Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Dude, Where’s My Jet Pack?
The lady down the row from us fell asleep during the last hour which was all full of loud gunfights and car chases. She must have been really wiped out. I suspect that some people these days may come to the movies to get some shut-eye, just like years past people went to the movies in the summer to get some good air conditioning. That’s how Dillinger got himself shot.
“What was the question?"
My son leans in and yells over the closing credit music. “She’s asking how the movie ended. She fell asleep.”
The dim house lights come on and we all get up and I look down at the floor to make sure nothing’s dropped out of my pockets and we head for the lobby.
This little theater will someday be a dear part of my kid’s childhood memories of Augusta. It costs two bucks. When we first moved here, tickets were one buck, but everything goes up. This little place called Masters Cinema is easy walking distance from the famous golf course where they hold the Masters Golf Tournament with Tiger Woods and those guys. It used to be a bowling ally, and then it became a dollar theater. This is where movies come to die. A new movie has its day in the sun at the big Regal theater over at the shopping center, where its ten bucks a head, and it stops here one last time when its star begins to fade towards that lonely afterlife as a DVD. There aren’t many movies out there I would want to pay ten bucks a head plus popcorn to see. But it turns out there are a lot of them I’d pay two bucks a head to see, and “In Time” is one of them.
My wife and kid and I are walking with the lady, a cuddly middle aged woman with wire glasses, bright and intelligent, who has a very educated vibe but likes to dress in dumpy sweaters like Albert Einstein in his old photos. She sees movies alone, which suggests her husband and kids probably aren’t around anymore and maybe like someone a little down on her luck but living exactly as she wants other than money. And probably pretty wiped out from whatever job she does, if she can sleep through a movie like that.
“During the movie I was thinking about Occupy Wall Street and the thing with rich people these days.” I say as we all walk beside her.
“Yes!” she says, “I got the metaphor right away. Except that in the movie time is money. Literally.”
“The wealthy get to have all the time and the other ninety nine percent only get twenty five years to live,” says my kid.
“And they get to have all these fun lines,” I say, “Like ‘don’t waste my time’, and ‘I had enough time to buy this gun’.”
“I love that,” she says, which makes me appreciate her even more.
“Stephen King wrote this book,” I say, “It was a non-fiction book called ‘Danse Macabre’ which was all about the history of horror fiction including movies and TV. In this book he says that movies are the dreams and nightmares of a nation at a given time in its history. Like in the fifties and sixties the science fiction movies were all about giant bugs and monsters that were created by nuclear bombs back in the years of the cold war when everyone was scared of nuclear armageddon. These comic book heros you see in the movies, like Spiderman and Fantastic Four all have their super powers from radioactive accidents. The Hulk even got his powers because he was this scientist who was exposed to a test blast from a big nuclear weapon. So these are the nightmares of the early sixties and fifties.”
“Right now there’s plenty of anxiety going around about money,” says the woman “and so there’s going to be more movies like this about one percenters and ninety nine percenters.”
“Don’t be surprised if they do a remake of ‘Soylent Green’ too ,” says my kid.
By now we’ve reached the parking lot and its cold outside. The woman laughs and waves goodbye and disappears among the rows of parked cars. My wife wants to go to the Publix and pick up some bread and cat food.
In the aisles of the Publix my kid and I keep talking. He wants to have a career in the movies someday, working with the film part of it.
“I liked it,” he says, “but it had a lot of logical inconsistencies.”
“I always think of those as ‘holes’,” I say “I try to avoid them when I write. Sometimes you can’t.”
“Like the phones. Its supposed to be the future, but they don’t even have cell phones.”
“Yeah,” I say “and the cars. They were stealing cars all over the place. Even today they have technology you can buy that connects your car’s computer to a satellite. If someone steals your car and the cops are chasing them, they can send a signal to a satellite and the satellite will tell the car’s computer to shut down the engine. So you have to figure in a repressive future like that, the cars would all have those. Bingo. Shut down. End of chase.”
“’That’s a bingo!’ “, he says, quoting the Gestapo officer in “Inglourious Basterds”. Movie language is already becoming a cultural code for us.
“The fact that the holes don’t bother you anymore means you’re learning how to watch movies better. Like you didn’t like “Dragon Wars’, you thought that was dumb.”
“It was dumb.”
“That’s cause you didn’t know how to watch it. Like the Japanese science fiction movies of the ‘50s, those were all about nuclear weapons too, and that was just a couple of years after American turned Hiroshima and Nagasaki into parking lots. You have Godzilla which is this giant lizard that walks around kicking buildings over, and then you have Mothra which is this giant moth with little flying fairy girls hanging around him. If you watch that as a scary science fiction movie you’ll pull your hair out. But if you watch it as a metaphor or a fantasy, it’s a lot of fun. You have to watch it the right way.”
“So holes don’t matter?”
