Miles Monroe: Why? Do you believe in god?
Luna Schlosser: Well, I believe that there’s somebody out there who watches over us.
Miles Monroe: Unfortunately, it’s the government.
Can you imagine, you, a health food eater, indeed a health food store owner, waking up 200 years later after you’ve been cryogenically frozen, to a future run by a dictator, where complacent citizens live in a police state, consume junk food as their healthy option, and no one remembers who Norman Mailer was?
Oh, you can imagine that.
Well then, can you imagine, you, a struggling clarinet player whose also an owner of a health food store because no one really listens to New Orleans jazz anymore and you’re certainly not going to make a living playing it, waking up after you’ve been cryogenically frozen, 200 years later, to a future where people click through 1200 TV channels, the last channel showing their autocratic leader bidding them goodnight from a flat screen television mounted on a wall, where people are so comfortable with fascism (or maybe don’t actually know what it means anymore) that they wear swastika tee shirts to dinner parties, and no one remembers who Chiang Kai-shek was?
Uh huh. Maybe you can imagine that too.
OK, then, Richard Nixon. Imagine Nixon because you can; you’re not an idiot. You’ve seen documentaries and read history books. You can see his face, his smile, his big teeth, his “I am not a crook” speech, and if you’re really into him, his fun Florida dates with his weird best friend Bebe Rebozo and golfing with Jackie Gleason. Maybe you just remember Nixon as one of the bank robber’s masks in Point Break. Anyway, you remember him, even if we were too young or not born yet. Oliver Stone made a movie about him a long time ago with Anthony Hopkins (you know, Hannibal Lecter) and your mom or grandmother will talk your ear off about Watergate if you bring it up. You remember him because he was a bad president. It’s not like we’d ever have a leader who was worse, so awful that in the future, historians, unsure if he was indeed President of the United States, must theorize about who he was because, “he did something horrendous so that all records, everything, was wiped out about him. There is nothing in history books. There are no pictures on stamps or money.”
Hmm … no comment. (OK, one comment. At least Nixon created the EPA. Imagine a future without the EPA? That’s absurd!)
Of course, I’m talking about Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973), a picture that foresaw the downfall of Nixon (with some help, Watergate was a pretty good indicator), the value of kitsch in art circles (not a bad thing necessarily) through the screaming excitement over a Keane painting presented at a posh party (really, it’s a “Cugat!” extra bonus kitsch points) and addictive orbs we hold in our hands and rub to get high (maybe that’s just our phone). Watching it now, laughing at Allen slipping on a giant banana peel and contending with a gargantuan piece of celery while spying an enormous chicken in the distance (“That’s a big chicken” – why is this perfectly normal, perfectly insane observation funny?), I felt a creeping sense of dread. As funny and as entertaining as Sleeper is, as fabulous as Diane Keaton’s clothes are (thanks, Joel Schumacher), this is not a fun bad future. This cold dystopian world that Allen (and co-writer Marshall Brickman) hatched up isn’t some flight of fancy (though it’s certainly hilarious) and they took it somewhat seriously. And it’s darker than I imagined when re-watching it again after re-watching it over ten years ago (you must re-watch). With a characteristic lack of optimism, the past world of which Woody Allen’s character, Miles, has been awoken from wasn’t so great either. So maybe it’s better to be asleep. Well, that would be like death, though… as he famously ends the movie, “Sex and death. Two things that come once in my lifetime. But at least after death, you’re not nauseous.” Humorous nihilism feels good during dreadful times, but it’s not the answer, but then Allen’s not here to present you with one. Remaining deeply inside of your influences, watching your idol Bob Hope, Marx Brothers’ movies, listening to jazz and pondering, worshipping Ingmar Bergman, that’s easier. (For Woody Allen anyway, nothing is easy for a lot of people, even for those who love everything listed.) God, why can’t we just walk into a movie and live there? A good movie?
No wonder (according to biographer David Evanier), little five-year-old Woody Allen (Allan Stewart Konigsberg), ran up to the screen while watching his very first film and placed his hand on the image. The movie was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the act to love a movie so much that you want to touch it, recalls a picture he would make years later, The Purple Rose of Cairo. Snow White’s predicament, well, come on that’s not so hard, Sleeper. I guess that makes the rebel scientists working for the resistance the Prince, a prince as a collective who embraces Marxist ideals.
