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Watching the Future
by Derek Johnson

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

Installment 35
Love Is in the Aether

While having coffee at the Spider House -- one of the many alternative coffee houses that dot the Austin landscape around the University of Texas campus -- one cool evening in the autumn of 2006, a date and I discussed our dating histories. We shared some similar history: both divorced, both rushed into relationships that ended disastrously. The similarities ended there, for we admitted approaching future dating prospects with different outlooks. After hearing her speak very candidly of the low opinion she held of others who shared my gender, I told her that, despite enjoying some of the finer aspects of courtship, I had no interest in getting married again, and was not terribly interested in rekindling a serious relationship. (Note: that didn't last.) She carefully placed her glass of ice coffee on table and considered. "You sound like a romantic pragmatist," she said.

She was right. Although I've tried my best to be a full-tilt, hardcore romantic, I find myself too mired in the real world to let myself become infected by sentimentalism for an extended period. Proffering candy and flowers to a prospective date, once you get past high school (and maybe the first couple of years of college), seems more than a little affected, if not downright false. Yes, for many couples it represents an expression of love, but to me it stands as a decadent tradition. All form, no substance.

The Empire Strikes Back And all is exacerbated at this time of year.

If I transformed into a Grinch during the Christmas holidays, my heart peeks into the eyes of Medusa and hardens to stone during Valentine's Day. The lace, the perfume, the candlelight dinners, the cards, the sex toys (okay, those I enjoy)... It drives me crazy to think of how many people treat an expression of emotion as Disneyland. And how many people become livid at having bad celebration... or none whatsoever. Do I even have to go into the number of people who don't have a partner and feel left out of this particular exploitative holiday?

But let's say, for the sake of argument, that you want to spend this Valentine's Day with your significant other the way I spend most of my evenings with the Goddess: watching movies. And let's say you want to, if not embrace the holiday, then give it a respectable nod with a love story -- not something saccharine like Safe Haven or idiotic like Playing for Keeps, or even an interesting misfire like Warm Bodies, but something with some of the acerbic wit and sliver of snark of Harold and Maude. And let's say you're a science fiction and fantasy fan, and want something with enough geek cred to maintain your identity, but you already know every line of Somewhere in Time, The Empire Strikes Back, The Princess Bride, and The Fifth Element. (You don't? And you call yourself a geek?) What would be suitable?

In that spirit, I offer these ten movies, which should suffice for any true blue fanboy (or fangirl) who wants to inject a little skiffy romance in their evening's entertainment. Not all of these are love stories (and some are, but not in a traditional sense), but they all focus, to some extent, on the aftermath of Cupid's assault on our hearts. (And yes, all of these are better love stories than Twilight.)

King Kong. Eighty years after its release, the classic Beauty and the Beast tale from Meriam C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack still maintains incredible power, even after romps in Japan (King Kong Escapes, King Kong vs. Godzilla) and headsmackingly bad, or at least misguided, remakes. Its visual spectacle remains unequaled, and the fondness and love Kong bestows on Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) never falls short of iconic. One of the greatest adventure stories ever filmed, and one of the greatest love stories ever told.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Another classic (as the venues for midnight movies dry up throughout the country, sapped of soil by multiplexes and the home video revolution, The Rocky Horror Picture Show still manages to pop up for late-night screenings in theaters full of die hard fans), but for vastly different reasons. A love story (in which Dr. Frank N. Furter, a "sweet travsvestite" from the planet Transylvania, makes a perfect man "with blonde hair and a tan" to relieve his "tension"), but a decidedly kinky one. Add strange henchmen who turn out to be aliens, boisterous musical numbers, and Meat Loaf as an irascible biker, and you have one of the greatest camp sensation in the history of cinema. Trust me, though: you'll have even more fun at a theater that encourages audience participation.

King Kong The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Time After Time. H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) builds a prototype of a time machine, intending to visit a future in which his envisioned socialist utopia has come to pass. However, the first person to use the machine is John Leslie Stevenson (David Warner), AKA Jack the Ripper, whom Wells fears has been set loose upon the streets of a harmonious society in order to evade the police. Wells's travels into the future eventually lead him to Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen) who ultimately helps him track down the infamous Whitechapel killer. Suspenseful, humorous, and romantic in the best sense, Time After Time is a Steampunk-laced gem all but forgotten by modern audiences.

