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||December 8, 1999
'THE FUTURE IS NOW': HIT REWIND
By ROGER ANDERSON Scripps Howard News Service
Welcome to the future. Please don't be confused by the biplanes, drag racers, Harley-Davidson and talking apes.
Well, OK, you got us. This isn't the real future - it's the future, or futures, that filmmakers have been proposing almost since the birth of the movies.
Technology, according to David Schwartz of the American Museum of the Moving Image in New York, is what futuristic films are all about. That's one reason he and his crew have put together a series called "The Future Is Now," which kicks off Saturday (Dec. 11) and runs through Jan. 2, coinciding with the turn of the millennium.
(Futurism fans not fortunate enough to be in New York during that period will be happy to know that most of the movies are readily obtainable on video.)
"Film is, first and foremost, a technological medium," Schwartz says. "It's a technology you can use to take an imagined world and make it palpable, make it look real.
“One theme we wanted to explore here is how humans interact with technology, and that's what most of these films do.
“The movies in the series range from the scary to the comic; we've got beautiful stuff like 'Metropolis' and fun films like Woody Allen's 'Sleeper.'"
No matter whether a film is set in 2000 ("Metropolis," 1927; "Death Race 2000," 1975) or 2013 ("Blade Runner," 1982) or as far afield as the 22nd century ("Sleeper," 1973), Schwarz points out, "they're all really about their own time."
That's why Fritz Lang's vision of the future, 'Metropolis,' features biplanes soaring high above the film's urban canyons. That's also why the "Death Race" scenario involves cheesy-looking drag racers mowing down pedestrians in a bloodthirsty game show.
Terry Gilliam's super-rococo "Brazil" (1986), of course, purposely posits a future world that contains every imaginable piece of retread retro-junk.
Every theory of film, however, gets stood on its head by the talking simians in "Planet of the Apes." But look at it this way; if Charlton Heston can speak English, why not a bunch of monkeys?
Nor is the future going to be short on glum-looking Raymond Chandler-style gumshoes filled with existential dread, according to films like "Alphavllle" (1965) and "Blade Runner.”
"'Blade Runner’ is really one of the great movie masterpieces that look to the future," Schwartz says. "It's very different from a film like '2001: A Space Odyssey,' which was unavailable for the series. While '2001' is very spare and austere, 'Blade Runner' is filled with the hustle and bustle of a great city."
If nothing else, some of the futures projected by filmmakers are visually splendid. Everyone knows that the story of "Blade Runner" amounts to very little, yet filmmakers, critics and fans are almost unanimous in deeming its gloomy, multi-layered urban atmosphere one of the great triumphs of art direction and cinematography.
Same goes, of course, for "Metropolis," which Lang dreamed up after meditating on the New York City skyline of the Jazz Age.
"And 'Things to Come,'" says Schwartz, with reference to William Cameron Menzies' 1936 adaptation of H.G. Wells' work, "is a futurized version of the Art Deco style. When you see it, you can't help but think 1930s."
French New Wave film gods Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut entered the futurism sweepstakes with "Alphaville" and "Fahrenheit 451" (1966), respectively. While the Truffaut film is based on a Ray Bradbury tale about book-burning in a future age, Schwartz says that's not the film's true appeal.
"It's a beautiful look," he says, "a film where the look is the main thing."
Another element filmmakers envision in the world of the future is carnage, and lots of it. "Mad Max" (1979), "Death Race 2000," "Demolition Man" (1993). and "Blade Runner" have, in the aggregate, more body parts per film frame than most action movies. But sometimes the horror is expressed in a less obvious way.
"One of the great things about 'Brazil' is that all the trouble starts with a little bureaucratic error - a misspelled name," Schwartz says. "That's in spite of all the advanced technology and social engineering. It's still the little things that go wrong."
Roger Anderson is arts and entertainment editor at Scripps Howard News
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