Tag Archives: time travel

Killing Time

This week’s Criticwire Survey asked, “What is the best time travel movie ever made?” I answered with La Jetée (1962), explaining that

I’m impressed by how deftly Chris Marker constructed a short film out of photos, voiceover, and a few seconds of moving image… [and by] how he uses time travel: not as a narrative device plucked out of the sci-fi toolbox, but as a poignant reaction to war, love, and memory.

After decades of overexposure, sci-fi audiences are mostly inured to time travel. We take the technology and its (often mind-bending) repercussions for granted. Unless it’s invoked in a wholly original way—as with Primer, a popular Survey answer—it tends to feel cliché. But revisiting La Jetée makes time travel fresh again. Because Marker isn’t following blindly in the footsteps of genre pioneers like Heinlein, Bradbury, Dick, etc. He’s telling his own wistful story, one begat by his hero’s relationship with (and physical access to) the past.

More than anything, this viewing of La Jetée brought to mind the “white parasol” speech delivered by Everett Sloane in Citizen Kane. Both are bittersweet recollections of a single image seared into a man’s consciousness, prompting lifelong obsessions. (Men fantasizing about women: is any other subject as ubiquitous in film?) The subject of Marker’s experiment, however, is allowed to reenter that past, speak with the woman, and transform his fantasy into reality. It’s sci-fi wish fulfillment, but of the most metaphysically heartbreaking kind.

The romance blossoms through a series of crisp black-and-white photographs. Although La Jetée is science fiction, Marker’s montage gives it a near-documentary flavor. Each snapshot functions as evidence of a new past, a record of this couple’s shared time. No wonder they visit parks and museums, these spaces of preservation, or gaze at a cross-section of an ancient redwood. (The latter also references Vertigo, a past-fixated Marker favorite.)

These photos, one by one, pull cinema back to zero—back to the Lumières and Barthes’ Camera Lucida and Bazin’s “Ontology of the Photographic Image.” Like his Nouvelle Vague compatriots Resnais and Godard, Marker embeds his theory in his sci-fi. La Jetée is a meta-movie, an act of time travel itself, an attempt to overcome the pain of memory. But as its guinea pig quickly learns, that attempt only brings the tragedy full circle.

Early on, La Jetée’s narrator explains that “nothing distinguishes memories from ordinary moments. Only later do they become memorable by the scars they leave.” In which case every new scene in a movie is another psychic wound.

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Link Dump: #28

One of my favorite parts about the fun-but-forgettable Go, aside from the guts and raw energy of Sarah Polley, was this kitty. Look at it! It’s so cute and it’s terrifyingly telepathic! This is why you don’t pop tons of Ecstasy. Because that’s when cats start messing with you. In other news, the Internet has been happening for the past two weeks. Here’s the best of it:

  • I love my minimal movie posters, and these Stanley Kubrick pictogram posters are both well-made and dryly funny. (Also, spoiler warning on Full Metal Jacket!)
  • This Total Film article about inserting Doc Brown into every other time travel movie is pretty hilarious, and very British.
  • Pajiba has a list of “The 50 Most Expensive Movies of All Time,” with their budgets and grosses listed, plus some fun/informative trivia.
  • Badass Digest inducts Pauline Kael into its “Badass Hall of Fame,” which is a very appropriate place for her. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that Ms. Kael is a personal hero of mine, and the piece is thoughtfully written; give it a quick read!
  • The two things I never get tired of, Black Swan and Rebecca Black’s memetastic “Friday,” have finally been combined into one horrifying/funny video. (Huge spoiler alert for Black Swan.)
  • Few directors are as eloquent or congenial as David Cronenberg, and interviews with him are always a pleasure to read. This Q&A from Macleans.ca is no exception, as he dishes out yummy details about A Dangerous Method. (SO EXCITED!!)
  • Jonathan Coe in The Guardian digs into the hazards of the literary adaptation, with special emphasis on Barney’s Version and John Huston’s The Dead.
  • The YouTube channel MisterSharp has a series of hilarious pseudo-educational videos, including “The Bizarre World of the Bisexual,” which made me laugh out loud several times and is highly worth a view.
  • For The New Yorker, Tad Friend talks about the comic genius of Anna Faris, a woman we love around these parts. (This is also probably the most praise you’ll ever hear for The House Bunny.)

