A Fireside Chat: Ghost’s A-Z Part One

altered-states-1980A is for… ALTERED STATES. I remember being intrigued by ALTERED STATES way, way back, when it first came out and John Brosnan wrote a glowing review of the film in Starburst, comparing it to 2001:A SPACE ODYSSEY, which was a comment that hit me square between the eyes. Now, Brosnan was a picky guy with his movies and if he liked a film then it was a film worth seeing. At the time his views could be annoying to me as his opinions didn’t always gel with mine, but hell, what did I know? I was a kid back then and a sucker for the marketing boys. Remembering Brosnan’s regular column in Starburst, I find I greatly miss Brosnans views and baiting of Trekkies and Star Wars fans. In hindsight, his was an independent voice,  a critic who held his own views irrespective of the marketing departments and mass opinion. He died several years ago. Turns out he was a depressive who drank too much (which killed him in the end, apparently), but I’m open to being corrected on that if anyone reading this knows better. I’d love to be reading his reviews of the films being made today, they would piss him off no end, I’m sure.

So anyway, he wrote great things of ALTERED STATES. It would be years until I eventually saw the film. I bought it on VHS, in the dim, very early days of the sell-through market- it may even have been an ex-rental copy. I remember not knowing what to make of it at the time. It was pretty strange and no doubt the film lost much of its impact on the small-screen, but I liked it. It seemed like a very ‘grown-up’ movie, and the acting was high quality, unlike most genre films. I recall it was one of those few films in which the scientists seemed to talk and act like ‘real’ scientists, you know, slightly off-kilter and other-worldly, in which the real-world seemed a distraction from their research.  I watched the film again on DVD a few years ago and found it still quite rewarding, albeit inevitably slightly dated.  Thinking about it now, and loathed as I am about remakes, I must admit that with today’s tech and done with IMAX  in mind, perhaps even (shudder) in 3D, a remake of ALTERED STATES could be quite extraordinary.

Blade_Runner_quad_movie_poster_lB is for… BLADE RUNNER. Well, of course it is. Thinking back about John Brosnan, reminds me of his review of BLADE RUNNER in Starburst- I remember the opening of that review well; “Blade Runner is a masterpiece, much to my surprise“. This was back in the days when the film was ill-received and proved a massive box-office failure. Unless you were around in 1982, you cannot understand how it was back then regards BLADE RUNNER. It was the very definition of cult. I used to read Brosnan’s  review over and over again. Man, I’d love to be able to buy Brosnan a drink for that review and chat about it (which considering how things turned out for him wouldn’t,  perhaps, be such a good idea, but the sentiment is there, anyway).

Funnily enough, in my office at work I’m now the oldest guy there and I’m surrounded by young turks who weren’t even born back in 1982 . Its a sobering experience, and I lent one of them a DVD copy of BLADE RUNNER (“part of my ‘education'” as he put it, teasing me). The film rather confused him as it turned out. Certainly to this generation BLADE RUNNER fails to have the impact it did back then.  My mate Andy lent a copy to one of his own younger friends awhile ago and she described the film as being “nice”, which is about as damning an assessment as I can imagine. Its like the world is slowly going mad.

close-encounters-of-the-third-kind-styleC is for… CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. Which brings me to CE3K. At work the other day one of the lads was looking up travelling times online and Google Maps slipped over to a map of the USA, and I noticed the state of Wyoming there. “Devils Tower,” I commented, pointing at that place on the map. To which bemused puzzlement was the office response. What the hell was I going on about? “Lord of The Rings?” one of them asked. “Close Encounters,” I replied. Incredibly, even more puzzled frowns. Turns out none of them had even heard of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS. Incredulous, I suspected they were winding me up, but it was true, none of them had seen the film, or even heard of it.  It was like I’d slipped into some alternate universe or an episode of The Twilight Zone. Now I finally realised I really am growing old.

I remember the impact of CE3K back when it came out, in those heady post-STAR WARS days. I guess Spielberg couldn’t believe his bad luck having his mate George steal his thunder, and one can only imagine a world where CE3K was released onto an unsuspecting world that hadn’t been wowed by STAR WARS several months before (I wonder at the impact of those Douglas Trumbull effects had audiences not seen the blue-screen wonders of ILM before). I remember the social impact of the film back then, how its five-note ‘tune’ that represented the conversation between us and the aliens permeated pop culture so. Its incredible to consider that there are people now that have never even heard of the film. Maybe pop-culture is all just fluff and nonsense. Being a movie buff, its natural to think some movies live forever but I guess even the greatest of films can have their fame and impact diluted by future generations of audiences and film-makers, but really, I’m living in a world wherein some people have never heard of CE3K, and that’s somehow an oddly disconcerting thought.



7 thoughts on “A Fireside Chat: Ghost’s A-Z Part One

  1. Matthew McKinnon again

    Great stuff; did you get hold of the Cinefex about ‘Altered States’? The article is amazingly frank about the making of the film: no-one, it seems, came away unscathed, and yet it’s fabulous. I’m a bit unhappy with the colour alterations on the blu-ray, they’ve cooled the palette right down to make it look more contemporary. Hmmm.

    It is a bit sobering to reminisce mistily to younger colleagues about the classics, only to look up and see their blank, glazed expressions.

    A few years back my wife was working at an investment bank and mentioned ‘Back To The Future’ (not a film I’d put in the same class as your A, B and C, but you know what I mean) to one of the young accountants, and he’d never heard of it. She naturally said ‘You’re joking?’, and he said ‘No, I don’t watch old films.’ We’re not talking ‘Citizen Kane’ or ‘Casablanca’ here, we’re talking about a film from 1985. Jesus. That explains the market for remakes, as far as I’m concerned.