“They matter sometimes. It depends on the movie. It depends on what the story wants to do. The story is The Boss. That’s the rule.”
“How is the story the boss?
“There’s ‘hard’ science fiction and there’s ‘soft’ science fiction. Soft science fiction doesn’t try to explain everything. It’s just an anything-goes platform for telling what you really want to tell.”
“So this movie was soft science fiction, because they have holes and they don’t explain anything.”
“Right,” I say, “Like take time travel. Ray Bradbury wrote this short story they made a movie of called ‘A Sound of Thunder’. These safari hunters go back in a time machine and hunt dinosaurs. It’s about how little things change history.”
“Like stepping on a butterfly.”
“Yeah. Bradbury doesn’t explain the time machine because he doesn’t know and he doesn’t give a shit. He wants to get to the dinosaurs so they all just go ‘zap’ and a miracle happens and there they are hunting dinosaurs.”
“You said ‘shit’.”
“Yeah, but –“
“You won’t let me say ‘shit’.”
“You probably say ‘shit’ when I’m not around.”
“I’m the grown up. I pay for everything, so I get to say it, and you don’t. Listen. Now you take Michael Crichton, he writes ‘hard’ science fiction. He wrote a time machine story too called ‘Timeline’ and he spends the first three chapters explaining quantum physics and how the time machine works through quantum foam, whatever the hell that is and – “
“You said – “
“Shut up. And with quantum foam there’s multiple universes which is interesting to think about if you like that kind of thing. He just has to tell you how it all works, like ‘Jurassic Park’ using DNA, because that’s part of his style and brand. It’s what readers go to him expecting to read. Bradbury started out in the old sci fi pulps in the ‘40s, where your number one job was to tell a ripping good story and forget the science. When you read Bradbury you won’t get any science but you’ll get a good story. Writers have a style and a unique brand after awhile that people look for when they pick up their books.”
“The other thing I noticed about ‘In Time’ was that no one used computers or the internet.” my kid says, “It wasn’t really about this world. The whole movie was a metaphor. I keep hearing about ‘HAL’ in 2001 Space odyssey – “
“Which is a classic movie you need to see, 2001 is hard sci fi all the way. People used to watch that movie on acid.”
“But they didn’t have cell phones or Internet in that movie either.’
“ ‘2001 Space Oddessey’ was made in 1968 by Stanley Kubrick. It was a landmark movie, because it was the very first respectable, big budget science fiction movie ever made. It was made by a big name director, with a big name hard sci fi writer – Arthur C Clarke – and it tried to show the future and the next step in human evolution. Of course they got the technology all wrong too. You were around in 2001. We had the internet and cell phones, but no manned space flights to Jupiter because we never had the money or political will to develop the technology.”
“Which is depressing.”
“Very depressing. But you see the other side of this too. People used to think by the year 2011 we’d be like Buck Rogers flying around in jet packs and living on the moon. But none of that happened. Politicians have to go around pretending they don’t even believe in science now in order to get elected. Nobody predicted the rise of computers because for a long time computers were these boring number crunchers that filled up a whole room. Then transistors were invented. And that all runs on quantum physics. Nobody saw that coming either. My car out there has more onboard computers in it than the Apollo 11 moon lander. That's a fact. That’s how the future really works. It’s all based on caveman values.”
“What the hell’s that?”
“You said it first.”
“Caveman values means people want technology that appeals to our basic monkey nature. People will never fly around in jet packs because flying is scary and dangerous. But social networking is an extension of tribal nature, sitting around the fire in the cave and telling stories, so that will always catch on. And pornography of course. And of course lots of food, even artificial food that makes people fat. Successful technological innovations are almost always connected to cave man values. Values a cave man would understand."
“Why would you write a sci fi story instead of a regular story?”
“The sci fi stuff I’ve written, and sci fi in general is about ideas. That’s what good sci fi is. Its not about getting the future right, because you never will. You’ll only get part of it right. ‘Brave New World’, ‘Fahrenheit 451’, and ‘1984’ all got stuff right when they were dealing with big ideas, based on cave man values. Brave New World is about using eugenics to create priveleged, elite social classes. That’s happening right now. ‘Fahrenheit 451’ is about a society distracting its citizens with shallow entertainment while things fall apart around them, and that’s happening right now. ‘1984’, which really isn’t science fiction, is about how language and ideas are manipulated to keep a totalitarian government in place and that’s happening right now too. All those ideas are real. But there aren’t any jet packs. That’s why when you approach a movie or a story like ‘In Time’ you have to ignore the holes and think about the ideas that are being noodled on.”
We’re standing in the check out line by now and I swipe my debit card. It’s rejected. No dough.
I start thinking about the lady in the movie theater. I pull out a credit card. That’s new too. You don’t have to starve when you’re broke. I wonder how she’s doing now. I hope her kids come see her. In real time. For Christmas.