It's just this little chromium switch, here... (derspatchel) wrote,
It's just this little chromium switch, here...
derspatchel

Marathon! SF/30

Every year when I attend the Boston Science-Fiction Marathon (also known as SF/* with * being the year, now called the Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, or BSF3 or something) I always experience two distinct moments of clarity and being:

The first one comes around 5 AM when I'm watching whatever it is I'm watching and counting down the minutes until I can run outside and grab a breakfast thingy from whatever nearby restaurant opens at 6 AM. This is when the Marathon experience hits full-on. "So I'm really here, right? Yeah. And I watched SUPERMAN, what, twelve hours ago?! And I'm still here?! Oh, mama. Oh, yes."

The second comes after I blearily stagger on home and sleep fitfully for how many ever hours I need to sleep, and then I wake up and I'm back in my pad and the cats are around and my bed is my bed and I have to ask myself if I really did just go through what I think I went through, and if it felt like time was standing still inside, how come it feels now, even six hours later, it flew by with a flash? OH THOSE WACKY TEMPORAL DISTURBANCES HOW I LOVE YOU SO.

Anyway. This year's marathon was a delightful mix, lots of fun and I greatly enjoyed it from my vantage point on the Somerville Theater balcony. I got there slightly late due to some snafus but lillibet helped me out with my crisis and for that I'm very very grateful. This event has been my winter Brigadoon for ten years now, a magical community that springs up for a weekend once a year, celebrates greatly, and then disappears to wait for the next festival. We participants go because we share a love for science-fiction, and that's for good or bad, and we know that others there will share in our glee when we watch the original subtitled Japanese cut of GODZILLA (so far as we know has not been screened in the US since 1982), who will be there with us at 6 AM when it's time to make fun of a film, and who will be there for comiseration and sarcasm when the film we're watching is so bad we actually stand up and cheer when it melts in the projector. This year's crowd was indeed feisty.

Anyway. Let's talk movies.

Halfe the Firste

SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW

Getting in late, I caught the tail end, as it were, of this flick. I didn't mind because I'd seen it before and while I liked the impressive CGI and the beautiful styling and the fun dopey explosions, I hated the leads (Why Jude Law, other than the fact that he's Pretty Boy 2004? For the purposes of this film, Sky Captain needed to be a square-jawed All-American type. If he had to be a Brit, why couldn't he have been some kind of Biggles type? Jude Law didn't even get that) and the only thing good about Gwyneth Paltrow was her hair. Nonetheless, it was exactly the type of big boomy fun sci-fi flick that we love at the Marathon, and there were enough touches and homages to make the historians happy, and everybody enjoyed it. I made my way up to the balcony and found a free seat (free row, actually; the downstairs was packed but the balcony had lots of room) as the end credits ran.

The music between films was chosen appropriately this year, which was a very nice touch. The Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" played after Sky Captain. We had Blue Oyster Cult after Godzilla, of course. OH NO! THERE GOES TOKYO!



GODZILLA

We usually get a Toho film around the wee small hours of the morning. I'll never tire of telling the story of watching RODAN at 6 AM and just absolutely revelling, in that sleep-deprived state of lucid consciousness, at the extended 20-minute destruction sequence where entire model cities get destroyed. I consider it to be my favorite Marathon moment ever, slightly trumping watching PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE with this crew. Every now and then we get a good monster movie before, though -- we opened SF/25 with GODZILLA 2000 and

The print of GODZILLA we got to enjoy was the original Japanese cut. Subtitled, of course, and containing 20 minutes of footage not included in the American cut, obstensibly so they could make room to shoehorn in shots of Raymond Burr pointing at the sky. (Mr. Burr does not appear in the version we watched here.) The program notes state that, to the best of their knowledge, the only other time this particular cut of GODZILLA was shown stateside was at SF/8 in 1982. So we got something very special here. And men in rubber suits stepping on model trains notwithstanding, the film that began the Godzilla franchise has some pretty heavy social commentary at its base.

