As my readers probably know, I work very fast. Inspiration hits, I start writing, and I don’t stop until the story is done. I might type for eight or ten hours straight, because if I stop for anything longer than a trip to the can, I’ll lose the holy fire of inspiration, and the story will die on the vine.
It’s really not a great way to run a railroad, I’ll be the first to admit. It limits me to short stories, rather than longer work, and undoubtedly it’s responsible for my giddy-yet-somewhat-unhinged style. It’s not bad, it’s kind of unique, but it’s also limiting.
I had always assumed this was the result of my fairly short attention span, but I just realized this morning that it’s really my anxieties.
No, seriously: I take a half hour off to get lunch, and I begin to dread going back to it. I think, “This is terrible, no one’s going to read it anyway, why am I doing this?” I begin to dread how much of the work still lies ahead of me. I put it off. I question myself. I berate my talent. (I know I have talent objectively, but the longer I postpone things, the more I begin to doubt it emotionally). I take the night off, and it’s almost a guarantee that the story will be abandoned.
That’s why, I think, I only do short stories: That’s as much as I can manage before my inherent “Randy can’t do anything” feelings grow too big to be ignored. If I do it the moment the inspiration hits, I can maybe manage to bang a story out before my subconscious notices and paralyzes me. If I delay, then I’m dead before I can do anything at all.
Recently I sent out two “Goodbye forever, please don’t write me back” letters to two of my once-and-former best friends. They didn’t do anything wrong or cross me or anything, I just needed to end stuff, and I also need closure because I’m 50, and that’s what fat, middle-aged overdramatic crazy people entering the third act of their lives do. I guess. I’m new at this.
The impetus was simply that I’ve had a lot of death in my life lately. Since the start of the year I’ve lost three people, plus a fourth who died a while back and I just found out about it this year. Plus a fifth who’s still alive, but is dead to me. I realize that’s melodramatic, he’s not really dead, but emotionally he went on that same pile.
Now, both of these people were folks I was really close to, and who were really important to me at some stage in my life. Patrick “Bad News” Hughes basically transformed me from a humorless, scared-of-girls, fanatical kid who got frightened by hearing “American Pie” on the radio, decided all popular music was satanic, and stopped listening, into, well, *me.* Then he disappeared for a long time, and turned up again around 2001, and we hit it off immediately.
Curi was a super-smart teenaged girl who started college at 16 and needed some positive reinforcement from a big brother figure who didn’t actually want anything from her. She inspired me to get back into music again, after many years away.
So these folks drifted away over time, to the point where I’d send out my rambling, hilariously profane Christmas letters, and that was about it. Every other year or so, I’d drop another letter on Patrick, just to see if he’d email me or whatever. He never did. Curi would send the occasional “I want you to know I always read everything you send,” comment, and nothing more. You never know how to take that. Is it “I like hearing from you,” or is it “My flesh crawls when I read your letters?” In any event, there was never any other follow up from her.
After a while, writing letters to people who never write you back begins to seem creepy and stalkerish. I hadn’t realized it, but I haven’t heard from Patrick in EIGHT years! I decided I needed to say goodbye, and have a period at the end of that sentence. Not because they’d done anything wrong, just because it was important to close out those files in my head, you know?
Then Patrick’s letter got returned as “undeliverable,” and I felt cheated. If I had to keep one of ’em, I’d keep Curi, who’s a loveable kid sister. Patrick is an accurately self-described asshole who is no end of fun and challenges me to try new things, then gets pissed off at me for whatever reason, and disappears.
So, yeah, the better of the two probably thinks I hate her and the worse of the two probably thinks I’m still pinin’ away for him to drop me a line.
Typically my attempts at closure end with guilt (Curi) and an absence of closure (Patrick)
[THIS REVIEW WAS ORIGINALLY POSTED ON A DIFFERENT WEBSITE IN 2010]
I have a strange affinity for this movie. When I was a kid, periodically, our teachers would herd us all into the cafeteria twice a year while we waited for our parents to come and pick us up rather than have us ride the buses like normal. They’d have us watch one of two movies – “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” and a more-or-less-forgotten Disney film called “Melody Time.” (1948) I never quite figured out why they did this, but I suspect it was so that we’d be out from underfoot while our parents were Christmas shopping or whatever, since it always happened on the last day of school before Christmas break. I never really figured out why they had us watch the Disney flick, it must have been tied to something, but I don’t know what, or why. Oh, and now that I think on it, they used to show us the old “Ichabod Crane” Disney cartoon before Halloween. For whatever reason, I must have seen this movie three or four times in as many years.
I didn’t remember too much about it – the only bit I remembered in any detail was the kids mistaking a robot on the horizon for Santa’s workship, and some little green martian kids having no clue what Christmas or presents were. I always looked forward to it. I liked the movie. I was an addlepated kid, evidently. Years later, in high school and college, when the subject of truly horrible films came up, no one could ever believe that I’d seen this film, much less that I’d seen it multiple times, and kinda’ liked it.
PLAY BY PLAY
Right off the bat, we’re treated/tortured with a hopelessly happy-awful song. If you’re a guy like me who doesn’t really like Christmas, and if the cloying faux sentimentality of Old Saint Nick mostly just makes you want to punch someone, you’re gonna’ find this all a little much to bear:
What I find particularly hateful about this is the way these New Yawk children keep calling Santa “Santy” (Which rhymes with women’s underwear.) I don’t know why that sets me off, but it does. It’s cootish, like the way you’d expect people to say his name back when people still called policemen “Bulls” and Teddy Roosevelt was contemplating a third term.
