Roundtable: Summer Movies

Paul Graham Raven

I’m afraid I’m going to have to add my voice to the “cinema does very little for me” chorus, but I think the preponderance of responses in that vein are very telling within the demographic of this group, which is self-selected for its closeness to written fiction as its preferred (or at least most-closely-engaged-with) entertainment media.

I’m currently dipping in and out of Imagination/Space, the latest collection of Gwyneth Jones’ non-fic and criticism from Aqueduct Press, and in the opening passages of her review of Fantasy Girls: Gender in the New Universe of Science Fiction and Fantasy Television she makes a very interesting point about the differences in intentionality between a novel or story and a film or TV series. I’ll snip out a bit of it here (pp 105):

One great attraction of tv and movies is that here, at last, we have the authorless text that was promised us many years ago and signally failed to arrive in print fiction. Try as you may, when you’re reviewing a novel in the terms of the society that made the book, the intentionality of the author is always a barrier. In Fantasy Girls the essayists are dealing with texts that genuinely were produced by committee and shaped by the impersonal, Darwinian forces of the marketplace (although not forgetting vested interests that aren’t so democratic).

The point Jones is chasing is that movies and TV are more detached from the lone-auteur model of creation than the written word, which frees the work up for a different sort of critical engagement. That’s kinda tangential to our discussion here, but the point of connection persists: movies and novels operate in very different ways, and as such it’s not really surprising that the complexities and depths of a text-native genre like sf don’t translate well to the silver screen (or the boob tube).

For me at least, the power of good sf is its ability to dig really deeply into a metaphor or novum or character with the tenacity and focus that only a single driven creator without oversight could maintain over a long period; the committee model of movie-making doesn’t allow for that fine-beaming of theme and, as such, when those of us who seek out the depth of text sf come to watch movies, we will always find them falling short of what we know sf to be capable of, at least in terms of its explorative powers. This is compounded by those Darwinian market forces Jones mentions, too; if the audience responds well to expensive CGI renderings of big explosions and dumb machismo plotting, then that’s where the studio backing money will go next time.

(As the financial and technological barriers-to-entry of long-form filmmaking continue to fall, however, we might see that change; to judge by my inbox at Futurismic, there’s a lot of people out there who want to make genre movies that work differently to the Hollywood standards. That said, though, thus far this nascent indie scene appears to still be at the iconoclastic punk-in-1977 stage of throwing a whole raft of contrary shit at the wall and seeing what – if anything – sticks.)

But to get back to the original thrust of the question (digressive, moi?), it’s that rewriting-the-movie-as-you-watch-it thing that I find to be my biggest problem with cinema and television. With genre properties, this can take the form of lazy or hackneyed trope deployment, or pseudoscience-passed-off-as-the-real-thing (which is my biggest gripe with Fringe, which has moments of brilliance weighed down by masses of bunk and handwaving). More frequently and widely, though, it’s simply crap writing, period; unbelievable or crudely stereotypical characters doing implausible or idiotic things, deus ex machinas (which are far from the exclusive province of genre fiction, or so it seems to me), and all the other things that, when encountered in a novel, make me discard the book and look for another one to try.

Cinema, sadly, has disappointed me so consistently with its interminable cash-in sequels (which inevitably adhere to the Law Of Diminishing Returns), comics and toy franchise vehicles, and murderings of much-loved novels or stories, that I rarely watch movies at all – and only then when a significant number of people whose opinions on film I trust have suggested it might be worth my time in a particular case. Otherwise I end up sitting there seething silently (or, worse still, ranting at whoever’s watching with me) about the gaping holes in the fabric of the story on the screen, which is not an experience I particularly enjoy… though it is preferable, somehow, to simply “switching my brain off”, as I’m told is the sensible and normal approach to the problem. (“Why can’t you just accept the story on its own terms?” – a question I’ve been asked more times than I can count, and still have no answer for.)

But is that inability to switch off the inner critic a function of my own personality, or something to do with being first and foremost a lover of books? (Somewhere between the two, probably, but I remain convinced that the conditioning of the latter is probably a factor in the way genre cinema disappoints the hardcore of genre book-readers; in other words, cinema just can’t do the things I love most about genre novels. Your mileage, as the saying goes, may vary. 🙂 )

Guy Gavriel Kay

I’ll be contrarian. I love film, see intense scope, potential, art in it. My laments about the slack summer season, and general decline of the medium are directly connected to that sense of upside. (If we see nothing to value in something, we don’t regret evidence of weakness, we just see it as affirming our instincts.) It is absolutely true that films (and theatre) are more collaborative than fiction tends to be (I say ‘tends to be’ as writer workshops and retreats are – partly – an attempt to break the ‘usual’ isolation, I think.) I suspect this adds to the ‘accident of art’ element of the movies … so many variables and people need to come together, often randomly, to make something ‘work’. Ronald Reagan was ahead of Humphrey Bogart in the casting choices for Casablanca. There are innumerable examples, I just like that one. (Would he have said ‘Where the rest of Paris?’ … I’m indulging myself in an in-joke. Someone will get it. Right?)

