Death Race 2000 (1975)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Death Race 2000</strong> (1975)

(On DVD, September 2005) Man, this film has everything. Nazis, nudity, car chases and political satire. False French antagonists, Sylvester Stallone, decapitation and fistfights. It’s true that they don’t make ’em like they used to: On the other hand, 2005’s loss is 1975’s gain, as this film has endured through thirty years and looks poised to survive yet another thirty. The plot is thin (just look at the title for a clue), but the details are enjoyable and the film runs with a fast-paced streak of audacity. Yes, the acting is awful, and so are the special effects. The script is more promising than fulfilling, but the cheap B-movie charm overpowers everything else. Truly, this is one film that deserves a revival, though maybe not a remake.

Corpse Bride (2005)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Corpse Bride</strong> (2005)

(In theaters, September 2005) Goth-geekmaster Tim Burton does it again with this impeccable stop-motion tale of a morbidly amusing love triangle. The story is simple and the outright laughs are often scarce, but it’s a non-stop smile from start to finish. Visually, the film owes a lot to Burton’s design style (each character is its own caricature) and sensibilities. (Has there ever been a sexiest plasticine figure of a decomposing dead girl? No, don’t tell me.) Snappy songs, grotesque gags, astonishing stop-motion work and constant invention all put this film on the top shelf and a contender for the year’s end Top-Ten. It may not be as striking as The Nightmare Before Christmas, but it’s well worth a look. Wonderful stuff. It will endure long after most of 2005’s films will have been forgotten.

From Time to Time, Jack Finney

Simon & Schuster, 1995, 303 pages, C$20.00 tpb, ISBN 0-671-89884-1

Time travel is, by now, one of Science Fiction’s most well-worn themes. In steady use since at least H.G.Wells’s The Time Machine, is it still possible to do something, anything new with it? Whatever the answer, it won’t be found in Jack Finney’s From Time to Time, a disappointing novel that illuminates more by its failure than its qualities.

It is perhaps unfair to attack the novel with the cognitive tools of SF criticism. From Time to Time is, after all, primarily a sequel to Finney’s own Time and Again (1970), a time-travel fable that mishandled its SF element in much the same fashion, for much the same goals.

Finney, despite non-trivial genre credentials (he was the author of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, mind you) isn’t terribly interested in the verisimilitude of time-travel in either novel. In Time and Again, protagonist Si Morley discovers through a government agency that he, alone among perhaps billions, is able to self-hypnotize himself in an earlier time. The hand-waving explanation involves individuals being “bound” to their time-lines by countless details, but immersing themselves so completely in another time that they literally project themselves in the past. No, it doesn’t make sense. No, you’re not supposed to think about it.

Your not supposed to nit-pick the time travel mechanism because the whole point of both books is to allow a contemporary character the chance to experience another time. Both books are historical novels in disguise, wrapped in some mubo-jumbo science-fantasy and structured along the lines of a thriller. Both books sometime stop for entire chapters as Finney spends his time describing this or that aspect of the period. I suppose that fans of New York in 1882 and 1912 will be delighted at the amount of period detail. For others, it can be all a big bore.

This isn’t to say that Finney is unsuccessful. If his goal was to deliver a hidden chronologue, it works: He’s got an eye for detail, and there are a number of small culture shocks that are reasonably striking. Unfortunately, Finney’s romantic vision of the past is so often selective that it loses its credibility. His rose-tinted nostalgic vision of past New Yorks really grates after a while.

It goes without saying that his protagonist is a healthy white male: One suspects that Si Morley’s enchantment with long-gone New York wouldn’t last as long had he been part of any oppressed minority, or had he found himself in need of medical treatment. The past may be an interesting place to visit, but one would definitely want to avoid living there. Alas, that’s exactly what Morley comes to prefer at the end of Time and Again, taking the opportunity to destroy the government’s time-travel project after some unconvincing moustache-twirling from the book’s antagonists.