A couple Martian children on Mars are watching a news broadcast from earth about Santa, featuring a man interviewing Santa (Who’s real) at the North pole, in his workshop staffed by three midgets. (There woulda’ been more, I guess, but the Fairlyland Creatures Union Local #207 decided to strike. I made that up, because that would have been interesting. Nothing interesting happens in this film.) On Mars, the children are acting weirdly (for Martians), so Kemar calls a meeting of the Martian Council, and they meet up in the spooky valley to get advice from the 800-year-old wizard of overacting, who chews the scenery for a bit in this odd sequence:
Sorry for the MST3k bit, it was the only clip I could find. The Martian council decide ‘hey, screw all our governmental duties, let’s head to earth and kidnap a mythical being!’ This they then do. Now, the Martians have cloaking device technology, but they just don’t bother to turn it on until Earth (Read: The United States) has already noticed them. Then they turn it on, but nothing happens. A quick inspection of the “Radar Box” shows that the malfunction was caused by Dropo, Kemar’s idiot butler, who stowed away inside a piece of equipment. We’re given a couple minutes of stock footage of the US Armed Forces scrambling as if for nuclear attack to check out the UFO. Then the Cloak kicks in, and Dr. Werner von Green (heavy sigh) says it was probably just a meteor or something.
Cut to: two blandly cute kids on earth, one of whom is Pia Zadora. The other one isn’t Pia Zadora, and that’s really all he’s got going for him. The Martians kidnap them, and Voldar – who has a fake mustache – attempts to be mean to them, but Kemar is an enlightened despot who forbids such things. The two of them go off to do Martian things, while Dropo takes the kids on a tour of the control room. The bosses are coming back, so he stashes the kids in the Radar Box, and leaves. The Martians discuss their nefarious plan to kidnap Santa. Once the ship lands at The North Pole (Magnetic or Geographic? This is just one of the many thorny theological quandaries this film refuses to tackle), the kids disable the Cloaking Device, escape the ship and run away. Kemar and Krew head off to bag Santa, while Voldar heads off to kill the kids, or maybe just beat them up real bad, which always cheers him up when he’s sitting around being depressed by how unconvincing his mustache is. (I made that up, because that would have been interesting. Nothing interesting happens in this film.) The kids are hidden in a cave, but before Voldar can kill them or give them a stern talking to, or whatever it is he has planned, a man in a polar bear costume shows up and scares him away. (Just for clarity’s sake, he’s not *supposed* to be a man in a polar bear suit. I think he’s supposed to be a real polar bear, but I have a sharper eye than most, and I spotted it. Those of you less experienced that I may have a harder time with this.)
The kids go looking for Santa’s worship and we come to the one scene in this movie that I remember clearly in which Pia Zadora says she sees the windows all lit up in the distance. These turn out to be the glowing eyes of a hokey robot that grabs the kids while they stand around like idiots, rather than running away because the set is too small for them to run anyway. Voldar tells the robot to kill them or hug them to death or something, but Kemar has the robot programmed to only obey him, so no dice.
From there, the plot lumbers over to Santa’s Worship, where the Robot is supposed to grab the old fat dude (who also has a fake mustache, *and* a fake beard), but immediately shuts down and becomes a toy when in his presence. Kemar and Voldar bust in and grab the guy, and in the process we learn that Mrs. Claus (Who’s actually named “Mary Christmas” – she’s a liberated chick who kept her maiden name, y’see. I made that up, because that would have been interesting. Nothing interesting happens in this film.) is a bit of a harpie, evidently.
So on to the ship everyone goes, and – zang – off to Mars. Of course the Cloak isn’t working, so we see stock footage of the armed forces going to kick the Martian’s green butts yet again, and then a quick interview with Werner von Green (Who also has a fake mustache) telling how they’re launching astronauts to rescue Santa and the two kids. How they’ve figured out Santa and two kids are gone is really anyone’s guess, the authorities just seem to instantly know this kind of thing, which implies a kind of Orwellian police state, but obviously that can’t be what they were going for because that would have been interesting. Nothing interesting happens in this film. We see a lot of stock footage of a rocket launching, and one of the Martians says they’re being followed, but of course nothing comes of this.
Meanwhile, Voldar attempts to off Santa and the kids in the airlock, but if a fat tub of geriatric guts like Santa can fit through a chimney, he sure as shooting can fit through an air vent. It’s kinda’ like that X-files episode with the guy who can throw his entire body out of joint to crawl through tiny spaces, and then he eats people. Remember that? Not that that happens in this film because that would be interesting, and as you may have already recognized, there’s a bit of a thematic motif in this film which prevents anything interesting from happening.
So on Mars, Kemar takes Santa and the kids to meet his kids, and a whole lot of fake laughter ensues. No one talks, mind you, they just laugh for something like three minutes, because nothing pads out a film like pointless mirth. Really there’s a whole heck of a lot of pointless fake laughter in this film.
[PLEASE NOTE: The original clip I linked to is no longer on YouTube. Sorry]
The particular scene in question takes place at about 1:12 in the clip. It’s disquieting. Seriously, just listen to that montage – maybe play it on a loop – and it’s impossible to imagine yourself walking around inside your house doing anything apart from sinking knives in the walls for no good reason. This is exactly the kind of thing that the Punk movement was rebelling against, and, I suspect, exactly the kind of thing the hippie movement secretly wanted more of, then got all pissy and self-indulgent when they realized they couldn’t have it, so they just took drugs and had lots of sex and caught crabs instead. I assume. It’s hard to really understand what filthy hippies want.
Soooooooooooooooooooo anyway, as best I can figure, they decide to have a Martian Christmas, and they set up an automated toy factory staffed by child labor, rather than midgets because Mars evidently has fairly lax laws on the subject. Voldar, meanwhile, for no adequately explained reason, is hiding in a fake looking cave outside of town. Evidently he’s an outcast, on the run, turned out by polite society, though I’m not sure why. I presume it had something to do with him trying to murder three people – one of them mythical, the other one Pia Zadora, who might also be mythical – but I really don’t know. The copy I was watching was kind of sketchy and had clearly been re-spliced a couple times. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a scene missing. Or maybe I just nodded off there for a minute. That wouldn’t surprise me much, either.
So Voldar decides they can’t just kill Santa (For no explained reason), instead they sneak into the toy factory and sabotage it. While there, Dropo walks in dressed like Santa because Dropo is an idiot. Voldar’s an idiot too, and doesn’t realize it’s not Santa, despite the fact that he’s green and has the same kind of stupid helmet everyone else on Mars wears.
