#22 = Volume 7, Part 3 = November 1980
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
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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