It was within the hallowed basement of the East Village's Lovecraft Bar, thousands beginning their migration to Washington, DC to march (my girlfriend among them) that—for the first time in months—I felt excitement for the future.
"Sci-fi is going to get really good in the current political climate," said film director Avram Dodson, his cowboy hat resting on the table between us. Throughout the launch party for the inaugural New York Science Fiction Film Festival on January 21, 2017, many of the participating independent filmmakers echoed Dodson's sentiment.
After all, wasn't this the weekend where began "our own alternate reality," as James Allerdyce (another director) put it, "where Trump won?"
I'd felt the same way ten minutes before when climbing the subway stairs, a dirtied New York Post page blowing past with the 45th president's likeness. In the face of such a profound unknown, I felt as if the half-empty, overly-lit basement of the Lovecraft Bar contained a truth as awesome and terrifying as Lovecraft's best creations: the potentially of science-fiction. The filmmakers and staff felt the same way, and like the plagues and epidemics to which I was about to be subjected over the next 72 hours, their enthusiasm was contagious. "Good for sci-fi," said Dodson, "bad for humanity."
"Good for sci-fi. Bad for humanity."
If only enthusiasm was all it took.
The festival's first 24 hours was a lot like the scene from Mad Max: Fury Road where the Organ Mechanic, intent on delivering the dead baby whether the mother is alive or not, sharpens his knives. The indie films kept coming and coming, engagement or escapism be damned. With the exception of a few shorts, the first half was filled with duds.
The night before the first showing, Daniel Abella, the indie festival's director and founder (and founder of the Philip K. Dick Film Festival, currently entering its 5th year), spoke to me of Vincent Price in The Fly, of Gaspar Noé's Into the Void, and Nacho Vigalondo's Timecrimes,and wondered where all the experimentation had gone from science-fiction. I thought this was a great point. And what better place to experiment with science-fiction than an indie festival?
Within the Cervantes Center Friday night, before the first block of films, Abella articulated his other major goal for the festival. "Community," he said. It was a theme he reminded the audience of throughout the screenings, and he meant it (he's got a book coming out next month, he told the crowd at Sunday's final screening, about the energy created when people with shared passions come together; he calls this phenomenon the current). A nice intention, I thought, and I still do.
The lights dimmed.
And themes immediately became apparent, none of which had been discussed in the subterranean lair of the Lovecraft: time loops and the hijinks they present (these were generally fun); gender anxiety, not intentional like HR Giger's famously carnal face-huggers, but hidden just beyond the wings (Freud made an appearance later in the festival, in a delightful piece of animated magic called "Super Science Friends," although he was present throughout much of those first 24 hours); and endlessly nonsensical end-of-the-world epidemics.
The first several films were fun, but from there, things took a dive. A mess of a film called "Only Stars Will Remain" whose overstuffed plot included both an epidemic and doppelgängers. This wasn't the only narrative to try for a saccharine kind of Eternal Sunshine moral, but it was one of the more unsuccessful. The film also introduced the first moment of what I might call "The Shining Effect," where writers insert a prophetic or ESP character into an already sci-fi heavy plot. King pulled it off; generally speaking, these films did not. And finally, a slew of astronaut saviors arrived, sacrificing themselves for their estranged women over pulse-pounding orchestration.
And as opposed to a sudden ripping free of the stillborn child, very slowly it was delivered into the darkness of that midtown theater. Certainly, this was not what the filmmakers, or what the festival's founder, had hoped for. Where was the current I was promised? The energy? Everywhere else in New York City (not to mention the country) was crackling with it!
I will say, of the festival's first 24 hours, several films caught my attention. "Dryad," directed by Thomas Vernay, was a gorgeous, contemplative piece with the narrative confidence to select one premise and stick with it. A knight helps a fairy, or dryad, escape from those who wish her harm. Her antagonists only ever appear as torches in the mist, supported by inarticulate yells and horn blows. With excellent production design and understated acting, this at least felt close to a successful experimental film born from a tight budget.
"Slayer A.D.," directed by the aforementioned Allerdyce, albeit melodramatic at times, took on a beautiful, meditative tone. In the course of the film, a loner (much like any good Western) blows into town to track down a monster. The beast has taken a farmer's daughter, and when the drifter returns after a surreal scene of slaying, he hands the farmer the bloodied sack that house's the monster's head. "It's real," says the drifter. "The monster's real." Sure enough, the head in the sack is the daughter's, but the drifter only vanishes into the mist, a product of his own genre.
