Thursday, July 20, 2023

Science Fiction: A Ghetto

Science Fiction: A Ghetto

Science fiction as a genre gets little respect.

“What?” goes the cries. “With the Star Wars series, the Transformer series, the Jurassic Park series, and the Marvel Comics Universe raking in billions?”

That’s sci-fi. Yes it makes serious money, and, yes, I believe there’s a difference between the two terms (if you’ve any doubts let Harlan Ellison straighten it all out for you-- painfully, slowly, using plenty of traction). Star Wars with its princesses and Corellian smugglers and lightsabre-wielding Jedi knights is space fantasy, or, to be more accurate, space opera, a subgenre created (or at least first popularized) by “Doc” E.E. Smith. As Ellison notes: “It’s a simplistic, pulp-fiction view of the world… which warps our curiosity about the possibility of other life in the universe into an apocalyptic Saturday-morning cartoon.” In other words: science fiction is what makes your head ache from all the ideas and questions raised; sci-fi is what makes your head ache from all the blinding explosions delivered in full digital sound, with RealD glasses.

Putting aside those silly shades (which I did some time ago-- ever notice how a 2-D screening is so much brighter, your skull migraine-free afterwards?), science fiction includes knottier, less polished films; the kind not always as easily digestible for the summer multiplex crowds (though they do enjoy it, on occasion) but require more thorough chewing-- full-blooded meat, as opposed to predigested pap. It doesn’t usually gross big boxoffice, so-- no, it doesn’t get that much attention, much less respect.

Science fiction involves (quoting Brian Aldiss, who attempts to describe the literature): “the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mould.”* A jawbreaking mouthful, but should also serve as a rough rule for films.

*Also like the following definitions, from Theodore Sturgeon (“A science fiction story is a story built around human beings, with a human problem, and a human solution, which would not have happened at all without its scientific content.”); Thomas M. Disch (“Absolutely Anything Can Happen and Should”-- doesn’t help my argument but boy is it pithy); Rod Serling (“Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science Fiction is the improbable made possible.”); David Pringle (“Science fiction is a form of fantastic fiction which exploits the imaginative perspectives of modern science.”); Aldiss again, more succinctly (“Hubris clobbered by nemesis”)

But what do I mean, exactly? Let me put it this way:

15. Hesus Rebolusyonaryo (Lav Diaz, 2001)

Diaz’s conceit: nine years into the future (2011!) Manila’s streets will be dark and dangerous; business as usual, in short. The plot betrays a similar theme: Hesus-- scholar, rocker, poet, warrior-- struggles to survive a purge in the Communist Party. His troubles are inspired by a similar purge back in 1996, Diaz’s point being that history remains cyclical as we fail to learn its lessons.

Hesus’ shootouts as he flees his pursuers are oddly staged until we realize they’re inspired by the videogame Counter-Strike. You feel the futility as Hesus fires away-- he survives only to reach the next level, then begins again.

At one point Colonel Simon (the great Joel Lamangan) sits by Hesus’ hospital bed, reciting his own poem back to him; later Hesus crosses an expanse of lake to confront his mysterious commanding officer; still later he finds safety and stops-- just stops. Most films would take advantage of all the hairbreadth escapes to rev up their narrative; Hesus (with Diaz behind, directing) digs in his heels, and his hesitation in the face of all that’s come before and all that follows feels perversely satisfying.

14. God Told Me To (Larry Cohen, 1976)

Larry Cohen’s film starts off on a note of terrorism-- random citizens of New York are suddenly driven to kill; when caught and asked why, they reply: “God told me to.” From this bizarre opening Cohen fashions an even more bizarre story, of a police investigation into multiple killings that evolves into a search for personal origins, and the possibility of God.

Cohen shoots the street scenes with the kind of shaky-cam verisimilitude you associate with ’70s urban filmmaking (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon); his later scenes with God (yes He makes an appearance) radiate an unearthly glow-- like the glow from a half-open furnace door, while a serial killer works to dispose of bodies.

Cohen on a minuscule production budget flings about outsized ideas on guilt, religious cults, virgin births, the Catholic faith, the insanity of urban living, the struggle between social classes. If there doesn’t seem to be much science fiction (trying not to reveal too much, save it recalls Philip K. Dick’s horrifying short story “Faith of Our Fathers”)-- trust me, it’s crammed in there somewhere along with the proverbial kitchen sink.

