Saturday, November 12, 2016

Destination Earth (American Petroleum Institute, Film Counselors, Inc., John Sutherland Productions, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Mars film screening in Golden Hill had a wildly eclectic program, including a film the proprietor scheduled but didn’t show — a film called Destination: Mars, a 2002 production designed to look like a 1950’s black-and-white sci-fi film (it certainly contained elements that were, shall we say, evocative of Ed Wood’s Plan Nine from Outer Space) and passed off in the publicity about it as a newly discovered film from the 1950’s that didn’t come out at the time because the entire cast and crew had been blacklisted shortly before its scheduled release. There were some other films on the program that were just as bizarre, including one that was hilarious by sheer unintention: Destination: Earth (all these Destination: titles were obviously puns on the real-life 1950 science-fiction film Destination: Moon), a 15-minute short commissioned in 1956 by the American Petroleum Institute. It’s a crudely animated cartoon directed by Carl Urbano and written by Bill Scott, Michael Amestoy and George Gordon in which Mars is under the rule of a Stalinesque dictator named Ogg (voiced by Marvin Miller), who like Big Brother in 1984 takes credit for every good — or even halfway decent — aspect of Martian civilization. Ogg is holding a big rally — attendance is compulsory and cops are patrolling the streets with ray guns to corral any stragglers and get them into the big arena, sort of like what the Taliban used to do to people to get them to watch their mass executions — to announce the return of Mars’s first interplanetary astronaut, Captain Cosmic, from his exploratory trip to Earth. Mars has cars, and though they’re surface vehicles only they look like the flying cars in the TV show The Jetsons; they’re powered by something called “Oggpower,” which means they have rocket-like devices on the back that move the car forward in short, virtually uncontrollable bursts.

Captain Cosmic reports that he went to Earth and saw thousands of cars moving about on asphalt roads, and he initially assumed only Earth’s ruling class would have such things but soon learned that virtually all Earthlings did. He broke into a “secret” repository of information — really the New York Public Library (you can tell because the film shows the famous lions guarding the entrance, the ones used for one of the best gags in the original Ghostbusters and well before that the inspiration for MGM’s famous Leo the Lion logo) — where he ended up with a whole stack of books about petroleum, including how it’s drilled for and refined into gasoline as well as asphalt (so, the awestruck Captain Cosmic exclaims, petroleum is the source not only for the fuel for all those cars but also the roads they run on!), and how multiple oil companies drill for the stuff and compete with each other to find the productive well sites. At the rally Captain Cosmic shows off two books that he ripped off from the library (the overdue fees on them are going to be killer!), one called The Story of Oil and one called Competition: Engine of Democracy. It’s a very dated film, not only in the portrayal of petroleum as the wonder fuel but also in the depiction of competition as the great engine of capitalism, democracy and freedom. In today’s modern era of capitalism competition has virtually ceased to exist — as Karl Marx predicted, capitalists have responded to the falling rate of profit in their enterprises by merging with each other, and in plenty of fields (especially communications like cable TV, phone and Internet service) the only “choice” you have is between a handful of companies with equal impersonality, high prices and lousy customer service. It’s yet another example of Ayn Rand’s importance in the history of capitalist ideology that she appears to be the first apologist for capitalism that did not name competition as one of its virtues. The Story of Petroleum is a fascinating historical curio and it’s no surprise that it appeared most recently as a bonus item on the DVD of the 2004 film The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream.