Lifespan, notes Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger, is an anagram for "Nap Files."
An exploration into the mystery of life
Inextricably tied to the kitschy, supernaturally obsessed Seventies, Lifespan is a tough sell in any era. If you can get past that, it has great camerawork and presents a subtle story about obsession.
Facts of the Case
Dr. Ben Land (Hiram Keller, Satyricon) comes to Amsterdam to study gerontology under the famous Dr. Linden (Eric Schneider, The New Outer Limits). Dr. Linden is possibly very close to creating a serum that would grant an extensive lifespan. When Dr. Linden dies, Dr. Land takes over his work, becoming obsessed with the tantalizing prospect of immortality.
His obsession soon extends to Linden's lover Anna (Tina Aumont, Salon Kitty), who tries to steer him away from his path. But when Dr. Land learns that Anna is in cahoots with a shadowy Swiss pharmaceutical executive, Nicholas Ulrich (Klaus Kinski, Count Dracula), it only fuels his drive. Everyone from the university to the police is keenly interested in Dr. Land's progress. But none of them is as interested as Ulrich, who keeps watch on Ben Land night and day.
When it was released, Lifespan had to contend with a marketing conundrum. Klaus Kinski was beloved for his roles in cult horror films, and Lifespan was released at the peak of interest in supernatural, occult-themed horror films. While first-time director Sandy Whitelaw did give Lifespan a subtly horrific vibe, it isn't a horror tale at all. It is instead a medical (or possibly, science fiction) tale of obsession in the quest for immortality. This turned off audiences of the day.
Unfortunately for Lifespan, its marketing woes continue in its rebirth on DVD. The Kinski angle isn't the problem, as Kinski has had a prolific, versatile career. The problem is that Lifespan is now hopelessly quaint. Its style is incorrigibly '70s, but not in the tacky-fashion-rubbernecking sense that is in vogue today. Lifespan thrives on style over substance, medical thriller innuendo over evidence, and mystery over cohesion. In the '70s, a heavy sense of foreboding was enough to sustain an audience's attention. Today, we expect some reason to be tense beyond a pulsing score and grim faces.
Lifespan's downfall begins almost before it begins. Whitelaw kicks the story off with a voiceover by Dr. Land. Ugh, misstep, move on. But the voiceovers keep coming, wave after wave of them. The final insult is a lengthy voiceover at the end that wraps up the myriad loose ends with a proposed plan of action. It reminds me strongly of the finale of The Highlander, only without the showdown with the Kurgan and the quickening.
Sprinkled between the voiceovers is a loose plot that is filled with interesting, visually arresting moments strung together on a scant thread. Every moment of powerful mood and visual splendor is followed by a transition that makes little sense.
Whitelaw is deft with the camera. Light and shadow are his paints, and he makes the absolute most of his actors. Under Whitelaw's camera, Hiram Keller is painfully beautiful, with a chiseled face and haunting green eyes. His defiantly pursed lips and outthrust chin tell us everything we need to know about Land's bulldog approach to life. Meanwhile, Whitelaw gives Tina Aumont's Anna a haunting mix of good-girl allure and bad-girl disdain for humanity. Her reddish tresses cascade down her back like a pure maiden's, while her shifty eyes reveal a cunning sense of sexual predation. Her highlight comes when Land ties her nude body up with double helix knots: her easy manipulation of him and her wry smile indicate her ulterior motive.
On the other hand, Whitelaw's transitions and supporting detail are maddening. The thrust of Lifespan is that Dr. Land takes over Dr. Linden's work. In a nutshell, that's it. Land is frustrated by a real or imagined conspiracy against him, but otherwise the story is pathologically simple: Land sleeps where Linden slept, works where Linden worked, goes to the same bars to spy on the same lover, and even performs some of the same tests on the same people. Under different circumstances this game of follow-the-leader might be tense or meaningful, but in Lifespan it seems rote. Why is Land doing all of these same things that Linden did? Because it is spooky, that's why. Don't ask questions.
Lifespan's foundation crumbles even more when it shifts from a relatively realistic exploration of fringe scientific work laden with political difficulty to a hallucination. Land starts seeing dead people, and the events of his world become detached from reality. Why? Because, that's why. And minutes later, when Land walks out of the looney bin, sane and unfettered as though nothing had ever happened, we are again given no rationale. Sane one minute, crazy the next, sane again…must be nice.
The "brilliant soundtrack, unavailable for over 30 years, by avant garde composer Terry Riley" has been praised for setting the mood. I found it repetitive and listless, serving only to reinforce my opinion that Lifespan needed a stronger direction. In fact, the audio presentation in general drains life out of the picture. Hiram Keller is poorly dubbed by an actor who finds his calling in monotony. When you combine this with the aforementioned onslaught of needless voiceovers, you begin to grasp the problem.
Mondo Macabro's transfer isn't bad, nor is it good. The image is stable and provides a fair amount of detail, but it is scratched and lacks contrast. Some scenes are nearly charcoal gray in their uniformity, while dark scenes are muddied. Whitelaw's carefully constructed scenes come though, and that's the important thing.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The cast does a decent job of conveying realistic characters with just a slight uptick of surrealism. Though Ben and Anna's torrid affair came on without much rhyme or reason, they have chemistry. Kinski is a hoot, clad only in an ancient metal mask and licking Anna's naked torso until his concentration is interrupted by the phone.
Whitelaw does a great job of establishing a scientific context. I work in a genetics lab that uses mice to test models of human functioning. Watching Lifespan felt like being at work in a lot of ways, from the set design to the way the characters discussed science. In a world where glowing goo and lasers are shorthand for science, Whitelaw's facile take on real science is refreshing. At one point, I was upset that he wasn't showing us the data!
Mondo Macabro delivers a slate of extras to supplement this film. I applaud their conscientiousness, and it makes me wonder why Paramount and Universal can't come up with extras for the bulk of their catalogs. The best of these extras are the "virtual liner notes" that explain the film's background and history and the interview with Sandy Whitelaw. In this interview he is suitably demure about the movie while also projecting a strong sense of enthusiasm for it. He seems grounded but hungry to do more films—you know, like a director should be. The commentary track lacks this sense of self effacement, but it certainly provides more detail about the picture. The photo gallery does the right thing: it starts off with a color image of a naked Anna bound in knots, and follows up with the freaky greenish-yellow light in Ben's eye while he peers into the microscope. The rest of it is forgettable, though Mondo Macabro added a nice touch by breaking the photo gallery into three related groups of photos.
Lifespan wanted to be a gripping rumination on the pursuit for immortality, a tale of scientific recklessness. It is saddled—with annoying voiceovers, bad dubs, nonsensical plot twists, poor transitions, and an enormous cop out of an ending—to the point where the horse can barely move. But the ride takes you past some pretty European scenery and throws in kinky sex to boot. Lifespan is no classic, but it is worth a look for Eurocult fans.
Lifespan is as mortal as the rest of us. Sentenced to time already served.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Mondo Macabro
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