We had some weeeeeird search terms! I like the rhyming and biological inaccuracy of “zit on my clit,” and of course I adore the utterly inexplicable “george w bush sex in bed.” I was kind of creeped out, not gonna lie, by “female dead hand,” but the best two were definitely “молчание ягнят,” which is Russian for Silence of the Lambs (yay international readers!) and “i dont know why they dont explodes.” I don’t know why either. Maybe someday we’ll all find out.

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Edgar G. Ulmer and Sci-fi Noir

I always love a good time travel yarn. I double love it if it’s directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, who made one of my all-time favorite noirs, Detour (1945). So I had high personal expectations for Beyond the Time Barrier (1960), a cheap, obscure sci-fi movie that happened to be streaming online through the magic of Netflix Instant. It’s not exactly a great film—OK, maybe not enough good. It’s very prone to the clichés and bad writing endemic amongst low-budget Cold War sci-fi. But it’s still very much worth a viewing.

That’s because it’s weird and visually striking, in a way that recalls Ulmer’s history as a set designer during the height of German Expressionism. It’s got a plot that’s familiar now, but wasn’t much used in films at the time: test pilot Bill Allison (Robert Clarke) goes on an experimental flight into the upper atmosphere, somehow goes beyond the time barrier, and lands only to find his Air Force base in a shambles. After wandering around the bleak wilderness, he spots a giant, solar-powered citadel, and is suddenly teleported inside.

There, he ends up in the middle of post-apocalyptic politics as the Citadel’s leaders each try to use him for their own purposes—including, potentially, the repopulation of the earth in the wake of a civilization-ending plague that rendered most human beings infertile and mutated. Plus some accidental time travelers from Russia want to use his ship to get back to their own respective times. It’s a surprising amount of conflict for a movie that’s barely over an hour long, with some surprisingly original conceits that occasionally one-up the film’s big-budget rival, George Pal’s The Time Machine. (Although Beyond the Time Barrier‘s bald, scaly mutants are nowhere near as effective as The Time Machine‘s morlocks.)

By far the most appealing element of Beyond the Time Barrier, though, is its visual aesthetic. The most obvious recurring example is the triangles that dominate the sets, whether in the shapes of doors or in the overall design of various rooms. Bars and shadows also proliferate, so the whole Citadel feels like a giant, futuristic panopticon. This sense of confinement goes along with the film’s unexpectedly intense pessimism. After many stand-offs and confrontations, Allison may get back to his own time, but 1) the future’s still fucked over and 2) he ends up mysteriously aged beyond his years.

Or look at those first few moments as he wanders around the countryside in the ruined future, as represented by a real-life rural area shot in stark black and white. It’s like something out of Godard, maybe Alphaville or Week End, in how it forges the dark future out of the present. As always, Ulmer was the film industry’s most frugal visionary, using pocket change to make bizarre, unsettling nightmares about the human capacity for selfishness and betrayal. At times, Beyond the Time Barrier may sound like a generic Buck Rogers-esque sci-fi saga, but deep down it’s full of the same despair that powers Ulmer’s other offbeat forays into the dark side of the soul.

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Perfectly Cromulent Analysis: Treehouse of Horror V

So, I’m going to use the quasi-existence of “Aprilween” (i.e., a made-up horror-themed holiday halfway between each Halloween) as an excuse to continue my proposed series of Simpsons analyses. Every time I watch one of the show’s many, many great episodes, I just have an urge to talk about it – to figure out what the writers and animators did to make it so fucking brilliant. There’s so much going on in each 22-minute selection, such a talented collaborative balancing of social satire, emotional realism, and absurd animation. Single minutes of the show at its prime can unload so much comedy and pathos and subtle creative tricks you’re not entirely aware of that it makes your head spin.

And even while still fitting in all of this, the show occasionally took total departures from reality. Every October (or, more likely, early November) they would, and still do, put forward a Treehouse of Horror episode. They were continuity-free triptychs full of gore & violence, but still with the show’s usual abundance of verbal and visual jokes. But they went places (like hell and outer space) that normal episodes generally couldn’t. They allowed the show to disregard all pretenses of realism and dive into apocalyptic nightmares and carefree killing sprees, often within in a parody of a Twilight Zone episode or a classic horror movie. Anyone could die. Any institution could be dismantled. Basically, it was The Simpsons‘ horror-themed equivalent of DC’s non-canon Elseworlds series, or Marvel’s What If.

