Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #29 The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe
Welcome to the latest entry in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. It’s the site and career-sustaining feature where I give YOU, the devastatingly sexy paragon of human dignity who makes Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place possible by donating to this site an opportunity to choose a movie that I must watch and then write about in exchange for a one-time, one hundred dollar pledge.
This entry is a weird one in that I have vague but distinct memories of panning it when it came out on home video during my first few years as a staff writer for The A.V Club, when my primary beat was direct to video movies and Hip Hop. Things have changed a little since then, particularly the part involving me having a job.
Yet a Google search for my name and The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe turned up absolutely nothing. It is possible that I cluelessly panned this enduring masterpiece of one-woman theater and The A.V Club deleted my review sometime during the past two decades. I’m guessing that particularly now, preserving a complete archive of my early work is not a high priority for website, which, I’m afraid to say is not exactly characterized by reverence for its distant past.
It’s also possible that my weird conviction that I panned The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe is a false memory, an example perhaps of the Mandela Effect, or, closer to home, The Shazaam Syndrome, where someone becomes convinced that they’ve seen or experienced something that does not in fact even exist, most specifically a genie movie from the 1990s called Shazaam.
Looking back it’s possible that I thought that I had seen The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe and reviewed it simply because the play and movie have been weirdly ubiquitous parts of my life for decades. I can’t remember pretty much anything I learned in high school but the image of Lily Tomlin grinning a big, thoughtful, philosophical, infectious grin on the book version of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe is emblazoned indelibly on my mind, as is its VHS cover and even posters for productions of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe not starring Lily Tomlin, who won a Tony and a drawerful of other awards in what I think is probably her magnum opus as a performer, no small feat considering she’s one of the most acclaimed and beloved entertainers of the past half century. It’s similarly the crowning achievement of its playwright and screenwriter Jane Wagner, Tomlin’s wife and longtime writer.
As a kid, I also remember being stuck by the play’s title. It stuck with me in a way that might have made me feel like I’d experienced it even when I had not. It’s possible that my crazy, misfiring brain and profoundly flawed memory took all of these weirdly vivid memories of knowing about The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe and wondering about it and my obnoxious early critical bias against one-man or woman shows, theatrical adaptations and theater in general and joined them together to create the fake memory that I had written a smarmy, condescending and irritatingly faux-superior review deriding it as self-indulgent, hammy, painfully dated and realized for film in a stagy and unsatisfying way.
That sure as shit sounds like the young me. Christ, I was an insufferable fuck as a young critic. Like all young people, I thought I knew everything and I didn’t know anything. The subsequent two decades have been an invaluable, never-ending learning experience in which I never stop finding out just how much I do not know.
If I had panned The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, either in an A.V Club review that was mercifully scrubbed from the Internet for whatever reason or in a false memory, it was probably because I am just not a theater guy. It’s just not my medium. Maybe it’s the terrifying possibility that the performers will leave the stage and interact with the audience, which has long been my greatest and most debilitating fear but I’ve just never gotten into theater.
In the few times that I have been in a theater, watching, most recently Paw Patrol Live, I felt like I was in someone else’s space. That was obviously because I was watching a kaleidoscopic waking nightmare designed exclusively for small children but also because movie theaters and concert venues feel like second homes where theaters feel like sacred cathedrals for people I do not share a pop culture faith with.
The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe has a fascinating time-warp aspect rooted in it being written for the stage in 1977 and adapted for film in 1991. You could also argue that it was adapted for television. After playing some film festivals, the movie debuted on cable, where it was nominated for Emmys and CableAce awards. Tomlin somewhat astonishingly lost to Dana Carvey for a performance in a Saturday Night Live Presidential special I have a hard time believing represents a more impressive artistic accomplishment than Tomlin elucidating the goddamn complexities and wonders of the human condition in an adaptation of the gold standard of wildly ambitious one-woman shows.
