Below is an article that I wrote for “StarShipSofa Stories Volume 3” which came out in November 2011.
The book is amazing, containing fiction by Matthew Sanborn Smith, Gregory Frost, Joe Haldeman, Mercurio D. Rivera, Nicola Griffith, Peter Watts, James Patrick Kelly, Saladin Ahmed, Catherynne M. Valente, Paul Cornell, Gareth L. Powell, James Morrow, Kevin J. Anderson, Michael Swanwick, Lawrence Santoro, Lavie Tidhar, Aliette de Bodard, Allen Steele, Tad Williams, Jack McDevitt, Karen Joy Fowler, Will McIntosh, Adam Troy Castro and David Brin! Each of the stories is brilliantly illustrated by one of a range of wonderful artists.
The book also contains articles by Amy H. Sturgis, Frederic Himebaugh, Morgan Saletta and yours truly!
It is available in a range of physical formats and in different e-formats at http://www.starshipsofa.com/stories-volume-3/buy-the-book
I hope that you enjoy my article from the book; but don’t stop there, go and buy it!
The Joy of Flicks
Old movies stretch the brain… This isn’t another rant against the dumbing down of the cinema; for every buckletload of “Battlefield Earth” or “Catwoman” there is still the thimbleful of “Moon” or “The Road”. No; what I mean is, that movies made in that other country, the past, allow us a window upon the culture, preoccupations and prejudices of the filmmakers and, by extension, the audiences, of that era.
Old movies, for old folk like me, also shine an usherette’s torch onto some of our less visited memories. For me, Star Wars (which we all knew as ‘the first one’ but younger souls would recognise as Episode IV) will always remain linked to the memory of a fifteen year old me, queuing with my eleven year old brother, him feeling very grown up as it was his first ‘flick’ without mum. Ghostbusters, in my mind, evokes a dark and rainy Coventry as I faced my engineering exams. You name an occasion and I can often associate a movie with it.
Movies, way back when, were more of an event. Part of that effect was due to their rarity: if you missed the run at the cinema then it was likely that you would have to wait for up to six years before the chance to see it came around again, when the movie was broadcast on TV. For that reason, my childhood was not filled with the latest films, it was populated by “Them” (1954), “Fantastic Voyage” (1966) and “The Incredible Shrinking Man” (1957).
Nowadays, if my seventeen year old stepson is anything to go by, many teenagers look down on movies that don’t have the latest special effects; and just try getting them to watch black and white films! Also, the talk the next day is not so much about the movie that they have just seen, but more about what the next blockbuster coming down the pike is. Now don’t get me wrong, I join in the discussions and check out the upcoming features on my local cinema’s website. But some of the mystique is gone…
One cannot deny that the modern blockbuster is a money spinner, and that enables more films to be made. But good movies of the thought-provoking kind, are not always (in fact almost universally are not) money spinners. Of the top twenty largest grossing movies; five are science fiction (with Avatar at number one), eleven are fantasy (if you count the three Pirates of the Caribbean and four Harry Potter movies as such), and three are children’s animated features. Finally there is Titanic; propelled to number two in the list by the dulcet tones of Céline Dion and the iconic shot of a working class drifter trying to push an upper class lass off of the front of a boat. The oldest movie on the Top Twenty list is Jurassic Park (1993) at number seventeen, followed by Titanic (1997), and then 1999’s Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. This, in my not so humble opinion, says more about the market nowadays, and the money pulled in by DVD sales, than the quality of the movies of the 1990s.
To get back to my point (yes there was one back near the top of the page!) movies can do more than just entertain for a couple of hours; they can make one think, consider a world different to our own. Science fiction has been defined as the literature of “what if” and, in the movies, the director tries to answer their version of that question. With the first spaceway at Spaceport America now dedicated; who will be able to watch SpaceShipTwo finally carry its two crew and six passengers across the edge of space, and not recall the Pan American spaceplane from 2001: A Space Odyssey? (By the way, I love the way that Virgin Galactic have written it with three capitals – SST – reminds me of something…). Who, when they watched Gladiators on TV, didn’t think of “The Running Man” and pray for Arnold Schwarzenegger to appear and teach that annoying Wolf a thing or two? Who, when they watched Big Brother or The Joe Schmo Show, didn’t think of The Truman Show? And who, when they tuck into a hearty plate of tofu, can forget the last lines of Soylent Green?