In case you don’t know Richard Nixon or Sleeper, the movie stars Allen as Miles Monroe, the hip but nebbish Greenwich Village-living owner of the Happy Carrot Health Food store who wakes up from 1973, 200 years later, looking like a baked potato wrapped in tin foil, stumbling all Frankenstein-walk into this Brave New World. When he comes to he’s panic stricken – his ulcer operation resulted in this?! And he had such a good parking spot (well, no wonder). The world of the 22nd century is run by a dictator, which is perfectly fine for those who like to climax via orgasmatron, but not for the radical scientists opposing a secret plan called the “Aries Project.” They are looking to Miles as a potential spy, but scruffy-haired Miles is having none of this. In his best Bob Hope, he says: “I’m not really the heroic type. I was beat up by Quakers.” They’re soon discovered but Miles escapes, hiding his identity as a silver-faced butler robot to a rich poetess named Luna (Diane Keaton), and performing some terrific physical humor that feels like a silent film. He watches and listens and he hears that Luna is a terrible poet with enough people around her to “like” her stuff and tell her she’s wonderful – “so obviously influenced by McKuen.” (“But the butterfly didn’t make a sound, for he had turned into a caterpillar, by and by”) What the hell is worse? These unbearable pretentious nitwits and their dangerously expanding pudding or the totalitarian police, looming? Well, Luna is pretty. And that’s a comfort, even if she muses stupid shit like how God spelled backwards is Dog and it “makes you think.”
Miles escapes during a service job in which his head will be whacked off, kidnaps Luna and, after some opposition (Luna sounding like a certain travel ban, says, “I’m not helping any alien. We don’t want your crazy ideas! So just go back to Greenberg’s village.” The second instance a WASPY character can’t properly pronounces Greenwich Village), the two eventually form a romantic connection, which isn’t all sexy Hitchcock since he’s fending off police by smothering one black-booted cop with blue cheese. But there’s a switch – when Miles is caught, he’s brainwashed into becoming status quo, while Luna finds herself on the run, joining the resistance and shacking up with the leader of the rebellion, the handsome Erno (John Beck). That handsomeness will irritate an untrustworthy Miles to no end: “He’s great if you happen to like a tall, blonde, Prussian, Nordic, Aryan, Nazi type.” Before that, however, Luna and Erno need the “alien” Miles back, so they de-program him (with the help of reverse-brainwashing and Tennessee Williams – a ridiculous but ridiculously funny scene) and Miles becomes what he didn’t want to become in the first place – a fighter within the movement and infiltrating the Aries project. And what does he learn? He learns a rebel killed the leader and only his nose survives. Here’s where Bob Hope, Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Orwell, H.G. Wells (The Sleeper Awakens) and Stanley Kubrick meet Nikolai Gogol. Of course. This is from the man who wrote “Notes From the Overfed” for the New Yorker in 1968. Influences and ingenuity about brilliant but sometimes insane things keep us sane.
There’s a lot of smart swipes in Sleeper, simultaneously of the present day and the ridiculous, terrifying future. Keaton’s space-case Luna is an evisceration of the shallow affections of the art world only to be enlivened by Marxist ideology and free love, which is great at first, but eventually annoys Miles because, both jabbing at his stodgy self and her attempt to assume another hip mindset, he’s simply jealous. Free love is a pain in the ass. Hep, liberal Allen may have become popular at The Bitter End, but he was never what one would call a hippy. Before that he was a writer for “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Tonight Show,” Sid Caesar, Candid Camera and more. That merging of the bespectacled cool guy, old school humor, cinema love, comedy love, art house viewing and literature-reading makes one, well, Woody Allen. There’s a dark view of politics in general, when he states, likely quite accurately that Erno will become drunk with power too: “Look, don’t you understand? In six months, we’ll be stealing Erno’s nose.” Religion and automation are mixed together, as Miles confesses to a computer that he missed just a couple minutes of “our leader’s speech on television” and making love with a beautiful co-worker is against the rules; he’s worried he’s going to get in trouble. The machine sounds off like a cash register, he’s forgiven, and he removes a prize – confession via Claw Machine.
