Monday, July 29, 2019

“This Young Man Has an Explosive Capacity in Him” - The Reincarnate (1971) - Film #145

Canadian spirituality is the topic of only the finest cinematic classics, and 1971's The Reincarnate is no exception.

Unsurprisingly, some of your universe's critics are intellectually ill-equipped to properly respect The Reincarnate. For example, on IMDB, reviewer anxietyresister writes, "Yep, here it is.. the worst movie I've ever reviewed on this site....this is by some distance the most snoozeworthy, waste of space of a film I have seen in many a moon.. so take advantage of it's rarity by steering clear of it like a landmine on the motorway." Reviewer Rainey-Dawn writes, "The film is just overly long and boring. It's trying to be a mysterious occult horror-thriller but it fails miserably to be what it wants to be." And reviewer zeppo-2 calls the film an "overlong, overwrought, pretentious diatribe on reincarnation."

Blasphemy! Please continue reading for a more balanced opinion about the Canadian classic The Reincarnate...

The film begins with an image of fire, and a title crawl (or, more accurately, a textbook) read by a narrator: “Man has never accepted death as the end of everything. From earliest times, the great ancient beliefs—Hindu, Gnostic, Sakai, Buddhist—separated magic from fire and witchcraft from reincarnation. Their philosophies embraced past and future lives and Karma, the purification of the individual through successive incarnations. The Sakana cult chose from each that portion which dealt with nature and natural laws, and formulated what was for them the great truth of the universe - that the only reality is eternity, that eternity is eternal life, and that eternal life is reincarnation. They believe that every living human has locked away in his subconscious the memory of all his past lives. For almost one hundred centuries Sakana has sought the key to unlock this memory...”

A man, Everet Julian, drives along a highway at night for approximately ten minutes. He flashes back to his doctor telling him his condition is irreversible. “Everybody dies,” the doctor in the flashback says comfortingly. “We begin to die the moment we are born.”

In flashback, Mr. Julian (played by Jack Creley, who would later play Brian O’Blivion in Videodrome, and whose voice is an appealing combination of the voices of Vincent Price and Orson Welles) says, “Nobody dies, doctor.”

He returns home to his apartment, and spends another ten minutes switching on light switches.

Julian’s friend Richard comes to the apartment (whose front door, oddly, opens out into the hallway). Julian tells his friend that he is going to die, and that he wanted to see Richard because Richard has come into contact with a young sculptor named David Payne. Richard says, “Yes. He’d be suitable for you.” What could this possibly mean? Could the title of the film have anything to do with it. It is all, as they say, a mystery. “Especially if you’re still interested in the arts.”

Julian responds, somewhat confusingly, “I’ve never stopped.”

Later, Julian drives to the sculptor’s studio. He sees one of the young man’s sculptures, for which he was sued by his benefactor. “Is this the head of the man you sued?”

Julian drops hints that he knows a lot about ancient history, then offers Payne a thousand dollars for a small sculpture and drives away. Then he visits an old friend named Sonny in a tattoo parlor, but the tattoo parlor sells artists tools, and Julian buys a set of $200 bone sculptor’s tools. They trade cryptic remarks about an old professor of theirs, Llewelyn. “What was the name of that belief of his?” Sonny asks. “Sack something.”

“You remember, Sonny. Sakana.”

In a more sinister scene, we watch Julian sitting in a car with a man named Stedley. They watch a young college student named Ruthie walk up some stairs, and Stedley confirms that Ruthie is a virgin.

Julian returns to Payne’s studio. “Will you do a head of me?” he asks the sculptor, offering Payne the bone tools in return.

“I’ve always wanted a set of bone,” says Payne (to be fair, who hasn't?).

“You could have had,” Julian replies. When he says they must start quickly, he adds, “You see, the chemistry of death is at work.” (But he fails to elaborate.)

Later, Julian and his lawyer friend Richard discuss whatever supernatural mumbo jumbo they are planning, and Julian waxes poetic about the sculptor. “Thank you for David Payne. He’s an extraordinary young man. Sensitive, intelligent, and talented.” He adds, “I guess we have to run the gamut to know what we really want. I always find myself going back to nature. The arts. The indestructible. This young man has an explosive capacity in him.”

“Well,” Richard says, a little condescendingly, “to each his own.”

(The inquisitive viewer might find this exchange, and Julian’s interest in Payne, to represent some mysterious unspoken desire; I confess such subtext escapes me.)

“What about the girl?” Richard asks.

Julian scoffs. “Life is so precious, isn’t it. It’s so precious, we’ll do anything for it. Anything.”

“What about the girl?” Richard asks again, in exactly the same tone.

