The ever-gracious Glen Campbell interviewed me for his podcast On Garner Road last week, and as I expected, he centered his questions on film. It was a good conversation, but there were a few things I wanted to clarify/expand because I tend to have difficulty composing my thoughts as well as I’d like when speaking as opposed to writing. So go listen to the episode first, because I’m going to jump right in to the same topics. It’s only about a half hour long.
Thanks so much to Glen for giving me the opportunity to be On Garner Road!
Best Sci-Fi Right Now
I answered this based on sci-fi films, which have become, in mainstream film, anyway, almost fully about sci-fi trappings – that is, action films that happen to be set on other planets or in space or have aliens rather than sci-fi that tackles questions of ethics and the limits of science or the role of technological advancement in society in the way that hard sci-fi does. Most of the time they’re not even particularly innovative in the way they incorporate futuristic elements into their stories. There are exceptions, which was what I was trying to get at with my awkward comments about people like Timur Bekmambetov who made interesting, even visionary films, before they came to Hollywood, and then ended up making much less intriguing things after. Bekmambetov was a weird name for me to come up with, though, because even though I do think there’s a lot to like about the Night Watch series he did in Russia (well, it was supposed to be a trilogy; the third one hasn’t gotten made yet), it’s got a lot of issues. But maybe that’s one of the things I like about sci-fi – it goes places that don’t exist yet or transmogrifies things that do exist into a new context that makes them otherworldly, and that can get messy. That good kind of messiness gets lost in Hollywood.
So to really answer this question, I’d say the best sci-fi in cinema is happening in other countries and in independent film – Mexico’s Sleep Dealer, the UK’s Moon and Monsters, Spain’s Timecrimes, Canada’s Splice, and indies like Primer. Hollywood mainstream is too safe, and sci-fi shouldn’t be safe. I was shocked when they gave Splice a wide release, because it’s a highly transgressive film that goes some very disturbing places. I didn’t love every choice Vincenzo Natali made in it, but I appreciated his bravado in making the choices he did. The elephant in the room talking about current sci-fi films, especially in the context of indie/foreign/Hollywood differences, is District 9, a film from a first-time South African director that straddled the line between indie and mainstream, both in its production and distribution. I can’t speak for sure as to Neill Blomkamp’s original intentions, but the film demonstrates my issue with indie and Hollywood sci-fi quite well. The first half or two thirds of the film is a really intriguing, if rather obvious, sci-fi-based inquiry into apartheid and its faux-documentary style was interesting. I loved that half – it was thoughtful and refreshing and not what you expect from a multiplex film. Then it took a turn both in style and story and turned into a big action movie, and I all but hated that part. It stopped being what it was and lost what made it unique. That’s what seems to happen when Hollywood gets ahold of sci-fi.
Somehow we got into a brief Avatar discussion, because Glen asked me what were some recent overrated films, and Avatar was the first thing that sprung to mind. And I do hold to that, but I think I came down a little harsh on people who praised Avatar, which led to the little side note on elitism, which Glen was far too kind about. I get what he was trying to say, and I appreciate that, but I also know that a good portion of the vitriol I’ve hurled towards Avatar over the past year is reactionary and I don’t like being that way. Don’t get me wrong, I still don’t think it’s that great a film, but it’s not the worst thing ever made, either, and being derivative of other works isn’t necessarily that bad – I like a lot of films that pull ideas from other films.
The difference for me, and why I rate Avatar lower than pop-culture pastiche films like the ones Tarantino, Rodriguez, Edgar Wright, and others (back to Godard!) make is that Avatar doesn’t seem to be aware of what it’s doing, and is so totally earnest in tone that it turns me off. It plays it so straight while regurgitating every oppressed-people-liberated-by-hero story ever that I can’t tell whether Cameron is really oblivious to how much he’s thieving (it feels like theft rather than homage) or if he’s deliberately suppressing awareness to pull the wool over the audience’s eyes, and I can’t decide which would be worse. I do give Cameron credit for being a good storyteller, though (which is not to be confused with having a good story), because between the gorgeous visuals and the momentum of the plotting, you don’t really notice how thin the basic story here is until you get to the end and start thinking back over it. And that’s the step that most audiences don’t take, which is what I was sort of trying to get at with my comment about audiences being blinded by pretty visuals and not having the background knowledge to see the unoriginality – honestly, it’s fine with me if people want to enjoy their experience at the movies and not mull it over for weeks after. I do that often (hellllllo, Resident Evil series), but a movie being an impressive technical achievement or an engaging experience doesn’t necessarily make it a great film if other elements are mundane and derivative without any self-awareness that makes pastiche fun. And honestly, I prefer Resident Evil‘s campy B-movie fun to Avatar‘s overearnest self-important tone.
