Roundtable: Summer Movies

Marie Brennan

I love movies, but for me, the problem tends to arise not from writer-brain, but from ex-grad-student-brain.  Which is to say, when a movie bugs me, it usually does so first on a critical level (gender issues especially) rather than a craft one, unless there’s a plot hole so gaping I can’t paper over it.  I think I go into movies wanting to enjoy myself, in a way I can’t entirely manage with books anymore (because they’re too close to home), so I will actively contribute to the story on a subconscious level in order to have fun.

And me, I like a good spectacle.  It’s one of the things movies can do really well, in a way that books have to approach very differently.  They just did a one-night-only theatre showing of the extended editions of the Lord of the Rings movies — one night per movie; not all three in one night! — and we saw Return of the King yesterday.  The charge of the Rohirrim during the Battle of Pelennor Fields?  Makes me weak at the knees.  And yeah, you can put lots of words on the page describing it, but when all is said and done I just don’t have the mental references to tell me what a charge of six thousand cavalry even looks like.  I would be taking the Kentucky Derby and then thinking “a lot more.”  The screen can say, “more — no, more — no, really, I mean it, MORE.”  A book would be better at getting me into the headspace of a single character in that charge, but a movie can show me the scope and impact of the whole thing.

That, I think, is why I’m drawn to the Big Dumb Movies, more than the quiet character pieces.  Those can work, too, if the actors are good enough — I loved Moon, a few years back — but books draw me into a character’s head far better than the screen does, usually.  As for them representing “the genre” . . . if you mean the print prose genre, they don’t at all.  (Though I have noticed a smallish trend of superhero novels over the last few years.)  If you mean the genre as the outside public conceives of it, movies and video games are most visible face we have.  Those media have taken superheroes and alien invasions and zombie apocalypses and made them part of our everyday cultural language, rather than a specialized dialect spoken only by the self-described fans.

Russell Letson

I guess I’m mostly in the camp that finds nearly all purportedly-SF movies to be not-very-good or pretty-bad SF, with the exception of the ones based on the funny papers, which have about the same connection to SF that musicals do to actual romance (i.e., rooted in conventions that nobody takes very seriously except as convention). As much as I also enjoy stuff going boom (or vroom or pocketa-pocketa), these are guilty pleasures (minus the guilt in my popcorn moments), and worth talking about mostly as examples of film-making technology or as means of taking our collective pop-culture temperature. Comic or parodic SF dodges the bad-SF bullet by not pretending to be all serious and grown-up, so The Fifth Element and Futurama and Shaun of the Dead can fool around–affectionately and knowingly–with SF/fantastic materials without giving offense.

Oddly enough, I can take fantasy film more seriously–certainly LotR can at least be discussed as a more or less (depending on one’s take) translation of a famous & serious book, and the Harry Potter films have their own odd (if derivative) integrity. (Haven’t read any of the books, so I can’t do the LotR-style comparison.)

In any case, I find myself skipping most of this summer’s eye/ear candy–nothing climbs to the top of the must-see list, and I even missed the next-last Harry Potter. And I swore off Terance Malik forever after suffering through Days of Heaven.

Cecelia Holland

You guys all make me feel terribly out of it and stodgy. I hate movies, I hate the cynical manipulations and the cheap flashy effects. The sf movies I loved were the ones from the 50’s– Forbidden Planet, This Island Earth, It Came from Outer Space. Before the world was corrupted. Or maybe it was me who got corrupted. I’m reading GRRM and loving that but I won’t see the show. I want to make my own pictures. Perhaps I am evil after all.

Mark Kelly

I should add that I do have a soft spot for those ‘50s films, even though I didn’t see most of them when I was a kid – Invaders from Mars when I was 12, maybe, but only because my next door neighbor had the TV on to it. Most of them – even Forbidden Planet and The Day the Earth Stood Still – I didn’t see until my late 20s or 30s, when I sought them out. I accumulated a videotape collection of them – This Island Earth; Red Planet Mars; It Came from Outer Space – that I still revisit occasionally. Something about the naïve notions of what they thought space and planets and aliens were like adds a special ironic interest, because you know in retrospect you can’t take them seriously, because they didn’t know any better… unlike contemporary films, when you feel they should know better, and so are disappointed that you can’t take them seriously.

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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