Julian tells him there is a girl—an innocent girl. They are interrupted by a black cat on a shelf.

Later, Julian yet again visits Payne in his studio. Payne is starting the sculpture of Julian’s head by clumping clay on a long, thick stick, an act some people might find suggestive.

Julian comes right out and admits his secret: He believes in reincarnation, and he believes in the importance of the continuation of one’s memory across reincarnations.

Later, Ruthie attends a Sakana meeting (which, incidentally, lasts less than five minutes). The black cat is also present at the meeting. The Sakana leader, a charming red-headed bearded man, explains the philosophy: “What we believe is we don’t believe in anything we’ve been told. We don’t believe what people say is good is good or what people say is bad is bad.” Looking at Ruthie, he says, “We believe in nature, and eternal life, and reincarnation. And in living, beautiful woman. Who made sex a sin? Why is it a sin?”

Julian visits the Ormsby art gallery, where he speaks with Mr. Ormsby and the two engage in competing Vincent Price impressions. Ormsby tells Julian that his gallery will host a one-man show for the unknown David Payne, if Julian writes a big enough check. “The gallery is yours, Mr. Julian, on Friday, October 31st.”

“That’s All Hallow’s Eve,” Julian says.

“Is it?” Ormsby says off-handedly.

Back at Ruthie’s college, another Sakana meeting is held. A boy enters the meeting room, where a fire burns in the fireplace. The boy carries a bag of bread to the assemblage. “Hey!” he says. “For everybody!”

The college students giggle and laugh at the prospect of eating free bread. The film dissolves to after their meal, when everyone lies sleepily on the floor, until the sound of a car horn is heard. The bearded guru Stedley says, “Time to go home, Ruthie. Your boyfriend’s honking out front.”

She goes home with her boyfriend Gene—and they are also stalked by the omnipresent black cat. She explains the beliefs of Sakana—clearly a cult—to her boyfriend, who sums everything up with a quick phrase: “Sounds pretty hokey to me, Ruthie.”

Confusingly, Gene attempts to seduce Ruthie, who tells him Sakana teaches that sex is good and natural, though she does not seem to believe this and resists his advances. Before Ruthie can lose her virginity, however, the black cat jumps through a skylight and claws at Gene’s throat.

She screams. Later, she wakes up screaming in her bed. Her father comforts her, revealing that Gene was killed, though his death was blamed for some reason on vandals throwing rocks through windows.

Meanwhile, Julian explains yet more of his philosophy to David Payne. He says that if Payne were his next reincarnation, hypothetically, that Payne would not go away; Julian’s memories would simply be added to Payne’s. “You would remember being all kinds of men. Famous, infamous, brave, cowardly.” He adds, “You would be searching for something elusive and ephemeral. The answer. The meaning of life.”

When Payne says there is no meaning, Julian tells him he is wrong. Someone living for millennia would be able to formulate the meaning of life.

In an interesting twist whose background is too complex to describe fully here, the black cat appears on a road, causing a traveling salesman to drive off a cliff and die in a fiery explosion; the salesman was the husband of a woman named Ann Jameson, who wants to get a divorce and marry David Payne

In an even more complex turn, Payne finds out a distant relative named Llewelyn has died, leaving him stock in a boat company and the deed to a church, something Julian has discussed with his friends. Julian and Payne immediately drive out to the abandoned church, where they meet Stedley, who serves as the church caretaker as well as the Sakana guru. It is also revealed that the church is where the Sakana meetings are being held.

In a Gothic twist, Julian and Payne stand in front of a coffin whose lid slowly opens, revealing the body of the Sakana leader Llewelyn.

Julian explains: “He is in a state between life and death. He is a reincarnate.”

The coffin closes by itself.

In the next scene, the filmmakers helpfully reiterate the entire plot of the film as Payne speaks with Ann. Payne says Julian believes in reincarnation, and if he gets Payne to believe then he will be able to transfer his memories to Payne. He also ticks off recent events: Ann’s husband died in a car accident, and Payne inherited stock in a shipping company as well as the land on which a church sits. “That sounds like lucky on purpose to me,” he says.

In an eerie scene, Payne and Ann enter the abandoned church at night. They find the coffin and the lid opens by itself, but now it is empty. Ann laughs. “The reason you’re a great genius, David, is that you have a great imagination.”

The cat, sitting on a stained glass window, meows.

“What an inheritance,” Ann says. “Most people just get money and mementoes. You get ghosts.” She adds, oddly, “My grandfather used to say a church was like frozen music.” She doesn’t bother to elaborate.

