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Watching the Future
by Derek Johnson

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]

Installment 12

The Empire Strikes Back Maniac My love affair with cinema, as I stated in a previous installment, began when I was twelve years old, with John Williams's bombastic opening fanfare that began The Empire Strikes Back. It almost ended abruptly a year later, with Wallace Shawn's nasal pleading with André Gregory to keep his electric blanket in Louis Malle's My Dinner with Andre.

It was my own fault. At the time, I was trying to see everything that was given generally unanimous critical praise, especially to things that would not normally have come across my thirteen-year-old radar. The types of movies I would see broadened: interesting foreign movies (Das Boot, Diva), solid B-picture gems (High Risk), even Academy Award nominees (The Elephant Man) and winners (Ordinary People) I normally would have missed because I felt they did not provide the frisson of, say, The Blues Brothers or Empire. I was also taking drama classes in school, so I paid close attention to acknowledged masters of their craft (Robert Duvall in The Great Santini, Jason Robards in Melvin and Howard, Ellen Burstyn in Resurrection) to see exactly why these particular thespians were given such accolades. I learned a lot about what made a good movie, and my own taste in movies.

And then came My Dinner with Andre, and I nearly said to hell with it.

Critics loved it. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert heaped praise on it. It became the darling of every movie critic I could find. They gushed over Louis Malle's minimal camera work and the movie's daring in execution and lack of resolution. And the conversations. Oh, how they loved the conversation between these two kindred souls.

Superman II As a budding moviegoer, I hoped for anything, from the Nazis with liquefying skin in Raiders of the Lost Ark to the Kryptonian villains in Superman II, that would get André Gregory to shut the hell up! I was hoping that, at some point, Wallace Shawn would leap across the table and begin eviscerating his dining companion in the manner of William Lustig's Maniac. (Yes, I thought that bit of putrid celluloid was one of the most sickening things I had ever seen, but at least things happened.) Maybe Adrienne Barbeau's Lamborghini in The Cannonball Run would crash through the apartment, killing the occupants. Even Arthur, released the same year and receiving similarly universal critical praise, had more to offer a thirteen-year-old boy searching for good movies.

Understanding Comics What had gone wrong? I had no idea. I certainly wanted to see what had become a critical favorite, to learn what made it tick. But it just didn't work for me no matter how I tried to approach it.

It took a reading of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics more than ten years later to help me figure out why.

In that particular book, he noted that artists often fall into two classes: pioneers and revolutionaries "who want to shake things up," and "great storytellers, creators who… devote all their energies to controlling their medium…to convey messages effectively." Obviously, Malle's movie fell into the first category in trying to film what was, in essence, a conversation. With limited camera work and close focus, Malle attempted a level of intimacy seldom seen in most movies. Here was not somebody who was trying to be a great storyteller, but somebody who was trying to challenge the medium… in effect, he was trying to "shake things up."

With this in mind, a couple of months ago I tried watching it again. I was older, my tastes had evolved somewhat. Age might make me more receptive.

So I recorded it on my DVR and watched it again for the first time in nearly thirty years.

And guess what? It still sucks.

Only now I've figured out why: it's in the wrong medium.

Malle's "genius" to most critics was his refusal to use this dynamic medium, one whose primary mode of communication is visual. He dared to simply rest a camera at the end of a table and start filming. He made not a movie but an anti-movie, devoid of any visual elements. It was like an artist attempting to create a visual masterpiece using nothing more than four-color schemes so popular in comics.

No wonder critics loved it.

No wonder I hated it.

My Dinner with Andre

Look, film is a visual medium. It conveys ideas and story through images. They all can have great dialogue, wonderful performances, intricate plotting, but in the end they must also be visually interesting.

Think of your favorite movies in any genre. A small list of mine would include Alien, Trainspotting, Halloween, Dark City, Bringing Up Baby, Peggy Sue Got Married, Airplane!, The Seven Samurai, Suspiria, Die Hard, Rear Window, Full Contact, Sex and Zen, Let the Right One In, Across the Universe, A Hard Day's Night, El Topo, Mulholland Drive, Requiem for a Dream, Team America: World Police, This Is Spinal Tap, 28 Weeks Later, The Descent, Monsters, Some Like It Hot, Sunset Boulevard, Dodgeball, UHF, Infernal Affairs, Jackie Brown, Detour, Solaris, The Bird Cage, and about a thousand others. It's a diverse list, and one that changes constantly. But all of them have one thing in common: they convey their stories through imagery. Visuals meant to engender an audience response, often an emotional one. Something that My Dinner with Andre fails to do because, frankly, it's using the wrong medium. Had it been a stage play, or even written as a Socratic dialogue, I think I would be more forgiving.