Zelig. Told in a series of newsreels and interviews with such figures as Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow, in the 1920s and 1930s the nondescript Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen) becomes a cultural sensation when he reveals his ability to transform into the people who surround him. As the scientific community begins to take interest, he begins to fall in love with his psychiatrist (Mia Farrow). Allen has never been a stranger to fantasy (The Purple Rose of Cairo) or romance (Manhattan). Although his recent time travel confection Midnight in Paris might be the obvious choice for a list like this, but his 1983 mockumentary/science fiction picture Zelig takes more chances, is more conceptually daring, provides more insight, and ultimately is much, much more funny.

Earth Girls Are Easy. Three furry aliens (Jeff Goldblum, Damon Wayans, and Jim Carrey) in search of female companionship land in manicurist Valerie Gail's (Geena Davis) swimming pool. They quickly learn language and culture (by watching television, naturally), shave their rainbow-colored body hair, don very 1980s clothing, and, along with Valerie and friend Candy Pink (comedienne Julie Brown), scope out Los Angeles's night club scene. It's goofy, yes, and lighter than cotton candy, but also charming and quite funny (Michael McKean's turn as Valerie's pool man is hilarious), jammed full of Brown's songs, Julien Temple's over-the-top direction, and a degree of poignancy not found in modern romantic comedies.

Edward Scissorhands. We forget sometimes that Johnny Depp used to take on far more challenging roles than he seeks out today, and that Tim Burton used to make far more compelling fare than Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows. A suburban housewife (Diane Wiest) takes in the title character, living alone in a Gothic mansion after his inventor (Vincent Price) dies, and attempts to assimilate him into modern life. As he struggles to adapt, he begins to fall for the housewife's daughter (Wynona Ryder). Though not based on any of his work, Edward Scissorhands plays as if written by Neil Gaiman in a gentler vein. Much occurs in this modern yet ultimately simple fairy tale, yet it never comes off as manic or bloated, as many of Burton's more recent work has.

Time After Time Zelig Earth Girls Are Easy Edward Scissorhands

Matinee. As the Cuban Missile Crisis permeates the zeitgeist of 1962, Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton), a boy living in Key West, Florida, anticipates the arrival of the new movie Mant! from William Castle–inspired showman Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman), who arrives in town to promote the feature. There is a romance in Joe Dante's affectionate period piece (Gene begins to see a young woman, played by Lisa Jakub, while Woolsey takes him under his wing), but the real love story here involves movies themselves, from cheesy 1950s science fiction flicks to Disneyesque features, storytelling (in one sequence, Woolsey describes how cave paintings were the first movies as animated sequences brings the paintings to life), and the period itself.

Free Enterprise. Although most of us flock to The Big Bang Theory for our fix of romance of the nerds, its recent seasons miss more than hit, and its characters never grow into more than two dimensions. By contrast, director Robert Meyer Burnett fleshes out the concept in this understated indie production, in which a pair of Star Trek–obsessed friends (Eric McCormack and Rafer Weigel) looking for love in Hollywood, with Robert (Weigel) falling for the elegant Claire (Audie England) after meeting her in a comic shop. William Shatner parodies himself brilliantly as a semi-delusional former television star who wants to produce a musical version of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in which he plays all the parts.

Matinee Free Enterprise

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. When Joel (Jim Carrey) learns that his carefree ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) has erased all memory of their relationship, he visits the offices of Lacuna, Inc. to do the same. As he sleeps, and the erasure proceeds, Joel tries to preserve just one of the memories and the feelings they evoke, which sets off a surreal chain of events as each remembrance is redacted. Directed by Michele Gondry and written by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovitch, Adaptation), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind examines the pleasures and pains of relationships, and why our memories of them might be worth preserving even after the feelings have soured.

Safety Not Guaranteed. Time travel movies appeal to romantics because they suggest that another era might somehow be better than our present one. They also argue that our present (and our future) might be better if we could change one small thing in our past. Though actual time travel doesn't occur in Safety Not Guaranteed through most of its running time (and even ends ambiguously), its lead characters Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Kenneth (Mark Duplass) discuss it and its implications a lot as they prepare to travel back in time in a machine he devised. Darius, a Seattle reporter, hopes to use Kenneth for a story based on an ad he placed for a fellow time traveler. When she meets him, and befriends him, he becomes less an object for story, and more a companion. An often sweet, and genuinely touching modern movie.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Safety Not Guaranteed

Copyright © 2013 Derek Johnson

Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. His first novel, the erotic thriller, Murder, Most Likely, written in collaboration with SammyJo Hunt, is forthcoming from Rebel Ink Press. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.

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