Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy
Science fiction movies tend to be heavy on action and spectacle, but it’s becoming more and more common to see films like High Life and Starfish that have more of an art house sensibility. Science fiction author John Kessel thinks some of these films push things too far, especially in the case of a movie like Beyond the Black Rainbow.
“It was almost impossible for me to watch,” Kessel says in Episode 373 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “It was so slow and so cryptic and so unmotivated. There’d be a long take of the camera watching the ceiling of a hallway as we move down it and the color changes from blue to red. If there’s a significant intellectual content to that, it missed me.”
Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley agrees, noting that many of these films aspire to originality but end up relying on a familiar catalog of stylistic gimmicks.
“You’ve got your grainy film stock, weird electronic music, saturated colors, very long, static camera shots, random close-ups of hands and eyes, lots of shots of nature—especially clouds—when the movie’s not about nature, and the camera is often intentionally out of focus,” he says. “So I wonder if ‘pretentious movies’ is almost its own genre, where it’s defined by this constellation of traits.”
Writer Sara Lynn Michener shares this annoyance, but admires how a movie like High Life can tackle the complicated subject of reproductive coercion. “It makes you frustrated at the internal infrastructure of Hollywood, that there aren’t more creators of art films that are being matched up with these people who are making these incredibly predictable commercial films,” she says. “Can’t we just put them in a room together and have them fix each other’s problems?”
Science fiction author Anthony Ha notes that ‘pretentious’ doesn’t have to mean bad. He points to 2001 as a model for how a film can be both pretentious and great.
“There’s nothing wrong with just telling an entertaining story, but I also like that people are trying to tell stories in different ways,” he says. “There’s so much room for telling a story in a way that’s compelling, but not in a way that Hollywood necessarily thinks of as entertaining, and so I’m really glad that these films exist.”
Listen to the complete interview with John Kessel, Sara Lynn Michener, and Anthony Ha in Episode 373 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Sara Lynn Michener on art school:
“One of the things that I did get out of art school that was very positive is the fact that it is very, very hard for me to speak negatively about something, because for several years you have somebody making you see some form of art that you would otherwise dismiss in any number of ways, and making you see it from other people’s perspectives. On art museum field trips we would stand in front of a giant painting of a black square with another slightly less dark black square inside of it, and you spend two seconds in front of it and you start walking away. And your professor comes up and says, ‘Oh no. No, no. You’re going to stand here and we’re going to talk about this.’ Which is something that actually happened to me.”
John Kessel on High Life:
“They had gravity inside the spaceship, and they said that the ship was accelerating at one G constantly, and that would indeed give you a sense of gravity in the ship, and then if it was decelerating at one G that would also give you a sense of gravity. … But then at other moments, when they wanted to have weightlessness, they just forgot about that. When the guy goes outside of the ship, if it’s accelerating at one G it’s also accelerating at one G outside the ship, so he can’t just be floating weightless outside the ship. And there’s a moment where he takes his glove off and it floats. So they don’t care about that. The filmmaker doesn’t care about [the science].”
Anthony Ha on Starfish:
“I did not like it very much. … If your bar is ‘complete avant-garde incomprehensible film,’ it wasn’t like that, it was just not very good. It was also a film where it felt to me that any time people were talking, the film was 50 or 100 percent worse, because all the dialogue was really bad. Someone was talking about the ‘As You Know, Bob’ speech in High Life, and Starfish also feels like it has that. And it made me wonder if one of the tells of an unsuccessful pretentious science fiction film is that it seems really artful and deep, but then there’s this incredibly clunky exposition, because that’s something they don’t bother to do in an organic or interesting way.”
David Barr Kirtley on Interstellar:
“I feel like there’s something there that people are getting stuck on, but it’s not what I would call pretentiousness, it’s what I would call pseudo-profundity. I think that pseudo-profundity can be pretentious, but isn’t necessarily. … There’s this line of dialogue where the Anne Hathaway character says, ‘Love isn’t something we invented. It’s something observable, powerful. Maybe it’s something we can’t understand yet, some evidence—some artifact—of a higher dimension that we can’t consciously perceive. Love is the one thing we experience that transcends dimensions of time and space.’ And I think this is just the most unadulterated balderdash, the most mindless drivel. But I think that acting like love is some magical thing that we can’t possibly understand falls into this other category of things that are irritating but aren’t what I would call pretentious.”
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