Plenty of full episodes or individual segments would’ve been worthy of closer inspection. (Although, as with the rest of the series, quality tends to drop off when you move past season 9-10.) “The Devil and Homer Simpson” from Treehouse of Horror IV, for example, has Homer trapped in his own ironic hell courtesy of an ironically satanic Ned Flanders. The legendary “Homer³” from VI uses then-revolutionary computer-generated imagery to produce an eerie, self-destructing dimension in which Homer gets trapped. (Homer being trapped in bad places was clearly a persistent theme in these episodes.) But beyond any doubt, the greatest of all 20 Halloween specials is Treehouse of Horror V.

Just as the Halloween episodes take place outside the series’ normal continuity, they also dispense with its conventions. V begins not with the familiar clouds over Springfield, but with Marge announcing that Congress has forbidden them from showing it – this cuts to an Outer Limits-style TV hijacking by Bart and Homer, which introduces the episode – and this segues into a morbid parody of the expected opening, which moves through a graveyard and toward the Simpsons’ house. Pattie and Selma are burnt as witches, Moe hangs himself, and Bart guillotines school employees (including a disturbingly happy Principal Skinner), all of which confirm this as a Springfield in which power structures have been overturned in favor of anarchic violence.

Every dark impulse boiling beneath the show’s day-to-day conflicts is let loose in shockingly literal form. The Treehouse of Horror episodes were not just a little ghoulish fun, but also a blood-spurting catharsis for the show’s whole cast. Secret fears or desires could be voiced without needing to worry about them affecting future episodes. This is especially visible in the episode’s first (and best) segment, a pitch-perfect parody of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining entitled “The Shinning.” (As Groundskeeper Willie says, “You want to get sued?”) Mr. Burns hires the Simpsons as winter caretakers for his lodge, but not before erasing their access to TV and beer, causing Homer to… “something something.” (“Go crazy?”)

In its imitation of Kubrick’s masterpiece, “The Shinning” brings to mind the infamous mirror routine in the Marx Bros.’ Duck Soup. Just as Harpo darts back and forth in a dead-on mockery of Groucho’s mannerisms, so does “The Shinning” invoke all of The Shining‘s most memorable set-pieces, only to deflate their terrifying grandeur and mystery. The gush of blood from the elevator, formerly an enigmatic omen of impending violence, is reduced to a quick joke, as Burns notes, “Usually the blood gets off at the second floor.” And the hedge maze is no longer a site of confusion and danger, as Bart merely chainsaws through it. All these nightmare images look ridiculous when viewed through the Simpsons’ all-American ignorance, just like the “Bad Dream House” from Treehouse of Horror I, which prefers suicide to a life with the insufferably self-absorbed family.

As Ashley and I were discussing earlier, “The Shinning” isn’t just parody for its own sake. It doesn’t even bother with many of The Shining‘s most iconic moments – the occupants of the rooms, Danny on his tricycle, the twin girls – and instead focuses on the analogy of Homer and Jack Torrance as frustrated men within the strictures of the nuclear family. Both become violent under the building’s malevolent influence, but whereas Jack is triggered by drinking, Homer goes crazy when he can’t drink. He’s so dependent on these creature comforts – TV and beer – as escapes from what he would later describe as “the drudgery of work and family” that we can plausibly imagine the Homer we know and love going ax crazy without them. It’s just thrilling how, even in the midst of a hilarious parody, the Simpsons writers are still furthering their vast thesis of Homer as the quintessential American father.

And even while developing Homer’s relationship with TV through parallels to Jack (culminating in the sublime line “Teacher, mother, secret lover…”), this 7-minute segment still finds time for Mr. Burns’ disregard for others’ lives, Marge’s maternal anxiety, Wiggum’s incompetence, the family’s apathy toward Grampa, and Moe’s interminable despair. (Plus a great gag involving assorted movie monsters.) It’s all full of subtle Kubrickian musical and visual cues and intimations of real horror, too. At the very least, it’s very, very high up in the pantheon of Treehouse of Horror segments. At most, it could be 7 of the most effective minutes in American animation. In any case, there’s a lot going on here, and the segment is both a great tribute to the original film, and a great addition to the show’s legacy.