Santa discovers the machine has been sabotaged, meanwhile Voldar tells Kemar that Santa (It’s actually Dropo, don’t be frightened kids. Whereas everyone loves Santa, pretty much everyone wants to see Dropo get hurt.) is a hostage, and will be released if Kemar accedes to his demands. Voldar’s demands, that is, not Santa’s. Or Dropo’s. Of course Kemar’s the closest thing to a non-idiot on Mars, and he just beats the crap out of the two of them, shoves ’em in a closet, and begins to interrogate them. The bad guy get the drop on him, however, and beat the crap out of him, and escape the closet…but can they escape the hall it’s attached to? Seriously, they just stand around for like ten minutes in a six-by-six set, it’s claustrophobic *AND* visually uninteresting.
Back in the fake cave of fakeness, Dropo acts out of character and figures a way to escape, and makes his way back to the city or…house…or…really wherever it is that the “Action” is taking place. Voldar attacks the kids, but they hold him off using toys, after which Kemar comes to and arrests the guy. He’s crying, and his fake mustache is all soggy and even faker-looking.
Santa decides that Dropo would make a good Martian Santa, and then heads back to Earth with Pia Zadora and the kid who isn’t Pia Zadora.
Cue closing credits, annnnnnnd the end. What? Oh? Still running a bit short? Ok…uhm…run the lyrics to the song after the credits, as if it’s a singalong…………annnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnd…
Despite all my snark, this is a perfectly tolerable kids movie. The SF trappings are probably intended as mild parody of the crappy SF TV shows of the 50s, and frankly things aren’t terribly much faker than episodes of “Tom Corbet, Space Cadet” and “Rocky Jones, Space Ranger.” I mean, how else are we to make sense of the clearly-joking “Food Pills” stuff? Yeah, it’s a belabored running gag that isn’t remotely funny, but clearly it’s *supposed* to be funny, clearly they’re making fun of the tired old food-pill trope that had been showing up in literary SF for a generation, and in film SF for a decade or so. (For instance, it figures prominently in “Conquest of Space.”
Production values are worlds higher than “Forbidden Zone,” which is the yardstick I use for these things, and bear in mind that this is a film that’s intended for really young kids. I *loved* this movie in first and second grade, and probably third as well. All my little friends loved it, too, and I don’t remember anyone talking trash about it back in the day. It’s perfectly acceptable for kids in the same way that Barney the Purple Dinosaur and Romper Room are entirely acceptable for kids. They see and experience things differently than we do, so it’s kind of disingenuous to complain about the movie because it doesn’t have gore and knife fights and gory knife fights and a heavy metal soundtrack and whatnot because obviously those things aren’t age appropriate.
Unlike most of the people who run SF fansites, I have no real pretension. I’m an idiot, and I admit that freely. Rather than try to hide my mistakes, I draw attention to them, fess up, and move on. Case in point: I wrote this whole review assuming the little blonde girl was Pia Zadora. In fact, she’s not. She’s Donna Confortini, who never did anything in film apart form this movie. Pa Zadora is “Girmar,” the little Martian girl. Wow! What a huge mistake to make! Now, a lesser man than me would go through the review and fix that, trying to cover his tracks, but not me: I’m just honest and lazy enough to leave it the way I wrote it. Pia would have been about 10 when this movie was made. Despite being a bit old for that sort of thing by then, Pia would go on to have a minor career playing a sex kitten in movies that were essentially cheap sexed-up uncredited remakes of other movies: “Butterfly” (1982) was a slutty version of “Lolita” (1961), and “The Lonely Lady” (1983) was an even more slutty version of “The Oscar” (1966).
From an adult perspective, Dropo is the absolute worst kind of character in a film – a guy who’s not even remotely funny, but whom we’re *told* is a scream. We’re subjected to a lot of pointless mugging of the camera. He’s really so bad that I feel kind of embarrassed for him, I kind of don’t want to give his real name or talk about his career. He seems kind of vulnerable. “Voldar” was played by character actor Vincent Beck, who was on a jillion shows in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Apart from that, really no one in this movie ever went on to do anything of note.
It’s interesting to me that during the course of the movie, no one ever mentions how all those poor kids back on earth will be shafted because Santa’s trapped on Mars. Also, did the Astronauts get back to Earth? Did they land on Mars nine months later, guns a-blazing and kill everyone they met? What happened next? I think there’s a fine concept for a sequel there that no one ever really explored.
The Martians are, frankly, embarrassing. Guys in green tights and makeup. They all wear motorcycle helmets with the goggles turned upside down so the nose part is pointing up, all spray painted green, with some flexi-pipe on one side, and some TV Rabbit Ears attached. It’s sad, really.
The brief shots of the spaceship in flight are actually kinda’ cool. I found myself wondering if they’d been stolen from some other film.
Ok, I’m tired of typing. Suffice it to say that this is a really, really, really bad film that is bad in the exactly specific kind of way that makes you kind of sad for everyone in the film, you know? They just wanted to make something nice for the kids, and in a lot of ways they succeeded, but the movie is so cheap, so shoddy, so poorly acted, so badly thought out that it’s hard to overlook that.
It’s like when you’re ten and your mom tries to make you a cake for your birthday, only she can’t cook, and ends up with this amorphous disaster, swathed in way too much icing to hide the deformities: Yeah, it’s terrible, but you can’t actually complain to her, can you? I mean, she tried, right? And she already knows she failed – I mean, you saw her crying quietly to herself in the kitchen, right? Would it be any better if you pointed out to her what a bad job she did? No, obviously not. She’s got a hard life, getting harder all the time, and let’s face it, you’re no picnic, kiddo. So you just sit there, pretending the burned, rock-hard flinders drowned in icing are tasty, and that you don’t notice how bad it is, and she just sits there, knowing you know, and feeling bad that you’re having to put the effort into hiding your feelings, which makes her feel worse, and of course you feel bad because (A) you didn’t get a good cake and (B) you don’t even get to feel bad about it because your mom is obviously in a bad way and (C )your every effort to make your mom feel better makes her feel worse in that spooky grownup way that no 10-year-old understands, and (D) the damn bowling game you got is making you upset because everyone at the party is better at it than you, thus everything everyone does makes the both of you feel worse, and you hurt for everyone at pretty much every turn.
