Sunday, April 15, 2012

Undoing Expectations

Part of the fun - as well as the work - of teaching a film class which centers on the genre of science fiction is undoing expectations.  (By the way, I suspect this is also true of teaching more traditional literature.  I know I get a kick out of showing students that, far from being boring, Shakespeare was one randy, clever, violent son of a glovemaker.  But I digress.)  I throw them into the deep end at the beginning with Fritz Lang's Metropolis and I try to maintain that level of "oh, you think you know but you don't" throughout the class.  I steer clear of rubber-suited monsters and rayguns and try to help the students see the Big Questions that are being asked.  Questions like "What's it mean to be human?" and "How do the choices I make define who I am?" and "Who is my family - and what's that mean anyway?"  By slipping free of the confines of pure realism, science fiction (at least, GOOD science fiction) can ask and answer these questions more readily than can many a feature film.

And this past week, the class got to see that by viewing the Japanese anime film Cowboy Bebop.  It's no secret that I think Watanabe's Bebop is a very well done example of the genre and, since we're focusing on sound this week and Bebop gives us an "in" to examine dubbing v. subtitling as well as the use of music to set mood (often by off setting the screen action), Bebop was a definite for the syllabus.  Bebop gives us a large ensemble cast with each cast member being fully-rounded (including the corgi), an amazing soundtrack, and characters we actually care about who are wrestling with questions of meaning, morality, and existence.  The fact I get to pair up Bebop with another small-screen to big-screen film, Joss Whedon's Serenity, just makes me shiver with happiness.  Serenity is up this week as we discuss writing.

Remember what I said about good science fiction asking the Big Questions?  So can horror, although not usually.  This weekend, Joss Whedon fans throughout the country got their long-awaited chance to pump their fists in the air when they saw "A Mutant Enemy Production" appear on the big screen with the release of The Cabin in the Woods.  I'll say nothing more aside from this - I despise slasher movies, finding them uncreative and most unkind toward women, but I'll go see this one again.  It's clever, most of the gore is hidden in deep shadow, the casting is spot-on and it'll make you think.

You know, my entire journey toward the academic study of television and movies could be said to have begun with a course during my senior year of undergraduate school.  I wanted to take a course with this particular professor and the subject matter was the American horror film.  I tend toward the squeamish and wasn't at all sure about this, but I wanted the course.  The prof is still there and I'm sure he'll be adding Cabin to the syllabus.  It takes tropes and archetypes and moves them around like figures on a feltboard.  The poster really tells you all you need to know, so please - go see it unspoiled and just enjoy what two writers who clearly love the genre can do with subverting the idiocy that is often the modern slasher.  The film was completed three years back and stalled in the morass of MGM's financial mess, but Cabin has now seen the light of day and this is one a labor of Lovecraft that's well worth the ticket price.

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