Skull Movies Scene IV: Set your brain on automatic by Robin Pen
The light is harsh and glaring in the void of space, and the music is hollow, full of portent, and a tragically obvious Holst rip-off. The semio-exploratory craft Spare Me The Crap moves slowly through the exergeze, plying the un-space between alternate filmic realities. To every side are ‘film-boxes’, each a self-contained alternate reality, floating at their fixed meta-statis points within the Filmverse: that 4-space, ethereal soup of potentiality fluctuations that lies beyond and within everything, sustaining the time/space continuum as we knows it (or would know it if that whispering stopped and they shut down the orbital mind-control lasers for just a moment). An incongruous ‘ping’ echoes through the minimalist bridge, and an iridescent blip appears on the Kaleidoscope, immediately drawing the attention of the chief semiotologist, Dr Roland Barthes.
“What is it Dr Barthes?” Asks LORD FIGHTING COMMANDER GUS GRISSOM, a pathetic figure whose heroic name belies his touchingly prominent place amongst the severely vertically challenged.
“It appears to be a new box sir,” says Dr Barthes. “Co-ordinates X-062 of the inverse exergeze quadrant.”
“Can you identify it?” asks the COMMANDER, desperately hopping on his tippy-toes in a futile attempt to see above the edge of the instrumentation console.
“According to my credits and titles analyser, it is designated Until The End Of The World. And COMMANDER: it’s a big one.”
“Another one of those contemporary epics Dr Barthes?” asks GRISSOM, generously ignoring the ill-considered reference to dimensionality measures.
“Indeed COMMANDER, but there doesn’t seem to be much happening in it.”
“That sounds dangerously like a review, Roland. Need I remind you that regulations specifically prohibit subjective assessment in Between-Space? After all, we don’t want a bias-induced worm-hole ripping through the Filmverse, now do we?”
“No COMMANDER. Sorry COMMANDER. I assure you it won’t happen again.”
“Very good; leave that to the Philistines on the other side. Now, set a course for the film-noir quadrant; I want to see how Bogie’s doing.”
As the Spare Me The Crap heaves to and moves away, our camera-eye view does not follow, but instead pans slowly round to a distant, rectangular Film-Box, and proceeds to zoom in, revealing a group of three figures seated at a table in what appears to be a grotty old cafe where the seats require re-upholstering and the heavily scratched window badly needs replacing. Two of the figures seem to be bickering, and the third one seems to be me.
There I was, a flat white steaming at my elbow – thin layer of undulating froth over subtly magnificent Brasilio-Italian coffee – and two fellow critics engaging each other, tooth and nail, sign and signifier, across the table in front of me.
“What you won’t credit is that Until The End Of The World succeeded in maintaining a high level of interest by continually presenting fresh ideas and intriguing concepts.”
“Bull! It was shit-boring, even with all those neat little bits to keep the mind-bogglingly simple plot from appearing as mind-bogglingly simple as it was.”
“The science portrayed and the social concepts expounded were carefully constructed to support and justify an underlying mistrust of technological society.”
“Get real! The gadgets were old hack and the “social commentary”, was as naive as a your average volunteer for a free personality test.”
“But you’re failing to appreciate the film’s subtle extrapolation of our contemporary fears, and its clever juxtaposition of those fears with the ‘reality’ of its carefully imagined future.”
“Listen: as science fiction, it was dated before they wrote it. Until The End Of The World makes Space 1999 look modern and sophisticated.”
“Go see a real movie.”
“You couldn’t spot a real movie if they nailed it to your face.”
“Better than you could Four-eyes.”
If not for the coffee, I’d have slept through all this; I was bored with the argument before it began. I went to the film too, and have decided I will make a judgment only when I actually see it. Which may never happen. Still, it’s pointless trying to analyse a film shown in a form which almost deliberately seems to avoid helping it to make sense. At least, I hope the form was at fault; I’d hate to discover that Until The End Of The World was as meaningless and as pointless in the Longer-Than-Known-Time version as it seems to be in the Slightly-Shorter-Than-Known-Time-But-Quite-Long-Enough version that has been screening around the place. Then again, who cares anyway? Arguing about – or even discussing – the science fiction in Until The End Of The World is really a waste of a time.
That may be harsh, but the simple truth is that you’re wasting your time watching science fiction movies to discover new, or even well-presented old concepts in science fiction. This becomes even more apparent when an SF-idea rich setting like that of Until The End Of The World is made listless and rather impotent by an apparent misunderstanding of the very issues that are being so loftily portrayed.
So, in this sense at least, this monumental film by Wim Wenders, with its screenplay by Wenders and Peter Carey (who should have known better) is a disappointment. For all its apparent dealings with science and sociology, the film is little more than the meandering adventures of a misunderstood son and his relationship with his “mad scientist” father, albeit amongst lots of lovely scenery, and boasting a pretentious ending entrenched in the most ludicrous of pop psychology. And it’s all the more disappointing because much of the movie was rather pleasant to sit through, even while managing to adroitly elude the trappings of cohesiveness.
