Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Summer's End & Guilty Pleasures

It came Friday night. An October wind. It blustered past a bright crescent moon and the cold, clear stars and through the leaves of the crabapple tree out back. This is it. The official signal. The end of summer. Oh sure, the days are still warm and sunny and the beaches are still packed, but once that precocious fall breeze comes skipping into town of an evening, it’s time to start looking to the harvest and warm jackets on cool nights and trees of a million colours and if you’re in the right part of the country a witch’s perfume of burning leaf piles laced with acorns caressing the air ahead of Hallowe’en. Autumn, the best time of year. Soon.
And so, as summer lumbers to a close, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about that season’s biggest contribution to speculative fiction: the movies. In fact, lately I found myself in a discussion with a friend, not about this year’s box office offerings, but about our favourite movies – and specifically, the ones we usually won’t admit to owning.
You see, it’s not terribly interesting just to gush about all of our respective top ten lists of cinematic brilliance. That’s been done. No, it’s confessions that are truly worthwhile. I’m talking about guilty pleasures.
That’s right, the movies that everyone else hates – and probably for good reason (otherwise they wouldn’t be guilty pleasures), but that you have some secret love for that you tenaciously cling to over the years. Those are the ones that incur avalanches of derision from those around you, but where you feel yourself intellectually backed into a corner and thus come out fighting in defence of what entertains you with utmost ferocity. You’ll hear some of the most creative arguments ever made to justify not only watching, but repeatedly watching and maybe owning a piece of celluloid most people would just as soon forget ever existed.
Don’t be shy. Everyone’s got ‘em. Most especially those of us who love sci-fi and fantasy. This genre is built on the bones of the stinkers. And we keep disinterring them not just out of fascination with the grotesque, but for the love of bold or even wacky dreams that had the guts to try, and despite all their flaws, worked on some level for us. Heck, that was the bread and butter of Friday nights on independent local TV channels across North America for decades until the rise of the big cable TV networks at the end of the 80’s and beginning of the 90’s. Who among us remembers with fondness (if also a healthy dose of disgust once in a while) the height of tributes to SF movie cheese: “Mystery Science Theatre 3000”. Whether you can’t miss a rerun of “Battle Beyond the Stars” or a classic hunk of formage like “Tobor the Great” (let me just say right now, neither hold a special place in my heart, they’re merely examples, and no, I’m not “protesting too much” out of some uber-secret love), there’s something about that one film, whatever it is, that makes you watch it any time it hits late night TV (pretty rare these days) or covet it in a place of honour on your DVD/videotape shelf.
And I’ll come clean. I’ve got a guilty pleasure too. It’s “Walt Disney’s The Black Hole”. Laugh away folks. I know I am.
What was “The Black Hole”? Was it Disney’s attempt to cash-in on the post-Star Wars sci-fi craze? Was it a futuristic fusion of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, “Moby Dick” and “The Tempest”? Was it a Twilight Zone-esque take on the often-rehashed story about a gang of friends out for a joyride who take a wrong turn down a dark road, stop at a creepy house and run into trouble? All of these mashed together or none? It was still entertaining.
I’ll freely admit, the flaws in this flick are legion: the shots of the robots VINCent and BOB hovering along, complete with wires showing; the “meteorites” plowing through the Cygnus like glowing globs of cotton candy the size of apartment buildings; occasionally campy dialogue; heroes clambering around the outside of a ship (at close range to the crushing gravity field and merciless radiation of a black hole) and still managing to breathe; and, of course, that utterly bizarre on-the-other-side-of-death sequence involving Dr. Reinhardt at the end of the film. I’ve never heard of anyone who’s been able to figure out what the point of that bit is. Even Disney special effects wizard Harrison Ellenshaw, who’s been interviewed for a featurette on the Anniversary DVD, admits they didn’t have an ending when they were putting the film together. He says he can’t figure out this ending himself (granted, he does note the ending he suggested was shot but left on the cutting room floor).
So what.
“The Black Hole” is a beautiful relic of film-making of its time. You’ll never see matte paintings or physical special effects like that again. The paintings, the set design, the robots and costumes and special effects – you can tell the crew at the Disney factory cared about what they were crafting. And then there are the ships, from the sturdy little Palomino to the huge, gothic, gloomy prettiness of the Cygnus. I can watch the movie just for the exterior shots. From a set direction and special effects point of view, this is the height of what the old studio system of film making could do, as opposed to the modern era of farming-out just about every service possible.
And (hold your snorts of derision just a while longer, folks) the story isn’t bad either. At least up until the damage from the “meteorite” storm becomes so great that the heroes are exposed to the vacuum but still managing to breath just fine and dandy. The mystery is set early on and the tension is effectively ratcheted up as more and more oddities are observed until the final secret is revealed of the lengths Reinhardt would go to pursue his dream. It is, in fact, a story about people in search of dreams – explorers in search of alien life, the mad scientist in search of godhood, a lesser scientist’s search for his own glory in the shadow of another, monsters in search of power, a daughter’s search for her lost father, castaways in search of a way home.
There are also elements of “The Black Hole” that curiously foreshadow the fate of space exploration in recent decades. Reporter Harry Boothe (as played by Ernest Borgnine – who’s girth challenges the set crew with a wire flying sequence in the beginning) observes the construction of the Cygnus and its ultimately failed mission were “the costliest fiasco of all time”. We can see in the movie the portrayal of the Cygnus as an old style of space exploration where bigger was better, and vessels had to have all the bells and whistles (including artificial gravity), while newer vessels like the Palomino are built small and cheap. Could the writers and special effects designers have known that the era of space probes being built big with all manner of equipment, like the Viking probes, was about to end, and that the later decade of the 90’s would see the introduction of smaller, cheaper, more quickly-built space probes and satellites like the “humble” space telescope (at just a metre or two, tiny compared to the freight-car bulk of Hubble) as NASA’s budget was hacked into near-beggery.
And some of the acting is worthwhile. The robots on the side of the heroes are entertaining enough (Roddy Macdowell as the uncredited voice of VINCent). Maximillian Schell is convincing as a man who’s probably brilliant and charismatic but definitely a nut. And Robert Forrester is bang-on as a ship captain. Having interviewed more than a few military and police officers in my former role as a reporter, I can say Forrester has got the quiet, self-assured, observant reserve of a competent military man with nothing to prove down pat. It’s a similar performance (though nowhere near as good) to that of Edward James Olmos as Commander Adama in the new Battlestar Galactica.
Ultimately though, “The Black Hole” has also got a hefty dose of nostalgia value for me. I saw it as a kid, back in the era when Disney was thinking big and was eager to go toe-to-toe with any other studio on any type of movie it wanted, beyond its traditional inviolate animated kingdom, and its big vision made an impression on me. And now, years later, for all its flaws, the “The Black Hole” still has plenty of charm to carry it through its generous amount of cheese.
So fess up. What’s your guilty pleasure?

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