This *WHOLE* movie is like that.
I want to hate it, but these people are so inept, so clearly out of their depth that you kind of feel bad for them. I mean, most of them never went on to do anything, and one of them grew up to be Pia Zadora, which is obviously punishment enough. The whole thing just makes me sad on so many different levels. There’s my empathy for the people who made this thing, there’s my nostalgia for the kid I once was, who was so vastly different from the adult I now am that he actually enjoyed this film, and there’s my sadness that I can no longer enjoy it.
As I said at the outset, I’m not a Christmasy kind of guy. I don’t like it. Too much stress, too many out of pocket expenses, too much cloying tripe. It’s been decades since I felt anything other than dread at Christmas, certainly any sense of the sacred was long ago washed out of it by Madison avenue and my own childhood greed. There’s nothing I look forward to about it, I’m just numb.
On that level, this movie is a success, in that normally I feel nothing, but this film makes me sad in a very Christmas kind of way.
This film is in public domain, which means you can legally watch it free online in several locations.
MST3K did it, and I’m told Starship Titanic did a version of it, too. If you’d like another view on this one, which is different from my own, yet strangely similar, check out this one here
And that’s about it. Merry Christmas. Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever. Pass that bottle, would ya? Thanks. Hey, who does a guy have to kill to get a slice of lime around here?
It is the future! The year 2008! In this far distant tomorrow which took place nine years ago, the earth has been completely defoliated. Such nature as remains has been relegated to some habitats on six huge American Airlines space freighters, orbiting Saturn. It’s an amazingly expensive, horribly boring undertaking, so fortunately all of that takes place offscreen before the movie begins. The bad news? Joan Baez sings.
Once that unpleasantness is out of the way (Seriously: why did anyone anywhere ever like Joan?) we find ourselves on the Valley Forge, one of the freighters in the fleet. These ships are operating on a sub-skeleton crew of just four people, rotated through in six-month shifts. Twitchy self-righteous hippie Bruce Dern has done sixteen straight hitches! He’s an environmentalist, you see, and he’s taken it upon himself to preserve the last forests. The crew – blue collar types – ride him kind of hard because of his eccentricities, but one of them actually kind of stands up for him a little bit. Dern doesn’t really seem to notice this kindness much.
The word comes through from earth: the program has been cancelled. The crews are to eject the domes, blow ‘em up with thermos-sized nukes (“Termos-nuclear weapons?” Huh? Huh?), and return their ships to commercial service. This they then do. There’s lots of shots of cute, happy little bunnies that are about to be atomized intercut with them setting up the bombs and cutting the domes loose. It’s hardly subtle.
Bruce wigs out and kills the guy who was nice to him with a shovel, then he launches and nukes another of the domes with the remaining crew members aboard. He has the neat little robots (Huey, Dewey and Louie, no, really!) chuck a bunch of supplies out one of the airlocks, and sends of a fake panicky message to the rest of the fleet, babbling about an explosion and the rest of the crew is dead, and blah blah blah. He fires the engines, and the Valley Forge moves through the umbra of Saturn.
The other ships aren’t close enough to rescue him – of course they don’t realize he doesn’t want to be rescued – and they point out that his course will take him through the rings, whereupon his ship will probably be destroyed.
Anderson: “These ships weren’t meant to shoot the rapids. There’s no way to reach you before that happens. Your name is Lowell, is it?”
Anderson: “Lowell, you might want to think about…”
Dern: “Taking my own life?”
Dern: “Oh, no sir, I don’t think I could ever do a thing like that.”
Anderson: [long pause] “You’re a very brave American, Lowell.”
Dern: “Thank you, sir. [turns off radio] I think I am.”
Having gotten messed up in the fight to kill the only guy on the crew who was nice to him, Dern reprograms the “Drones” to perform surgery on him. It’s a mildly freaky scene. Afterwards they hit the rings, and one of the drones is lost to space.
From this point in, the movie is pretty dull. Fairly clever in places, but pretty dull just the same. We get a lot of scenes of Dern teaching the surviving drones to take care of the plants in the one remaining dome, playing cards with them (They cheat), and trying to interact with them on a friendly level, though this is clearly shown to be a dead end: they simply aren’t human, though they appear to be mostly sapient.
Dern struggles with flashbacks and guilt during all this, and has the drones bury the body of the guy he killed with the shovel – he can’t bear to do it himself. He attempts to say a prayer/give a eulogy for the guy before they throw him in the hole (Dern can’t bear to say “put him in the hole” either), but he makes a totally ineffectual hash of this as well, and kind of breaks down. It’s a fairly raw scene, and genuinely kind of moving. It’s one of two truly “Bruce Dern” scenes in the film, if you know what I mean.
Eventually he hits one of the remaining drones with a dune buggy while tear-assing around the cargo bay (It’s a BIG ship!) and cripples it. There’s a kind of neat, kind of touching scene of him trying to repair it – again, ineffectually – while the other drone looks on.
The forest starts to die, and Lowell can’t figure it out, though it’s obviously because they’re so far away from the sun that the plants can’t photosynthesize (Stupid hippie!). One of the other ships from the cargo fleet contacts him and tells him they’re a rescue party. Lowell’s been on his own for months at this point, maybe a year. The absolute best-acted scene in the movie is when the rescue ship attempts to contact him on the radio, and he literally can not comprehend what’s going on. This is the other truly “Bruce Dern” scene.
He realizes that he’s screwed – though of course he never really had a plan anyway, he’s just been reacting all along – but he (Finally) figures out the light thing, and sets the dome up with a bunch of billion-watt bulbs, and has the remaining unscathed drone take care of it in perpetuity. Speaking to the crippled drone, he says “When I was a kid I put my name and address in a bottle and threw it into the sea. I never knew if anyone found it.“ He ejects the dome, and as it rockets away from the freighter, Dern blows up the Valley Forge with some leftover nukes.
