Science Fiction Studies

#22 = Volume 7, Part 3 = November 1980

Editorial Introduction

When we began planning two years ago for this special issue on SF and the non-print media, we expected most of the articles included in it to focus on film and on television. That, of course, has proved to be the case. The reader will find virtually nothing in these pages on SF radio programs or SF and photography or the graphic arts, except for Marc Angenot's review (with its useful bibliographical appendix) of Boris Eizykman and Daniel Riche's book on SF comic strips.

What we did not anticipate was that almost none of the papers submitted to us would devote much more than a passing mention to any SF film released before the late 1960s or to productions outside the US. We would have liked to have been able to offer something on, say: the numerous film adaptations of H.G. Wells's SF, the work of director James Whale, Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926) and The Woman in the Moon (1929), Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville (1965), Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris ( 1972), Japanese "monster" movies (but see Michael Stern's insightful, if tantalizingly brief, comments on these in his essay on special effects), and remakes of SF film "classics" like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (with some explanation of why each remake is always inferior to its predecessor).

As it stands, then, this special issue does not have the historical and geographic breadth readers might expect in these pages. Apart from the schematic survey Peter Fitting gives in the course of his penetrating analysis of Alien, it provides no exploration in detail or depth of any SF film before 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). That masterpiece of Kubrick's, to be sure, receives here the prominence it deserves as undoubtedly the greatest SF film produced to date. Yet acclaim for 2001 as inaugurating a new era in SF cinema is all too often accompanied by the tacit dismissal of all previous achievements in a genre which goes back to Méliès and his pioneering version of Le voyage dans la lune (1902), and by an even more dubious emphasis on the work of Kubrick's successors, who have borrowed the manner of his special effects without the substance of which they are an intrinsic element (see Donald Theall's formidable theoretical discussion in section two of his "Science Fiction as Symbolic Communication"). As a result, more attention than most of them merit is lavished on the usually slick offerings of the corporate-conglomerated New Hollywood (which puts out fewer good movies than the Old Hollywood, in part because it finances fewer movies, in part because it has formed an unholy alliance with commercial TV networks, and in part thanks to the meddling influx of TV producers and corporate executives; see Jackie Byars' comments in the "Symposium on Alien" and also Pauline Kael's in a widely syndicated piece originally published in the New Yorker). Much SF film criticism accordingly exhibits a trendiness that can be seen as correlative to what one of our reviewers refers to as its "ghettoization" (see Will Straw's "What's Wrong with SF Film Criticism"). The critic deals exclusively with the latest box-office "hit"--naively adopting a critical method left over from an earlier age.

To judge only by their subjects and titles, most of our contributors might appear to have succumbed to that tendency. This, however, is not the case. The reader will discover that these critics employ sophisticated approaches-- Burkean (Donald Theall), (neo-)Freudian (Andrew Gordon), sociological (as in the symposium on Alien), or socio-psychological (Mark Siegel on Rocky Horror)-- to probe the meanings and ambivalences of the work in question and reveal its connection(s) with its social context.

At one pole, film criticism generally exhibits a tendancy of treating films like literary artifacts. This is no doubt preferable to the preoccupation with camera angles and distances and other such matters isolated by purely technical concerns that characterizes the other pole of much film criticism. But any "literary" approach to cinema is nevertheless open to the objection that the sine qua non of film is the image, not the word. Most films of course do have a verbal component; but to speak of them as texts is misleading even as a metaphor. A film is a combination-- and, ideally, a synthesis-- of words and images; and to ignore its image has its perils for the would-be interpreter.

The plinth in 2001 is a good case in point. It is oftentimes identified as the "agency" of evolution. That however is quite arguably a strict-- and Arthur Clarkean-- reading the image. The image itself strikes every viewer as an incongruous slab: visually, that is, the point is that there is no clear connection, casual or otherwise, with the scene in which it manifests itself. As image it presents itself as ineffably incomprehensible...and that is what it "means". What a "reading" of that image misses is the level at which Kubrick satirizes Clarke's vision of man evolving, through the intervention of some mysterious spiritual agency or process towards a great (or ever greater) understanding of the cosmos (See Fredric James' discussion of this point in "SF Novel/ SF Film").

That objection however is largely tangential to the substance of the articles printed here. Most of them quite explicitly refer to the film as a "text", but invariably invoke the broad meaning that word has required in contemporary (and chiefly continenal) critical parlance. Almost without exception, there are sustained attempts to "demythologize" (e.g. in Roland Barthes' sense) the images the visual media present us with, and to do so in a way responsive to Pamela Annas's call for increased sociological awareness in SF film criticism ( see "Science Fiction Film Criticism in the US"). At the same time, they raise formitable questions--about the limits of a given medium and its possible in-built ideological biases, about the validity of categorizing SF cinema with SF literature, and so forth-- in a way that opens those matter for further thought and debate.

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