So where to go from there? The next segment, “Time and Punishment,” may not surpass the early peak set by “The Shinning,” but it’s still imaginative and frightening in its own right. It starts out with the Simpson family around the kitchen table on a breathtakingly idyllic morning – when suddenly Lisa screams, “Dad! Your hand is jammed in the toaster!” After some quick effort, he gets it off. Bart screams, “Dad! It’s in there again!” It’s a jarring non sequitur, and a brief exemplar of what horror is all about: the perfect, conflict-free setting, with Homer overstating how happy he is, can turn on a dime into inexplicable, unstoppable chaos. Homer goes downstairs to fix the toaster, only to inadvertently build a time machine. In short, Halloween has let the show throw aside all rules of logic and physics for no good reason. It’s funny, it’s scary, and it’s beautiful.

Granted, I’m a sucker for a good altered timeline story, and “Time and Punishment” is up there with the best of them. Rather than dwell on any linear connection between time periods by having Homer do or undo a specific action, we instead see him fuck up the past through a variety of means – swatting a mosquito, sneezing, sitting on a fish, killing everything in sight – and have each one yield a seemingly random but progressively weirder outcome. One future, for example, has Flanders as Big Brother, giving us a creepy insight into what the friendliest neighborino would do with unquestioned power. Another appears utopian, until Homer fears the loss of another creature comfort (donut) and tragically flees in horror moments before donuts rain from the sky – an ironic Twilight Zone ending tucked inside a wider story.

And the future where Maggie axes Willie in the back before saying, in James Earl Jones’ voice, “This is indeed a disturbing universe”? Funny, yes, but uncanny and off-putting. It also elucidates on the segment’s earlier hints of madness erupting out of normality. Maggie may have been referring to her own alternative universe, or to the Treehouse universe in general, where these flagrant violations of the show’s basic tenets can run wild. After losing all self-control and smashing all the prehistoric flora and fauna he can, Homer is deposited in one last future. It looks and feels like the one he started in, but in the gruesome reveal, his family eats with forked tongues. He shrugs and sighs, “Eh, close enough.”

The tone of compromise in Homer’s voice feels so strange in this otherwise surreal situation. It’s a sign of exhaustion, a willingness to live with a flawed family, a resignation to the absurd that falls halfway between Charles Schulz and Albert Camus. This isn’t just flat-out comedy with the occasional bloody murder – the writers cross through an astonishing amount of emotional territory. While these first two segments are devoted largely to Homer’s alienation as a working father (OK, at least that’s my reading), the last is one for the kids. It’s probably the weakest of the three, but “Nightmare Cafeteria” has some images of unremitting ghoulishness that can still inspire terror in me.

Its storyline couldn’t be simpler: Springfield Elementary’s detentions are overcrowded. Therefore, Skinner schemes to grind students up and serve them for lunch. Eventually he goes so overboard that the vast majority of the student body are herded like cattle, with the last few students (naturally, Bart, Lisa, and Milhouse) strongly aware of what’s in store. It may have a far more traditional narrative and narrower focus than the others, but it also strikes harder at its lone target. From the first moments, the horror of public school begins, as students are crammed into detention rooms so tight that their faces are pressed against the doors.

And this is default from which the episode takes off. Lunch lady Doris’s gripe about “Grade F” meat could easily be a jab at food services in a normal episode, but here it leads into systematic mass murder and cannibalism. Much of the set-up strongly resembles The Simpsons as we know it; this time, it just goes much farther and gets much darker. Skinner and Krabappel’s usual disdain for the students leads them to whole-heartedly embrace this new solution, and we have to wonder: When it’s not Halloween, do they still bear this much hatred? As it is, we immediately believe this over-the-top faculty revenge fantasy. Skinner’s poor excuses, comical in any other setting, become unsettling when applied to Üter’s disappearance (and subsequent transformation into “Üterbraten”).

Marge, meanwhile, offers her children a lesson in self-reliance, simply telling them to “march right back to that school, look them straight in the eye, and say ‘Don’t eat me’!” With Milhouse, they attempt an escape, only for the drooling teachers and staff to corner them with their backs to a giant “Hamilton Beech Student Chopper.” Bart insists, with desperate self-awareness, that something will save them, but no deus ex machina comes. They all fall to their deaths. It’s a child’s bleakest nightmare, when every authority figure has become either useless or predatory, when the place they spend 7 hours each weekday has turned into a death trap. Across the three segments, three major pillars of modern life – family, home, and school – are shown to be insecure from inside or outside threats.

