Thursday, May 16, 2024

Introducing the First Contact Project

What's it like to experience a classic for the first time?

As a very wise person once said, there's no science fiction canon. There's no mandatory reading list, no admission test to join the community of geekdom, and most fortunately, no enforcing authority in charge of declaring who is authorized to speak about works. Someone who has never seen a movie can simply decide one day to try Godzilla and then say how they felt. That's all you need.

That said, some experience with previous works will enrich the repertoire of the things you can say, and the quality of the arguments you can produce. Interstellar is a great movie, but you enjoy it more if you're familiar with 2001. Any discussion of The Matrix will be very limited without considering the ideas introduced in Blade Runner, Neuromancer and Ghost in the Shell (at the very minimum). If you haven't seen Ratatouille, a subplot in Everything Everywhere All at Once is almost incomprehensible. And you may be impressed with Ready Player One if you aren't aware of how it misunderstands and betrays The Iron Giant.

So, while knowledge of the classics isn't required (unless you're an academic), it's definitely useful. This puts fans who want to discuss genre works in a curious position. Every time I write an opinion on this blog, I need to remember that I'm entering a conversation that started before me and whose terms are already established. At the same time, contributing my personal perspective depends on maintaining a degree of freshness. I guess someone could write a good dissection of the flaws of monarchy as shown in The Lion King while ignorant that its plot mirrors Hamlet. You can read Don Quixote with no previous contact with the medieval adventure novels it's parodying. But how much of value can one say about the hyper-stylized violence of Kill Bill without bringing up the context of Bruce Lee's career? Is there even any point in analyzing Madoka Magica without taking into account how its mere existence is a reaction to Sailor Moon?

First exculpatory argument: We don't know what we don't know. In Pinky and the Brain, there are jokes, and some entire episodes, that only make sense to devoted fans of black-and-white cinema. I was last month years old when I learned that A Bug's Life tells essentially the same story as Seven Samurai, which means I'll never know whether that bit of trivia would have altered my impression of A Bug's Life. I was eager to watch the first Chicken Run because it was made by the people who made Wallace and Gromit; I would have felt less excited if all I'd known was that it retold The Great Escape. And this brings me to my second exculpatory argument: One viewer's classic is another viewer's meh. I have friends who adore The Mandalorian because it does visual homages to old Westerns, and that bit of trivia makes me even less interested in watching The Mandalorian. Reading that Joker referenced Taxi Driver didn't make me want to check out Taxi Driver, and I doubt anything in it would improve my subterranean opinion of Joker.

In a less snobbish world, we should be free to choose our classics the same way we choose our current obsessions, but sometimes there's no escaping the need to learn the language one is trying to use. I detested every second of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but I must admit that having added that crayon to my coloring box makes my picture of Nope more complete. An independent taste is important to have, but one must not let it mutate into incuriosity.

With all this in mind, I've summoned the nerds of our flock to try first contact with classic works with which they haven't had a chance to get acquainted, for whatever reason, until now. Over the next few weeks, we'll be reporting our raw, first impressions of stories that you may have reread or rewatched a hundred times, that have remade in their image the shape of their genres or perhaps even invented those genres.

We embark upon this experiment aware that it cannot replicate the way it felt for those original first viewers. To be a moviegoer in the 1930s and watch the premiere of a Flash Gordon serial was only possible in those specific historical circumstances. Those of us who exist on this shore of time already carry the cultural baggage of everything that was influenced by Flash Gordon and everything that happened in real life since then, which prevents the story from having the same effect and meaning for us that it had upon release. That's my third exculpatory argument: What we can expect to get from art is inescapably tied to the context of reception.

So maybe we'll discover a new passion. Maybe we'll more deeply understand a tradition we had trouble connecting with. Maybe we'll find reasons to reappraise an artist we had underestimated. At the absolute least, we'll become better informed critics, which is what you should never be shy to demand of us.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.