Friday, July 31, 2020

the secrets of the universe

Explorers opens with Ben asleep with his TV on (War of the Worlds is on), dreaming about flying over a Tron-ish circuitboard reality. He wakes and frantically draws a piece of his dream. Then he calls up Wolfgang to talk about it.

As you do. A good dream. A good movie. You gotta share with someone, gotta talk about it. Or at least I do. This blog is some of the obvious evidence.

The Junior High the boys attend here is Charles M. Jones... That is, Chuck Jones, the cartoonist. Not the name of the High School where they filmed, but chosen deliberately. Because the cartoon reference matters. This is a movie about creativity and imagination and I just found out that Wolfgang's house is not far from where I'm writing right now, and I love that.
 

 
 

 
 
This Island Earth is the next movie we see, after some science fiction magazines and books.

But, per the movie later, the island is not isolated. Like the immigrants in yesterday's An American Tail, the aliens in Explorers have knowledge about America, particularly our films, our pop culture. As Janet Maslin puts it in her New York Times review, director Joe Dante "includes more than enough of his standard touches [including] skewed scenes of suburbia" and his idea of "the great beyond is already filling up with the detritus of American pop culture". Much like the rest of the world, really.

Dante's (or screenwriter Eric Luke's) version of suburbia is fairly stereotypical. The kid with the messed up home life who puts engines together in his spare time teams up with the bullied nerd and his science geek best friend to have some power over their lives, and after getting sidetracked in their adventure in outer space, they can mess with the local bullies and maybe Ben can get the girl he's got a crush on. But in the meantime, it's a little like a Stephen King novel, if he wrote whimsical science fiction.

The boys build their spaceship out of suburban trash, and this matters too as far as the ideas the film is playing with. A lost tilt-a-whirl seat, a trash can, a tire, a suitcase, an old tv screen, some doors from clothes washers, and other random parts. The bubble that allows it to fly comes from a dream, and the ship itself comes from the remains of several.

And pieces of other movies are here too. From the two old science fiction films we've already seen, to the title of the film interrupted at the drive-in--Star Killer--presumably a reference to Luke Skywalker's original surname. And Ben plays with his flashlight like a lightsaber after putting on a gas mask. And the robotic scanner resembles the one outside Jabba's palace in Return of the Jedi. There's a sled reference to Citizen Kane. A newspaper headline that references the events of Gremlins. Another references Twilight Zone: The Movie. The dreamscape looks like Tron. Wolfgang quotes Poltergeist's "They're here." Ben quotes Star Trek's "where no man has gone before." The county where the film takes places I named for a planet in Not of This Earth. Not to mention all the movies and TV shows that Wak and Neek reference in act three.

And, I think after all these years, or maybe already when I first saw Explorers on the big screen 34 years ago, my brain is a bit like the aliens' brains in this film, full of movie quotes and references and everything I do or say is influenced by all that. And, the thing is I'm cheating by putting this film on the fixture list because we never even had it on video. But, I saw it on the big screen, we may have rented it to watch it again, and I watched it on cable more than a few times. But, more than that, its visuals and its ideas stuck with me over the years. The amalgamated pop culture on the spaceship mutated into my contention that every movie is every other movie and movies change who you are, and all of the stuff I've ever written in this blog, or said on my podcasts about movies.

Movies tell us about the time and place they were made, but they also tell us about ourselves. What kind of stories are we drawn to? What kind of characters attract us? How do we like our endings? Like Rob Gordon's iconic question: "What came first, the music or the misery?" Did I see so many movies over all these years because I loved movies, or do I love movies because I've seen so many over the years? Do I like the movies I like today because of their similarity (and dissimilarity) to ones I saw when I was a child? Did movies make me or did I make them? Not literally, of course. I made none of these movies, but echo back through this blog, all those references to Izod by way of Benesh, how you take a movie into your head and what resonates afterward is your version of the film. And each time you remember it, it changes, it lessens or it swells. It fixes itself inside you, helps hold you up and build you, or it drifts away to be replaced by something else.

It isn't just movies, of course. There's books and tv shows and games and sports and so much else. But, if you're reading this blog after all these entries, I figure movies have a special place for you like they do for me

All bundled together inside your head.

And it's your job to make something useful of it.

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