The physical humor, recalling past silent film comedians, also feels artfully dreamlike, with the witty delivery of the best Bob Hope (whom Allen esteemed and still does even as many liberal film critics then and even now scratch their heads over this reverence – they’re wrong in my view but don’t start me down that rabbit hole). Of course there’s the Marx Brothers and touches of Groucho specifically, the Keystone Cops, I even spied a Stooges or a Leo Gorcey with one of my favorite weird lines (“Oh my god, I beat a man insensible with a strawberry!”) and Chaplin’s Modern Times runs throughout, into what many consider his first seamless motion picture. Sleeper was his fourth film as a director (with my favorite early Allen, Take the Money and Run, first, followed by Bananas and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* and, if you can believe this, he (and Marshall Brickman) originally intended it to be a four hour epic – showing Miles in his present and Miles in his future. That sounds spectacularly overly ambitious but it also sounds fantastic. Re-make?
And, getting back to Allen taking this seriously, Allen actually wrote a letter to science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in late 1972 regarding Sleeper. He wanted Asimov to read his script:
“One who knows better could, for example, read the story and say, ‘You describe vehicles, but they’d never be that way. They’d be atomic-powered.’ Or, ‘Doorbells wouldn’t ring 200 years from now.’ Or, ‘No one would catch a cold as your character does on page etc.’ You get the idea, I’m sure.
“Naturally, I’m not Stanley Kubrick and I am not looking for an obsessive dramatic accuracy because this is to be a broad comedy and I want to make artistic leaps conceptually rather than obey science to the letter. But I do want to know where I’ve painted a ‘wrong’ view of the future, either underestimating or over-estimating.
Asimov did not think Allen had painted a wrong view of the future, quite the opposite. He told him that it was “terrific” in fact. According to his memoir, Asimov’s in-person answer and anecdote happened at lunch with friends to discuss Sleeper. Again, he loved Sleeper, but he had to reassure a nervous Allen that it was future perfect and needn’t any changes. Allen kept stating that he knew nothing about science fiction (and Allen never ventured into this territory again), but Asimov said “No one could possibly guess.” The meeting became a bit tense as Allen was uneasy with his ideas and Asimov was uneasy telling him to proceed with his ideas and movie since maybe he was wrong (“Did this guy, Asimov, really know what he was talking about? he imagined Allen thinking). Allen asked, “How much science fiction have you written?” Asimov answered, “Not much. Very little actually. Perhaps 30 books of it altogether.” And then he added, “The other hundred books aren’t science fiction.” Allen remarked to his friends, “Did you hear him throw that line away? Did you hear him throw that line away?”
One of the strangest and funniest responses to Sleeper came from a lawsuit. The scene in which Luna’s art friends gift her the Keane painting and she exclaims, “It’s pure Keane. No, it’s even greater than Keane. It’s Cugat!” – this enraged Xavier Cugat. In fact, the famed bandleader was so upset over the mockery that he sued Woody Allen. Looking at a now surreal entry from a 1974 New York Times “Notes on People” section (right under an entry about Gerald Ford’s 22-year-old son being critical of Nixon but refusing any more interviews because it was “interfering with my school work) the nutty complaint reads:
“Xavier Cugat Is suing Woody Allen for $750,000, charging that the actor writer illegally used Mr. Cugat’s name and reputation as an artist in the movie ‘Sleeper.’ The band leader’s suit, filed in Los Angeles, quoted advertising for the movie that referred to Mr. Allen as ‘a meek health food store owner’ who is frozen and thawed in the year 2173 to find ‘an age of gay robots, 300‐pound celery, evil instant pudding and Xavier Cugat artifacts.’ Mr. Cugat, who now devotes much of his time to painting, maintained that identifying him as the creator of a painting in the picture ‘diminished his ability and reputation as an artist.’”
Wow. Richard Nixon never threatened this. That was when sensitive bandleaders had no sense of humor and would sue a comic artist for mocking them in a motion picture. They were thin-skinned and worried about their reputation because of things like large celery and gay robots and people like Diane Keaton assailing their work on screen, not unlike some future public figures, unamused by comedy or jokes or skits and… oh, you know what I’m getting at. Go see a movie. Go see Sleeper. And in these trying times, think of becoming a “teleological, existential atheist.”
Sleeper screens February 18.