But don’t worry: Time appears to be as resilient as the author’s thirst for sequel dollars, and so From Time to Time begins with an intriguing coda in which time anomalies are studied. This notion of a “correct” time-line isn’t terribly convincing, but at least it’s some real SF content. But as Si starts travelling again, as is the case, from time to time, he discovers the unremarkable elasticity of time and finds himself unable to change the past, or the future. As an SF concept, it’s not terribly original (nor carefully explored), but it’s better than nothing at all.

On the other hand, the lengthy digressions are maybe even more obvious in the sequel, as Finney stops the action for a chapter and takes us to vaudreville, or flying around 1912 New York. Again: history buffs will be taken. Others will skip ahead.

Reading Time After Time, it occurs by contrast that the vast majority of written SF often treats time-travel as an instrument for change, as a way to explore other ideas. Here, time-travel is merely a device to blanket oneself in comfortable nostalgia, a quick way to describe historical details to modern readers. Should you find yourself obliged to explain why Finney’s two books aren’t science-fiction despite featuring time-travel, begin with this difference in intention.

Obviously, this book -like its prequel- isn’t written for the SF audience. The cheap candy-coated nostalgic sentimentality, the eye-rolling time-travel mechanism and the lack of willingness to engage in serious speculation makes it a failure as a genre novel. Given the book’s continued longevity in print, mainstream readers obviously had a different reaction.

The Constant Gardener (2005)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Constant Gardener</strong> (2005)

(In theaters, September 2005) Skillful, low-octane, high-intensity thriller that tackles an original premise with a great deal of cleverness. It’s first-world versus third-world in this tale where commercial interests mesh with diplomatic power. Rachel Weisz and Ralph Fiennes are both fine in yet another fine film from director Fernando Meirelles (after City Of God). It’s a quiet little thriller, but this restraint makes the standard “thriller moments” even more visceral: When our protagonist loses his passports, receives death threats or is chased by another car, you feel it a lot more than in a Bruckheimer production. The palette of the film is interesting, bathing first-world scenes in cold grey-blue while giving a colourful hand-held kick to its African moments. The Constant Gardener also proves to be in-tune with the geopolitics of its era, mentioning the Iraq invasion and dealing heavily with the reality of a superpower-heavy era where corporate profits bend national righteousness. The conclusion is at once sad and appropriate, capping off a film that doesn’t mis-step all that often. Call it a thriller for adults, well-worth watching with your brain turned on.

The Cola Conquest (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Cola Conquest</strong> (1998)

(On DVD, September 2005) This special-interest DVD presents the three episodes of the Canadian-made “Cola Conquest” documentary, which digs in history to present a socioeconomic picture of the soft drink industry as dominated by Coca Cola and Pepsi. From origins in the dubiously effective “remedies” of the early twentieth century, the soft drink industry becomes a poster child for marketing, and even starts affecting politics during World War 2. The first episodes is the best, as it explains how sugared drinks attained their current position in today’s culture. Plenty of revealing information about the power of marketing! The second episode spends a bit too much time in the depths of the Cold War, but does a fine job at linking soft drinks to politics. The third one is a bit less focused, going from globalization issues to taste-tests. It’s all quite fascinating, though the pace of interest is somewhat uneven. Makes an interesting companion to Super Size Me.

American Splendor (2003)

<strong class="MovieTitle">American Splendor</strong> (2003)

(On DVD, September 2005) Given how Harvey Pekar’s “American Splendor” series of comic books is all about the fascinating dullness of ordinary life, it’s entirely appropriate for its movie adaptation to be similarly interesting and boring, with a little real-life twist. Paul Giamatti is Harvey Pekar, but Pekar is also in the film, commenting on what’s being shot about his own life, with friends and family similarly reacting to the depiction of themselves. What’s more, the film regularly makes use of comic book iconology, flipping through actual “American Splendor” illustrations and switching back to film. It’s an unusual approach, maybe even one that makes the film a must-see for serious cinephiles. As far the rest of the content goes, well, it’s about a comic book writer struggling to make ends meet: There isn’t much that’s interesting there, and that is the whole point of the film. American Splendor is remarkably successful at juggling uneasiness with interest, an approach that will either be cause for admiration, boredom or scorn. Or sometimes all three.

