Thursday, 24 July 2008

sf and the 60s

Christopher Fraser

1968 will be remembered for many events, but in the world of film there were two notable occurrences: the Cannes Film Festival was cancelled and science fiction stormed to the top of the US Box Office.

Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey may have perplexed audiences and critics alike but clearly captured the imagination of the audiences, in the US finishing the year with second place in total takings.

This was first time in over a decade that a science fiction film had finished in the US box office top ten, a result not repeated until A Clockwork Orange in 1971. Even more remarkable was that it not alone, with Franklin's J Schaffner's Planet Of The Apes also making the list at number seven.

Whereas the other science fiction films of the early 60s which spring to mind (specifically La Jetee and Alphaville) were of more economical means, both these films were lavish and technically sophisticated productions, with Kubrick picking up an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects for and an John Chambers an honorary Academy Award for outstanding achievement in make-up.

Viewing 1968 solely through the lens of history it is useful to take a moment to reflect on some of the tumultuous events of this year. As well as the unrest in May 1968 which lead to Cannes being cancelled, a series of worldwide protests spawned new political activity on all sides of the political spectrum. In the US the Civil Rights movement gained momentum and at time Johnston's administration at times struggled to maintain domestic peace. The assassination of Martin Luther King resulted in widespread rioting and later that year Democrat Presidential nominee Robert Kennedy was also assassinated, his killer citing Kennedy's support for Israel in the Arab Israeli conflict. In the cold war the stand off continued unabated, with the main change being the Soviets approaching Nuclear parity with the US. Finally, despite widespread opposition the Vietnam War grew in intensity, and by the end of 1968 US deployment reached its peak of over half a million troops.

Against this backdrop it is not hard to imagine how, quite aside from intrinsic artistic merit of these films, the chance to peer into the future, both of humanity and film making itself, must have been tantalising.

At this point I would like to suggest that both these films present what amounts to optimistic view of the near future. 2001 may have an ambiguous conclusion, but as an encounter with extraterrestrial intelligence it's definitely not Alien and Dave's journey is more one of transcendence rather than into the dark heart of man - certainly no trip up the Mekong River at any rate. Recognisable corporate and nation identities cement this universe as a linear progression of ours rather than some parallel existence.

Planet Of The Apes may have elements of a dystopian nightmare, but the calamity revealed at the end of Schaffner's film is something which befalls some future human civilisation years after it had mastered the capability of space flight across hundreds of light years. The warning is clear but the signs are there's plenty of time for cavorting around the universe before we have to start to worry.

In interpreting these films I think it is useful to include another work of speculative fantasy - Mechanix Illustrated's "What Will Life Be Like in the Year 2008?", also published in 1968. Here, a vision of the future is presented unquestioned with an air of inevitability and enthusiastic optimism.

For me the most critical essence of this optimism is the sense of cultural continuity - the prospect of replacing the drudgery of work and preparing meals with piloting spacecraft and driving 250mph cars is intriguing, but real reassurance comes from protagonists of the future being just like us and a vision of the present the political, social and scientific apparatus continuing to function and serve us. This vision is made all the more intoxicating by being rendered with a careful attention to scientific plausibility.

What is particularly interesting about the Mechanix Illustrated story is that, beyond just a sense of cultural continuity, it has a tone of celebration - the triumph of science over nature and the ability of capitalist to deliver a homogeneous, happy civil society.

So my thesis is not just that the form and popularity of all these works was in part a response to the political and social turmoil, but that the specific anxiety was one of continuity of the dominant ideology.

Following on from this I find it interesting to speculate whether audiences would have been willing to accept science fiction with a more dystopian world, say A Clockwork Orange or Blade Runner, prior to the d├ętente of the early 70s.

In concluding I feel I should admit I'm not entirely sure I've actually seen the 1968 Planet Of The Apes and that perhaps my indistinct recollection of a large number of films with people in monkey suits is missing some other important interpretation, but somehow I think the brief monkey suit cameo in 2001 is probably the high point of this particular special effect.


I'd also like to shamelessly plug a new non-fiction book group called the
Itchy Chin Club. If you're up for joining a central London book group
interested in arts, culture, politics, history and philosophy then
please drop me a line at chrisf (at) goop dot org. There's a blog at to give some background and keep everyone up to date.


goooooood girl said...

Very fine......

Kam said...

I don't think I ever want to watch Planet Of The Apes again.

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