The final scene is the dome floating through space, tended by the lone remaining drone, while Joan Baez sings.
This one didn’t really hold up as well in reality as it did in my memories. I was fascinated by this movie long before I actually saw it, mainly for the radical spaceship design and the cool clunky, functional look of the technology on it, as seen in stills in various magazines and books. When I finally watched it, I was a bit disappointed. The message was fairly obvious, but on the bright side the morality is somewhat more ambiguous than you’d get if this film were made today. Interestingly so, really.
For starters, Lowell is a mess. He kills three guys in cold blood – one of whom they make a point of showing us was married, and had a kid – hijacks a ship, and runs away into the night. He feels really badly about this, of course, but pushes that aside mostly and considers himself to be an American hero. He’s very out of touch with reality. He’s been on these ships for eight years, and when word comes in that there’s some big news coming up, he’s convinced they’re going to bring the forests back to earth, even when everyone else knows full well it’s going to be budget cuts. He won’t listen. He’s monomaniacal. He’s not all that bright. He can reprogram a droid and pilot a freighter, but he can’t figure out that plants need light to live.
I can not stress that enough: He’s an environmentalist who can’t figure out that plants need light to live!
He has more of an emotional relationship with three robots – which the movie shows us again and again is a dead end – than he did with the humans on the crew. He has all this advanced technology and robot slave labor, and he can’t think of anything to do with it apart from teach the drones how to play cards.
Most tellingly, he rails on early in the movie about how awful earth is now that nature is gone: Everywhere you go on earth, it’s 75 degrees. There’s no more poverty, everyone has a job, no one goes hungry anymore. He says these things as though they’re bad. I’ll grant the thin description we get sounds a bit like living in a shopping mall, but, hey, I’m a geek: that’s kind of a dream of mine anyway. That or a World’s Fair. (Preferably the 1967 World’s Fair. That’d be sweet!) My point being that while the utter destruction of nature is clearly a bad thing, the whole ‘full employment/no poverty/no hunger’ thing sounds pretty good. Curiously, he never makes any scientific arguments – presumably because he doesn’t know any – and bases his whole righteously indignant argument on emotionalism and nostalgia.
I think this is deliberate. I think we’re supposed to identify with Lowell, but I don’t think we’re really supposed to like him all that much. I mean, they hired Bruce Dern to play him, a guy who was primarily known for playing twitchy psychopaths up to that point. (Arguably he does that again here.) I think the script is deliberately addressing the human cost of the story: four people and two drones ultimately die, and Lowell is a pretty sad excuse for a hero. At no point does he ever have a clue about what he’ll do next. In fact, rather than rallying on earth trying to gain support for re-forestation, which might have accomplished something, he’s been hiding out in space for nearly a decade, dreaming his dreamy little dreams…the more you look at the movie, the more of a wreck you realize the guy is.
Bruce Dern plays this well. He’s effectively onscreen alone for 45 minutes, and while some scenes (Such as playing cards with the crew, or playing cards with the Drones) are stagey and ring false, the scenes of him retreating into himself, and daydreaming of living on a verdant earth that must never have existed in his lifetime are very well done. There are face actors like, say, Tom Hanks or Patrick Stewart, where you can kind of see what’s going on inside their heads. With Lowell, it’s clear that there really isn’t much going on behind his face, and what there is he’s trying to suppress.
It’s an interesting choice. Today they’d make it all jingoistic and “Oooh-Rah! Nature! Yeah!” It’s kind of ballsy to have a protagonist who’s clearly a bad man doing a good thing in a very bad way.
The visuals aren’t as good as I remembered, though this film provides a very obvious ‘missing link’ in the evolution of special effects. 2001 (Douglas Trumble)–> Silent Running (Trumble, John Dykstra) –> Star Wars (Dykstra). You can see very strong elements of those two other films in this one. If these ships look familiar, it’s because stock footage of them turned up in Battlestar Galactica (1978) as the “Agro Ships” that provided all the Rag Tag Fleet’s food. The design is beautifully ugly, no Star Trek sleekness here.
There are six ships, by the way: The Yellowstone, the Arcadia, the Blue Ridge, the Mohave, the Berkshire, and the Valley Forge. The Berkshire is clearly the flagship of the fleet.
In the beginning of the film, we hear a voice over by the American President delivering an address, “In this first year of a new century” explaining sending the forests off into space. We’re later told the program’s been running eight years, which makes it 2008 or early 2009. It’s never stated, but it’s pretty obvious that the program is being cancelled as a consequence of a presidential election back home. This is a very American movie. Everyone in the film is a yank. There’s not even any token internationalism (I find that oddly refreshing). It’s implied – but again, unstated – that the other nations of earth didn’t even attempt to save anything when they deforested.
Logically, not much of this makes sense: Why ship the forests off to Saturn? Why not just plunk ‘em in Earth Orbit, or, failing that, somewhere closer to the sun? Why do they need the freighters anyway? The domes have their own life support and gravity, and they evidently can operate indefinitely on their own, so why not just cut ‘em loose? (Though to be fair, Lowell thinks this is a solution, but he’s hardly the most sane knife in the fountain) Why was the whole world deforested? Dialog implies a massive environmental re-engineering project that was clearly successful, but they say there’s not so much as a blade of grass left on earth, and I think we’re supposed to take that literally. Why? Presumably this is overpopulation nonsense, but then there’s a lot of muddy thinking in the ecolologicalism of this movie.
There’s some interesting implications in the movie that they never develop: these freighters are HUGE, and there’s six of ‘em, probably more in commercial service elsewhere. How big of a space industry to you need to justify ships this large, and this many of ‘em? There must have been MASSIVE offworld colonies!
Is 2008 too early for this movie? In hindsight, yeah, but at the time, Apollo was still going on, and people took space colonization to be a fait acompli. I mean, look at the massive space stations and lunar cities of 2001 (1968)!
The ship scenes were filmed on a World War II Essex-Class aircraft carrier that had been decommissioned, and was waiting for a trip to the breakers. Just a month after filming ended, the ship no longer existed. That said, we don’t really see much of it – five or six rooms, one hallway, the hangar deck. They give a sense of massive size, but they don’t utilize it much. They had this giant ship at their disposal, but they didn’t have enough budget to really utilize it, I presume.
