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But Is It Art? Science Fiction that Isn't Really Science Fiction

It sounds familiar.

A tough, intergalactic private eye goes to a city enslaved by a giant supercomputer, to arrest or kill its creator and shut down the computer. But somehow it isn’t familiar—or perhaps too familiar, as Alphaville is just bits of the real Paris.

Then, there are the truly strange parts: the bizarre swimming pool execution by girls with knives, the retractable theater seats used for mass slaughter, the moody black-and-white cinematography, some eccentric editing—and the computer is defeated by poetry.

Yes, poetry.

The only thing that could make this stranger is to learn that its director, Jean-Luc Godard, wanted to call it Tarzan vs. IBM.

It might be tempting to dismiss this as a unique and unlikely fusion of science fiction tropes with the Art House radicalism of a notoriously eccentric and iconoclastic director. Yet this is not the only film with this curious combination, nor was it the first. Science fiction has a long connection with Art House and Avant-Garde films.

But that doesn’t mean that science fiction fans would approve.


Perhaps it goes back to the Surrealists, for whom popular culture had a strange fascination—particularly that newest of art forms: cinema. But their tastes were rather odd and deliberately arty. While they praised highly regarded artists like Charlie Chaplin, they also had a strange affection for more sensational works, like Feuillade’s Fantômas serials.

So, it should come as no surprise that the French Avant-Garde gave us a silent 1924 science fiction film. Among those involved in Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Inhumaine, one finds noted Surrealist Fernand Leger, Art Deco designer, René Lalique, and Bauhaus architect, Robert Mallet-Stevens. It’s even rumored that the extras include many notable artists and Surrealists.

A famous beauty who is almost inhumanly aloof from love suddenly falls for a young engineer. However, the main attraction is the often-bizarre sets and editing, and a remarkable climactic scene where the engineer raises her from the dead with an incredible—if not particularly believable—machine he just happens to have in his lab. There is a dining room complete with swans swimming in a moat, creepy smiling masks for the servants, and a plywood jungle.

Those hoping to find a standard 1920s science fiction film will be disappointed: L’Herbier is far more interested in artistic effect than science fiction—or, for that matter, telling a story.


But it was the French Nouvelle Vague, a movement as self-consciously arty as the Surrealists, that truly embraced science fiction.

Perhaps it was a cultural shift: science fiction now filled the comics, pulp magazines, movies, and TV. Or, as with the Surrealists, it may have been a desire to embrace what the mainstream deemed intellectually inferior. Whatever the case, it appeared in a number of seminal New Wave works, starting with the 1960 horror film, Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face).

Its director, Georges Franju, was more precursor than full-fledged member of the group, but the film had a huge influence on them. It is beautifully filmed, artistic and yet deeply disturbing. A doctor’s daughter is badly maimed in a car crash and he kidnaps other girls and strips them of their faces to restore her. Franju mixed moody black-and-white cinematography, a dreamy atmosphere and some of the most shockingly accurate portrayals of surgery ever shown.

He followed it with the equally arty Judex (1963), a film full of bold monochrome compositions that seem to strive for a perfect balance of black and white. It mixed steampunk inventions and surreal images in a remake of one of Feuillade’s most sensational serials.


1962 brought the movement’s most famous science fiction film, Chris Marker’s La Jetée. Widely recognized as a classic, it offers one of the most remarkable formal experiments ever filmed. In only twenty-three minutes, it tells a tragic time travel story using a montage of stills (with a single blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moving image).

In keeping with the New Wave’s theory-heavy approach, it revolves around a single image frozen in the hero’s memory, while a narrator calmly tells a story whose strong emotions come from the images.

While it influenced a number of other Minimalist films, La Jetée was also the main inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys. It tells virtually the same story—but takes much longer.

Three years later, Jean-Luc Godard made an even more ambitious science fiction film. However, Alphaville lacks any of the usual trappings of science fiction, and Private Detective Lemmy Caution arrives in his trusty Ford Galaxy (which is actually a Mustang).

Nor is the film as straightforward as a simple description would suggest: Godard liberally mixes poetry, politics, literature, a lot of ironic humor, and often obscure references to other films. Akim Tamiroff repeats his character from an Orson Welles film, a scene borrows from Cocteau’s surreal fantasy, Orpheus, and his star, Eddie Constantine, had previously played Lemmy in a series of thrillers (unfortunately, the company which made them didn’t appreciate the joke and he never played Lemmy again).

As in many other New Wave films, a main theme is the nature of film as a medium, its artificiality and conventions. One fight composed entirely of still images uses such rapid cutting that it goes almost unnoticed. While he wants to show how unreal such editing is, it probably also references La Jetée.

Godard’s Week-end (1967) is often called science fiction as well, although with far less justification. A young couple goes on a trip just as civilization breaks down and encounter increasingly bizarre and disturbing incidents along the way. While Alphaville stayed more or less within the bounds of the genre, Week-end’s trip is far more surreal than postapocalyptic, featuring encounters with Emily Brontë and the French Revolution leader Antoine de Saint-Just. It is also far more political and ironic, and one of the characters is eaten by a cannibalistic Liberation Front.


