Tuesday, March 27, 2018

My Love of 1950s Sci-Fi. Why?

For a few days I've been participating in a really fun discussion on a forum of fellow musicians that focuses on 1950s Science Fiction films.  I was kind of amazed how many folks there love these as much as I do.  And not just older guys either.  Many younger ones who discovered them a while back, or even more recently, via TV and cable.

After several pages of discussion on each of our favorites -- many of which were shared -- one member new to the conversation asked about the thus far unmentioned Japanese sci-fi.  Films such as 1954's Godzilla.

One or two forum members said they liked those films, most had nothing to say.  I said I wasn't a huge fan, but had no idea why.

As is my want that got me thinking.  Is there a "why"?   And the answer is yes.  Here is what, after some thought, I concluded:

Sci-fi films of the fifties were in several ways much like another motion picture genre:  The American western.  Both were entirely products of the American culture of the time -- and for both genres that was a big part of their appeal.

Both westerns and sci-fi typically focused on situations of public risk, and then found the answer in the actions of an individual, often an outsider -- one who was generally viewed as unimportant and sometimes even looked down upon.

In the western genre such were Shane, the gunfighter who enters a community by chance, acts on principle beyond self, and saves that community from an 'alien' force -- he then moves on. Or Will  Kane in High Noon -- an older, retiring, lawman who is himself threatened by a murderous 'alien' force -- and then, after years of serving the town, finds himself totally alone, with everyone else in denial, thinking that the danger is his alone and one from which he should simply flee.  Kane, too, saves the town. Then he moves on.

Fifties sci-fi in much like that.  The "hero" is typically a nobody -- a teenager from outside the 'in group' -- such as "Steve," played by Steve McQueen, in 1958's  The Blob. Or the quiet geologist in "The Monolith Monsters."

Each of these become aware of the threat and takes charge, first for the care of an early victim of the 'monster', (an old man in The Blob, a little school girl in the Monolith Monsters), then for the entire town when the authorities -- the police (The Blob) or the state's governor (The Monolith Monsters) -- gets tied up with 'more important' things.

There have been popular westerns and sci-fi made elsewhere. Sergio Leone's westerns, The Man With No Name trilogy for instance, and sci-fi such as those popular 1950s Japanese monster films (of which Godzilla is just one).  These films have much to recommend them of an for themselves, but they are  very different from what American fifties westerns and sci-fi films culturally represented. Indeed -- and interestingly -- they are in many ways much more akin to what today's society has become.  Places where individuals are at best anti-heroes.  -Where communal salvation comes -- if it comes at all --  not so much from an average individual putting himself on the line, but from the top down -- the work of government agencies and the like. Or some magically empowered "super hero." A world where everyday men and women are basically seen as victims; as mere fodder, grist for the mill.

Much that has filled the news of late has been just this:  The cry for someone -- not meaning some individual, but government -- to "do something." To remove the threats. Yes, and people's fears.

How interesting it was, then, for me to see how, even unrealized, there was in my pre-teen years a strong attachment to that old, and to some, outdated, American ideal. A way of viewing life mythologized in these film forms that focused on an individual acting with conscience and strength. On this being central to a community's well-being.

Yeah, I'm old school.  And that in part explains why I'd often prefer to fill a Sunday afternoon with these old sci-fi films than the modern variety -- those where the focus in on wowing the film viewer with special effects and emphasizing how close we all are to death and destruction -- unless "somebody (else) does something."


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