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OCTOBER 9, 2016  –  ISSUE 32
“We may brave human laws, but we cannot resist natural ones.”
— Jules Verne
Guest curator
Nicholas Meyer
Director. Novelist. Trekkie.
I am not a science fiction fan, per se, but I discovered Jules Verne at an early age, devouring Around The World in 80 Days, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and From the Earth to the Moon. Growing up, I also loved HG Wells, I loved Ray Bradbury. Later, I loved A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller. But beyond that, I can’t claim to be an aficionado.
As far as my thoughts regarding science fiction on film are concerned, I perceive a paradox: all artistic media save one relies on the invocation, or the provocation of the imagination of the audience. Whether it's a viewer, a listener or a reader, it's their imagination that completes the experience. Movies alone have the hideous capacity to do it all for you. Today’s science-fiction and fantasy films are especially susceptible to what I'll call "eye-candy syndrome." Thanks to the stunning advances in technology and motion capture, it is now possible to literally depict anything. You watch Star Wars, Lord of The Rings or Game Of Thrones and you’ll see all these vast, amazing images. But with the fulfillment of every image, there is nothing left to imagine and absent that participation, the audience is susceptible to longeurs. How many millions of armed men can you behold filling the screen without simply tiring because in some part of your brain you know it’s computer generated? If the images constantly supply all the information, answer every question, we become inured to spectacle; we become bored.

Radio is a great example of an artistic medium that leaves things to the imagination. Imagination, incidentally, requires no training; it is easily prompted. Intuitively we flesh out the missing pieces. Any radio commercial wherein a housewife bemoans those “rings around the collar”s and we SEE what she’s talking about in what Hamlet refers to as “my mind’s eye”.

In 1938, when Orson Welles ingeniously adapted The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells for radio, he succeeded in terrifying a large proportion of the listening population with only sound and sound effects at his disposal.
The original War of the Worlds’ broadcast, recorded for public radio in 1938
In 1975, due to technical shortcomings, the shark in Jaws could not be shown from the very start of the film. Director Steven Spielberg was obliged to protract the beast’s entrance until much later, dramatically heightening the viewer’s dread. Thus art may be said to thrive on restrictions. Would JAWS be as potent an experience if we saw more of the shark chomping its way through victims? I suspect we’d tire of him. In art — and in film — sometimes less is more.

Now, all bets are off. Our imaginative contributions negated, we become passive, slack-jawed witnesses. We all know the movies in which millions of dollars have been spent on special effects and they flop. Techniques such as cutting faster and dialing up the sound, creating bigger and bigger explosions may be ultimately a dead-end. There is only so big and loud we can go. 3D and VR notwithstanding, I believe the technological route eventually leads to an artistic cul-de-sac. We are in danger of having seen everything. All the desperate bells and whistles dreamt up by the FX wizards will eventually not be able to compensate for our boredom. One author titled his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. We need something else. Many films, relying exclusively on “eye candy” do not allow us into the narrative. When there is nothing for us to do and no story to lock into, we may fall asleep.

Great filmmakers figure out what is possible to omit in movies. Think of a horror movie. You see the heroine looking at something that's moving in closer and closer. You don't know what it is and the gas will go right out of it when they show you. But up until that point, it's scary because it leaves things to your imagination. I think Hitchcock is very good at this. In Psycho, Janet Leigh is in the shower but we know there’s a man waiting in the next room. The weird man man with all the stuffed birds...

Another example: A person with an anxious and disturbed look on their face takes a pistol and goes into another room. You can really wring people out, making them wait for what we all intuit is imminent – the gunshot. You can hold an audience riveted attenuating the anticipation of the pistol’s retort. That kind of time can be stretched, tantalizing the viewer's emotional participation and involvement...