I’m not sure we can afford to feel detached or insulated in the world of fiction from the easy observations about ‘dumbing down’ of movies. Pop culture in books is also headed that way, and has been for some time.

On the rewriting as you go query (a clever one) … I tend not to while watching. I do it a lot, after. I am fairly compliant as a consumer of art, in the sense that I am willing to let a capable artist take me where they want. I don’t read or watch mysteries feverishly trying to get ahead of the detective. My (clever) youngest brother claims he ‘solved’ The Usual Suspects in the first few minutes from a left hand-right hand observation, and I believe him, but I wasn’t even looking to solve anything. So, I don’t rewrite in the dark, I just bail. If the lazy tropes or irritating ‘cut to chase’ elements intrude to much, I’m mentally (and emotionally) out of there. In terms of ‘representing the genre’ … that one I think is misleading. Film doesn’t ‘represent’ books (or vice versa) and fantasy/sf/horror are such a big place now (are such different places too) that no given work or season of them should ever be tasked with the burden of standing for something like that. I’m a particularist, anyhow. Judge individual works. And try not to be narrowed into seeing them in terms of ‘is it good for the genre?’

Quick example: the New York Times review of the GRRM on HBO was egregiously stupid but it was not so stupid for the paper to assign a non-fan a review of a major cable series. It is surely legitimate for them to try to get an answer to ‘will someone not a fan of epic fantasy find this worth watching?’ The epic fail was in the doing, not the concept. So, as a reverse of this, seems to me it would also be the wrong tack to evaluate any of the summer genre-linked blockbusters purely (or even largely) in terms of their ‘benefit’ to that genre, as representatives to … the wider world?

Theodora Goss

I agree with Gardner that what’s happening on television seems more interesting, and more connected to the literary side of things, than what’s happening in the movies.  It also seems to generate more conversations among the writers I know.  We watch and pay attention to True Blood and Dr. Who, whereas I haven’t heard any deep conversations about Thor lately.  I think we’re looking for complexity, and that’s where we’re finding it. And I suspect that viewers are as well–they’re looking for longer storylines to engage them, which may be why we’re getting these series of movies that are all supposed to create the Avengers, although I don’t quite understand how that’s supposed to happen.  Conversations about television shows focus on character and plot, whereas conversations about movies seem to be about costuming, fidelity to the comic book, etc.

I probably won’t be watching any SF movies this summer, but I will be catching up on television shows . . .

John Kessel

I don’t have much time to comment, but I’ll add a few cents.

1) I love movies, always have. I went to matinee double features when I was a boy, saw very many bad sf films that I knew were bad but I still kept coming back.

2) Not any more. The “summer blockbuster” genre leaves me pretty cold, though occasionally something of interest can arise within that genre, I am bored to tears with action movies that are more concerned with special effects , with “thrill rides,” with blowing stuff up, than they are with character, plot, story, social observation or  comment.

3) I can enjoy a “popcorn” movie but it has to be one with some wit or intelligence. The last movie based on a comic book that I liked was Iron Man but I admit that I don’t even go to see these movies for the most part, knowing that I will be bored or annoyed by them. For me, costumed superhero movies are a hard sell.

4) I hated E.T. and won’t go to see Super 8.

5) I still want to be taken away by a film, and will go out of my way to try things that even offer a chance of that.–movies like Moon and Source Code and Inception that may be disappointing, but at least try to engage the viewer on some level besides the most obvious. But I can be pretty hard on movies like Never Let Me Go or District 9 that try to offer intelligent sf but, in my opinion, fail.

6) Yet hope springs eternal, and I do think that several of the best sf movies ever filmed have been made in the last decade, among which I include Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Prestige, Primer, and Children of Men. As you can see from that list, these are not special effects movies, and are pretty light on explosions and action sequences.  I wish there were more of them, and I’m ready to pay to see them. Unfortunately, I don’t think too many other people are.

Terry Bisson

Movies are America talking to itself. Of course it gets stupid at times. Plus it’s like deep sky astronomy: what you are seeing is Hollywood 4.3 years ago. Go see Meek’s Cutoff. An Oregon Trail western with Sci-fi music. They were on another planet and they knew it.

Hey, John, Moon stunk. Never Let Me Go was bad SF but as a love story it had me in tears and I’m not a big cryer.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

Nope, Terry, they were on Earth–but an Earth 10,000 years in the future. In the director’s cut, when they clear the top of that mountain they’re headed for, they stumble upon the Statue of Liberty buried up to its chin in the sand.

