Saturday, March 22, 2014

Mars Movies at ConDor, 3/21/14

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I returned home after the last ConDor science-fiction convention panel before the 6 p.m. dinner hour, raced to put a meal together and then headed back to the ConDor (I think that’s the nomenclature they’re using) for a program by Gerry Williams of short films about the moon and Mars. Charles and I arrived late and missed the first film, a 1910 Thomas A. Edison short called A Trip to Mars that is reportedly the first movie ever made about a journey to the Red Planet, but we walked in (after a comedy of errors getting there — we missed the #6 bus by minutes and rented a Car2Go) and got to see most of what turned out to be the best film on the program, or at least on the portion of it we saw. This was a 1930 Oswald the Rabbit cartoon called Up to Mars, in which Oswald and his sidekick (the typical hefty Bluto-ish type, sort of Hardy to Oswald’s Laurel) hang out in a movie theatre and watch newsreels of prize-winning balloon flights. Naturally they’re inspired to try it out themselves, and they end up on Mars, where an even more Bluto-ish ruler holds forth and their idea of “sport” is firing guns at random (the National Rifle Association’s wet dream!). Oswald the character had a convoluted history; he was originally produced by Walt Disney and designed by Disney’s assistant Ub Iwerks, only a contract dispute with Charles Mintz, the middleman between Disney and the releasing company, Universal, cost Disney control of the character and he ended up in the hands of Walter Lantz, later the creator of Woody Woodpecker. (Having lost the rabbit, Disney had Iwerks create a different character who, though nominally of another species, looked remarkably like Oswald the Rabbit: Mickey Mouse. Still later, Iwerks temporarily left Disney to set up on his own and created a character called Flip the Frog, who looked remarkably like Oswald and Mickey despite the dramatic differences in the real-world appearances of rabbits, mice and frogs.) This was a Lantz-era Oswald from 1930 and was animated with dazzling creativity, far removed from the photo-realism Disney was already insisting on in 1930, and though the ending was a typical it-was-all-a-dream cop-out the film was otherwise quite brilliant and very engaging and funny (and Lantz’s creative use of sound was on a par with Disney’s).

Afterwards they showed Haredevil Hare, a Bugs Bunny cartoon from 1948 with Bugs foiling an attempt by a Martian (who looks like a little green version of a Roman centurion) to use the moon as a base from which to fire a giant ray cannon which will destroy Earth, as well as some other cartoons that put familiar characters in space-travel settings: Popeye: The Ace of Space, Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century (a Daffy Duck cartoon in which he’s a spectacularly incompetent astronaut continually saved by his young sidekick, Porky Pig) and a truly bizarre 1956 propaganda film from the American Petroleum Institute called Destination Earth. In this one, an astronaut is sent out by Ogg, the absolute ruler of Mars (who’s created a personality cult of such depth and breadth Stalin and Hitler would have blushed), to explore Earth, and he finds that whereas Mars has only one motor vehicle — Ogg’s personal limousine — and it barely moves at all, Earth has millions of them and they’re all powered by gasoline, derived from petroleum, extracted from the earth by hundreds of competing oil companies. The film is as much propaganda for capitalism as it is for petroleum, and even as such it’s a relic; as I’ve noted in these pages before, Ayn Rand had already published The Fountainhead and was writing Atlas Shrugged, and she was (as far as I know) the first intellectual defender of capitalism who did not posit competition as one of its virtues. Given how relentlessly the world’s largest corporations are combining with or acquiring each other, it’s clear that someone making a movie with this agenda today would not be hailing competition — quite the opposite; they’d probably be emphasizing the sheer beauty of size and how the bigger the corporation is, the more effectively it can serve consumers and lower prices. (Of course, the opposite is true; in actually existing capitalism, the more consolidated an industry becomes, the less it innovates, the worse its customer service gets and the higher its prices go.)

Alas, the quality of the films dropped dramatically as it moved from these old cartoons to more recent independent productions (many of them student films) whose view of the future in general and space travel in particular is considerably less benign than the one presented in the oldies; among the movies included are Horses on Mars, which appeared to be a student filmmaker’s attempt to do their own Solaris; and Last Flight, which appeared to be an attempt to do the old lost-in-Death-Valley trope on Mars, with the added kicker that the astronaut (a woman) is not only running out of oxygen but hearing radio reports from Earth that a catastrophe is befalling her home planet and billions of people are dying. The final one — at least the last one we actually saw before Charles and I raced out of the room to catch the last bus home — was Viaje a Marte, an Argentinian film (Spanish, unsubtitled, but not hard to figure out) about a young boy who watches an Argentinian sci-fi series called Viaje a Marte on TV and either dreams his way into a Martian adventure or actually gets driven there by his dad in an old pickup truck — and there was an it-was-all-a-dream ending to this one, too, though the “dream” involved the boy growing up and returning to Mars, checking out the hamburger stand on Mars he’d bought a helmet from on his first trip, and the film ended uncertainly. It was O.K. and a needed lift after the direness of Last Flight but it wasn’t exactly a major “up” either!