The ending even tops “Nightmare Cafeteria,” by having Bart wake up from his nightmare and be comforted by his family… all of whom are then assailed by fog that turns them inside-out. They dance to “One” from A Chorus Line (a song included earlier in a joke about the Tonys), are joined by an inside-out Groundskeeper Willie (whose repeated axings unify the segments), and sing “Happy Halloween!” as Santa’s Little Helper tears at Bart’s vulnerable organs. The Simpsons, in its lightest episodes, ridiculed the corruption and foolishness of America’s social and moral authorities. Here, at its darkest, it said that the real world was the nightmare – at least on Halloween – and that, as in Kubrick’s films, there is no real fail-safe button for life’s problems.

Whether those problems are addiction-based insanity, an unstable space-time continuum, or hungry school administrators, we may not be able to save ourselves. If possible, as in “Time and Punishment,” we should just cope with them as best we can. The false dream of a solution, as when Marge advises the kids on how not to be eaten, or realizing the lack of one, as when Homer shrugs and goes back to his breakfast, are what provide the episode’s delicious black comedy. Because no part of it really ends satisfactorily. Each segment leaves many unanswered questions, a “…?” hanging uneasily in the air even after the characters have moved on. For me, this gets at what the series, in its most surreal and absurd moments, sees at the bottom of modern existence. It’s “the horror,” as Colonel Kurtz would say.

Normally this vision of horror is sublimated into pure comedy, or into familial melodrama. The desperation each family member feels in their roles is pushed aside, and they continue doing the best they can, (dys)functioning as a single, loving unit within American society. But on Halloween, all these anxieties burst out like xenomorphs, pregnant with fantasies of mutilation and mass murder. These possibilities exist in the unconscious of the show’s normal episodes. Little signs of them are everywhere (and I might write about that sometime). But only in the Treehouse of Horror episodes can they receive their fullest expression, in parodies and nightmares and hypothetical scenarios that are, in the truest sense, horror.

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Science fiction double feature, part 2

I just wanted to follow up on some of the ideas I was pondering earlier today, about the science fiction genre in general and some of my personal favorite themes in specific. Ashley was saying earlier that she for some reason never really got into sci-fi, for the most part, and so she’s glad there’s still time to learn and think about it. A few weeks ago I was thinking about horror and sci-fi everywhere I went. These are two genres that deal primarily with the unknown. Sometimes the supernatural, but sometimes plainly just “what we don’t know.” In horror, what we don’t know can and usually does hurt us. Science fiction is just fiction centered around the potentials of technology and human discoveries. Maybe the earth becomes a smoking crater as a result. Maybe Klaatu and Gort stop off to tell us where we stand. (Also note, I guess: the discoveries and technology need not be human.) Sci-fi works as a blanket category for all the reactions – fear, longing, desperation, curiosity – to the possibility of other life in the universe.

Here’s where I’ll admit that I’ve been fixated on aliens, UFOs, abductions, etc. for pretty much as long as I can remember. I wonder where this interest comes from. We had lots of books on the paranormal sitting around the house. We watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and one year during Thanksgiving my dad did, in fact, sculpt the mashed potatoes into the likeness of Devil’s Tower. I read voraciously about Betty and Barney Hill or Roswell or whatever caught my eye, checked out books from the library that delved into the ancient astronaut theories, and became terrified that while I lay sleeping, a UFO might hover outside my window and its passengers might levitate me into their craft to subject me to all kinds of experiments. Luckily, this fear has (mostly) subsided, but I’m still incredibly interested in all things alien. As I mentioned elsewhere, a few weeks ago I caught this show on the Discovery Channel called UFO Hunters. And it sucked; it was an insult to everything I’ve studied and loved. Instead of trying to actually build up evidence and apply the scientific method in order to glean some facts about whether ETs exist or not, they chose a different route: Believe anything and everything, forcing evidence to fit the assumptions you’ve already made! That, my friends, is bogus, worthless pseudoscience. Oh, I also remember seeing Independence Day when it came out in 1996. My friend Noah had an action figure of one of the aliens, too. In retrospect, the movie probably sucked, but I’m sure it encouraged me to keep studying ufology. Kecksburg, PA is pretty far west of Chambersburg, but nonetheless I hope to visit it with Ashley someday. It’s basically the Roswell of the north. As I recall, something landed in the woods; residents ran to check it out but the government interceded, carried the object away, and said it was a meteor. This was in 1965.

