Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Mr. Winship on Dark Star & Silent Running

Jez made his first post and commented on my programme notes for Dark Star & Silent Running, but I think his thoughts about the films deserve to be seen by all, not just those who click on them.

Hopefully you'll start to see a lot of this sort of thing.

In person, arguing about movies and bouncing ideas back and forth, I find whole new ideas being sparked by other peoples points of view, new ideas, new perspectives, that would never have occured to me had someone else not spoken first. Maybe they'll do the same for you... here's Jez.

(Warning: I give the ending of Dark Star away in the final line here)

Both films are laments for the dreams of the sixties in a sense, too. Bruce Dern is very much the hippie child of nature, with his loose cotton robe and affinity with the creatures of his pocket eden. Joni Mitchell's line 'we've got to get back to the garden' from Woodstock crystallises this 60s impulse, and her lament that 'they paved paradise and put up a parking lot' from Big Yellow Taxi could be the tagline for the film. Perhaps they approached Joni to do the songs for the soundtrack before turning to Joan Baez. Not that Joan doesn't do a darn fine job, mind (and those songs unfailingly bring a tear to my mind - particularly when sung during the final scenes, with Huey - or possibly Dewey or Louie - watering the garden with his little watering can, flowers childishly painted on the side).

But Dern also shows his demented Manson side, killing in the name of a higher cause which only he seems to care about. He may suffer guilt over this for the rest of the film, but nevertheless, as with the Manson murders in the 60s, this marks the end of something - of the innocence or purity of an idealistic dream. It reminds me in a sense of the Jefferson Airplane/Starship album Blows Against the Empire, another end of the 60s work which turns its back on the earth in an implicit admission of defeat. This LP, an early example of the dreaded concept album, tells the story of a bunch of hippies in a fascist America of the future, who steal a starship and blast off to Andromeda on a wave of Jerry Garcia guitar soloing. 'We are leaving, you don't need us anymore' sings Paul Kantner. Beautiful as much of the music is, it's message is all a bit despairing. Dreams of escapism, leaving the messy problems of Earth behind - the 60s are over, the San Francisco ideal of creating a new communal society didn't work.

It has to be said (and it's been said before) that Silent Running does have one huge central flaw. Bruce Dern's character has devoted his life to the study of botany and the biosphere. And yet, as the ship moves further away from the sun and its light dwindles, he is baffled by what has caused the leaves to shrivel and brown and the grass to wither. Good grief, even if the earth has been turned into a temperature controlled ubermall, surely he will be aware of the concept of seasons and the rather crucial role played by sunlight in the sustenance of life. It might seem like a rather churlish quibble, but if you're making a science fiction film, you need to maintain a basic level of plausibility. I don’t know whether the ending is intentionally pessimistic, but those lightbulbs aren’t going to last for ever, either. Are Dern’s murderous efforts in vain after all?

Dark Star's alien is particularly fine. It always raises a laugh because it’s so unashamedly unaltered from it’s beachball origins, with just a few painted spots and a couple of clawed feet added as a token gesture towards effects. It resembles a large hopping, squeaking pumpkin.

Dan O'Bannon's Pinback is a great comic character, with a touch of poignancy at times, particularly in his bathetic confessions to his video diary. The scene in the elevator shaft is hilarious, but also a skillfully sustained suspense sequence. The humanisation of the machines, from the impassively calm voice of the computer (which retains its icy poise even when announcing imminent destruction) to the testy irritability of the bombs, may have been influenced by 2001, but their presence can also be felt in the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in Marvin and Eddie the Shipboard computer and others. Indeed, the whole tone, of bringing the mysteries of the universe down to earth so to speak, is strikingly similar to the Hithchiker’s Guide, from the lighthearted approach to grand philosophical matters to the hippyish mien of its characters (tea-drinking ape-descendant Arthur Dent aside, of course).

Dark Star, like Silent Running, ends with a great song, too, a gruff country number called Benson Arizona, which with its sparkling pedal steel guitar is about the least likely and yet strangely apposite kind of music you’d expect in a science fiction film. The surfing finale, with Doolitle puffing out in a tiny blaze of light as a shooting star has got to be one of the coolest endings ever. He goes out having a grand time.

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