It's all because of The Bomb. Japan is still trying to recover from the atomic attacks of World War II. The post-apocalyptic themes in anime are one generation's attempts to work with the cultural wound, perhaps trying to make sense of it more than healing it -- but the survivors and witnesses worked on it their own way. They created Godzilla, an undersea monster who was brought to the surface and strengthened by atomic energy. His destruction represents atomic destruction and power, and the aftermath is quite brutal as far as monster movies go.

I mean, the big green guy became a film icon, and in the process turned from terrible villian to inscrutable antihero. Sure, we couldn't control or contain him, and he liked to romp around wherever he pleased, but if another giant monster came by, as they often did in the cheap sequels, he naturally felt compelled to defend his own stomping grounds and do away with the interloper. Kids in shortpants would holler "Thanks, Godzilla!" and wave as he headed back towards Monster Island. (GAMERA took this one step further, giving us a giant atomic turtle who'd turn out to be friend to all children. The big softy.) Once the kids' audience became the focus of the monster movies, the serious themes were abandoned. Sure, there could be some ecological lessons to be learned, especially in the overly preachy American-made Godzilla cartoon, but the less said about Gadzookie the better. So now that the series was geared towards kids things had to be Safe for the destruction -- whenever cities were threatened and stomped on, you could be sure they were expositorially evacuated first. (Of course, the exposition wasn't as clunky as the Dragon Ball Z type of dialogue -- "It's a good thing the building they just blew up was condemned and nobody was living in it and we were going to demolish it anyway!" -- but it's done for the same reasons.)

Not so with GODZILLA. When the green guy comes by, he don't dick around with abandoned model cities. People get smushed. Trains full of people get ripped open and flung aside. A mother huddles in a doorway with her small children, telling them "We'll be with Daddy soon." (One woman doesn't want to evacuate, saying "I survived the atomic attack at Nagasaki, you think I'm afraid of this?") There's an extended sequence featuring a girl's choir singing a prayer for peace as we pan past the wounded and dying in hospitals. One television reporter is done in, live, as Godzilla charges the tower he's broadcasting from. The carnage is on a level never again approached by traditional monster films, and it hit pretty hard.

The ending, unfortunately, is weak. Our scientist antihero, replete with eyepatch and brooding personality, decides to use his Oxygen Destroyer (which can wipe out all aquatic life it encounters) on the monster, even if it means revealing his secret project to the world. (He doesn't want to show this Oxygen Destroyer until he can find a use for it that will benefit mankind, which makes sense. I'm sure in the future we'll all have excess oxygen we want to destroy.) So in the end, to avoid his creation being abused by governments who will obviously use it as a weapon, he burns all his plans and makes sure he stays underwater when the thing goes off so he is removed from this existence as well. Fine and dandy, sacrifice is always a good redeemer, but, uh, guys, what about the acres of aquatic life you just did away with as well? I'm sure we could've had a little bit about that ecological disaster. Perhaps I guess that was kept for the sequels.

At any rate, it was incredible to see this ultra-rare cut of the film, and even better since we didn't have to deal with Raymond Burr.



PRIMER

This film was a bit of an enigma at the start. It's a recent release. Shot in Super-16 for only $7000, this indie film won big at Sundance this year. The sets are minimal, mostly personal locations around the Dallas area. The cast is amateur, the acting is clunky and wooden (for good reason! these are ordinary people on film here) and there's a great chance the film will lose you right at the beginning because it mires itself down in ceaseless, overlapping technobabble. But have patience. Halfway through the film, as our characters try to make sense of a machine they themselves just built, things become cool.

I'm trying hard not to give too much away. As the first half went on I found myself growing tense at the ordinary dialogue and simply-shot scenes. I knew that with a minimal buildup like this, something messed-up was going to happen. And it did. I think I won't be too out of line by saying it involves time travel. What would you do if you found yourself with the ability to go back a day in time? Yeah, that's what our engineer friends decide to do, too.

