Tag Archives: science fiction

Four Old Articles

In 2010-11, I wrote a series of articles for the magazine Paracinema. They only ever appeared in the publication’s print edition, so now that several years have passed I’ve finally opted to publish them online. I’ve only made minor tweaks for the sake of formatting, which means that the versions below preserve my often questionable prose and ideas, but I wanted to have a digital record of these pieces available.

Tell Your Children:

Dwain Esper’s Sex Madness and the Aesthetics of Exploitation

sexmadness1

[Originally published in Paracinema #10, Oct. 2010]

Between the end of World War I and the late 1950s, Hollywood had a dark secret. A sordid industry thrived in its shadow, unaffiliated with any major studio, less respectable even than the hacks of Poverty Row. Working on the cheap, auteurs of sleaze would churn out ostensibly educational films and crisscross the nation giving roadshow presentations, often restricting their audiences to men over 18. They were the purveyors of exploitation films.

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I Will Survive

Sandra Bullock tumbles through space, gasps for air, fumbles with knobs and dials in one capsule after another. She’s a stranded astronaut and all she wants is to get back down to earth, because this is Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity and it has a very “A→B” narrative. Not that I’m complaining! No, I found the film’s directness refreshing, especially coming in the wake of so many overloaded, smart-ass blockbusters. Gravity staunchly refuses to cut away from its astronauts’ ordeal: no subplots, no flashbacks, no extraneous reminders of life on earth (despite Cuarón having been pressured to include all of the above). The film adheres strictly to the Aristotelian unities. It’s economical, runs a fleet 91 minutes, and never strays from the point. This can, however, make Gravity feel a bit sterile, a bit lacking in personality or idiosyncrasy. Certainly it doesn’t help that the film’s one real attempt at shading in its heroine’s background—the story of her dead daughter—reads as a screenwriting expedient, necessary for the sake of thematic coherence and audience identification. (Nor does it help that by contrast, Cuarón’s previous film Children of Men was bursting with personality and had some of the most lived-in production design I’ve ever seen.)

But then again, frustrated as I am by the banality of its human element, perhaps it’s best that Gravity keeps us focused instead on its urgent, squirm-inducing spectacle. The two astronauts float with palpable momentum through a digital recreation of outer space, frighteningly plausible in its silence and vacuity. Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera follows them, unhinged from physical realities, often in these long-take loop-the-loops that leave behind our earthly definitions of up and down. The cumulative effect, at least where I’m concerned, is disorienting, mildly transporting, and more than a little terrifying. This, the film seems to say, is life in a human body: fragile, tiny against the vastness of space, possible here only with technological aid. (Indeed, the many womblike capsules put in me mind of the complex production process that created Gravity itself in the first place.) The film’s at its strongest when the two stars—tossed this way and that by the laws of physics—act as vehicles for this blend of awe and horror, this incidental profundity. It’s no “game changer,” but it does a graceful job, even within a preexisting genre framework, of situating us in the universe.

A mere two weeks after Gravity was released into American theaters, All Is Lost followed. Like Gravity, it’s a survival thriller plotted around its protagonist’s methodical execution of one minor task after another. Like Gravity, it takes place entirely in a void (this time, the Indian Ocean) with no one else around. The biggest differences between the two are that All Is Lost has only a single character who only speaks three or four lines in the whole film and is surrounded by very real water rather than a digital substitute. Consequently, the story’s told through star Robert Redford’s weathered face and septuagenarian body. His past life, his present trials, his unclear future: writer-director J.C. Chandor lets us glean them all from the physical evidence onscreen. I can guess, for example, that Redford’s unnamed protagonist must have had money and some measure of power back when he lived on terra firma, as well as a desire for Walden-esque solitude. I mean, here he is in the most desolate corner of the globe, alone on a yacht and with the expertise to sail it. (Redford’s own past—as a one-time matinee idol, Oscar winner, and Sundance kid—reverberates through the film, giving an impression that this weary old man was once a ruggedly handsome golden boy.)

“Our Man,” as he’s called in the credits, begins the film with a fantasy of self-sufficiency. But it’s a fantasy All Is Lost will spent the rest of its running time incrementally deflating. It’s like a Boy’s Own maritime adventure turned bitterly to farce. Beginning with an assault by a giant container full of tennis shoes, every cosmic irony that could present itself does, and while it’s grueling to see him threatened by storms, sharks, saltwater, starvation, etc., I nonetheless found plenty of gallows humor in Redford’s stony reactions. On the one side is this nonplussed old man; on the other, the entire ocean. The imbalance is too severe not to laugh. He fusses over the practicalities of survival, and these give the movie its narrative spine, but each one’s as pointless as the last. Whereas Gravity has a very “where there’s life there’s hope” outlook, All Is Lost is as cynical as water is wet, and I appreciate that. Its grim philosophy is what keeps the movie from being just a stunt, an Oulipo-style challenge self-assigned and completed. Many of All Is Lost’s thrills are of-the-moment, superficial and sensory, but its downward thrust lingered with me for days after viewing.