In the original script, the ship wasn’t called the “Valley Forge.” When the Navy gave ‘em permission to film on the carrier – the USS Valley Forge (CV-45) they decided to rename it in the script.
I once read an interview in Starlog with Douglas Trumble who talked about the original script for this movie. Initially it wasn’t even remotely intended to be an ecological fable, but rather was a first contact tale: the ship is about to be retired and scrapped, and the captain is about to be put out to pasture. He steals the ship and heads off into space, hanging out with his three robot buddies and gradually going a bit nuts. Eventually he receives a signal that he realizes is from aliens. The ship’s owners, meanwhile, are chasing him, and he goes into ‘silent running mode’ (like on a sub) to make it hard to find him. The rest of the movie is a race against time to contact the aliens before his own people get him. Ultimately, he sends one of the drones out in a pod on a course to intercept the aliens, and he’ll communicate with them through the robot. The cops bust in and kill him with a flamethrower, however, so the little Drone, not knowing what to do, just pulls out a snapshot of itself with the other two ‘bots and the captain – a ‘family photo.’ The aliens are confused and don’t know what to make of this, though it’s obviously rather poignant. For some reason.
Growing up, my more Right Wing friends disliked this movie for obvious reason. However he more I watched it, the more I realized this isn’t quite the propaganda it’s purported as. Rather, it’s an entirely different kind of propaganda. It’s not “Freeman Lowell is an ecological messiah who dies to save nature itself,” but rather “Things have come to a sorry pass when we have to rely on ineffectual losers like this.” The movie is interesting because it isn’t about the war to save the biosphere – that war was lost long before the movie even starts – this is just the shouting that takes place afterwards. This isn’t a terribly pro-green movie, it’s more like a criticism of the environmental movement of the 1960s/70s.
If you go at it from that angle, it’s pretty interesting, if a bit dull. If you go at it from the straight-ahead angle that pretty much everyone, left or right or indifferent, takes on it, it’s really just dull.
Vojislav Stanojovic was one of the brightest early lights of the French New Wave, but unfortunately the one who’s work has weathered the passage of time worse than that of anyone else. For reasons too extensive to go into here, all of his work prior to 1979 ended up stored in a brothel in Nice, France, where it was destroyed in a fire. His 1980s and 1990s work is better preserved, but generally considered to be somewhat inferior to the manic inventiveness of his earliest films.
His career was much like that of Orson Welles, in that he had an incendiary relationship with movie studios, an endless parade of troubled productions, abandoned projects, and just plain bad luck. Unlike Welles, however, he was almost obnoxiously prodigious, and managed to leave behind an oeuvre of more than 200 films in varying formats, even though all but 22 of these have been lost.
Recently, however, some of his work has begun to resurface, such as this early experimental short film, which is lyrical in its simplicity, and yet manages to convey a deep political message about the realpolitik of the day without coming across as preachy or overwrought.
The cliche is “What is a man but the sum of his memories?” Cliches are used to the point that they’ve become trite, but that doesn’t mean they are inherently untrue. I think this one is true, or mostly so. There probably is more to me than my memories, but I can’t tell you what that is.
I’m religious. I believe in a soul, but I don’t think anyone has ever defined that very well, and I certainly don’t think I’m capable of it. In my limited imagination, however, the soul seems pretty much like a self-aware repository of memories. This brings up the question, “What is the soul but the sum of our memories?” That’s way too frustrating to deal with for me, and assuming anyone ever reads this, half of them probably won’t believe in an eternal soul anyway, so I’m not going to bore anyone with my fanfic theories of the afterlife.
Instead, I’m gonna talk about my friend John. He died in January of this year. He was a year or two younger than me. I wouldn’t say that his death messed me up, but it has affected me uniquely. John was my best friend for my last couple years in high school, and probably my first year or two in college as well, though he didn’t go to college, or at least not with me. We saw each other increasingly rarely, drifted apart. Eventually we hit that point in our relationships when we only talked about stuff we’d done in the past, nothing new, because there was nothing new. There’s something sad about that.
I bumped in to John entirely by coincidence in an airport one night. Bought him dinner while waiting for his plane. We told lots of stories from 1983-1987, some stories from 1988-1993, and really nothing after that. There was nothing after that. Pretty much half a lifetime apart, and only a few years together.
I’ve had people die before. Hell, I’m practically swimming in death. In the last six years I’ve lost my dad and his entire family. In the last year, I lost my aunt and uncle. I’ve lost friends, co-workers, bandmates, enemies, rivals both IRL and online. I used to point and laugh at those kids who took the “Death and Dying” classes in college because they’d been sheltered by their wimpy baby boomer parents. Me? The earliest funeral I can remember was my great aunt Ailene when I was about 3.
My point being that I’m depressingly jaded about death, and, though I didn’t think about it until just now, I’m something of an asshole to those people who aren’t jaded by it. Whups. Sorry ’bout that.
Just the same, John is the first best friend I’ve lost. He’s the first person’s death has made me think, “Well, what the hell was this all for?” This is the guy who used to work at JoAnn’s Chili Bordello, and who lusted after the waitress, Tobie, same as the rest of us. This is the guy who ended up as my subordinate in ROTC when he should have gotten my job simply because our teacher found him annoying. He’s the guy who chased after this girl for a year, went out to dinner with her, realized there was nothing there, then called me up and told me how strange that was. We used to sit around for hours on end listening to Huey Lewis, which was considered acceptable in those days. We’d talk about Star Trek – which was only just beginning to suck – endlessly. We both wanted to be filmmakers. I helped him move several times. I remember things that he himself had forgotten, like a hallucination he told me about once. I know he’d forgotten it because when I brought it up, he clearly had no idea what I was talking about. All trivial, but I remember them in vivid 70mm Eastman Kodak color with Dolby Surroundsound. (It was the ’80s, remember)
Why does this matter?