Time travel showed up in at least two other New Wave films—or perhaps three.

There are a few critics—like Philip Strick in his book Science Fiction Movies—who filed Alain Resnais enigmatic and mysterious Last Year at Marienbad (1961) under the heading of science fiction: it is a strange, nonlinear film, where things happen, then didn’t happen, then happen in some other way without ever offering even the slightest hint of what is real. The notion that it involves some form of meddling with time makes about as much sense as anything else.

Which isn’t much.

Although most Doctor Who fans probably don’t know that the classic Tom Baker episode, Warriors’ Gate, with its time lines and meeting point between two universes, borrowed heavily—at least visually—from Resnais.

In 1968, however, Resnais followed it with what was clearly a time travel movie—even if it was merely as an excuse for making an even more nonlinear film.

Je T’aime, Je T’aime tells of a young man recruited to take part in a time travel experiment after he attempts suicide. It sends him randomly back and forth throughout his life. As in La Jetée, it involves some form of mental projection, although here he is placed in a strange, organic, womb-like device.

The film lacks the temporal paradox twist of Chris Marker’s film and instead focuses on the young man’s story. Curiously, while it resembles Billy Pilgrim unstuck in time, it came out a year before Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five—and as protests shut down the 1968 Cannes film, the film remained almost unseen for over forty years.

An even stranger approach to time travel appears in André Farwagi’s Le temps de mourir: a mysterious woman appears at a rich man’s estate but can only remember things that have not yet happened. The film’s status as science fiction is less clear: a marvelous supercomputer whose interface is a large, creepy face, tries to solve the mystery. It has just arrived at a rational scientific explanation when it is destroyed before it can explain.


Last Year at Marienbad was undoubtedly a major influence on another film that came out that same year, Agnès Varda’s Les Créatures. It chronicles an epic battle between a mad scientist using mind control to wreck other people’s lives and a writer. Only the writer is working on a novel about mind control, using the locals as characters. Reality and fiction are so thoroughly mixed it is hard to say what, if anything, is real.

Swiss director Jean-Louis Roy’s 1967 L'inconnu de Shandigor also involves a mad scientist, although it is more of an Art House James Bond parody, with Serge Gainsbourg as the leader of one of the gangs of inept spies killing each other for a secret invention.

Another leading New Wave director, François Truffaut, released his poetic take on Ray Bradbury’s classic novel, Fahrenheit 451 in 1966. Like most of his work, it is far more straightforward than most New Wave films, and focuses on Bradbury’s themes and the question of memory.


On the other side of the Atlantic, science fiction also found its way into the world of Andy Warhol and Pop Art.

In a way, it seems strange that SF played such a small part in an art movement focused on glorifying popular culture, particularly anything lowbrow or trashy. Though, one does find Roy Lichtenstein borrowing from Wally Wood’s space comics for a 1964 World’s Fair themed magazine cover, and Warhol declaring that his favorite film was the obscure and inept robot movie, Creation of the Humanoids.

Warhol himself made what might be described as a science fiction film in 1965. Vinyl was one of the odd and very amateurish (and mostly unseen) films Andy made to entertain his friends. It is more or less a version of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, but shot in a single, tiny warehouse space with little camera movement. However, he seems more interested in the torture scenes than anything else.

While Flesh for Frankenstein has often been called “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein,” it was, in fact, far more cinematic, and directed by one of Warhol’s associates, Paul Morrissey. Like most of Warhol’s art, its main intent is to shock. It has generous amounts of incest, necrophilia, and depravity, an excess of blood and a deliberately campy script.

More successful was Sins of the Fleshapoids by Mike Kuchar, a very minimal short film with brightly lit painted backgrounds and, instead of synchronized sound, cartoon speech bubbles literally scratched onto the film. It tells of robot slaves rebelling against their masters with lots of PG-rated sexuality and intense color. It is (as unlikely as it may sound) fun to watch. Mike would later end his black-and-white short, The Craven Slucka tale of a bored housewife—with an out of left field non sequitur surprise science fiction ending: flying saucers invade and kill her. It’s a surprisingly effective sequence despite the fact that the saucers and their death rays also seem to have been scratched onto the film!


The term “New Wave” has been used to describe cinematic movements in other countries, although none were much like the French model.

In Czechoslovakia, the New Wave came during the Prague Spring and offered daring criticisms of communism—until the Soviet tanks arrived. Science fiction mostly appeared in a series of lighthearted comedies that were satirical and almost surreal, based on absurd gimmicks like drugs that made dreams come to life (Who Wants to Kill Jesse?) or nuclear war causing bearded women (I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen).

The exception is Case for a Rookie Hangman, a bizarre Surrealist take on Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, with bits of Alice in Wonderland worked in—although that hardly begins to describe the film. A young man has an accident and ends up in Balnibarbi, which is ruled by the ultra-scientific people on the floating island of Laputa. However, the Laputans’ actions are totally senseless and the hero finds himself in one inexplicable circumstance after another.