So I wonder, with two such similar movies released within the same month of 2013, is narrative minimalism becoming a new mainstream trend? My mind goes back to other survival movies of the past 2-3 years: BuriedFrozen127 HoursThe Grey, and Life of Pi. Wildly disparate in quality, they (like Gravity and All Is Lost) all follow similar patterns: a routine is disrupted by disaster, leaving protagonists in isolated locations and extreme circumstances. Obviously these films exploit the same collective anxieties, whether it’s being cut off in an increasingly connected world or suffering the wrath of an environment we’ve supposedly dominated. But going beyond pop psychology, I’m interested in how these films choose to represent their respective crises. Life of Pi, for example, is a prestigious literary adaptation, suffused with magical realism and broken up by a (needless) framing story. The Grey is interspersed with revealing flashbacks and, as its frostbitten roughnecks get devoured one by one, becomes a kind of lupine slasher movie. 127 Hours not only lets its hero monologue to a camcorder, but also flies off into flashbacks, fantasies, and hyperkinetic montages.

What then of Gravity and All Is Lost with their self-imposed narrative limitations—their refusal to show anything more than a few minutes either before disaster strikes or after survival’s assured? First, I should explain that I think of this as not an automatic virtue but a neutral storytelling choice. I don’t think Gravity’s refusal to include a shot of mission control or Bullock’s daughter makes it superior to the above movies, nor that All Is Lost’s even greater abstinence makes it inherently better or braver than Gravity. I do, however, think that this bent toward minimalism carries with it connotations of “artiness.” By forcing the audience to fill in certain blanks, Cuarón and Chandor avoid resorting to “Hollywood” shortcuts and instead pare away redundant information. All of which has a few consequences: 1) It forces us to stay engaged with the life-or-death situation at hand, leaving us (like the characters) no in-movie recourse away from the stress or the spectacle. 2) It helps prevent the movie from getting cluttered with any more ideas, images, or tones than it needs. 3) Going along with #2, this strategy coupled with that “A→B” plotting keeps the films single-minded and tends to prevent much variety from seeping into the experience. Whether these tendencies are damaging is up for debate; I believe it varies, often within each individual film. But I’ll be very curious to see how many future large-scale projects follow in these two movies’ minimalist stead.

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“Game Changers”

Watching Pacific Rim last Friday made me wonder: What constitutes a 21st century sci-fi “game changer”? What determines the kind of movie that gets labeled “instantly iconic” or “revolutionary,” that accumulates a fandom by the end of its first weekend in release? Pacific Rim, for example—whose goofy kid-in-a-bathtub mayhem I really enjoyed—struck me as kin to a couple of other recent movies, Avatar and Inception. Here’s what the three have in common:

  • They’re written and directed by men with considerable nerd cachet. (Co-written, in the case of Pacific Rim.) They all started life as “original” projects, but are banking on audience members’ knowledge of their auteurs—and willingness to see anything from the mind behind AliensThe Dark Knight, or Pan’s Labyrinth.
  • That “original” status. Although all three draw heavily from their sci-fi forebears, they’re brand new properties, with minimalist titles calculated to tease. At least prior to their respective releases, they all looked new, mysterious, and intriguing.
  • The near-future worlds crafted for these movies are all dependent on CGI for their size and detail. Each of these worlds also centers on a series of conceits—e.g. avatars, dream theft, drifting—meant to hook the viewer, with “rules” which must be explained via endless exposition.
  • Brooding, recently bereaved white men headline these movies, each of them leading a team on a redemptive mission. Outside of a few minor flourishes in Inception, they’re all very conventionally plotted, with conflicts that are easy to grab hold of: “natives vs. imperialists,” “thieves vs. the mind,” and of course “robots vs. monsters.”
  • As decidedly PG-13 action movies, they lack any sexuality (beyond a single chaste scene in Avatar) or graphic violence. They disengage from the reality of human bodies, opting to make them one more glossy component of these digital fantasy worlds instead.
  • Given their shared interest in charting the mind’s interior and playing with characters’ identities, they’re all indebted to the work of Philip K. Dick, as well as to The Matrix—their most obvious predecessor as far as conceit-driven sci-fi sagas go.