Having skirted around the point for a while and nibbled at some films; I hereby exercise my right to draw up an arbitrary list. Here are nine movies from the last sixty years (three from the 50s, three from the 60s and three from the 70s). Each, in their own way, merit a look. You may have seen them many years ago, or you may have passed them by thinking that there was nothing to recommend them; but, perhaps it’s time to head out to the DVD store and take another look.
“The Day the Earth Stood Still” 1951 not the 2008 remake. A classic of those paranoid days of the Cold War, where an alien, Michael Rennie, lands on Earth and gives the ultimatum that we should all learn to live in peace or die at the hands of his giant police robot. He tells us that “in matters of aggression, we have given them (the robots) absolute power over us. This power cannot be revoked. At the first sign of violence, they act automatically against the aggressor. The penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk. The result is, we live in peace, without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war.” Gort, the robot, is not to be confused with the Terminator (Gort killing – a lesson; Terminator killing – bad). If you are ever confronted by an alien robot intent on pacifying you, try saying “Klaatu barada nikto”.
“This Island Earth” 1955. An archetypal tale of a dying planet (Metaluna) and the plan to take over the Earth. Once you get past the creature effects (although hypercephalic aliens have never been quite so hypercephalic since this movie) this tale ambitiously and successfully translates Raymond F. Jones’ story of “The Alien Machine”, from Thrilling Wonder Stories magazine, to the silver screen. The last third of the movie is a true showcase of 1950s science fiction sensibility; with space battles, aliens and wonderful new vistas. By the way, the star was Rex Reason, one might think that this is a typical 1950s B movie actor name – only he was born with it! Universal first billed him as “Bart Roberts” but, after his first two films, he insisted upon using his real, gloriously over the top, name. Classic quote: “Sun lamp?” “That’s what it looks like. Only instead of a suntan, you get your brain cells rearranged.”
“On The Beach” 1959 not the 2000 TV movie! Stanley Kramer’s “On The Beach” was adapted from Nevil Shute’s novel and stars Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Anthony Hopkins and showcases Fred Astaire in his first dramatic role. An antiwar movie whose key message comes across through observing the details of a range of individual responses to the imminent date with a cloud of radioactive dust. Some may find this classic to be slow moving, but it is worth taking the time to get to know the various characters and their individual ways of dealing with their impending death. Here we have a scientist who wants to win just one motor race before asphyxiating himself, a naval officer and his wife who take the life of their child and then their own, or the party animal who turns to the bottle and to an affair with a visiting submarine captain before he opts to leave her and die with his crew back home in California. Classic quote: “We’re all doomed, you know. The whole, silly, drunken, pathetic lot of us. Doomed by the air we’re about to breathe.”
“X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes” 1963. I am very surprised, in this era of remakes, that no-one has thought to update this film. Directed by Roger Corman and starring Ray Milland as Dr. James Xavier; this was one of my favourite films as a child. We have naked people (unfortunately only seen from the back) and a man ripping his own eyes out; what more could a young boy want! The story follows the good Dr. X as he experiments upon his own eyes. At first he can see through clothes, then into patient’s bodies to diagnose what really ails them, finally he gets to see deeper than he would ever want… Classic quote: “I’ve come to tell you what I see. There are great darknesses. Farther than time itself. And beyond the darkness… a light that glows, changes… and in the centre of the universe… the eye that sees us all.”
“Farenheit 451” 1966. Directed by François Truffaut (who notably played Claude Lacombe in 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind). The story of Guy Montag (played by Oskar Werner) a ‘fireman’ whose job it is to burn books. As one might expect from a French director in the 1960s, a critique of the bourgeoisie is also slipped into Ray Bradbury’s powerful tale of a world where books (and independent thought) are banned. In places the movie is slow moving, but that just seems to emphasise the weight pressing down upon those who will not allow literature to die. However, at times, that weight is lightened by the odd touch of (black) humour. Classic quote: “Well, it’s a job just like any other. Good work with lots of variety. Monday, we burn Miller; Tuesday, Tolstoy; Wednesday, Walt Whitman; Friday, Faulkner; and Saturday and Sunday, Schopenhauer and Sartre. We burn them to ashes and then burn the ashes. That’s our official motto.”
