Filmism.net Dispatch July 5, 2022

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A bit of a part two from my thoughts awhile back, which if you remember were about whether movies matter anymore.

I came to the conclusion back then that they don't as much as they did in my day, and it was only because they were the sole prestige art form in the world for myself and my peers before the days of Playstations, TikTok and the myriad other media that are doing a much better job marketing themselves to a new generation.

In this Filmism.net dispatch, I want to talk about just how deeply movies mattered once upon a time. In some cases they literally built the world.

If you're an entertainment geek you know how the inventor of the mobile phone, Martin Cooper of Motorola, was inspired by the communicator technology in TV's Star Trek. Now, one source source online claims that urban legend is false because Cooper and his team were working on mobile communications technology from before Star Trek was ever on TV.

But there's two things about that. First, one should never let facts get in the way of a good story (in fact another Star Trek myth, that of the origin of the word 'sabotage' in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, isn't quite true either).

Second, it's hard not to imagine that one of the most popular form factors for the mobile phone years hence, the flip phone, wasn't in part related to what some anonymous prop designer did at Paramount back in the mid 60s.

Now maybe it's just because such a shape and form was easiest for both Starfleet officers and millions of real people to carry and use, as if the way human arm and hand musculature works almost directed the most obvious design for hands and pockets.

Or did it end up that way because entertainment had already inspired, maybe even dictated it? We simply can't discount the power entertainment culture has over every other area of life.

Remember when scientists discovered an entire new genus of hominin in 2004 in Indonesia, homo floresiensis? It was short, so we collectively called it 'The Hobbit' because Peter Jackson's magnum opus film trilogy cast a big shadow over our culture at the time.

And remember what a big deal the memory-arranging sequence in Minority Report was? John Anderton (Tom Cruise) used gloves with a wireless interface to control images and video clips on a huge screen that were taken directly from the brains of the precogs.

He swiped, pointed, expanded, rotated, zoomed and discarded as he put together the story of the murder he was investigating, and it was a very cool, very cinematic way to interact with digital media. That was in 2002, and the iPhone, which took the older technology of the touchscreen and embedded it deeply in society, came out in 2007.

During Minority Report's preproduction, Steven Spielberg paid a bunch of technologists and futurists to sit in a hotel room in Santa Monica for three days and not come out until they had some informed ideas of what the year 2054 would look like when it came to transport, privacy, technology and policing. A handful of years later Apple gave us all a new physical language with which to use consumer technology. Coincidence?

I've also lost count of the number of scientists and technologists I've been lucky to interview as a reporter who talk about being inspired to pursue their line of work by loving Buck Rogers, Philip K Dick, Flash Gordon, Ray Bradbury, Star Wars, Richard Matheson or (yes, terrifyingly they're old enough now to be professional scientists) 1997's Contact.

Herbie might have inspired autonomous vehicles. Digital advertising billboards first showed up in 2019... in 1982's Blade Runner. Star Wars popularised 3D holograms. Mindful the 2015 of Back to the Future Part II was approaching, someone made it their business to invent a real hoverboard. Dick Tracy had a smart watch long before Apple, and that was in the comic, long before even the 1990 movie.

In fact at a certain point science and the technology industry started making formal overtures to the arts in order to inspire and innovate, as I once investigated in a media article.

And it goes for more than just technology. Movies used to be the epitome of cool in every area and (albeit to a far lesser extent) in some ways they still are. They established and disseminated what was trendy throughout youth society.

Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, the producers who owned the 80s (Flashdance, Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, Crimson Tide) considered that to be their job more than anything else. In Hollywood it was a more important currency than cash, cocaine or hookers.

In the case of Top Gun, the US Navy and Air Force reported that it had never enjoyed an influx of so many applicants until the success of the 1986 flick, a million Gen X boys hoping they might one day be as skilled and confident as Maverick and get a girlfriend as hot as civilian flight instructor Charlie (Kelly McGillis).

V for Vendetta partly inspired the online movement Anonymous, who appropriated the visage of the rebellious masked character to be its own public face. After Fight Club, real fight clubs sprung up everywhere.

Oliver Stone's JFK made such an impact in the zeitgeist the US government enacted a new law collecting and releasing all the records associated with the assassination in an attempt to be more transparent.

Deep Throat was the first major step in making pornography accepted in mainstream society. It was said recreational hunting across the USA declined by up to 50 percent after Bambi came out. Jaws makes us afraid to go in the water (with little reason - ask any ichthyologist) half a century later.

And that doesn't include the fleeting trends in fashion and music that come and go with movies and cinematic areas. We still equate braces and slicked back hair with Wall Street, shoulder pads with Working Girl, leg warners with Jane Fonda's workout video empire, the gingham dress with The Wizard of Oz, Ray Bans with Risky Business and the chunky jewellery, mussed up bleached hair and overly busy look with Desperately Seeking Susan.

In at least one case, a movie didn't just spot a nascent youth movement and popularise it for a generation who went on to emulate it, it literally created it out of a vacuum. British Journalist Nik Cohn convinced New York Magazine editor Clay Felker to let him write a feature about what the ballooning craze for disco looked like in New York City in the mid-seventies.

Called Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night, it was about a young Italian American man, Vincent, whose entire week revolved around weekly trips to his local Brooklyn discotheque where he reigned supreme as a dancer and ladies’ man, all of it a way to self-actualise and assert his worth because of limited opportunity in his depressed socioeconomic circumstances and community.

The rights were bought by Paramount, it was made into Saturday Night Fever and the rest is history. It catapulted the already-popular disco style into the musical stratosphere, made megastars out of John Travolta and The Bee Gees and generated the subculture of disco with its fashions, attitudes to sex and gender and everything else around the world.

...and then, years later, Cohn admitted it was all completely made up.

Having newly arrived from the UK he knew nothing about the street life of Brooklyn he claimed to be cataloguing so intimately. There was no Vincent (the supposed hero of the story and Tony Manero's progenitor). Cohn modelled his hero off a confident looking guy he saw watching the entrance to a Brooklyn discotheque the night he went to do his research.

Cohn then didn't even venture into the discotheque he described. Some drunk kids were fighting outside and when one of them collapsed near the writer and threw up on his leg, so he got straight back in a cab and returned to Manhattan. And, taken though Cohn was by the guy's apparent quiet wisdom, he never saw him again.

The fact that we all appropriated and loved the clothes, the way of life and the music from a completely fictional piece of art is no more harmful than the generation of young men in Hong Kong who took to wearing trench coats and chewing matchsticks after Chow Yun Fat became so hot in John Woo's films Hard Boiled and A Better Tomorrow.

But it's just one more stark example of how much movies make (or used to make) the world in their image. It was a time where, as I tried to contend last time we talked about this, movies truly mattered.

On screens lately, three films, none of which were admittedly very good, but which represented three such distinct film movements they made an interesting triple bill.

The first is The Shiver of the Vampires, a 70s throwback to the very groovy, luridly coloured, politically liberal mood-over-substance films that the vanguard figures of the hippie movements gave us.

Next up was When Marnie Was There. It's one of Studio Ghibli's narratively least successful movies because the explanation and denouement of the story gets a little bit muddy, but it portrays nature, water, landscapes and even cars and houses with such unique tactility you feel like you could reach through the screen and live there.

And lastly is Squirm, a Canadian exploitation shlock horror movie from the mid 70s, destined straight for the grindhouse and later the video nasty circuit, the acting as overripe as the effects. And yes, it's about mutated worms that eat human flesh.

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