But getting back to my starting point, with science fiction we don’t learn nearly as much about science as we do about ourselves. For example: the Cold War was full of movies about nuclear war and its consequences. Did that mean we were going to have a nuclear war? Answers may vary, but the point is that we were terrified of it and wondering how we’d cope. Would society eventually rebuild from the ashes, as, say, 1960’s The Time Machine suggests? Would mankind recede in the wake of his hubristic demise and other species take over, as in Planet of the Apes (1968)? Or would we all succumb to the bleak hilarity of a masculinity-induced grave as in Dr. Strangelove (1964)? (Strangelove‘s flip side, however, was the equally bleak resignation and grimness of Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe, in which President Henry Fonda is forced to bomb New York as a sign of good will.) My sleepy, not entirely coherent point is that science fiction provides us with options and arguments. We shouldn’t have the Bomb, because. As Gene Roddenberry was fond of proving, science fiction can be a great arena for giving commentary on contemporary issues in a detached, metaphorical setting. H.G. Wells is making a socialist parable with the Eloi and the Morlocks, but who needs a dry political tract when it can be an action-packed love story of the year 802,701? As I remember not-so-eloquently arguing in a paper on Brave New World in 11th grade, sci-fi satire can show what’s wrong with an idea by taking it to extremes – applying it to the world at large. Soylent Green: think Malthusian catastrophes aren’t a problem? Hope you like eating people. So, social commentary is another possible task of science fiction. I think of (Nobel Prize-winning Minnesotan) Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here, in which he rebuffs fascism by showing that yes, in fact, it can happen here. Or Jack London’s dystopian novel The Iron Heel, which as with Wells illustrates his early 20th century socialist views.

My point is that you can say a lot with science fiction, and sometimes it’s more effective than just saying it in terms of the ordinary world we already know. Racism may make sense to your normal American in the mid-’60s, but what about when we put it in terms of the classic Star Trek: The Original Series episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”?

Let That Be Your Last Battlefield

That’s right: they’re the last survivors of their respective races, determined to hate each other because their black and white stripes are on different halves of their bodies. This is Fantastic Racism. But sci-fi doesn’t just have to deal with issues through metaphor. I mean, as I was discussing earlier, much of the appeal is direct discussion of very real issues that just haven’t become a physical reality yet. We don’t have sentient robots quite yet, but it’s still important to know if they’d be equal to human beings, and therefore what it means to be human, as well as whether or not they’d try to gang up on us and become unstoppable killing machines led by an evil, human-hating computer. I mean, it’s always possible. Ergo, Blade Runner: do androids dream of electric sheep? And if they do, does that mean human beings aren’t unique – does it mean we can be easily replicated, even replaced by Galateas produced by us who also dream? I had this crazy idea the other day, briefly imagining a world where golems form the earth’s main work force and are also the victims of racism. I still think it’d make a great story. But the point is that even in genuinely fantastical situations like a world heavily populated by androids, human nature still has a part. We are driven to create (and destroy) – we like creating in our own image. We’re driven to do that, too. Don’t believe me? Well, what did you play with as a kid? Odds are it was an anthromorphicized lump of plastic or fabric. And kids love dolls who can talk. Or move. You know, come to think of it, maybe I should watch the movie AI. Even if Kubrick died before he could start it, and passed it on to Spielberg, and apparently it sucks. Maybe the movie still has something to offer.

And on a similar note, time machines. We’ve never invented one; never even come close. But why not? Our great tragedy is that we can’t change the past. The past is full of suckiness and shit – our collective consciousness would do anything to go back and undo all the genocide, warfare, pain, destruction, and hatred. But since time’s a one-way street, we have no access to any moment before now. We’re also curious as hell about the future. Hey, what do you think sci-fi’s for in the first place? It acts as a cheap, low-qual substitute time machine. Not able to build some quantum mechanical doohickey in your spare time? Buy a paperback and find out what 1,000 years from now will more or less be like. Oh, the gratification, to imagine a future dominated by space captains transposed from 20th century America. To project ourselves into Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon or you name it, as he takes our values and appearances on into other galaxies.