“Barbarella”1968. Another movie that brings back fond youthful memories… Described by Penthouse as “the kinkiest film of the year”; it is the year 40,000 and Barbarella (a futuristic Bond Girl that has taken on the secret agent mantle herself) is given a mission to find the scientist Durand Durand who is threatening the ancient universal peace. Along the way, Barbarella meets many strange people and finds many opportunities to lose her clothing. OK, this is not a serious film by any stretch of the imagination (but it’s my list) and I do believe that the crazy psychedelic design and over-the-top dialogue makes this a kitsch must-see. Classic Quote: “De-crucify the angel!” “What?” “De-crucify him or I’ll melt your face!”
“Slaughterhouse-Five” 1972. An interesting, if not completely successful, adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel. In it we learn, from the Tralfamadorians, that it is only on Earth that the concept of free will exists. Our hero, Billy Pilgrim, gets to understand this through experiencing his life (and death) out of synch. The central conceit, of a character who has become ‘unstuck in time’, unfortunately leads to the film being a bit too jumpy for many traditional moviegoers; however, it is definitely worth the effort. Apparently, Vonnegut was very happy with the adaptation, and you can’t say fairer than that! For some reason the scene where a young Billy is thrown into the pool to sink or swim has always stuck with me. Classic Quote: “It’s time for me to be dead for a little while. And then live again. I give you the Tralfamadorian greeting: Hello. Farewell. Hello. Farewell. Eternally connected, eternally embracing. Hello. Farewell.”
“Westworld” 1973. Written and directed by Michael Crichton and starring Yul Brynner as the ultimate creepy killer robot (although, disturbingly, I know two people who find him supremely sexy in this role…). The basic premise is of theme parks (there is also a Romanworld and Medievalworld) where robots offer sex and the opportunity to kill an ersatz human; what could go wrong? (Hey Michael, I have an idea, how about another theme park movie, but this time, instead of robots, how about DINOSAURS! … uhm…). This movie combines plenty of action with serious(ish) ideas and some black comedy. There is supposed to be a remake due for release late in 2012, bet the gunslinger is nowhere near as creepy as Yul Brynner! Classic Quote: “We aren’t dealing with ordinary machines here. These are highly complicated pieces of equipment. Almost as complicated as living organisms. In some cases, they have been designed by other computers. We don’t know exactly how they work.”
“Zardoz” 1974. Described as The Wizard Of Oz with sex and murder (by me, just now) this movie stars Sean Connery in a red nappy and Puss In Boots’ thigh high boots, as Zed, an exterminator, culling the inhabitants of the Outlands for his god (the giant floating stone head – Zardoz). Zed learns that Zardoz is just a tool of the immortal and sexless inhabitants of the Vortex and sets out to bring them down. Written and directed by John Boorman, the movie is a psychedelic melange of weirdness that has been accused of being pretentious; maybe it is, but it’s also very cool! Classic Quote: “Penic erection was one of the many unsolved evolutionary mysteries surrounding sexuality. Every society had an elaborate subculture devoted to erotic stimulation. But nobody could quite determine how this…” [Consuella points to a diagram of a flaccid male penis and scrotum] “…becomes this.” [Consuella points to a diagram of an erect penis and scrotum]
One could look at the list above and conclude that movies of the 1950s were obsessed with the Cold War, the 1960s with sex, drugs and the police state, and the 1970s with what it means to be human. But then, I didn’t mention Forbidden Planet (1956), Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1959), The Day of the Triffids (1962), First Men in the Moon (1964), Dark Star (1974) or Logan’s Run (1976); so don’t read too much into a very small sample. See this list as just a toe in the water; and I do hope that it spurs you to dive right in! Go on, search out more of these unregarded gems; they may be dated, they may be naïve; they may make no sense to our sophisticated twenty-first century brains, but, maybe, just maybe, they might make you think…