Only time travel isn't pretty and it isn't neatly wrapped up theoretically, there's too many paradoxes to get in the way and too many inexplicable side effects that aren't, or can't, be explained (our heroes gradually lose the ability to write, for instance.) By the end of the film things deteriorate too much, however, and there is no satisfying conclusion. But then again, when we screw around with the very fabric of space and time, how can we expect a happy ending where all is right with the world? We can't. So PRIMER doesn't deliver that to us. And for that, I admire it.

It's amazing what was done with so little. The film's strengths and weaknesses lie in its ordinary people and their mundane dialogue, and while it can be incredibly dense and annoying at times, it's ultimately something I'd want to watch again, even to see how much more sense I can make of it. No big budgets, no star power, no special effects. Just a unique form of storytelling. It wasn't the best film I've seen, it's not even in the top 25%, but it was still compelling and interesting, and that's what counts.



SUPERMAN

I saw SUPERMAN on the big screen in 1978. It was the big summer film. We were sitting on my uncle Dave's roof in Hadley. He lived in that big junky green house on Rt 9 where Mill Valley Road turns off. Mom and Dad and Dave were drinkin beer. I had to stay near the door to the roof and not go near the edge. I was 3 and a half. It was a humid summer night and the sun was just beginning to set. Someone said "Hey, let's go see Superman!" So we went a mile down the road to the Mountain Farms Mall and the theater was packed. I put up a fuss when the lights went down. My folks weren't too happy about that. I can't say I remember the entire movie from that showing, but there are some scenes that have been indelibly etched into my brain from that screening, and I was thrilled to relive them by seeing it once again on the big screen, nearly 30 years later. The film is, in my opinion, the best superhero film ever.

In between 1978 and now I've only ever seen the Superman film in pan-and-scan on TV, and that includes the sequels. Watching this movie on the big screen was just astonishing. Some of the cinematography was just beautiful. The wide-open scenes in Smallville, for instance, impossibly wide shots of wheat fields and hills. Clark running home as the other kids are driving up; nothing but two plumes of smoke along some dirt roads, converging on a farmhouse. Pa Kent's death as seen from far away. The cemetary. The long, long, looooooong pull-back shot as Clark says goodbye to his adopted mother as she holds him tight. Oh, it's amazing, and serves as beautiful contrast to the cramped Metropolis streets -- until Superman takes flight, of course, and then we get the wide-open spaces again.

I also caught Clark's exhiliration after his first night of Doing Good Deeds. I'd forgotten about that. GIANT FLOATING MARLON BRANDO HEAD questions him about it. "Did it feel good?" he asks. Clark says oh yes. I loved it. It's his first time free, his first time using what he was given, and he loves it. He so loves it. I hadn't realized how well Christopher Reeve played Clark and Supes together. This Superman is also an actor; he acts mild-mannered as Clark, and he acts perfect and noble and yes, kinda cocky, as Superman. The only time we see the real him is in the Fortess of Solitude, and when he arrives too late to save Lois.

And speaking of Lois' death, how's that sequence for one of the best buildups of all time? Lois Lane driving along to her impending doom, Superman hot on the trail of two nuclear missiles, and complication after complication spring up for him to fix. Schoolbus nearly plunges! Train nearly gets derailed! A community (full of stupid people if they built their town right under Hoover Dam) is threatened by the dam break! Jimmy Olsen gets himself into a tight spot! The San Andreas Fault opens up like a giant Goatse! All the while Lois drives unwittingly on. One by one the problems build up and we realize holy shit, Superman's got himself a full plate on this one and we know this action sequence is gonna be incredible.

And Supes delivers. He effortlessly saves the school bus. He fills the fault back up in some of the funniest reverse footage of all time. He becomes a makeshift rail for the train. He saves the town from the floodwaters, and Jimmy Olsen gets plucked up in the nick of time. But Lois is trapped in a faultline! Her car is being crushed! She's screaming in pain and gasping for air! It doesn't look good! But wait! Here comes Superman! And we're on the edge of our seats, tense, waiting for him to save the day. He's on his way, Lois, don't give up! Even if we know what's to come, we're still right there with Supes. He's flying at super speed! He's nearly there! He's FREAKIN' RUNNING THROUGH THE EARTH'S MOLTEN CORE to save her, only to find...