    Looking forward to D & onwards.

    1. Cheers Matt. That Cinefex about Altered States must have been one of the very early issues? You must have quite a collection! No, I never got hold of it; back when the Cinefex first came out it was too expensive for me and by the time I could afford it the back issues were even more expensive. You did well to get hold of them. I did manage to buy back issues of Cinefantastique when I could. I always thought hardback reprints of Cinefex in book form would have been a great idea and very popular (the Titan books reprint of the Blade Runner issue seemed a great success). Maybe a Cinefex Vol 1 containing issues 1-4 with Vol 2 containing issues 5-8. Would have been great. Expensive maybe, but great on the bookshelf!

      At its best CInefex was more about the making of the whole film rather than just the effects themselves, and were often quite candid. A friend photocopied me his copies of issues one and two, the pictures were in lousy b&w and fuzzy as hell but the text was full of fascinating stuff. Cinefantastique in its heyday was just the same. No-one writes in depth stuff about movies like that anymore, and the best video docs in the world don’t quite cut it (except maybe that epic Dangerous Days doc on the Blade Runner set).

      As for someone who never heard of Back to the Future- in what hole had they been living? Its funny how films seem such a big part of our culture, love ’em or loathe ’em, surely everyone should be at least aware of them? Some of those Hollywood marketing boys aren’t doing their job properly!

      1. The perplexing thing is, I could forgive it if the films in question were 1940s or 1950s films (maybe something like THIS ISLAND EARTH), but CE3K or B2TF aren’t even all that old. Perhaps our pop culture has become too disposable. When I was growing up I loved watching the old classics, they informed what was being done in the ‘new’ films. Mind, there wasn’t so many remakes back then. Why bother watching the original TOTAL RECALL if there is a shiny new one with sexy cg eye candy (and the assumption ‘well I’ve seen one, I’ve practically seen the other’). Are filmmakers so blinkered too? Its depressing. I don’t feel old so much as surrounded by ignorance.

  2. The world can be a depressing place when it comes to what Young People have heard of. My generation can be quite shaming… but then every once in a while, I remember we’re not even the youngest ‘grown ups’ any more.

    It’s interesting about Close Encounters, though: it’s one of those films that was always mentioned/on TV/etc when I was younger, but I feel doesn’t come up as much any more. Maybe it’s the ’70s have become that bit too distant, because I was trying to think of other such examples and the first thing that came to mind was The Godfather.

    The fact there’s now people who haven’t even heard of Back to the Future is perhaps even bleaker. Close Encounters is a ‘serious’ movie, I can see why young blockbuster-lovers wouldn’t engage with it, but Back to the Future is pure fun. I wonder if those same people would have heard of Indiana Jones? Considering the fourth one and the fact the BBC still happily show them in primetime slots on BBC1, I imagine they probably have. Same with Star Wars, obviously.

  3. There’s a lot of discussion at the moment [particularly in music circles] about the current climate of ‘retromania’*. The adverse effects of this is music are thought to be that the unprecedented availability of old and obscure music through rereleases, MP3s, YouTube means that the forward momentum of music [wherein new things like punk and hip-hop and acid house etc would periodically appear, bursting onto the scene from nowhere and changing popular music] has stalled, and we’re swimming around in a timeless lake of old music and new-music-that-sounds-like-old-music. I certainly subscribe to this theory.

    But something different seems to have happened with film culture…

    Things have changed dramatically since we were kids, in that with the advent of home video [and now digital culture] things just don’t disappear like they used to. More and more, it seems that things live on forever, and are available at all times [much the same as with music].

    There’s a degree of retromania in the films of Tarantino, as well, since he endlessly pilfers from obscure and interesting film-makers; but he’s pretty much an exception to the rule, in that it’s a rarity for current films to reference really good older ones: the things that live on forever now, it seems, are the big studio properties like SF franchises. It would have been unthinkable in our childhood that we’d still be watching sequels etc to a movie from 1940 or 1950, but the climate is such that that’s where we are.

    I think the fact that we have so many remakes at the moment is, yes, laziness and creative bankruptcy, but also a symptom of the fact that young audiences know these titles from ‘long ago’ [Nightmare on Elm St, Total Recall, Robocop, Tron] even if they haven’t seen them; so they’re a recognisable brand, just as Star Wars is. Thus they’re a safer bet for studios to remake and remarket. But it’s down to the fact that kids already know them by name because of their apparently infinite shelf-life on home video that they that happens.

    Getting – finally – to my point: CE3K does seem to be, as you said, a really weird freak occurrence, in that it’s dropped off the map. It’s still out there, getting decent home video releases with every new format, and Spielberg seems fond of, if still a bit perplexed by it. But it rarely gets discussed, and it’s now become something of a cult film. It just didn’t quite make it through the 80s: maybe ET eclipsed it completely as The Spielberg Alien Film? Maybe people grew tired of the Spielberg/Amblin schmaltz that followed, and CE3K bore the brunt of that, damaging its reputation? Who knows? It’s a weird one.

    *Simon Reynolds’ book ‘Retromania’ is the key text.

    1. Hadn’t occurred to me the part that ET may have played in putting CE3K out of the limelight. I’m sure there is some truth to it. ET was huge back in 1982, it had a cultural impact similar to that of STAR WARS.

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