Charlie Chaplin was a master exploiter of the audience’s imagination. In his short film, The Idle Class. a rich alcoholic has just been informed that his wife will leave him unless his stops drinking. He turns his back to the camera and we behold his shoulders quivering and shaking. And we think, “My god the guy is convulsed with grief by the prospect of his wife’s leaving him, !” but then he turns back to us and he’s been vigorously shaking a martini mixer for his next glass...
From The Idle Class, 1921
Another scene where things are left to the imagination: The Sundowners (1960) is a movie about sheep drovers in Australia. It's about a family, the father and the mother and their teenaged boy. Their job is to herd the sheep from where they're raised to where they are shorn. The problem is that the wife doesn't want to do it anymore. She's spent 12 years on the road with the boys and the chuckwagon and she's tired of it. Her son has come of an age and she wants him to have a decent education and not be a good ol' boy just like his dad. This is the condition where one of my favorite scenes in cinema takes place.
Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr in The Sundowners, 1960
It’s a Cinemascope screen at the end of the trail drive and you are looking at an outback railroad station at the ass-end of nowhere. In the foreground, running horizontally, are a set of train tracks. In front of us, driving into their own over-the-shoulder shot, is the buckboard where the man and the wife are sitting. There's only three lines of dialogue in the scene.The first line: the man turns to his wife and says "You stay here, I'll get paid." He leaves his wife sitting in the buckboard across from the train station.

Now, a train pulls in right in front of her. Seated in a carriage window directly opposite is a woman about her own age. She's wearing a silly city hat and she's powdering her face out of a compact over the rim of which she happens to glance outside and sees a woman in a buckboard staring at her. That woman is not wearing a city hat. She is wearing a torn, straw boater. And she's not wearing any makeup, she's wearing the dust of the trail. For several reciprocating close-ups, the two women stare at each other. And then, the train suddenly gives a chuff of steam and starts pulling out of the station and the spell is broken. The woman goes back to powdering her nose; she'll forget all about this. But our lady sitting in the buckboard is now re-joined by her husband who sees that in addition of the dust on the trail on are now two rivulets of her tears streaming down her dusty cheeks. Second line of dialogue: "What's the matter with you?" It's a long pause. And you better believe our imaginations are working overtime at this point. Finally, she says, "Nothing really." He sees that something is the matter and he puts his arm around her and they drive away. And it's not even an important part of the movie. But I never forgot it.

No other art-form can achieve a moment like that. If Henry James did it, we'd read 12 pages of describing those women's thoughts. The director here isn't telling you what these women are thinking. He’s just showing you the matching close-ups. It is you that decides what these women must be thinking. It is your imagination that that completes what's going on, completes the picture, fleshes out the narrative.
Still from Wrath Of Khan, 1982, directed by Nicholas Meyer
Last example: in Wrath of Khan. What is underneath Khan’s glove? You don’t know and it's not answered. But it sure grabs your attention. We wonder what is under that glove.

I think the only unlimited sphere is the one inside our heads. Artists need to find ways to tunnel inside that wide-open space and judiciously mind-meld with what SFX have to offer. It’s only then that movies may move on into their next, glorious era.
See Nicholas Meyer introduce the director’s cut of The Wrath of Khan, Wednesday October 18 at TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of TIFF’s 50 Years of Star Trek anniversary programming.
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The Review arrives in inboxes every two weeks. It's like clockwork—if clocks were curated by some of the most interesting people from the world of film and the moving image. Here's what the last few issues looked like. If you haven't already, why not SUBSCRIBE.
Issue 31 Curated by Freida Pinto
We Do It Together Advisory Board members (L-R: Kátia Lund, Freida Pinto, Juliette Binoche, Patricia Riggen, and Carol Polakoff)
Why is the percentage of studio films directed by women so very, very small? Why are there so few opportunities in the industry for women? Freida Pinto, actor, producer, and feminist mogul, shares her ideas and her plans.

"Feminism for me is equality. And when I say equality, I don't mean men and women have to be equal without merit. Be equal with merit. I don't want to be given a job or an award because of the colour of my skin. I don't want to ever be nominated because, "Oh, in that category, let's throw in the token Indian girl." I put my heart and soul in my film projects and I would never want to feel like I didn’t earn it."
Issue 30 Curated by Mark Duplass
Scene from Blue Jay
If you've got $5, you can make a movie. Then spend $10 on the next one. Sooner or later, you might just make something great. Get some inspiration from a filmmaker who has forged his own path and wants to help others forge theirs.

"You need to allow yourself to make mistakes and fuck up and build a tribe of people around you. And then, just keep making mistake after mistake — as cheaply as you can, so they don’t hurt too badly. At some point, you’ll accidentally land on something."
Issue 29 Curated by Hugh Gibson
Abbas Kiarostami at the Doors Without Keys exhibition
In his edition of The Review, documentarian Hugh Gibson reveals the surprising influence of Abbas Kiarostami on his film, and how he approached making connections with his subjects.

"I wanted capture the humanity of marginalized people and understand their experience. Kiarostami's films contain a humanism that I find uniquely affecting."
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