None of these traits are inherently negative, but together they do lay out some very narrow parameters for Event Movie sci-fi. I don’t expect to be blowing any minds here, but given how familiar these three films’ stories, ideas, and visual grammar are from countless earlier movies, maybe (just maybe) “game-changing” has less to do with content and more to do with packaging.

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10 Beloved Star Trek: TNG Episodes

I recently finished watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. (Only seasons 3-7, I should add, after I was loudly and repeatedly warned away from the first two.) I loved the show as a kid, and I had a lot of fun revisiting it with adult eyes, seeing wisdom and thematic depth I’d never realized were there—although, that said, my basic reaction hasn’t changed much since age 11: “Ooh, cool space adventures!” It is, wonderfully, a show that can be enjoyed both as literary sci-fi and as spectacle, even if its low-budget special effects invariably lagged light-years behind its ideas. Uneven as its run may have been, TNG was broad in scope, huge in ambition, and usually an entertaining hour of TV.

So I figured I might as well write about a handful of my favorite episodes. I chose to leave off iconic favorites like “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” “Best of Both Worlds,” “The Drumhead,” and “The Inner Light,” because I feel like by now they’ve been praised nearly to death. (Though it bears repeating that “The Inner Light” is just stunningly good. As is “Chain of Command,” for that matter.) Instead, I selected ten episodes that may not yet have received their due, but which thrilled me, intrigued me, and moved me more than I expected…

(I’ve listed the seasons and episode numbers after each title. And if these aren’t enough, here are five more that almost made my list: “The Hunted,” “Remember Me,” “Disaster,” “Relics,” and “Parallels.”)

"The Survivors" (S3E3)

“The Survivors” (S3E3)

This episode has all the economy and power of a classic sci-fi short story. Nothing superfluous: just a near-deserted planet, a pair of elderly guest stars, and a wrenching twist. The Enterprise gets involved, of course, and Picard employs some deductive reasoning to unravel the planet’s mystery, but “The Survivors” is primarily about its title characters, the Uxbridges—about the intensity of their love, and husband Kevin’s commitment to nonviolence. Through them, the episode investigates ethical concerns already familiar to TNG viewers, but in an unusually thought- and emotion-provoking manner.

"The Most Toys" (S3E22)

“The Most Toys” (S3E22)

As an android, Data’s fundamentally different from every other character on the show, and that difference was exploited by many solid episodes, with “Brothers,” “Hero Worship,” and “Thine Own Self” high among them. But I prefer “The Most Toys,” where he’s imprisoned by obsessive collector Kivas Fajo, played by Saul Rubinek. The relationship between the dickish Fajo and his emotionless captor makes for meaty drama, as well as an object lesson in Data’s personhood and unshakable moral high ground. And the ending, wherein Data tells Riker a chilling white lie, is icing on an already delicious cake. (…with mint frosting)

"Sarek" (S3E23)

“Sarek” (S3E23)

This is how you draw on ancient franchise history, courtesy of a script by fantasy legend Peter S. Beagle. Bringing back Mark Lenard as Spock’s father, now a wizened ambassador, “Sarek” throws the Enterprise into the middle of a diplomatic crisis and the outbreak of an emotional epidemic, then ties them both to a tragic metaphor for Alzheimer’s and the ravages of age. Rarely has the loss of self-control been illustrated as starkly as it is in Lenard’s agonized performance and in Patrick Stewart’s ferocious breakdown scene, both of which grant startling rawness to such an elegant episode.

"The Mind's Eye" (S4E24)

“The Mind’s Eye” (S4E24)

Geordi is maybe the most lovable character in TNG: friendly, hard-working, and incredibly nerdy. So it’s disturbing to see him thrust into the Manchurian Candidate scenario of “The Mind’s Eye,” programmed by the Romulans to be a perfect assassin and saboteur. The episode takes the form of a procedural, with Geordi leading an investigation into espionage he doesn’t realize he’s comitting, and Data gradually piecing the clues together. “The Mind’s Eye” is a tense and sharply written hour which expertly raises the stakes by playing on the audience’s built-in fondness for its characters.

“Redemption” (S4E26/S5E1)

TNG, for a variety of reasons, was never especially good at “epic.” It’s not for nothing that most of these episodes are small, intimate, and Enterprise-centric. But with the two-part “Redemption,” they at least gave it a shot, forcing Worf to resolve his divided loyalties as the Klingon empire explodes into civil war. The Romulans are involved again, and the plotting’s a little too busy, but nonetheless it’s fun to watch Picard navigate his own conflicts of interest, or Data take command for the first time. Between the convoluted interstellar politics and Worf’s identity crisis, “Redemption” is the show going big in a way I can’t resist.