Couldn’t help but feel I’d seen that somewhere before . . .

7 thoughts on “Roundtable: Summer Movies

  • July 6, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    What worries me about the slick CGI, totally believable (almost) SF/Fantasy worlds in the modern summer blockbuster is that they leave no room left for the viewer’s visual imagination to interact with their story. Every facet of those worlds has been imagined for us. Same thing with point and shoot ‘video’ games (or, for that matter most genre jacket art). When I was a kid (1950s & 60s) and watched a Ray Harryhausen film or Invaders from Mars or Forbidden Planet I needed to supply quite a bit of poetic imagining to make the goings on up on the screen even remotely believable. This, of course, helped train my ability to tell stories and vividly imagine what was running around in my head.. It seems to me that today there is no need for the viewers imagination to supply anything at all to a film like Transformers or Green Lantern. So I have to ask myself what is that going to do to the kids growing up with these entertainments?

  • July 6, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    Oddly enough, I find myself 180 degrees from Charles Vess’s point of view–one of the reasons I was stunned and delighted by 2001 (which I was able to see first-run in a Cinerama theater) was that the visuals were absolutely convincing. I had always wanted to *see* SF worlds with the same close-grained attention to detail that the best print work offered. Kubrick delivered this. Years later, it was mostly the cutting-edge visuals that had me and my wife sitting through Star Wars twice in a row. (The good-natured, popcorn-movie realization of all the space opera adventure tropes I’d grown up on didn’t hurt either.) I would argue that the great gift of modern movie-making is precisely its ability to deliver visual literalizations (yeah, it’s self-contradictory but I think it works) of the sensawonder scenery and scenarios that SF has always offered. Unfortunately, most of the time the technology is serving an idiot plot devised by a committee of industry apparatchiks following logic right out of the opening sequence of The Player. For example, visual surface is just about the only reason to watch Avatar.

  • July 6, 2011 at 10:11 pm

    I agree with Charles on this one. I recently rewatched Labyrinth (with David Bowie), and I remembered again how charming it was, how much it asked of me as the viewer. It was more like a book than the sorts of movies we see nowadays. I mostly like the modern visual effects in the recent Narnia movies, but what did they do with the plots? The old unconvincing BBC versions do a better job. So, I think CGI has to be handled carefully, and it can’t substitute for storytelling.

  • July 11, 2011 at 4:35 pm

    Russell, well yes, there is a part of me that glories in the utter believability of today’s CGI effects but then I grew up watching those older movies with their oh-so-obvious models, matte lines and rubber suited monsters and always wanted more. BUT I’m certain my imagination would not have developed as it did without the ‘poetic space’ that those 1950’s SF epics left me. Or watching on rainy Saturday afternoons all those el cheapo Italian sand and sandal epics that borrowed so haphazardly from Greek/Roman mythology for their stories. They lit my imagination and made me crave more of the same. Which sent me to the library to read Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke and The Illiad & The Oddessy for that matter. That same ‘poetic space’ concerns me as an illustrator: “How much do I show the reader? Will I take anything away from her or his experience?” And the answer is “I don’t know.”

  • July 13, 2011 at 7:39 am

    As a child of the 1940s, I populated the world of my imagination with all kinds of heroes and villains and, without restraint of logic, engaged in naive storytelling much in the style of Sapper, Sax Rohmer and similar authors whose work I demolished. Coming to the cinema, I found a similar freewheeling approach to storytelling. The two-reelers and B-movies were all about excitement, silly cliffhangers and improbable escapes from certain death. The stupidity was half the fun.

    We’ve all grown up, but Hollywood has lost the plot. Even when it greenlights a homage or parody of 1950s movies like Super 8, the narrative style gets bogged down in a morass of mawkish sentimentality. That adds the plot’s stupidity to the general embarrassment. So far this year, only Source Code had any interest and even that was flawed. Frankly, looking ahead, I’m not optimistic. The only film of potential interest is Prometheus as Ridley Scott returns to the Alien franchise — a statement that shows my desperation for finding something that might be interesting.

  • July 14, 2011 at 6:35 pm

    Yes, it’s (almost – a crucial word) all dross, but what always pains me most is how many great print works could also make great film – if anyone would even try. But they don’t. Quick – name ten SF stories/novels that could translate wonderfuly to the screen. (Pause). I’ll bet it didn’t even take 15 seconds, did it? The Door Into Summer, Who?, The Caves of Steel, The Wanderer, Hothouse, High Rise, The Inheritors, Bring the Jubilee, The Man in the High Castle, Hawksbill Station. These are my “off the top” titles. Maybe some of them wouldn’t work (a lot of movies that should work don’t – such is the nature of the medium), but they’re all worth a try. Several of them would be relatively inexpensive to make, from an effects standpoint at least. But the powers that be don’t even access this wealth of material. Why?

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