In Japan, the New Wave was a reaction against the way the studios made movies, but you did find a few directors creating more artistic works, like Hiroshi Teshigahara’s surreal films. His The Face of Another, however, about a disfigured man getting a new “face”—a mask made of artificial flesh—was more poetic than surreal, and clearly inspired by Eyes Without a Face.

In England, several of radical director Peter Watkin’s films were at least marginally science fiction, starting with a documentary-style TV movie about a nuclear attack, The War Game. In his feature debut, Privilege, a successful rock star has been packaged and sold by the British establishment as a way to control teenagers. He followed this with three documentary-style features that used science fiction settings and backgrounds as a way to express his radical political views: the world powers settle their disputes with teams of soldiers fighting each other in an arena in The Gladiators; Punishment Park offers protestors a chance to avoid prison by participating in a manhunt straight out of The Most Dangerous Game; and a family celebrates the new millennium in an underground bunker in the 1975 TV movie, The Trap.


Perhaps the German New Wave was closest in spirit to the original, as a group of young directors created highly politicized and often experimental films.

Alexander Kluge’s 1971 film, Der große Verhau (The Big Mess) is probably the most minimal space opera ever made, with primitive effects and tiny, unimpressive sets stuffed full of all sorts of unnecessary junk, highlighting a story about a greedy small-time crook of an astronaut in an exploitative capitalist future. A year later he made a similar lo-fi space opera, Willi Tobler and the Decline of the 6th Fleet for television: it is far more successful as science fiction and actually quite entertaining.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder was the enfant terrible of the group, an incredibly prolific director who completed 44 projects before his sybaritic lifestyle caught up with him at 37. Curiously, his two-part TV movie, Welt am Draht (World on a Wire, 1973) is one of the first filmed treatments of virtual reality and an impressive SF work in its own right. Perhaps the only signs of its Art House pedigree are the themes and the rather decadent society it portrays.

However, the group’s most notable member, Werner Herzog, was too busy hauling ships over mountains or shooting films with the entire cast under hypnosis to bother with SF. Not, that is, until 2005 where he created a strange formal experiment—a sort of hybrid found film/documentary/science fiction film, The Wild Blue Yonder, which starred horror icon Brad Dourif as an alien.


Thanks to the birth of film schools in the mid-sixties and the rise of independent film, small, “arty” films from a lot of very different movements proliferated. Many of these were at least marginally science fiction, from wild and stylish punk films (Liquid Sky or the German-made Decoder); to so-called “No Wave” eighties films like John Lurie’s Men in Orbit, which were made for next to nothing with the most minimal sets and props; to the work of performance artists like Valie Export (Invisible Adversaries); or Cory McAbee‘s, deliberately unreal Western/musical/science fiction hybrids, The American Astronaut and Stingray Sam.

In fact, a lot of directors—including George Lucas (THX-1138)—made such films.

Not to mention a few surprises like Luigi Cozzi, who made the Star Wars rip-off, Starcrash, but started his career with an experimental version of Frederick Pohl’s The Tunnel Under the World.

The art film is alive and well today, and a few of them do still show up at SF film festivals—although the best, like Zoltan Sostai’s Cycle (2012) work both as a piece of art and as science fiction.

But that’s rare.


In 2004, Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai released 2046, a story of a lonely writer’s failed attempts at love. Part of the film takes place in 2046, a special-effects laden world from the stories he is writing, which might or might not be the future.

Science fiction critics were quick to say that Wong Kar-wai did not understand science fiction, but they missed the point: he wasn’t making a science fiction story, nor even a metafictional reference to one. 2046 was merely a way of exploring his protagonist’s thoughts and feelings.

This is true of most of these films: the science fictional elements are there for the artist’s purposes and were never intended to be anything else—or merely serve as a background, as in Wim Wenders’ meandering Until the End of the World. Even those that seem closer to “real” science fiction—like Alyce Wittenstein’s No Such Thing As Gravity—are more likely to resemble fifties sci fi films and lack any sort of genuine scientific underpinnings.

In the end, Art House science fiction isn’t science fiction—or at least, not necessarily so. Nor does it make sense to insist that it fit the demands of a genre it was never intended to meet. It needs to be seen on its own terms.

Even if they aren’t the ones we’d like.

 

(For more information on these films, see https://rivetsontheposter.wordpress.com/art-house-science-fiction/.)

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ISSUE 159, December 2019

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Best Science Fiction of the Year
 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Cole

Mark Cole hates writing bios. Despite many efforts he has never written one he likes, perhaps because there are many other things he'd rather be writing. He writes from Warren, Pennsylvania, where he has managed to avoid writing about himself for both newspaper and magazine articles. His musings on Science Fiction have appeared in Clarkesworld and at IROSF.com, while his most recent story, "Let's Start from the Top..." appeared in Daily Science Fiction.

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