Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Maury Island Incident

Disclaimer:  I've known The Maury Island Incident director Scott Schaefer since he was a writer and I was a humble sound designer, which is more time-passage either of us care to confess to. When he messaged me to check out his directorial debut a couple weeks ago and write a review, he added (parenthetically) "please be nice."  The nice thing is  I don't have to be nice.  I can be completely objective about this, despite my high regard for the man, because the work is that good.  If anything, he's being nice to me to ask for a review,

Everything is Satis-factual
"Let's try this.  You tell me when I say something that is not true."

Let us start from the beginning.

The Maury Island Incident tells the story of a semi-obscure happenstance in Washington State history that put that corner of Vashon Island on the map in the minds of a lot of UFO enthusiasts and fantasists, and was, to use a music metaphor, The Dave Clark Five of the modern age of Ufology.

For some reason—not sure why—the whole UFO thing started in Washington State. Sure Roswell, New Mexico made it a tourist attraction as Ground Zero for Close Encounters, but the first UFO of the modern age was reported near Mt. Rainier on June 24, 1947 by Kenneth Arnold, a pilot, who spotted nine objects flying in a "saucer-like fashion."

On June 21, 1947, Harold Dahl was working, salvaging logs off Maury Island with his son, his dog and a small crew. According to Dahl (and a man who worked with him but was not present, Fred Crisman), six ringed saucers appeared over Dahl's boat, hovering at 2,000 feet.  Details are a little sketchy, but one of them began spewing something that was described as being like lava or "white metal." In the melee, Dahl's dog was killed and one of the crew—accounts vary whether it was Dahl's son or a crew-man—was burned by some of the debris.

Fantastic enough, but, the story gets even better. The next day, Dahl says he was visited at his home by an unidentified man in a black suit, and invited to a cordial breakfast where he was warned off the story and told never to talk to anyone about it or there would be consequences to himself and his family. Dahl clammed up, but Crisman contacted Kenneth Arnold, who brought up officers from Army Intelligence to listen to the men's story and examine a piece of the metal ejected from the saucer encounter.  The intelligence officers recognized it as slag, probably ejected by Tacoma's toxic Asarco smelter, and flew it back to California.  

Or intended to, anyway.

They never made it. Their B-25 caught fire and crashed on the return trip, killing both officers, and, in the vacuum of information about the crash, it just threw gasoline on the fire of UFO theories and the idea they were being deliberately kept secret by the government (or somebody)...with extreme prejudice.  It was the origin of the mysterious "men in black" concept, of a secret society of anonymous government agents, "cleaning" the messy things the public shouldn't know about. The two became inextricably linked due to some books that did not have critical thinking on their minds, but were more interested in spinning a good yarn, and making some money out of it.

Spinning a good yarn seemed to have been the motivation for more than one person. It is curious that the events of "The Maury Island Incident" were reported to have occurred three days before Arnold's report, making that occurrence, if one wanted to make hay out of it, the first UFO incident of the modern age.

The thing is, someone did want to make hay out of it, even if the entire story is something of a straw-man. Crisman and Dahl recanted the story (with or without the "men in black" angle). And the fact is two military men died in the line checking out their little story. To carry on with such a hoax would have been—to a rational person—unconscionable. No amount of fun is worth having blood on your hands.

So, that's "The Maury Island Incident."  It's a natural, however angle you tell it—as fantasy, conspiracy, or tragedy—for film material. Writer Steve Edmiston and director Scott Schaefer have taken the very real redacted FBI documents (see below) about the reports and fabricated a blend of fact and fiction, of the story that became true and, like so many Hollywood films, can lay claim to the tagline "based on a true story," even if the underlying story is false.

And this is what the makes their finished short film The Maury Island Incident so fascinating. Wherever the "Maury Island Incident" lies plumb of the bubble of truth, it became a matter of public record and investigation for the number one detective agency in the Nation, going so far as to the desk of J. Edgar Hoover.

J. Edgar Hoover was interested in UFO's.

But, then, Hoover was interested in everything.

The film is pure speculation based on hard facts and not-so-idle chatter, but is treated with a seriousness that borders on the dreadful (except for one touch of irony, an emotionally-inappropriate song in the background of the diner scene that warps the song and the tenor of the scene). Schaefer has a very sure hand when it comes to directing these scenes making them slicing-taught and doing precious little camera movement, drawing you in (he gets immense help from shooter Mike Boydstun, who does some black-magic tricks of back-lighting and in the saucer scenes makes the scenes jitter and pop in panic and confusion). He makes a simple slow pull-in to as innocuous a thing as a ringing telephone ominous.

It's a home-grown film, shot in Burien, Washington but the performances are delightfully accomplished and stylized—John Patrick Lowrie's Hoover is officious and patrician, Allan Fitzpatrick's "Man in Black," cunningly casual, with just a touch of showmanship, and Tony Doupe's Dahl increasingly harried, seeming to shrink in the frame as, despite his Universe expanding, his world crumbles in around him—you can practically see the peptic ulcer growing inside him.

It's a strange, weirdly resonant movie that blurs truth, and, while it doesn't make me believe in "flying saucers" (even that term is wrong, given Arnold's original description of what he saw, but has stuck in the public consciousness and unconsciousness), but it does make me believe in good film-making from whatever cosmic plane it comes from.

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