I don’t know. You know people in life, and they become part of your story. They’re your sidekick, and they probably see you as theirs. You drift apart, their story ends, and maybe you never even hear about it. Maybe you do, but you’re so removed in time and space that it means nothing. Somehow it’s different for me, though, because I feel like I was there at the beginning of the story.
I wasn’t, of course. John was 14 or 15 when we met. He had a big long life before that, and I did too. Maybe it’s just that I feel like it was kinda the beginning of my story. I sometimes don’t feel like I was really interesting prior to sixteen, but that’s a story for another day.
For whatever reason, though, I remember a million billion trillion things from “The start of the story” that seem to have no payoff now that the end credits have rolled. The day I was joking with him about this thing, or he insulted me about that, or we’d compare notes on girls we were too scared to ask out, of stories he’d told me he was going to write, but never did, not because his life was too short, but because he never really liked the act of writing. All those moments are….
Not lost. They’re locked in my head.
Another cliche is “Nobody is ever truly gone as long as we remember them.” Now that one truly is utter bullshit. It’s grossly unfair, too: everyone remembers Jeffrey Dahlmer, but very few people remember my friend John. People will remember the very bad man long after they’ve forgotten the perfectly average one. What the hell kind of piss-ass immortality is that? It’s bullshit, and I’ve never placed any stock in it. Not that I’d have to. I’m religious, as I said, so I believe in an afterlife, even if I don’t know anything about it. I don’t need to rely on Hallmark greeting card philosophy.
But I’m having trouble reconciling John’s loss because all those moments, all those stories, all those events, were building blocks leading up to, well, I assumed they were leading up to something other than a massive heart attack at 48 brought on by chain-smoking four or five packs a day for thirty three years. And now they are building blocks that lead up to nothing.
This isn’t about ‘a life cut short.’ Certainly he should have lived longer, and if John were alive to realize how badly he’d been ripped off in that department, he’d be madder than a wet hen. Just the same, people die all the time and I am depressingly desensitized to that. Likewise, people die without reaching their goals so often that we don’t even comment on it. We only mention it when they did end up the way they wanted, since it’s so rare.
So I guess this isn’t so much about his story getting cut short – tragic though that is – as it is trying to figure out how to reconcile it into my story.
I’m a writer and an editor. If my life were a book, or more likely a long series of really boring books that no one reads, John would turn up, play a major part, and then just sort of disappear. He plays no real role in the larger story. While he was alive it was always possible that he’d turn up again in the third act and do something remarkable, however unlikely. I wasn’t holding out hope for that. Truth is, I didn’t think about it at all. Now that he’s gone, though, I look back at this theoretical manuscript, and I see that introducing such a major character with no narrative payoff is simply bad writing. John would be the first thing chopped in the editing process.
This bothers me. He’s dead, I don’t want him edited away, too. And yet there’s this huge file in my brain of John Stuff. Funny stuff he said, dumb stuff he said, incredibly stupid things we both did, girls we fought over, movies I’m pretty sure only we saw. He and I went to see “Psycho Girls,” just a terrible, terrible movie. We were the only ones in the theater. I laughed so hard at one point that I fell out of my seat, the only time in my life I’ve ever done that.
Well, now John’s gone. This reduces the number of people who even *remember* “Psycho Girls” by probably 10%, and it reduces the number of people who remember me literally falling down laughing by half. What do I do with memories like that? Furthermore, his loss has kind of eroded the persistence of that moment for me, you know? Only the two of us were there, he’s gone, the moment seems less real somehow. That “So long as someone remembers them” bullshit cuts both ways. Whenever someone dies, there’s fewer people to remember you, too.
I remember once in the parking lot I told him that I’d decided I was one of the 15,000 greatest people ever to live. He laughed and said, “You’re not.” John’s life was…not great. He definitely got closer to the 15,000 than I did, but certainly a triumphant third act would have covered over a lot of stuff. As for me, I’m left with all these dangling plot threads. A million Checkov’s Rifles set on a hundred thousand mantles (John always tended to be doing several things at once), and most of them are still sitting there, never to go off. I don’t know what to do with all the dangling plot threads he left in my formative life. I don’t know how to incorporate what remains of his story into my story. I need closure on that anecdote, dammit!
I’m not saying anything new here, and I have no great insights or answers. I can’t even seem to express it very well. Basically, lots of stories started back in the mid-’80s, and they ended with as little resolution as most of us get in life, but I need to believe that all of John’s stuff back then meant something. I suppose maybe if his endless whining about girls and obsession with grade-z movies and student films and nametag jobs and crap like that meant something, then maybe my life means something, too. That’d be a help, as I really don’t think my life matters. (Being religious doesn’t mean you’re particularly optimistic. When I die, assuming heaven is even an option, I expect St. Peter to refer to me as “That waste of human skin from Florida.” Likewise I have to think Satan would find me singularly disappointing.) I’d like John’s giddy hobbies and good days and bad days and all those useless memories to mean something even if the story is – like most stories – begun and abandoned, because, I guess, it means that his existence would have had some meaning, or at least value, beyond a bunch of memories locked in my probably-dead-in-a-decade-or-so head. By extension, that would imply that I am not completely valueless, and perhaps I’m more than the sum of my memories, too.
Like I said, I don’t know what that would mean. Perhaps my memories are the sum of me, and not the other way around. Perhaps I have value, and the value of the memories is derived from that. Certainly I hope so, because the alternative is that all those first pages of the unfinished stories that made up John’s life, and my life, and all of our lives, are useless.
Do extremely rigid, linear thinkers tend to be more convinced of their own brilliance than normal folk?
This is a legitimate question, not an attempt to troll anyone. I’d like to know if this is a real phenomenon, or if I just keep blundering into it because of my Weirdo-Magnet Powers.
It doesn’t seem to favor one group over another, left, right, rich, poor, black, white, other, gay, straight, other. Maybe it *SLIIIIIIIIIIIGHTLY* favors atheists, but then again maybe they’re just more vocal. I dunno. I’d like to know.