13. Exorcist 2: The Heretic (John Boorman, 1972)

Crazy? Think about it: on its surface a good-faith investigation into the mechanics and motivation (not to mention philosophical implications) of demonic possession (could serve as an interesting double bill with God Told Me To). Richard Burton’s Father Lamont is the film’s Teilhard de Chardin figure, willing to pick apart knotty theological questions using scientific principles, at one point comparing the plague of evil to a plague of locusts (shades of Quatermass and the Pit), his reasoning (as with many overreaching hero-scientists in science fiction films) possibly (or possibly not) leading him astray.

Boorman evokes F.W. Murnau’s Faust as the demon Pazuzu takes Lamont on an airborne journey across the Earth (the flying scenes use miniature sets and on-camera effects; the scenes in Africa have a gorgeous amber glow, as if the camera lens were smeared with honey). Film critic Pauline Kael laughed and called the film camp; I say it’s a glorious overreach that makes any number of science fiction and horror films (including the original) look small.

12. Terror is a Man (Gerardo de Leon, 1959)

Plenty of film versions of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau and this was made on perhaps the smallest production budget of them all (De Leon only had money for one creature, wrapped in bandages to save on makeup). The creature looks more pathetic than horrific, and Francis Lederer as the Moreau figure Dr. Girard is no Charles Laughton… but Lederer fits neatly into De Leon’s concept of a true believer, his dull earnestness more persuasive at selling his message than Laughton’s flamboyant sadism.

It helps that Dr. Girard mentions “skin and bone grafts,” and a chemical taken from gland extracts used to “bring about an alternation of individual cells, cell division and cell growth”; helps that the surgery scenes have an eerie authenticity to them-- De Leon’s MD background ensures that authenticity. More, there’s the racism subtext: Dr. Girard feels contempt for the island natives, who he dismisses as superstitious, regards his creature the way Nazi surgeons regarded their patients, as less-than-human material fit only for experimentation (his bedside manner is chilling, not unlike that of a bored professional torturer). Easily my favorite of the adaptations.

11. Welt am Draht (World on a Wire, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1973)

Fassbinder’s film (a two-part TV series that also enjoyed theatrical screening) is one of the earliest to deal with virtual realities, and still in my book one of the most interesting. He offers glimpses of that virtual world through video screens (sometimes in slow motion, with distorted sound) and brief first-person footage (where the occasional important message will flash onscreen); he also suggests the fragile nature of reality by shooting his characters against a constant parade of mirrors, picture windows, sheet glass, reflective clothing-- as if the world was suspended above a pool of water, ready to plunge through at any moment.

It’s a Dickian concept, and like many of Dick’s novels it’s overlaid by a pulpy action-movie plot: of one Dr. Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) investigating the apparent suicide of a fellow scientist. But Fassbinder’s heart isn’t so much on the pulp, giving the plot an odd throwaway feel-- he seems more fascinated with the idea of tissue-paper reality at the brink of tearing apart.

10. Je t’aime, je t’aime (I Love You, I Love You, Alain Resnais, 1968)

Resnais only foray into the genre, which is puzzling-- he’s played with time and memory in four feature films before this and for that matter the rest of his career, so you’d think he would have done more.

On the other hand an argument can be made that nearly all his films are science fiction-- he just hasn’t insisted on the label, is all.

Claude Ridder (Claude Rich) is a failed suicide who volunteers to travel a minute into the past; something goes wrong and he’s pingponging back and forth through various moments of his life (mostly his adult years-- curiously his childhood seems off-limits). What distinguishes this from Resnais’ other time-twisting narratives, other than the use of a machine instead of a plot contrivance? Why-- Ridder’s awareness of course. He’s been briefed, he’s thoroughly conscious of what’s happening, and the awareness sharpens his desperation (strange considering he’s already attempted suicide-- why would he want to prolong his life? (“Because,” I suspect, “life desires life, sometimes without reason”). An oddly lyrical, oddly poignant film.

9. The Nutty Professor (Jerry Lewis, 1963)

Many versions of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic, about the dual nature of man; I like Jerry Lewis’ best partly because Professor Julius Kelp’s transformation uses on-camera effects (no dissolves or traveling mattes, just good ole-fashioned prosthetics and makeup enhanced through editing, lighting and the odd camera angle) and gets a psychedelic look mainly through shocking bright paint and the odd surreal image.