"Darmok" (S5E2)

“Darmok” (S5E2)

This episode delivers the pleasure of Patrick Stewart acting opposite Paul Winfield, who plays an alien captain trapped with Picard in the wilderness. It also has the Enterprise crew doing what it does best, i.e. devoting all their expertise to a big, vexing problem. But it’s on this list for one big reason, which is its unforgettable conceit: that the alien’s race communicates solely through culturally specific metaphors. Like all great sci-fi, “Darmok” makes me reexamine my world; it encourages me to ponder just how strange and impressive an achievement language itself really is.

"Cause and Effect" (S5E18)

“Cause and Effect” (S5E18)

This is the “Groundhog Day… in space!” episode, one of my favorite “fun” episodes (along with “Clues” and “Conundrum”) and one which toys with TNG’s bread and butter: some weird phenomena is affecting the Enterprise, and the crew has to figure out what, then stop it from killing everyone. The narrative structure here is unusually experimental, the gradual discovery of the time loop is very satisfying, and the cold open is probably the most memorable of the show’s run. Nothing too weighty here, but it’s fleet and imaginative just like good genre fiction should be.

"Face of the Enemy" (S6E14)

“Face of the Enemy” (S6E14)

This one really shocked me. Its premise, with Counselor Troi forced onto an undercover mission aboard a Romulan vessel, is certainly tantalizing, but in execution it’s a masterpiece of rising tension. (Admittedly, I might just be especially susceptible to stories like this; I spent roughly half the episode physically shaking.) Watching Troi bluff her way through a high-pressure mission provides no end of pleasure, as does seeing her go toe to toe with Carolyn Seymour as the ship’s unyielding captain. Few TNG episodes develop an atmosphere of danger quite as thick as the one in “Face of the Enemy.”

"Lessons" (S6E19)

“Lessons” (S6E19)

On the opposite end of the spectrum, here’s a rare episode that’s quiet, tender, even Ozu-esque. The slender story is that of two middle-aged professionals (Picard and Nella Daren, played by Wendy Hughes) who meet one night, slowly become interested in one another, play some duets—she on piano, he on his “Inner Light” flute—and fall in love. It’s a little awkward, especially since he has his “gruff captain” persona to maintain, but they push through any workplace difficulties… until duty forces him to endanger her life, and they decide a break-up would be for the best. It’s sensitively handled, unlike so many TNG romances, and a precious glimpse at Enterprise life in between big missions.

"Preemptive Strike" (S7E24)

“Preemptive Strike” (S7E24)

Finally, here’s the second-to-last episode of the whole series. It’s a story that could only have been told so late in the show’s run, reversing our POV so we can experience the Enterprise and the Federation from the outside looking in. Using Ro Laren, a recurring character known to bristle at authority, the episode turns morality on its head and tacitly asks that we empathize with terrorists. It’s a daring gambit, and it’s tough to imagine a show pulling it off outside of a sci-fi context. Like many of the episodes listed here, “Preemptive Strike” acknowledges that sometimes, the right thing to do is anything but obvious.

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Starting Over

John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966) is a sci-fi movie with elements of horror, surrealism, realism, and pitch-black comedy. I wrote about it over at Movie Mezzanine. It’s a powerful film, due in part to that internal clash of tone and style. The story of “Tony Wilson” is a tragedy, an Orpheus-and-Eurydice tale of the doomed Tony gazing backward from beyond death. But the employees of the film’s incomprehensibly powerful company treat it like a mild bureaucratic snafu and speak of it with Kafkaesque good humor. They may never behave explicitly evil, feigning bedside manners even at the grisly end, but then that makes Seconds even more horrifying to watch. It reminds me of movies like The Game and Society: good, bad, up, down, every normative standard is turned on its head. The materialistic values that Arthur/Tony has lived by as long as he can remember? Meaningless now. He’s cut adrift, forced to wander these huge, intimidating residential and industrial spaces that could be anywhere but feel like nowhere. And as James Wong Howe’s disorienting photography makes perfectly clear, this isn’t just one man’s nightmare. It’s 1960s America’s.

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Link Dump: #86

Upper-crust telephone KITTY!

Our first fluffy kitty of 2013 is from Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here, which I wrote about yesterday. Aww, it looks like it’s waiting for a phone call! Aren’t cats just the cutest? And now, links:

Two pornographic search terms this week, and I don’t want to know what either sentence means: “making love videos of loving blacks and white cuckold” and “real hidden camera in a restaurant bathrooms and pussy the advent of the menstrual cycle.” Yikes.

