19 January 1999
Musings About Movies, SF and Otherwise
1998 was in several ways all about movies. As the century draws to a close everyone is making lists, and one of the most discussed and debated last year was the American Film Institute's list of 100 best films. F&SF published a special issue in which editor Gordon Van Gelder nominated movies as the dominant art form of the 20th century (and I don't disagree). Time Magazine selected the 20 most influential artists and entertainers of the century, of which 3 were film figures (compared to 2 writers).
Coincidentally for me 1998 was about movies because in early March I got on a video rental kick and started watching lots of old movies I had not seen in years (e.g. by Hitchcock) or had never seen (Preston Sturges), including many standard classics. That AFI list came along at just the right time. I was also more diligent in keeping up with current theater movies than I've been most years. By Dec. 31st I had seen 192 movies in 1998 (I keep lists of everything, of course), of which 49 were 1998 releases. I saw at least one film every day from December 5th through January 6th. It helps that I live in Los Angeles, which is great for film buffs, with many limited release pictures opening in December for Academy Awards qualification that don't reach other cities for weeks or months (if at all); it was not difficult to see something worthwhile in a theater almost every day (I filled a few gaps with videos) for a month. (Though I did miss Rushmore, which played for only a week in Century City and won't open in general release until February.)
Were I voting member of SFWA, which I'm not, I would recommend just 4 films for its new Dramatic Script Award: Dark City, Sliding Doors, The Truman Show, and Pleasantville. Only the first of these would be called SF by general audiences and critics, which indicates I think how much more genrefied and clichéd movie sci-fi is than literary science fiction; cinematic cannibalism and special effects technology have solidified conventions about spaceships, aliens, the future, and for that matter the very subject matter of what constitutes science fiction, that don't constrain the literary genre. For the most part, the movies in 1998 that were called science fiction I thought were execrable at worst -- Lost in Space, Armageddon, Deep Impact, The Faculty -- or routine variations of TV formulae at best -- Star Trek Insurrection and The X-Files. Others I didn't bother to see: Sphere, Godzilla, Deep Rising. I missed a couple interesting-sounding independent films, Pi and Cube, that I'll have to catch up with on video. There were numerous prominent films which, though not considered genre films, had fantastic themes and that were worthwhile in various ways -- Antz, A Bug's Life, Babe: Pig in the City, Meet Joe Black, What Dreams May Come -- but I think it fair to say that their attractions, such as they were, came from movie technology and acting, and not from their writing per se. (Gods and Monsters was also excellent in various ways but it's not SF, fantasy, or horror, strictly speaking, despite its strong associational interest as a story about a director of SF/horror films, and its metaphorical use of the Frankenstein monster.)
Question to ponder. Why is it film critics are capable of addressing SF films as seriously as any other movie, but literary critics consider SF beneath them? I think part of the answer is merely practical: it's possible for a film critic to see every new film of whatever genre, while the overwhelming number of new books forces even the most generous literary critic to draw the line somewhere. (If only I could keep up with SF books as easily as I can movies of all sorts.) But I think there's more to it than that, something that reflects both on the contrasting natures of the two art forms, film and literature, and on the different functions they play in society. Ideas, anyone?
P.S. My favorite films of 1998? Let's start with Shakespeare in Love, A Simple Plan, Affliction (three which especially struck me as exceptionally well-written), and The Thin Red Line; add the four SF films recommended above; dutifully throw in Saving Private Ryan (despite the framing scenes), and for spice add Happiness and The Opposite of Sex. For runners-up: Bulworth and Primary Colors, two savvy political dramas from early in the year; Central Station and The Celebration, two very different non-English language films from late in the year; plus Out of Sight, Living Out Loud, Hilary and Jackie, Elizabeth, and Gods and Monsters. I'm sure there were other significant films I missed (e.g. Beloved) that now Iíll have to wait for on video. Isn't it odd how, like books, films are available in one context at first (theaters; hardcovers) and in another context later (videos; paperbacks) yet how, unlike books, in between those two stages there's a gap during which films are completely inaccessible?
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