I have a somewhat interesting past involving Star Trek that’s maybe a little more confused than most. In my early childhood I was only vaguely aware of Star Trek as a thing. I had some hazy memories of seeing Kirk fighting a guy in a lizard suit as both actors moved in slow motion and there was an alien with a pulsing vein in his head, but that was about it. It was only when Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out that I was brought into full awareness of the series. Little did I know that in that film I was getting the most thoughtful and adult approach to Star Trek that had ever and would ever be made. In many respects Star Trek: The Motion Picture was not representative of the series at all.
And then all bets were off. The year 1982 rolled around, and with it Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It was the diametric opposite of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, larding on action where once there had been introspection and substituting broader good/evil archetypes for the more subtle shadings of the previous film. But that didn’t matter because I thought Star Trek II was totally awesome, and so did everyone else. To this day it remains the single most popular Star Trek thing ever, and that’s saying a lot after all the various spinoff series and movies that have cluttered up the franchise for decades.
As you are more than likely aware, Star Trek had fallen on hard times by the time the ’00s rolled around. No TV shows. No movies. No nothing. Pocket Books was still putting out novels, but that was about it. Maybe there were some comic books, too. Star Trek was not exactly the mass-media entertainment juggernaut it had been since the early ’80s.
Director Robert Altman is probably best known for movies like Nashville and MASH, movies with large casts, complex and overlapping dialogue and a very slice-of-life feel. Which makes something like Quintet, a highly obscure film from 1979, a deeply strange artifact indeed. Altman never made anything like it before or since which is, as I’m about to explicate, a very good thing.
Altman made experimental films during his career, but he never made anything as experimental as Quintet, a starring vehicle for Paul Newman that has essentially no plot, extremely threadbare dialogue and off-kilter characterizations. It’s also probably the most unpleasant-to-watch film Altman ever made, because in addition to flattening out all the scenes so that they were as sterile and (literally) cold as possible, he further chose to rim the camera lens with a circle of Vaseline to give the impression that everything is being watched through a frosty window. It’s a bizarre affectation that actually begins to hurt the eyes after a while, because although the center of the image is in focus and completely clear, Altman continued to compose around the edges, which were blurry and made everything indistinct and blob-like.
What is Quintet about? Well, it’s about an Earth that has undergone some kind of cataclysm and is now a frozen wasteland. No explanation is given for why this would be the case, though we can probably infer that this is a nuclear winter of some kind. Not that any evidence for this is ever presented, but you’ll find yourself trying to invest the (in)action on the screen with some kind of meaning or purpose. Your explanation may be different than mine. So be it.
Anyway, Paul Newman plays Essex, a man who has lived in “the South” for a decade or more hunting seals. But as the film begins he and his girlfriend/wife/companion are headed north to an unnamed city where Essex once lived. The seals, you see, are all gone and apparently pretty much all other life with it. The city is a last-ditch effort for survival, because if people can manage life there, perhaps there’s hope for Essex and his woman.
For the last twenty years — and actually before that, too, really — there has been a debate raging over the validity of fan-fiction. On one extreme you have the douchebags who accuse fanfic writers of engaging in plagiarism and on the other extreme you have fanatics who declare fan-fiction to be an art form as valid as writing the Great American Novel, even when the topic is incestuous male pregnancy. Neither of them are correct, but the topic makes for great flame wars.
Personally I think that fan-fiction suffers most from a dearth of accomplished writers. Most, though not all, of the writers working with fanfic are amateurs of the classic variety, performing a specialized task perhaps better suited to professionals, but often making up for their lack of knowledge with enthusiasm. Of course there are pro writers who write fanfic and there are fanfic authors who are as good as anyone working professionally, but I’m speaking more generally about the form as a whole. I suspect that were fan-fiction to hold itself to a higher standard, and jettison some of the more outré topics, that it would be better-respected. However, fanfic would not be fanfic without that bottom-of-the-barrel, bizarro stuff, so I know these things will never happen.
I bring all of this up because the publishing industry has softened its hardline, anti-fanfic stance somewhat of late. In fact, the biggest seller of last year was a thinly repurposed piece of fan-fiction, Fifty Shades of Grey. Faced with a blockbuster success like that, the detractors of fanfic come off more like jealous whiners than legitimate critics of the practice. It almost doesn’t matter that Fifty Shades is unreadable dreck. That’s not the point. The point is that people will read fanfic if it’s appropriately packaged and not just dumped on a website or on Usenet.
Which brings us in a sort of roundabout way to Rosa Montero’s Tears in Rain. Montero is a prolific Spanish author with a number of accolades to her credit, and Tears in Rain is an unabashed piece of Blade Runner fanfic repurposed as an original novel. This is not a dig on Montero or the book, but a simple fact, and if you read even ten pages of Tears in Rain you’re going to see that I’m absolutely correct.
Considering the man has had such a dramatic impact on the film industry, it’s kind of surprising that more filmmakers haven’t tried to emulate Steven Spielberg. Sure, they follow in his footsteps with summer blockbusters and thrill-a-minute action spectaculars, but even those don’t have the essential feeling that says Spielberg. I’d argue that it’s become more difficult to pin him down creatively in the last 20 years, as he’s veered off into primarily dramatic/prestige territory with movies like Lincoln, but some of his early works are so instantly recognizable as his that I don’t know why he hasn’t had a legion of imitators over all these decades.
When I do think of faux-Spielberg, probably the first thing that comes to mind is Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist. Produced by Spielberg, that movie does such a terrific job of pinning down Spielberg’s particulars as a lover of suburbia and the modern family, all the way down to the visual fillips, that some have claimed Hooper didn’t shoot the movie himself, but was actually supplanted in the director’s chair by Spielberg. I believe we’ve finally stamped out that rumor in large part, but periodically I’ll see someone raise the speculation again and we start all over.
It’s really a disservice to Hooper, thinking that of Poltergeist. Spielberg’s style was so iconic, even in 1982, that probably any skilled filmmaker could have latched onto the features of his work and replicated them. And certainly the task has become no more difficult as time has allowed Spielberg’s movies to be relentlessly dissected by students of film. Which brings us to Super 8.