The accidental importance of science fiction

I wrote this paragraph as part of something else. I want to follow it up with some additional thoughts:

Science fiction got important by accident — because just enough of it contained useful nuggets of prediction or thought-provoking philosophical notions about how the universe might work that other people took notice. Science fiction also became cancerous — with its conjoined twins, fantasy and horror, it has taken over mainstream literature, television, movies, comics, videogames, and every other form of entertainment except possibly masturbation — and I haven’t been into a sex shop recently enough to confirm or deny that latter assertion.

Here are the additional thoughts:

The movie industry has devolved. Part of the problem is that the new generation of film-makers grew up enthusiastic and excited about summer movies and they all want to make their own. So we get Cloverfield and Super-8 and Jurassic Park IV.

But the bigger part of the problem is how few movie-makers know the history of their own craft. How many people under thirty have seen The General, Gone With The Wind, Stagecoach, Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen, Bridge Over The River Kwai, The Great Escape, Grapes of Wrath, The Searchers, Dr. Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Strangelove, Network, Days Of Wine And Roses, Marty, or one of my personal favorites, Elia Kazan’s America, America?

Notice the names of the writers and directors on some of those films. Paddy Chayefsky, Carl Foreman, Leigh Brackett — David Lean, John Ford, Stanley Kubrick — the acknowledged masters of the field, the guys you should be learning from. (I learned science fiction from the best SF authors in the field, I like to think I’ve learned movie-making from the best directors in the field too.)

When was the last time you saw a movie that got into personal relationships like “Marty”? When was the last time you saw a movie that challenged the status quo the way “Network” did? When was the last time you saw a real epic like “Lawrence of Arabia”?

Okay, yes — everything evolves. Now we get our epic-length stories as mini-series, ten episodes at a time punctuated by a six-month hiatus. But as I said when I started, science fiction and fantasy and horror have overwhelmed the mainstream. I love the epic quality of “Game of Thrones” and its astonishingly brutal portrayals of how ugly human beings can be — and how courageous as well. And maybe it’s only in a feudal fantasy with dragons that we can openly discuss the nature of human corruption —

But I’ll point to “Lawrence of Arabia” as a quintessential monument of how great movie-making can be, because it doesn’t just entertain us, it enlightens us as to how some of the problems in the mid-east began — because the greedy western nations carved up the region for their own interests.

I’d love to see a movie that focuses on the govt inquiries into the sinking of the Titanic and how those inquiries forced changes in ship-building. I’d love to see a movie about how Lenin & Stalin corrupted the ideas of Marx into a tyranny. I’d love to see a movie that showed how the native Americans were really killed off by their susceptibility to European diseases. I’d love to see a movie about the great transcontinental motorcade of 1919, where Lt. Eisenhower learned the value of good roads. I’d love to see a movie about how in the aftermath of WWII, a small group of Jews were able to poison a whole prison full of high-level SS officers. (True story.) Most of all, I’d love to see a dozen movies about how American politics has been corrupted by big money — like some of those films we saw in the thirties that showed us how the dust bowl created a generation of refugees.

I’d like to see some movies that are about US, not about fantasies and monsters and aliens and faraway places. I’d like to see some genuine insight — inner sight. And I’d like to see it done with intelligence, passion, commitment, and vision.

I’d also like to see world peace and an end to hunger.

I’m not sure I’m going to see any of those things in my lifetime.

2 comments on “The accidental importance of science fiction

  1. Jax184

    I’d like to see you write some of it! And, you know, that other thing we’re all eager to see you write more of. And I’m not talking about HTML code.

  2. Alan

    Back when all these classic movies you mention were made, the film industry was a lot more diverse and the studios were more willing to take risks and try for something original. Now we have just a few huge multinational conglomerates that are solely focused on maximizing their revenue by cranking out formulaic and bland material to appeal to the lowest common denominator. You can’t expect innovation from these behemoths: in fact they’ve done more to extirpate anything different and creative than to innovate.
    Fortunately, recent technological advances have made it much easier and cheaper for dedicated individuals or small groups to produce and distribute professional-quality films that can be made available worldwide.
    I think that in the near future, the big media conglomerates are going to have some serious challenges… here’s hoping that this renewed competition results in a big improvement in quality, creativity and originality for the film aficionados out there. 🙂

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