Even better is the scene after transformation, a long point-of-view glide into a nightclub where everyone freezes on their tracks and stares at the camera. When Lewis finally cuts to a reverse shot, it’s a zoom revealing the face of… Jerry Lewis playing Buddy Love: playboy, pianist, all-around putz.

That’s where I submit the science comes in: if in the novel Hyde is an incarnation of the unconscious mind, films usually interpret him as monstrous in appearance, Jekyll passably human if not handsome. Lewis’ conceit is that the unconscious would assume the form not of its self but of how it wants to see itself: as a suave, sleazy ladykiller dressed in lounge-lizard blue. Not a lot of humor in science fiction, much less humor of the pungent sharply observant kind; this is the rare exception.

8. Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)

“It has something you don’t have, Max. It has a philosophy, and that’s what makes it dangerous.”

Could say the same about David Cronenberg’s masterpiece. What Cronenberg is saying, however, isn’t clear-- which matters less than you’d think: the vagueness keeps you on your toes and guessing, leaves you suspicious that you’ve missed some whole other level of meaning.

Among other things (a media satire, a meditation on the thin line between fantasy and reality) it’s a metaphor for faith: Max Renn (James Woods, for once not as crazy as the film he’s starring in) is a willful individual sapped of will by techniques that have undermined his sense of reality. Technology takes over from theology as a shaper of men’s souls.

Fassbinder suggested unreality through reflective surfaces. Cronenberg is more direct: prosthetics so imaginatively executed the reality of the horror is difficult to deny (a gun extrudes metal cables that slide into an arm’s muscles and bones; a vaginal cavity gapes wide in Renn's belly, waiting to be inserted with a videocassette). Videodrome is a technological nightmare turned too-solid flesh; you pray to wake up, you pray it never comes to pass.

7. Trudno byt bogom (Hard to Be a God, Aleksei German, 2013)

Aleksei German’s 15-years-in-the-making black-and-white non-epic (hardly any large sets or wide shots, though plenty of handheld long takes) is an adaptation of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s novel, ostensibly about the repressive effects of religion on a distant planet. It’s also a dramatization of the consequences of a policy of non-interference on the agents observing the planet-- a policy that I suspect inspired Gene Roddenberry's Prime Directive in the Star Trek TV series.

Beyond that is less easy to determine. If Videodrome was about a tech nightmare made flesh, German’s film is about that flesh drowned in various viscous fluids, organic or otherwise, the narrative lost along the way (the version I saw was without subtitles; helped that I’d watched Peter Fleischmann’s more viewer-friendly version beforehand).

What stays in one’s mind is agent Don Rumata’s reaction to the squalor surrounding him: he loves it. He walks confidently through this world, and-- telling gesture-- smears any number of mucilaginous substances across his face, like a child enjoying the feel of warm porridge. One of the most intricately detailed, bewilderingly textured films I know.

6. La Jetée (The Jetty, Chris Marker, 1962)

Difficult to pick between this and Marker’s popularly acknowledged masterpiece San Soleil. In the end I argued to myself that the ideas underlying this 40-minute short were strong enough to inspire the 1995 Terry Gilliam feature 12 Monkeys, later a 2015 TV series of the same name. Were strong enough, in effect, to earn the film a place on this list.

Premise is simple: traveler from a barren future travels to the past to save his people. Story through its narrative loops demonstrates the spiraling nature of time-- not that it circles back on itself (the traveler’s one consistent memory is of an airport, a woman’s smile, a man’s death), but that it describes a center (the memory) around which time revolves-- a cyclone and its unmoving eye, if you like.

To tell his story, Marker stitches together still photographs of the man and the woman. The pictures come across as both flickbook narrative and scrapbook of old memories; as both fluid and immovable, changing and inevitable-- with one startlingly beautiful moment of full motion, of the woman blinking her eyes.

5. Kaze no Tani no Naushika (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Hayao Miyazaki, 1984)

Hayao Miyazaki’s film covers only a third of his thousand-page manga, but is an admirable summary of at least his initial ideas.

It’s about Princess Nausicaä and her beloved Valley of the Wind, struggling in a future where the order of things has turned upside down: beetles and centipedes and spores have blown up to nightmare size, thanks to ecological abuse, and are massively, murderously destructive.

But Nausicaä isn’t just some airborne adventurer; she’s an amateur scientist too, and in her investigations uncovers the world’s secret: that the nightmare creatures and poisonous spores are part of a system, with a series of interdependent interactions, and have an ecological reason for being.