When Payne visits Sonny’s art supply store/tattoo parlor to pick up a bone tool, Sonny tells his own story to Payne, which parallels Payne’s story exactly. When Sonny was a sculptor in college, Professor Llewelyn offered to transfer his memories into Sonny, but Sonny was impatient and didn’t believe in reincarnation. “I told him it was all nonsense. I told him I’d work out my own destiny. My own genius. Make my own way. Well, this is the way I made.”

In an unexpected occurrence, after Sonny describes Payne’s choice, the black cat trips Sonny at the top of a staircase and the man falls to his death.

The next day, Ruthie’s father tracks her down at the abandoned church with the Sakana acolytes. It turns out her father is a police sergeant who investigated the church a few years ago in connection with a missing persons case. He tries to take Ruthie home. “Ruthie, these kids are all older than you,” he explains, but he relents when she wants to stay.

In yet another discussion between Julian and Payne in the studio, Julian reverses his previous statements to say, “I have found the meaning of life: Participate in it. Express it through art. That is the great triumph, David.”

Events come to a head the night of Payne’s sculpture exhibit at the Ormsby Gallery. Julian has fasted for 48 hours in preparation for the transference, and the abandoned church has been set up for the ritual. As they shut down the gallery, Julian explains everything to Payne again—that he will die tonight, that Payne will inherit Julian’s memories. Julian also says that he, Julian, will go on, highlighting the film’s central paradox about identity: Whose consciousness will operate Payne’s body? Will it be all those down the line who became reincarnates? Is one’s singular identity an illusion? Or is it all mumbo jumbo?

Julian also explains how the ritual works. “Your part is to take a virgin. The sex act is a fundamental part of nature, a basic part of the ritual.” Payne must rape Ruthie to have eternal life.

Later, at the church, Ruthie is prepared for the ceremony. Though she seems to be a willing (if possibly drugged) participant, the other acolytes bind her arms loosely. Then Stedley carries her to the altar.

Shockingly, Julian stands over Ruthie with a sacrificial knife...

...but it is only to cut her ropes. She allows David to make love to her in front of bouquets of white roses.

The final part of the ritual involves the catatonic Llewelyn, who was Julian before Julian was Julian, apparently. Llewelyn must complete the sacrifice by killing Ruthie, feeding her sleeping body to the fireplace, but also burning up his own body.

Payne gapes at this murder/suicide, but does nothing to intervene, because it will result in his eternal life. In the end, the church is empty except for Payne—and the coffin, which opens by itself to reveal Julian’s catatonic body inside.

In the film’s coda set one year later, Payne is a successful sculptor. He tells Stedley to pack up a sculpture to send to Tokyo, though the art dealer Ormsby offers five thousand dollars for it. Payne says, with just a hint of racism, “The Orientals are wiser than they know, Mr. Ormsby. They revere the ancestor.” Then Payne goes to visit Ann in the hospital, where they have just had a baby girl. Ann suggests they name her Julia, after Mr. Julian, but Payne says ominously, “We can’t, darling. She’s Ruthie. She is Ruthie!”

Over the end credits, ironically, a song plays with these lyrics:

“There is no end.
We all live again.
breathes in you and me.
No one ever dies.
It’s in our sense the answer lies.
Life’s great mystery
Can be revealed through memory.
Service of time
Truth and dreams entwined.
There is no end.
We all live again.”

Directed by Canadian documentarian and TV director Don Haldane, and written by TV writer Seeleg Lester (who was reportedly born on the superstition-infused date October 31, 1913, suggesting he might be a reincarnate himself), The Reincarnate is a serious philosophical exploration of identity and spirituality that uses all of its 100-minute running time to seriously develop its themes and dilemmas. If given a chance at some (vague) form of immortality, would you sanction rape and murder by incineration? (The answer, of course, is yes.) How can a man (or presumably a woman, though all the reincarnates in the film are men) be "good" if his (or presumably her) past lives were full of ignominious acts? (The answer, of course, is denial.) How can a 1971 film skate to the edge of "outing" its male characters while still maintaining some ambiguity? (The answer, of course, is dialogue like "This young man has an explosive capacity in him" and, speaking of sculpture, "I haven't touched that head of yours for days.")

The Reincarnate raises so many questions and answers few, which is the mark of a high-quality philosophical film. Leaving aside the logistics of consciousness and multiple identities passed through life after life, how is it reincarnation if the new life is already 25 years old? And why--if the Sakana adherents deny good and evil, heaven and hell, and everything but the existence of eternal life--do they perform their ritual on October 31 while chanting the Buddhist mantra "om mani padme hum"?

And who/what on earth was the black cat?

We may never find the answers, but we must keep asking the questions...