1945, Newt Gingrich & William R. Forstchen

Baen, 1995, 382 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 0-671-87676-7

In the Science Fiction community, heck, in the publishing community, 1945 has an unbeatable reputation as a commercial failure of epic proportions, an albatross that seriously damaged Baen Books’ financial statements for years. Published in 1995 and backed by an enormous publicity push, 1945 thundered in bookstores… and stayed there. No one was interested in buying it. Reviews weren’t just bad: they were viciously mean. Legend has it that over 80% of the entire print run was eventually returned to the publishers, costing Baen beaucoup dollars and scrapping the plans to conclude the trilogy launched by 1945. It wasn’t much later that Gingrich (who was, at the time, the Speaker of the House in the Republican-led US Congress) exited public life in a cloud of public ridicule partially generated by the book’s failure.

So. Wow. What a reputation: The Book That Nearly Sank Baen Books, Threw Gingrich Out Of Congress And Whose Legacy Is Still Whispered About. (Even editor Jim Baen himself called it “perhaps the greatest failure of my career”) In this episode of publishing history, the book itself has nearly been forgotten. So: bad or not?

Well, certainly not good. Not terrible either, but certainly not good. The main problem is that 1945 was probably conceived in the kind of cool conversation that doesn’t deserves to be novelized:

Newt: I’ve got an idea for an alternate history!

William: What is it?

Newt: Hitler in a coma in 1941! He never declares war on the US! We beat the Japs, the Nazis never attack Russia, they conquer all of Europe except for England! Then in 1945, they start bombing the Oak Ridge facility which is building the Project Manhattan nukes!

William: Cool.

Yeah. Cool. But that type of pure speculation is a bit thin unless you’re a really good writer who can take this concept and beef it up with good characters and a compelling storyline. 1945 (which, by the way, takes place mostly in 1946) all too often reads as a deluge of historical facts loosely discussed between cardboard placeholders. We’re not reading about characters, but about names and occupations whose moral alignment closely match their nationalities. As for subtle or even entertaining prose, well, reach for another book.

The infamous first three pages star a “pouting sex kitten” Nazi spy (Page 2, third paragraph) and believe me, it never gets more interesting than that. In the time-hallowed tradition of awful military techno-thrillers, half the book is spent putting together a Really Fiendish Attack, which then takes place more or less as expected in the rest of the book.

1945 is not without interest, but it’s the kind of interest you get while reading non-fiction accounts of the Reich’s grandiose plans and high-tech equipment. There are also a few nifty cameos, which are probably more interesting for historians than lay readers. As I said: Cool stuff, but hardly worth slogging through a novel. The last few pages are a geeky wank-fest of cool ideas taken from WW2 drawing boards, all vigorously pimped as previews for the next novel.

Which, fortunately, will never be written, let alone published. It says much for the quality of the book that this prospect doesn’t even offend my sensibilities as a completist: I cared so little for the characters that remembering them will be a challenge, let alone anticipate more of their adventures.

[February 2005: William Forstchen was kind enough to write and point out, with far more tact than I deserved, that his subsequent Civil-War-Era novels co-written with Newt Gingrich have been well-received by critics and readers alike. This raises bigger questions about 1945, up to and including who truly had the “last cut” on the book. Genre historians wishing to investigate this issue in more detail may want to start with a look at a 1995 profile of Forstchen, a contemporary confession by Jim Baen (who “admits to reporter David Streitfeld that these much-snickered-over words were actually his creation”), details about the book’s returns and a fascinating blog post telling the rest of the story. Owners of 1945 may also want to take another look at the back cover and realize why Jim Baen is pictured alongside the two co-authors.]