Central to all this is the character of Nausicaä, on the surface an impossibly virtuous young woman; what makes her persuasive is this unbending core of determination, this need to be right all the time-- even in the face of opposing viewpoints, or of facts on hand (there are more radical plot twists in the manga, where the long narrative practically upends everything she believes in). Not just a great science-fiction film but a great animated film, one of the finest.

4. Weekend (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)

Jean-Luc Godard’s idea of the apocalypse (a classic SF subgenre) is wilder and more imaginative and for all that more chillingly plausible than any number of biological, chemical, nuclear scenarios-- if only because the engine driving humanity to its ultimate fate is its innate sense of self-destruction, its weapon of choice the ubiquitous automobile.

Early on, Godard inserts the single most famous image in the film, arguably one of the most famous tracking shots in all of cinema: a traffic jam where the camera follows people waiting, talking, playing board games, arguing; we see cars and trucks of all kinds (including a huge Shell Oil tanker); caged animals; sailboats; and just for the sheer perversity of it all a small car pointed the opposite direction, beeping angrily. It’s the whole range of human (or at least middle-class) life, summed up in a single flow, ending (naturally) with death.

In my book his masterpiece, and the angriest science-fiction film ever made.

3. Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)

Again the Strugatskys, adapting their short novel Roadside Picnic. A mysterious alien landing site called The Zone has been fenced off by the military; into this forbidden region enter travelers guided by men known as Stalkers, who must instruct you on your every step-- or you die.

Tarkovsky’s intricate tracking shots-- climbing in and out of the abandoned factories and warehouses surrounding The Zone, wandering through a series of eerily beautiful wide-open landscapes-- create an aura of vaguely sensed, possibly imaginary menace (the danger wasn’t completely imagined: Tarkovsky shot in Tallinn by the Jägala river, upstream of which was a chemical plant; both director and his wife and one other cast member would reportedly die of lung cancer not long after).

Their objective is The Room, where all wishes are granted-- basically a device through which Tarkovsky can crack open each character’s inner psyche, reveal their true intentions. Tarkovsky in an interview stated his own intention, to make a film without any genre elements; I submit however that this exploration of human response to otherwordly phenomena (with its suggestion of unknowable forces at play) is as SF as cinema can get.

2. The Incredible Shrinking Man (Jack Arnold, 1957)

Talking of otherwordly (or out-of-the-ordinary) phenomena, you can’t find a better exploration of the human response than Jack Arnold’s masterpiece. Scott Carey (Grant Williams) sails through a mysterious cloud, is later sprayed by insecticide. He finds that he’s shrinking-- his clothes don’t fit, he can’t leave his home, he eventually has to move into a dollhouse. If as Aldiss puts it science fiction is “the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe” Carey is forced to constantly redefine himself and his status, usually for the worse (Arnold captures Carey’s predicament with a clean visual style, with ingeniously simple special effects usually involving enlarged props and forced perspective). Carey experiences the ultimate SF moment, where a shift in conditions creates a whole new understanding of the universe as an increasingly indifferent and hostile place-- evolution in reverse, if you like.

The final scene-- a monologue with loud uplift music in the background-- is nevertheless devastatingly effective, carefully prepared by every preceding detail. Carey has grappled as much as he can with circumstances, has experienced what can only be called an epiphany. He’s ready to move on.

1. Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935)

Whale’s Frankenstein is generally considered the classic treatise on man’s hubris and artificial life. But the doctor in Mary Shelley’s novel grappled with a creature of intelligence and soul, while the doctor on film only has to deal with an agonized animal; in Bride the Creature has learned to talk and developed a personality; it confronts its creator not just as an equal but as a victim of parental neglect, and the doctor is naturally dismayed by the meeting.

Whale’s film manages to juggle horror and comedy, philosophical speculation and epigrammatic cynicism, low-comedy slapstick and a delicate visual beauty. His Creature is also more complex with its constant urging towards willful independence, and schools its creator accordingly. The Creature's dearest longing, however, is to procreate… and here has the same lesson taught back to it: life will insist on its own prerogatives-- will insist on its right to existence and independence-- despite all contrary intentions. Dealing not so much with science as the morality of science, with dark insouciant wit and a prodigious imagination, I’d call Whale’s masterpiece the greatest science fiction film ever made.

First published in Businessworld 9.4.2015

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