He's too late.

Holy shit, it all comes crashing down. He drags Lois' lifeless body out of the car, sets it on the ground and, echoing Pa Kent's death, he breaks down and loses it. ("All these powers and I still couldn't save him.") He even kisses her and the soundtrack almost perks up, as we know the Magical Kiss of Life & Love has often, and cheaply, been used to revive a loved one at the film's climax. (I'm looking at you, The Matrix.) But even the kiss doesn't work.

Of course, Supes has one more trick left up his sleeve, and while it may not be the most glorious way to go about resolving things, it's necessary for series continuity. And it's also a lot better and really more dramatic than the ol' "Oh she wasn't really dead all along! Hooray!" copout.

I love this movie.

I adore Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, too, even while he plays Lex as a legend in his own mind. (C'mon, in this film Lex is hardly the greatest criminal mastermind of all time. If he were, don't you think he could've gotten better henchmen?) I like the look of the Daily Planet offices, but I really really really want a secret lair like Lex's Grand Central hideout. Even just a room with a submerged stairwell pool will do. Brilliant.

I got off one of my few good callbacks during the film, too. It was an old gag. Lex is outlining his plans to break off California and he says "Now call me foolish, call me irresponsible..." so I dutifully hollered "You're foolish and irresponsible!" Aah, the classics, may they never disappoint.



THX 1138

Hadn't seen this one in a long time. I will say right off the bat I don't care for George Lucas updating his older films with CGI, I didn't like the CGI inserts in THX 1138, I thought they were too shiny and glittery and out of place (if the interiors of the future dystopia look like shopping malls and utility corridors, how come the exteriors have to look like goddamn Coruscant?)

But I like the film itself and thankfully the clunky CGI doesn't take away from the bleakness (and obvious nods to Stanley Kubrick.) When it comes to creating a wholly new and depressing future society, THX 1138 gets things right. A society where everything is monitored and all advice -- whether from an operator in your medicine cabinet or an artifical deity -- is geared towards increasing production and consumption. "Blessings of the state," the Jesus-face of OM tells THX after his electronic confession. "Blessings of the masses. Let us be glad we have an occupation to fill. Work hard. Increase production. Prevent accidents. Be happy." It's a canned response, of course. Early in the film we see human operators queueing these responses for others.

Uniformity is compulsory, sedation is mandated by law, existence outside one's job is nothing but generic meals and the viewing of thoughtless holographic entertainment. Sex and affection and emotion are all outlawed and woe be unto you if they catch you at it. Reporting one's acquaintances for infractions of the law isn't a noble thing or done to benefit the informant; it's just done. So when Robert Duvall, as THX, escapes this society and heads out into the Unknown Real World, we don't care what that real world is. We just care that he makes it there.

The relentlessly cheerful droid police are as much of a hoot as they are menacing. "We mean you no harm. Please give up, you have nowhere to go," they soothingly tell THX as they surround him with electrified pungi sticks. Later, when he barricades himself in a room and locks the door, they quite kindly inform him that "the door seems to be locked. Please open it." And he finally escapes them in the best bureaucratic snafu ever devised.

The sounds in the film are great. Most recognizable are the low buzzbrblebuzz of the droids and electronic equipment, as well as the technique for distorting radio transmissions. We'd later hear them in STAR WARS ("We're passing through the magnettczzbr fiezzbzld...") The background chatter of announcements and news was all improvised by San Francisco's "The Corporation" and it's just as densely layered as the background noise of Terry Gilliam's BRAZIL, if not moreso. And the "group therapy" scene, shot in an empty white void, is absolutely brilliant in a Kubrick-meets-Sartre kind of way, especially when THX and his acquaintance SEN (played incredibly weirdly by Donald Pleasance) decide to explore the void and see exactly how far out it stretches. It all just packs itself into a beautifully tight evil dystopia, where things are only explained if they help the story or plot. Everything else is shown as-is and we get to draw our own conclusions. Very nice.

That's all I can write for tonight. I'm sure I'll say "more soon" and forget to write about it when it's fresh, but hey. More soon.
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