Yet outside of these few specks of light, was this truly the future of science-fiction in indie cinema?
Two beers and back-to-back two-hour sessions of short films later, my faith was restored.
Saturday night's shorts at the Roxy Hotel marked the glorious return of characters and premises that matched their films' dazzling visual effects. "Might," directed by Emil Sallinen, is a space opera in 9 minutes, full of sweeping CGI landscapes supported by mysterious and intriguing characters.
"2BR02B: To Be or Naught to Be," based off a Kurt Vonnegut short story, unfolds like a finely-tuned play, revealing world and character details at a steady, controlled pace. If anything, this short, taking place in a dystopian future, deserves reference if only for the nearly imperceptible blond mustache on the upper lip of its female protagonist. "Prince of Nothing" is a playful and well-executed fable written and directed by Avram Dodson—but my true favorite of this block included one of the night's best characters.
In "The Fisherman's Wife," directed by Ben Leonberg, a woman visits her (soon to be) ex-husband to finalize their divorce papers. Because the thing is, Frank fishes too much. But a strange entity emitting eerie green light takes Frank (turns out to be a giant squid monster—go figure) and uses him as a lure to catch his wife, a want it soon regrets. Equipped with a machete, and later with scuba gear and a harpoon gun, "The Fisherman's Wife" has all the ingredients for a subversive and gleefully bloody genre romp. I hope to God this is only the beginning for Ben Leonberg, the director, and Cynthia Granville, his ass-kicking (or tentacle-kicking, I suppose) female lead. Not a ton of psychological exploration here, but a welcome respite from some of the heavier themes.
"Uncanny Harbor" directed by Nicholas Valaskatgis, is an eerie, simmering sci-fi/ horror cross-over much in the vein of Stranger Things, blurring the lines between the paranormal and the extraterrestrial. "Electric Fences," directed by Johnny Herbin, showed some of the strongest world-building of the night (drug addicts in the future have blue-tinged hands; robots, a bit like Saga, have TV's for heads), but had the characters and actors to match it. The heist-gone-wrong premise is reminiscent of Guy Ritchie's better films, pivoting from humor to tragedy in a single frame.
But I would be amiss to not acknowledge Saturday night's final film, "Reality+." Like a beautiful marriage of Black Mirror and the best Pixar shorts, the film plays out with insight, a little horror, and efficient symmetry, ending in one of the more satisfying narratives of the festival. The film achieves what, as writer Caleb Tardio claims, the best psychological science fiction does: uses genre as a palette to create an unfamiliar world, and slowly, after thoroughly disorienting the viewer, brings them face-to-face with the horrors and beauties of their own reality.
That night, leaving the Roxy Hotel, I found my earlier excitement alive and well, and even a bit of that current Abella had promised me.
Look, I'm not demanding that science fiction films, from January 20th, 2017 onward, all engage the political, racial, or gender-political, but if they don't, they better at least engage the psychological, with characters whose complexities outweigh that of their film's visuals. I, too, am a lover of time loops, of AI that blurs the line between human and machine, and of dystopian futures. But if artists are to take on these concepts they must do so in a way audiences have never seen before. Otherwise, it's got to be self-aware, hilarious, or character-driven.
In other words: the same rules apply to science fiction as to all other genres.
The inaugural New York Science-Fiction Film Festival marks a hopeful—though at times flawed—step in the right direction for science fiction in indie cinema. At its heart, like all stories, sci-fi should showcase an abundance of empathy, made particularly powerful by its ability to merge reality with the fantastic, and its outrage over mankind's refusal to see such connections in our day-to-day lives. The struggle to elevate sci-fi from mindless escapism to a genre capable of proactively engaging everyday life, either politically or psychologically, is one that has been present ever since it's conception. As Ursula K. Le Guin says in her collection of essays The Wave in the Mind, "People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons." Through science fiction, we must challenge our reality; not ignore it.
Bravo, New York Science-Fiction Film Festival. Like the ending of Children of Men, things looked grim for a moment, but you turned it around. Let's hope the next four years follow a similar plot.
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