“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” – George Orwell

I’d like to suggest that there’s some measure of power in controlling the future, too. If you’re some fucking Klansman who writes about a future where White Pride comes out on top, there might be a small psychological victory – at least for your fellow racist fuckers – right there. “See? In the end, we win! It says so right here in this book!” Or like Charlie Manson’s batshit insane predictions about “Helter Skelter” and the coming race wars which would put the Family on top. Maybe that’s not strictly science fiction, but I think it’s worthy of the title. What can I say; I always love really weird, twisted visions of the future. Maybe I like to see how far the world can be warped by authorial vision. That could be why I love Henry Darger so much, with his outsider artist ideas of an alternate world where child slaves battle non-Catholics – seriously, Madeleine L’Engle should totally have borrowed a page from Henry Darger’s book (literally). Or there’s William S. Burroughs, who straddles the line between sci-fi and… Beat queer junkie transgressive fiction. (Then again, maybe I should read his Nova trilogy.) Last night, I was discussing Philip K. Dick with Ashley. He’s a man whose personal confusions, problems, and experiences heavily informed the sci-fi he chose to write, telling of worlds where subjective realities are always crumbling, leading to identity crisis pile-ups.

After all, as Paul Gauguin would ask (in maybe my favorite painting title ever): “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” Science fiction may not be able to answer these questions, but it’s a unique and very useful tool in coming up with theories. You’re able to test the limits of the human experience even more when you can think back to the earth’s volcanic beginnings, and forward to the earth’s potential descent into cold, barren darkness. I suspect that perhaps, among some quarters, talking about “science fiction” as a topic leads conjures images of rocket ships and, yes, those same all-American white masculine space captains I was mentioning, serving as wet dreams for the gratification-seeking reader. And maybe these images lead sci-fi to be tossed aside as a pointless, fantasy-indulging genre entirely disconnected from real human emotions. This kind of dismissal has happened before; hell, no sci-fi movie has ever won Best Picture, though certainly a few have been nominated. (Neither has a horror movie – just goes to show how these genres are viewed by the Academy.) So, what’s my point with all this? I’m not really sure. I guess I want to try to elucidate some of the purposes science fiction in general serves. Maybe I should also mention a book I started reading, a work of utopian sci-fi from 1914 called Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. All about a South American paradise discovered by 3 American men, populated entirely by women who reproduce parthenogenically. I should really keep reading that. So, I’d better go to bed since it’s 3 am and I’m sleepy. But I plan to continue exploring these ideas in the future. For, as Criswell would say, that is where you and I will spend the rest of our lives!

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Science fiction double feature, part 1

Sunday afternoon. Lazy Sunday. Gloomy Sunday. Sundays have always been kind of a day of the damned. Human emotions are cryptic, often incomprehensible phenomena. I have them, but I don’t really get them. Does anybody really understand how they work? And you know what: fuck checking in a little box to give your mood. Fuck saying, “I’m a smiley face” or “I’m a frowny face right now.” Fuck that bullshit. How are you? Oh, I’m :) at the moment. Maybe later I’ll be :(, who knows. Because the only difference between happiness and sadness is a flipped-around parenthesis. That question is our eternal bane: How are you? How are you doing? What’s up? Mind if I ask you a simple-minded question and receive an equally simple-minded answer?

Q: How are you?

A: Good.

I’m doing well. Not bad. OK. Could be worse. Mediocre. Tolerable. Eh. Whatever. Indifferent. Apathetic. Dead to the world. Heading for a breakdown. Etc., etc., et fucking cetera. Day-to-day casual exchanges can get really boring. But what can you do? That’s the ridiculous way we interact. Us silly fucking human beings. Perpetually unable to differentiate between the trivial and the important. And after all, what is the difference? One man’s trash is another man’s treasure; one man’s boring bullshit is another man’s fact of vital significance.