What does this have to do with a column on science fiction movies?


The Cartoon Guide to (Non)Communication As Larry Gonick points out in The Cartoon Guide to (Non)Communication, our base brains (the limbic system) have reptilian roots primarily responsible for emotions that are covered with "higher" brain cells. "But," he writes, "the old reptile brain is still down there, churning out emotions!" It responds heavily to visual data, but the response is emotional. We can process language in our brain and know it's only words, but when we see an image, we act as if it is a part of reality. This explains why you might have a heated, even spirited debate about a book for which you have love and others might have loathing (I once expressed to a friend a great deal of admiration for Greg Egan's Permutation City; he rolled his eyes and wondered how I could have liked something so dead), yet badmouthing a popular movie will make you the subject of a Two Minute Hate.

As I said, movies are a visual medium. Because they appeal to our limbic system, that also makes them an emotional one.

And I'm beginning to think that it's the wrong medium for science fiction.

Think about it. Most fans are attracted to the genre because of its ideas. For most of us, that is its core appeal. And at its best, it proffers odd ideas worked out to their logical conclusions. They often take the form of arguments, "…a kind of story which argues from this world a kind of possible outcome," as critic John Clute opines. "It's possibly an improbable outcome, but it is arguable." It is, in that sense, an intellectual genre, or at least one that appeals to the intellect as opposed to the emotions.

Which would explain why so many science fiction movies disappoint: they attempt to use an emotional medium to put forth an intellectual story.

I am not arguing that the genre and the medium are mutually exclusive. Tartovsky's Solaris and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey are two science fiction movies that use visual language to convey their ideas. Ditto Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys and Alex Proyas's Dark City. Shane Carruth's Primer requires a great deal of intellectual effort to sift through its spaghetti-like tangle of timelines.

Soylent Green But think about it: when you think of a science fiction movie, what you're often really getting is a thriller (or maybe a horror movie) with science fiction elements. Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The Andromeda Strain. Soylent Green. The Stepford Wives. Damnation Alley. Capricorn One. Meteor. Time After Time. And that's just from the 70s. Star Wars, which, for many fans of my generation, along with the original Star Trek, was our introduction to the language of science fiction, borrowed heavily from Westerns and Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress. Even Star Trek owed more to Wagon Train than to Isaac Asimov. Would a ten-year-old have paid attention to, say, Stalker? Probably not.

It explains a great deal about why we simply do not see many adaptations of classic science fiction novels. Fans would flock in droves to an adaptation of Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man. We would be grateful if somebody brought Charles Stross's Accelerando to life in our local multiplexes. We would love to see Genly Ai trek across Gethen's white mountains in a film version of The Left Hand of Darkness. While it might seem an odd choice for a Hollywood blockbuster, most would be willing to make an art-house version of Jonathan Lethem's Gun, with Occasional Music a cult classic. But I'm not holding my breath. We're more likely to see a sequel to Armageddon than an adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein's "All You Zombies."

Because the medium is wrong.

In a way, the challenge with making a science fiction movie comes from H.G. Wells. As Alexi Panshin observed in The World Beyond the Hill, "…the venerable H.G. Wells had suggested that to include more than a single wonder in any SF story was to step over the line into irresponsible Videodrome silliness." Most science fiction movies can only handle a single idea. Any more than that, and movies tend to bog down, as did David Lynch's Dune. To keep them from doing so, they have to focus on only one idea, and simple ones at that, in order to be accessible. As a result, we seldom see successful adaptations of classic science fiction novels, but often find more resonance in those stories told specifically for the screen. Many science fiction fans might have considered the apocalyptic imagery of John Carpenter's Escape from New York derivative, but at least it kept its focus fairly narrow. David Cronenberg's Videodrome took the idea of media invasion into pretty daring territory (which was somewhat reminiscent of the cyberpunk work of Pat Cadigan), but it did so by creating a wholly original story.

And yet, both borrow from other genres. Escape from New York is an action movie, while Videodrome is in fact a horror story. They are science fiction, but neither is the type one would find from, say, Arthur C. Clarke or Hal Clement. And, in truth, we may not ever see them in multiplexes. They're the wrong sorts of stories for the screen.

Copyright © 2011 Derek Johnson

Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.

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