Tomlin and Wagner’s film, which was written by Wagner and directed and shot by John Bailey, a hotshot cinematographer whose credits include Mishima, Groundhog Day, The Kid Stays in the Picture, Winter Kills, Tough Guys Don’t Dance and, perhaps most pertinent to our interests, Jonathan Demme’s acclaimed adaptation of Spalding Gray’s legendary one-man show Swimming to Cambodia, is grounded in the consciousness-raising movements of the 1970s and a feminist revolution that promised to change everything and liberate and empower women from the strictures and limitations of the past. It’s a big, big story where the nomination of Geraldine Ferraro assumes enormous significance not unlike the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, which similarly illustrated simultaneously how far women had come in their fierce war for equality and how many barriers and obstacles still exist in the form of our culture’s deeply ingrained misogyny. .
To open up the show and make it more cinematic, Bailey alternates between his extraordinary one-woman ensemble inhabiting countless wildly disparate characters on a bare stage clad in plain clothes and stylized sequences on sets with costumes and elaborate make-up and sound effects.
The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe was one of the first major credits of Sally Menke, who would soon go on to edit a plucky, overachieving crime movie from a manic cinephile named Quentin Tarantino called Resevoir Dogs that began a fruitful relationship that ended only with Menke untimely death in 2010.
Considering the time-hopping, achronological, everything-is-connected nature of much of her work with Tarantino, it’s worth noting that she helped perfect her craft on an intricately staged, filmed and edited film in which one woman creates a vast, sprawling, intricately intertwined world where characters are continually overlapping and interacting in unexpected and nuanced ways that deepen the play’s meaning without ever feeling gimmicky or distracting.
Tomlin here first plays a woman and then an entire extended family and then a community and then, really, an entire species, that motley crew of sometimes lovable losers known as human beings. That’s a tall order for any performer, no matter how talented. To make things easier and more manageable, the Wagner/Tomlin collaboration limits itself to modest, accessible themes like the meaning of life, the sanity of madness, the compromises and heartbreaks of the feminist movement and the interconnectedness of all living things.
For much of the play Tomlin portrays Trudy, an eccentric, philosophical homeless woman and ex-mental patient who speaks of insanity as both a choice and a state of grace and monologues about her work as a “creative consultant” to a race of space aliens fascinated by our curious, inscrutable ways.
The wise bag lady dispensing canned wisdom is a stock character in American comedy but this is no generic homeless woman, no vaudeville cartoon, no Laugh In hokey, time-tested caricature. No, this is a woman with heart and soul and specificity. She’s less a garden variety crazy woman than a Kurt Vonnegut character who sees the world through such a cockeyed, singular fashion that they can’t help but infect us with at least a little of their divine madness.
The homeless woman functions as a decidedly unreliable narrator to the craziness and glory of life on planet earth, as represented by a wildly disparate cross-section of colorful character all played by Tomlin that run the gamut in terms of gender, age and sexuality.
In one particularly bravura sequence, Tomlin and Bailey use split screens and very extensive, impressive make-up to have Tomlin simultaneously play the grandfather and grandmother of alienated 15-year-old New Waver Agnes Angst. It’s an audacious display of virtuosity but the actual scene plays out in an agreeably low-key, character-based fashion
The film’s second half is dominated by a theatrical tour de force where Tomlin plays a trio of friends who bonded over their fierce feminist convictions and hope for a brighter, more equitable future in the early 1970s, the heady days of Gloria Steinem and the ERA only to drift apart in the ensuing years and decades as life pulled them in different directions and they’re forced to reconcile their values and dreams with the necessity of getting by.
It’s like a Robert Altman movie in one-woman form as Tomlin plays an entire generation of dreamers turned survivors, not just a few extraordinarily well-written, heartbreakingly played women so vivid and well-realized Tomlin and Wagner seem to know them down to their blood type and DNA structures.
The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe is ultimately about nothing less than the human condition in all of its folly and cockeyed brilliance. It’s about evolution and civilization and the wisdom of insanity and how time makes liars and hypocrites of us all. It is a profoundly humane piece, a tour de force of empathy and imagination, virtuosity and hushed intensity.
It made me wish that I’d been lucky enough to see Tomlin perform the show live. I can’t even imagine how intense, powerful and transcendent that would be, how it would greatly enhance an already powerful and deeply emotional experience.
It turns out I do like theater after all, as long as it is performed by comic geniuses working at the very height of their creative powers.
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