames is trapped in a loveless, sterile, and rigid life, the film's director Alan Cooke often composes shots of the naïf behind bars or other barriers, providing a visual sense of his entrapment. He is like a fish in a bowl, an oddity or curiosity.  The visual barriers establish something else too.


Soames is always separated from others.  He is always alone. At a distance. He can never belong.

Early in the film, for instance, there’s a shot of Soames' face braced between the slats of a bed’s guard rail. 



A near-identical shot repeats near the climax, when Soames is seen posed behind the guard-rails of a busy road-way. These shots and angles indicate that John is eternally isolated from other people because of his odd life, because he has been raised, essentially, in a petri dish.

Maitland believes that knowledge and practice are enough to make a social outcast a functioning part of society. What Soames proves, however, is that life is to be lived. You can't make up with lessons in six weeks the experience of having a family, the experience of growing up.  Or, perhaps most importantly, the experience of being loved.

And yet we must wonder about those who have been raised within society too, as the film points out. The media views Soames as fodder for entertainment, or worse, a freak show. The camera crew proves a vexing, ubiquitous presence throughout his life. When Soames first opens his eyes for the first time, for example, the video camera is present, poking into his face and terrifying him. 

His fifteen minutes of fame start, essentially, at birth...


Later, when Dr. Bergen attempts to bring John back from the outside world, the camera’s blinding lights suddenly activate at just the moment he is about to surrender, and the shock causes John to experience a dangerous fit which wounds Bergen.  The inference is clear: the camera is a harmful influence, and so is, by extension, the media (or press) itself.

The Mind of Mr. Soames seems to suggest that John is cursed.  He lives a loveless life under the care of not a mother or father, but of the camera, as fodder for the masses. The pop culture is his parent, and it is a harsh, fickle care-giver. It will love him only so long as he is entertaining, or until something else -- something fresh -- comes along.


In some very strange way, The Mind of Mr. Soames also follows very closely the structural conceit of Trog (1970), a science fiction film about the discovery of the missing link in England, and its failure to be assimilated into man’s modern world by a scientist (Joan Crawford).  

There, Trog is found in a cave, trained to be docile, and then, once freed, considered a dangerous threat to society at large. Mr. Soames’ post-coma life in this film follows the same rough outline.  He awakes, is taught to be a civilized man by Maitland, escapes from custody, and is likewise judged a menace to society.  In this case, however, the "outsider" is clearly one of us; clearly a man.  But society can find nonetheless find no place for him.

In Trog, the missing link is killed, perhaps because of his non-human nature, whereas The Mind of Mr. Soames ends ambiguously with Soames back in custody, trying -- through a clasp of the hands-- to reach out emotionally to anyone willing to connect with him.  He has a long journey ahead of him, we are led to believe.  

And if any film ever deserved a sequel, it’s this one. It would be an incredible thing to revisit Mr. Soames after he has spent thirty years trying to assimilate, trying to conform to a society that so clearly and abundantly  derides him and his “alien” nature.
            
The Mind of Mr. Soames seems dated just a bit in 2015 because no sane or rational person -- and certainly not a psychologist -- would today undertake the education and socialization of John Soames in such a fashion as is depicted in the film. Maitland is evidently and patently a priggish bastard.  He refers to Soames like an animal specimen, saying to guards things like “You can put him back now.”

Certainly someone in authority would stop Maitland and consider that the man-child needs to be adopted by a mother or father, someone with a clear and vested interest in him as a person and not just as an experiment. 

All the problems with John arise from Maitland’s approach; from his inability to contextualize him as an individual and not a test-case for his rapid educational program.  In some way, The Mind of Mr. Soames is a Frankenstein or "Bad Father" movie, with Maitland adopting the role of Victor.

Furthermore, Soames is never adequately socialized in the film, and never really connects to anybody, because Maitland expressively forbids it. This approach seems highly unrealistic today, since we understand much more about what children need to mature in a healthy fashion.

Terence Stamp stars as John Soames and delivers a brave, unforgettable performance as an infant and child in a man’s body.  We watch him open his eyes for the first time, take his first steps, eat his first meal, and see his first girl.  There’s something haunting and lonely in Stamp’s eyes, and some audiences may be reminded of Charly (1969), a film which saw another innocent, played by Cliff Robertson, attempting to interface with normal adult society.  


The problem is, of course, that normal society can be so damned shitty at times. Here, a twitchy girl on a train accuses John of attacking her in her compartment, when he does no such thing.  He is just trying to be nice to her, in his own uninformed, innocent way. But society is about conformity, and conforming to rules. John, who is not trained and doesn't live by those rules, is considered a menace. He doesn't understand courtesy.  He doesn't understand "personal" space or privacy.  He just understands that he wants to be close...to someone.

In part, the film suggests, Soames will never be normal or integrated in society simply because society simply won’t have him. He is more interesting as headline fodder (“can this baby kill?” reads one newspaper headline) or as television subject than as a human being.  

So if Maitland has failed to provide Soames an adequate mother, society has failed too to provide a nurturing community around him in which he is free to fail, and free to learn.

Robert Vaughn delivers the finest performance of his career here as the kindly Dr. Bergen.  Because he shows John so much kindness (and buys him Major Matt Mason toys!), one expects more from him than of the cold fish, Maitland, and is consequently more disappointed with him for not doing better by John. 

I suspect a lot of mothers suffer from this syndrome.  Almost a priori we expect them to demonstrate patience and love and support for their young, so when they come up short, they are easily blamed or tagged as failures. 

Traditionally, however, a father who does anything “extra” for his children tends to be lauded by society, because expectations for his investiture of time and energy tend to be much lower.  Once more, then, the film has something to say about parenting, and about how society sees parents. Bergen is a better man than Maitland, but we expect him to do even better because he knows and understands what it means to have a family.

The Mind of Mr. Soames is a very emotional film, but it oddly enough it is not particularly sentimental one.  There’s much restraint in its cerebral approach, and so the film’s issues of nature vs. nurture come naturally to the forefront. 

Upon countenancing the case study of John Soames, one can only deduce that a little more nurture, a little more love, would have gone a long way towards making this "baby" a whole person, and making his life worthwhile.   

So many science fiction movies concern identity, and the things that make us who we are.  The Mind of Mr. Soames suggests, likewise, that if socialization is absent from a child's upbringing, no amount of "learning" can make up for the deficit.

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