I’m not sure I really answered Glen’s question here, which was asking about adapting long-form novels into relatively brief movies, and whether the visual component made up for losing so many words. My general answer about adaptation stands, though, which is that the film adaptations that work are generally the ones where the director has their own vision for the story and brings something new to their interpretation of it. As far as adding visuals goes, of course you can save on a bunch of description when you throw in a visual, but sometimes that can backfire because just showing a landscape isn’t as necessarily as meaningful as the words an author uses to describe it (think how much E.M. Forster gets out of describing the caves in A Passage to India or in contrasting the houses in Howards End, or the feeling you get from Virginia Woolf’s descriptions of Mrs. Dalloway’s London or the way the countryside looked to the characters in The Voyage Out as they were falling in love – it’s really hard to get that subjective sense across in an unmediated image). Any adaptation from novel to film is going to be a reduction of some sort, so the question is how to reduce the novel to its core elements, stripping out subplots and characters that don’t support that core. You’re always going to piss some people off when you do that, so you’ve got to be confident in your vision for what the FILM should be apart from the book. And that’s the real issue – you’ve got to not think “how can I capture everything about this book” so much as “how can I make this the best film possible”. Adaptations can fail by being too faithful to the book just as easily as by deviating from it too much – Kubrick’s The Shining may not be extremely faithful to the King novel, but it’s a damn good movie, while the recent Chronicles of Narnia films are almost stiflingly faithful, with no vision of their own or trust in their own existence apart from the books.
Video Games as Art
Here’s where I have to almost totally recant something I said; even as I was saying that Red Dead Redemption wasn’t art, I was internally crying out, what am I saying?! Here’s the thing. “Art” is a notoriously slippy term, and I tend to prefer to take a broad view of it. The question as phrased, though, led me toward answering it with a narrow view of art. I’m not really interested in getting into an art vs. non-art debate, because I don’t find the distinction to be very useful. The line is too blurry and depends on too many pre-conceptions that are hardly ever articulated, if they even can be articulated. I think you can experience video games as non-art by focusing solely on the mechanics of the gameplay and completing the missions, but you can also experience it as art by focusing on other things – in Red Dead Redemption I found myself getting lost in just riding around delighting in the landscapes and the random encounters I’d have, even if I wasn’t actively engaged in doing something toward game completion – in other words, I wasn’t experiencing it primarily as a GAME, at that point, but as something else, though there were still elements of gameplay that allowed me to experience it at all. This can be turned into an argument that video games are not art for the exact reason that they are only experienced as art at the point when they cease to be experienced as games – I disagree with that argument, but it is fairly compelling in some ways. Similarly, you can experience things that are generally considered art, like paintings or classic novels, as non-art by using them merely as a means to an end. So generally, my feelings about art, at this point in time anyway, is that art is better defined by the way that a work (game, film, novel, painting, music, etc.) is experienced rather than by anything inherent in the work itself. I do think that some works lend themselves better to certain types experiences than others, so that some things are more likely to be considered art by more people than others, but I would try to avoid categorically deciding that one thing is art and another is not.
Side note on the uncanny valley – Amber reminded me that the major source of the uncanny valley effect is the fact that human faces are asymmetrical, and capturing asymmetry believably with a computer algorithm is really difficult. Computer-generated faces tend to be perfectly symmetrical, which subconsciously alerts us that something isn’t right, and it creeps us out. I still think there’s also something with the eyes, though, too. I’ve yet to see computer-generated eyes that don’t look vacant.