Anecdotal examples: When I was head writer at the Republibot Science Fiction site (An explanation for another day) there was one guy who worked for us who desperately wanted to be artsy. He wasn’t. His stories were all ‘the guy with the hat killed the other guy, the end,’ or knockoffs of Red Dawn (The remake, oddly). I’d point out that this was an SF site, so it needed to have at least SOME SF elements. Maybe just make the tanks into robot tanks, and we’re good.’ He got huffy, said I just didn’t get it, and pulled it from consideration. His music reviews were just “It had a good beat and you could dance to it,” and if you asked him about, you know, the deeper meanings in a song that clearly had deeper meanings, he was clueless as to what you were talking about. Philosophy? Forget about it. He was using the word “Existential” wrong repeatedly. I’d let it slip, but he was doing it a lot, and he seemed to think it meant some kind of hippie-dippie snowflake kind of thing. I politely explained to him the concept of existentialism, and his reaction was simply “That’s stupid. Obviously I exist.” yeah, but what does existence mean? “I exist.” Ok, yeah, given, but does your existence have any meaning “It means I exist. This is stupid.”
Now, I don’t want to give the impression the guy had aspergers or was stupid, he wasn’t. He was just a very linear thinker and very rigid. And very convinced that he was utterly brilliant. Anyone who wasn’t a rigid thinker wasn’t brilliant, they were confused.
Another guy I knew felt that pretty much art ceased to exist in the 1930s, and that everything beyond the Impressionists was bad. Art, he said, was statues of guys on horses and pictures of mountains, and everything else was degenerate and wrong. He also felt that all music after 1980 or so was degenerate and wrong, mostly because he just couldn’t understand it, and kept talking about outrages in modern music that happened 30, 40 years ago as though they were happening today (Ozzy biting the head off a bat, Johnny Rotten’s mere existence, The Divynals. Man oh man oh man, he hated the Divynals) I don’t think he could really tell the difference between these kinds of things, either. It simply wasn’t music to him, and went into the ‘noise’ category. Where the other guy was very conservative, this guy was very liberal.
Then there’s a 1990s friend of mine who couldn’t understand my books (fair enough. I’m not a very good writer), specifically because “It’s science fiction but you keep throwing God into it.” (For the record, God has never turned up in any of my books, though a fair number of my characters are believers in one thing or another) so? “So there will be no religion in the future.” Why? “Because rationalism will drive it out.” Sigh. This one I got into it with over cubism. Now, I don’t *like* cubism, but I understand it, and I’ve found that if you explain something to someone, unlock it, then they might enjoy it, or hate it less, or just view it as an interesting experiment that they don’t enjoy. Nope. “It’s stupid.” once again, art is pictures of mountains and sailboats, period, end of sentence. He also tends to just drop into religious conversations, troll people, and jump out, because he’s utterly convinced that anyone who doesn’t believe as he does is utterly stupid, whereas he is utterly brilliant. Oh, and all philosophy is dumb, he says.
Art might be a good shibboleth, as all of them seem perplexed or limited by it. All of them really like Star Trek, too, which might push them more towards the Aspergers cagetory, excepting that none of them have Aspergers.
To be clear: I am not saying that I am brilliant. I’m not. I’m a 50 year old unemployable loser with no skills. I’m also not a brilliant artist. Everything I do is crap, and is entirely for ego-gratification purposes. (“Look how clever I am!”) Probably as a means of compensating for being a 50 year old unemployable loser with a chipper disposition and deep, deep self loathing.
I’m not trying to make myself feel better by making them look bad, I’m just trying to understand if extreme rigidity and/or linear thought might tend to make people think they’re better than all the mushy-headed halfwits like me in the world?
“Just because something is meaningless to you doesn’t mean it is meaningless to everyone else.” This is my #1 rule for *NOT* being a jackass online or IRL.
This whole “I don’t like X, so X is useless, and nobody needs it” is a pretty serious freshman error when you’re figuring out who you are and what you want out of life. The next biggest error is “I don’t like X, so X is useless, and I can make fun of it, and/or the people who like it.” The first error is simply a little self-centered. The second is mean.
What X actually *is* doesn’t matter. It could be God, or Pokemon, or a crappy, dog-eared S.E. Hinton novel, or the 6th episode of My Mother The Car (That’s the one with Bill Daly guest starring). The point is not that it’s good or bad or indifferent, just that it is very important to someone, generally for some not-insignificant reason, and if you bag on it, you’re just a mean jackass and there’s no two ways about it.
Look, if some sad-eyed lady tells me that the face of the Virgin Mary appeared to me in a buttroast and told her she was going straight to heaven, and that she should really try the Mongolian Beef at that Chinese place at the intersection of 85 and 140 in Norcross because it is just AMAZING, I am *NOT* going to tell her she’s wrong.
I mean, I’ll think it’s pretty stupid (Apart from the Mongolian beef, because that place was great), but I’m certainly not going to tell her that, because, for whatever reason, she *needs* to believe the Virgin Mary is looking out for her.
If some middle-aged guy is strangely obsessed about Pokemon, and think Ash’s Pikachu is awesome, it doesn’t mean that he’s some sort of freak or moron, it just means that he needs some stupid adorable little kid thing in his life.
Why? Maybe his kid died, and his kid liked Pikachu, and he’s devastated by the loss, and having that crap around is the only thing holding him together. Maybe the Buttroast woman is dealing with a *LOT* of existential terror, and if you take her delusions of heavenly visions away from her, she’ll realize that life is meaningless, and fall into a suicidal depression. You don’t know. It’s not really any of your business. Just don’t do it.
I’m not blameless. I’ve done it. When I was younger and angrier I did it deliberately on occasion. I’ve done it accidentally on occasion now that I’m old and sad. It’s going to happen. When it does, however, and you realize it, don’t defend yourself. Don’t tell them to just get over it. Apologize quickly and sincerely, and ask them what you can do to make it right.
The world does not revolve around *your* world view. Or mine. When someone has a core belief that disagrees with yours, don’t just slam it or mock them, because the odds are they really need it to stay functional. Life is really really damn hard, and you have no idea what people are going through, and attacking their survival mechanisms doesn’t just make you self centered or mean, it makes you an utterly, utterly horrible person.