Tight zoom and cut (mercifully briefly) back to the bridge of that redoubtable bark Spare Me The Crap, where comms have just intercepted a strange and faintly surreal transmission.
“Attention … attention … all crew members prepare for landing. In sixty fractions of a megon we’ll start the landing manoeuvre. The intensity of the gravitational field will be maintained at the wave moment of force G-7. Synchronize the meteor rejector on the electro-magnetic control device.
Apply neuro-vascular tension. Suppress cortical area X … Y … Z, and set the automatic controls.”
This extraordinarily wonderful piece of pseudo-scientific clap-trap came, word-for-word, from Mario Bava’s bizarre but rewarding 1965 sci-fi horror flick Planet Of The Vampires. It may sound ridiculous, but it has as much relevance to the ideals of science fiction as do the central concepts presented in Until The End Of The World. And yet, Planet Of The Vampires seems to be able to get away with it far more easily (though with a chuckle or two from a contemporary audience). Why? Because it does it with style; and style is what science fiction film is all about. SF cinema is not about ideas (though they’re generally welcome there): it’s about execution.
Now, I’m not claiming such thoughts represent the ideals of SF cinema; good god by no means! Good science fiction in film is often a wonderment to behold, but is so rare that if you’re looking for innovative science-fictional concepts, you’d almost do better reading the back of a packet of instant noodles or a copy of New Idea. In fact, the good ideas in SF movies are generally on par with the ideas in bad SF novels.
But I’m not treading any new ground here, so why bring it up? Well, though I often whinge and moan about the current state of SF in commercial cinematic art, I keep writing about this shit. And the reason must be obvious to all of you who persist in reading these indulgent rants: I love it! I love this shit. I love every putrid moment and wallow in the dire filth that makes up the bulk of sf cinema. Give me more! Give me more! Why? Because, no matter how vile and loathsome it may be, sf film generally contains at least a tiny, pathetic dribble of style. Yep: I’m a style junkie.
Science fiction is generally referred to as a genre. I prefer to think that SF in cinema operates in a different way: parasitic on other genres, distorting them to adopt its forms, like forcing them to wear some fantastic, freaky costume. And the cut and quality of that suit is determined partially by budgetary constraints, but more importantly by directorial stylistics. In film, good SF can consist of good ideas, but more often, in fact almost inevitably, it’s simply good style.
Alien is one of the best SF movies ever made, and it doesn’t have a half-decent SF concept in it; style makes all the difference. Them, It Came From Outer Space, Planet of the Apes, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, War of the Worlds, Blade Runner, Metropolis, Andromeda Strain, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Altered States, Back to the Future 2, Planet of the Vampires, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Mad Max 2, Solaris, Videodrome, Brazil, Aliens, Forbidden Planet, Westworld, Terminator, Robocop, The Fly, Android, The Time Machine, Alien3 , Hardware, and many, many others are similarly examples of the triumph of style over content.
Obviously, the judgment of a film’s stylistic worth is at least partially a matter of personal taste, and the list I’ve just reeled off doesn’t contain everything I consider good SF cinema on the basis of style. This “Favourites List” of mine was, to a large extent, the basis of the selection guide I formulated for Perth’s Lumiere Cinema’s “Sci-fi Blockbuster” movie marathon (June 5th and 6th, 1993). Thus the list is not intended to comprise the “best” of SF cinema (which would include many foreign language and animated films), but simply to represent a compilation of fantastic cinema that, while perhaps varying widely in form and quality, is nevertheless entertaining because of its stylishness.
But enough of this; time for some audience feedback. What What would your list have included? How would you have chosen to celebrate the cinema’s portrayal of science-fiction? Would you run festivals of James Cameron, John Carpenter or Ridley Scott; play the Star Wars and Alien trilogies until your brain implodes; get drunk and watch Hell Comes to Frogtown, Starcrash or Angelica Jagger’s unbelievable performance in Robot Holocaust? Write and let me know. I might even run the results in this column, although I can’t promise anything.
And when the party’s over, once you’ve sat through the best SF cinema of the moment – once the disbelief-suspension drives in your own semio-exploratory vehicle have red-lined just that once too often, dock, disembark, trot off to your local video library, and check out how Bogie’s doing.
Robin Pen is a lapsed blogger. See The View From Mt Pootmootoo (http://members.iinet.net.au/~robinpen/blogger.html ) and Planet Blog (www.planetvideo.com.au/blog ). This series originally appeared as The Secret Life of Rubber-Suit Monsters, in Eidolon 10, October 1992 © 1992 Robin Pen.