The future is spread out before us like a vast invisible landscape. There are a million paths for us to take, but once we start down one, the rest of them cease to exist. This makes me recall two memories: one is asking the priest at the Catholic school I went to, in about 7th grade, about free will vs. predetermination. For example, could Judas Iscariot have not betrayed Jesus, since that’s how it was all predicted to happen? And if so, well, how is it that he could end up at the bottom of hell, as Dante claimed? The priest’s answer was basically that God can see all possible ways the future could turn out, and that’s how he can be all-knowing but we can still have free will. I’m not sure if I was satisfied with this explanation, and at this juncture, I’m not sure quite what I think of that. But along similar lines, another memory: in the X-Men cartoon I watched all the time as a child, there were numerous time travel story arcs, a few of which involved people from dystopian futures traveling back to undo the events that brought those dystopias into existing. Thereby erasing that entire alternate timeline, and everyone who exists in it. I’ve always been deeply fascinated by time travel, and said fascination is as intense as ever. Hell, I’m kind of a sci-fi junkie. Not that I obsessively read sci-fi stories or anything; just that I could spend way longer than is beneficial puzzling over various concepts and storylines from the science fiction genre. I love thinking about speculative fiction, about time travel, robots, genetic experimentation, space travel, etc. I’ve never really wanted to be an astronaut, but ever since I was brought to a planetarium as a little kid, I’ve thought about man’s place in the universe and what, exactly, it would be like to leave the earth’s atmosphere and exist in that empyrean realm we call “outer space.” An infinite gulf dominated by blackness. I’m reminded of a short film I love called Powers of Ten, made the Eames brothers; if you’ve never seen it, take 10 minutes out of your life because it’s very worth it.

Sputnik entered orbit in 1957. That’s about 52 years ago. Naturally, science fiction predates this science fact by, well, pretty much forever. That’s the beauty of human imagination. We can be primitive and have flawed ideas about how the world works – we can think, like Aristotle, that objects are trying to return home when they fall to the ground – but that doesn’t stop us from looking up at the sky and saying, “I want to go there.” Or from telling stories about doing just that. Daedalus and Icarus, you know, or Bellerophon who tried to ride Pegasus up to Olympus. Or the Tower of Babel, which tried to reach heaven. I’ve recently gotten heavily into the work of H.P. Lovecraft, and it can serve as almost a modern analogue of these ancient myths: basically, don’t fuck with the stars.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves…” – Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene II

Maybe these myths are comparable to the old “There be dragons” or the fear of falling off the edge of the earth – don’t go exploring too far, you don’t know what you’re going to find. You know why we don’t have access to the stars? Because the gods don’t want us to, dammit. Or to quote Glen or Glenda, “If the creator had meant us to fly, he’d have given us wings!” If you go traipsing around in some distant galaxy, well, don’t be surprised if you piss off Zeus or if Yog-Sothoth eats you. Or if the Xenomorph clings to your face and then bursts from your chest. Or what have you. You had it coming! It’s all about the conflict between man’s fear of the unknown and our neverending curiosity and drive to learn, learn, learn! We want the mysteries of the universe, but we don’t want to take too many risks to figure them out. Well, you can’t divine the secrets of existence without breaking a few eggs. What about Dr. Faustus, the namesake of Ashley’s middle school? Sold his soul to Satan just to mess with the Pope and summon Joan of Arc and maybe learn some dark secrets along the way. And what’s the moral Lovecraft’s trying to get across? Basically: don’t even try to figure out the answer. You won’t like it if you do. It’s better to just let sleeping gods lie.

Only problem is, we’re curious fuckers. As Pandora and Adam & Eve teach us, we don’t care if it’s forbidden. That just makes us want to know even more! So, despite all our cautionary tales to the contrary, we’ve landed on the moon. We’re peering into the stars and gazing across potentially life-bearing (well, not really) planets and you know what? It’s awesome.

The Eagle Nebula

So I admit it. I love science fiction. Speaking of which, a few months back I think, Ashley and I read this great story by Robert A. Heinlein called “-All You Zombies-“; I highly recommend reading it; it’s a milestone in time travel fiction, and a great example of how fun time paradoxes can be. So, I have to go eat dinner and then work for 3 hours, but there’s a lot more I want to explore: how exactly I define sci-fi as a genre; more about how, exactly, it’s appealing; its relation to our everyday lives; etc. If I have time, I’ll launch into this more later. You know what else? Looking at the categories we have for blogs, I want to think more about synthesizing new ideas from old ones. After all, everything connects to everything else. It’s all linked under the grand umbrella of the human experience. So keep that in mind: just as John Donne says no man is an island unto himself, so no idea is an island. There’s always a peninsula.

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