October 23rd: Lifespan (1974)
Elysian Fields released in May of this year a pair of lost Terry Riley soundtracks on one disc, songs composed by Riley for both Joel Santoni’s 1972 film Les Yeux Fermes and Alexander Whitlaw’s Lifespan. This bit of excavation put me on the lookout for both films, and only days after learning of Riley’s film collaborations, Lifespan appeared to me during my last visit to the now on-hiatus Astro Video. However, it became clear almost immediately that Riley’s music operates in the film as a phantom, an empty substance. Riley’s music here is barely noticeable: it’s chopped up, lost under dialog and low in the mix, present for no more than 30 seconds at any time. While an Erik Satie piece is also used, Riley’s contribution is slight, with original pieces but also a repeating snip from Riley’s “Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band,” the companion piece to Riley’s landmark “A Rainbow in Curved Air.” While Whitelaw may have good taste, he has wasted the contribution of a true master, the genius of minimalism who is now over 70.
The story: American doctor Ben Land is determined to find the genetic fountain of youth, to develop a serum to “cure” death, which Land terms “a disease.” While Land may claim altruistic motives, he himself is terrified of dying. As one of his colleagues points out, its odd such a young doctor has chosen to devote his life to the eradication of natural death. Land is called in Lifespan’s early moments to Amsterdam, to dialog with the world’s leader in the field, Dr. Linden (Eric Schneider). Before Land can meet with Linden, he is found dead in his apartment, an apparent suicide. Land agrees to continue Linden’s work, and is assigned a personal assistant in grad student Pim (Frans Mulder), the nephew of Linden’s friend Professor Van Arp (Fons Rademakers). In what appears to Land to be a serendipitous encounter, he also meets Linden’s mistress Anna (Tina Aumont, delivering one of the film’s best performances), whom he stalks around Amsterdam after he is blatantly used by Anna to satisfy her kinky sexual desires. Anna is somehow involved with a mystery man from Switzerland, the enigmatic millionaire Nicholas Ulrich (Klaus Kinski, who manages to infuse this stock character with depth and nuance).
The major reason there is no room for Riley’s music to breathe is that it becomes muted by an incessant and unnecessary narration. While the film is Dutch, the protagonist, Dr. Ben Land (American actor Hiram Keller) is an American, and his dialog and narration do not appear to be a feature only of the English-language release. Lifespan’s unending voice-over nearly sinks the film; Land’s narration recounts the events of every scene and outlines the film’s obvious themes. Every scene transition is smeared with this unwelcome insurance. Lifespan is a lesson in how first-person narration can become a heavy blunt object, smashing the film’s integrity as it barges blindly forth.
The narration may be a late addition to the final cut, an attempt to flesh out a main character, who should have allowed to simply be a cipher. Ben Land is a shallow character, driven by his obsessive nature. Keller is a dull leading man, an actor playing it cool but obviously clueless. This would be an example of mindful casting if the narration were removed; throughout Lifespan Land is positioned as a powerless pawn in a game larger than himself. The empty vessel of Ben Land eventually becomes Linden, as Land finds himself inhabiting Linden’s life, examining his notes, inheriting his position at the university, dating his girlfriend, and living in his apartment. Since his ambition was also Linden’s, his fall is orchestrated in a similar manner and Kinski is there to recruit the technician he needs to give his mad scientist dreams shape and structure.
What Ben calls “the horrors of the aging process” are being experienced by Ulrich, who realizes immortality is within his reach as long as he acts. Ulrich and his disciples Land and Linden represent the arrogance of science without ethics or reflection, and while Ulrich may be a more cautious Deadalus, Icarus is played by both Linden and Land, younger seekers flying too close to the sun.
While Lifespan squanders its score, the cinematography is of a specific and well-conveyed mood. Black and white are used to represent life and death, and whomever is in search of immortality (or whomever has found it) surrounds themselves with white; in many scenes, sheets of white linen hang inexplicably. From the white walls of the psychiatric hospital, to the long-lived mice to the reverently photographed Swiss Alps of Kinski’s Fortress of Solitude.
Late into the film, what seems like a traditional narrative essentially crumbles. Ulrich and Anna reveal to Land that Linden was studying the secret notes of a Russian scientist named Rashinski, who discovered the genetic secret to immortality before his death. This revelation breaks into the film uninvited; it is convenient, yet brings the film into a hallucinatory and bendable place. All story up to this fracture is cast into doubt as the crust of a massive conspiracy is exposed. An old man granted immortality by Linden has died, Pim has sold Land out to his uncle, lab notes concerning Linden’s immortal test mice have been doctored and Land is committed to a psych-ward for digging up the dead. This may be the proof of a campus-wide cover-up, it may also be Land’s delusion. Land is a fool no matter the case, led along by all parties, blind in his single-mindedness.
Land breaks from the University and Van Arp to join Kinski in Switzerland as his Igor. After the film’s only piece of inspired narration, Lifespan abruptly ends on a note of appropriate ambiguity. This conclusion is highly satisfying and even the film’s flawed elements crystallize into a cohesive and cooperative whole. While editing could have made Lifespan a classic, it is nevertheless a dreamlike, hallucinatory film about the collective mad quest for immortality.