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A Real Good Thing

Wanna know what scares the shit out of me? “It’s a Good Life,” that Twilight Zone episode where Billy Mumy plays a 6-year-old with godlike powers. And it’s not just because of Mumy’s wild eyes when he howls “You’re a bad man!” nor the half-flaccid shadow of a jack-in-the-box that follows his cry, although the episode has many such bone-chilling images. It’s… well, the concept, the execution, the performances, the layers of built-in political/moral resonances packed into its lean 20 minutes. So much about this episode terrifies me on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin.

The realism. Like so much of The Twilight Zone, “It’s a Good Life” doesn’t look like sci-fi or horror at all. It looks like conventional 1960s television. Everything about Peakesville and the Fremont household is emphatically normal; the only aberration is The Monster, Anthony. This is a common Cold War anxiety—of something wrong sprouting out of healthy American soil—manifested in the bluntest, most horrific way possible. It’s the flip side of Leave It to Beaver, with the Beave as a Lovecraftian abomination. The uncontrollable Anthony calls to mind the words Bob Dylan would sing just a few years later: “Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command, your old road is rapidly agin’…” or perhaps the lyrics to David Bowie’s “Oh! You Pretty Things”:

Look at your children

See their faces in golden rays

Don’t kid yourself they belong to you

They’re the start of a coming race

The mind games. Rod Serling’s writing here is razor-sharp, and every conversation with Anthony is like a game of Operation. The adults have to steer him, ever so gently, away from violence (at least, violence against them) and toward—well, not “goodness” exactly but toward some heavily compromised approximation of it. These exchanges are like supplicant prayers to an unbalanced and amoral god, a god who must always be appeased with the refrain of “real good thing,” a god ruled only by his own ego. “I hate anybody that doesn’t like me!” whines Anthony, and that’s his first and only commandment. His power so outstrips the scope of his comprehension or empathy. This is Old Testament theology filtered through the mind of a child.

The representation of trauma. As the episode begins, Peakesville is populated by survivors: the tight-knit community of sweaty, miserable adults who’ve curried Anthony’s favor thus far. (The timeline of Anthony’s reign is hazy; it feels like he’s been in control forever.) Through these adults, “It’s a Good Life” delineates the behavior patterns adopted by trauma victims in impossible situations. They try to decipher the ambiguous looks on Anthony’s face; they prioritize self-preservation above all else; they bargain with one another to stay on his good side. “You’ll tell him, won’t you, Ms. Fremont?” begs Bill, the pathetic delivery boy. “Tell him I brought the tomato soup ’cause I heard he liked it? Tell him I brought it, won’t you?” But as Ms. Fremont knows, these tactics are meaningless to the unpredictable Anthony. Either he likes you, or he doesn’t.

The climax. And in the case of Dan Hollis (Don Keefer), he doesn’t. Dan is irascible, increasingly hard-drinking, and on the outskirts of middle age. He’s in no mood to tolerate Anthony’s bullshit, especially on his birthday. Your birthday is supposed to be about you, a day to flaunt your ego, but in Peakesville every day is about indulging Anthony. So Dan snaps. Earlier in the episode, when Bill says “We love that boy,” a look of soul-shaking nausea flashes across his face. But Dan is the only one to take this revulsion at being reduced to a child’s plaything and whip it up into blind outrage. Everyone else grovels before Anthony with fear-induced sincerity; only Dan has the temerity to give him a sarcastic salute. It all comes down to one line, after Anthony puts the kibosh on playing Dan’s new record: “Nuts. Can’t even play my own record; I can’t even play Perry Como!”

If he can’t play Perry Como, life is not worth living. If he can’t play Perry Como, no risk is too great. (The great irony is that Como was a quintessentially Establishment performer, as safe as Kennedy-era pop culture got, yet in Peakesville he’s a Molotov cocktail.) Dan lashes out at Anthony, begging the others to follow his lead and “take a lamp or a bottle or something and end this!” And of course none of them do, because Anthony’s control is their “normal” now. Misery is the new default. They even have a tacit protocol in place so that when Dan gets transformed into that jack-in-the-box, Mr. Fremont reflexively asks that Anthony send it away to the cornfield. This 6-year-old tyrant is now their status quo: they know how to survive under him, but not how to rebel.

In “It’s a Good Life,” free will can be conditioned away. Children are not innately innocent. And the hell you live in must be described as a heaven, cognitive dissonance be damned. These are but a few of the macabre implications that leave me shuddering long after Rod Serling has signed off. (“No comment” being the only postscript he can muster.) Somewhere in my mind, the threat of Anthony is always lurking, and that’s a real good thing.

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