Space Quest

Space Quest
Written by Bertie Gilbert

Two reviews of Space Quest on Letterboxd describe it as a piss take of Star Wars/Star Trek and the hype over their next films, the most anticipated of these being Star Wars: the Force Awakens (J. J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan), which Abrams has directed. And he deserves it. Looking back at Abrams’s Star Trek reboot films, Star Trek (Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman) and Star Trek Into Darkness (OrciKurtzman and Damon Lindelof), the story isn’t the strongest element, but Abrams directs them with a vision, almost like Star Wars: the Force Awakens test footage. Say what you will about the Alternate Reality – which I regularly criticise – but it’s not entirely Abrams’ fault.

A director might have creative authority over a film (apart from the producers), but what Abrams did was to not alter elements that clearly weren’t working, rather than create those faults himself. And yeah, those new films did cause a rift in the fanbase, and it’s for a good reason, but it shows that Abrams, when applied to something that already works on its own, can make it even cooler. Look no further than the final shot of the first Star Wars: the Force Awakens trailer. That shot on its own could be a whole trailer by itself.

To be honest, it looks more “realistic”, in the visual sense, than any of the other Star Wars films. That’s not just because of advances in digital technology, but because of the choices made in using it. Already, I’m sold on a franchise that didn’t really appeal to me before. I do like Star Wars, but the matte boxes and jump-cut/crossfade explosions were always a bit weird.

But I’m not going to judge a sci-fi film on its special effects – pulp appeals to some people. And, as someone who used to think Doctor Who was pretty neat – especially the Classic Series – I’ve come to see special effects as simply a story-telling mechanism. So Space Quest, then. And not the video game series, either.

Space Quest is a television series within the short film Space Quest, and is clearly an homage to Star Trek. And I do think it’s an homage. Why? Because making a film so accurate in spirit yet also with such a precisely-controlled Roger Corman-esque B-movie feel to what inspired it takes so much INSANE passion for that subject that dismissing it as a piss-take would be to accuse the film-maker of having instead an insane hatred.

There’s that shot of the door closing, which I guess was done through rota-scoping? And the simulated English dubbing of what’s supposed to look originally “foreign”. The reason genuine B-movies include these production methods is because of low budgets and unimaginative film-making. But with today’s access to technology, none of that comes-up unless done… deliberately.

There’s a myth that film-making is difficult. But it’s not. Making a film is easy. What’s difficult is making a good one.

And what takes even more skill is making a film resembling one that isn’t. A film so good it doesn’t look it. My previous review acknowledged the fun pulpiness of a film otherwise terrible – but the difference was, that was supposed to be good. Whereas Space Quest is a step-backwards to a more primitive style of film-making.

In an age of going forwards, going backwards requires more creative acrobatics than simply making a good film with special effects that aren’t laughable. So in creating special effects that recall cult sci-fi, when it’s easier to make them professional, they’ll actually not laughable at all. They’re applaudable. Abrams has been openly promoting his use of practical effects when making Star Wars: the Force Awakens, rather than digital effects.

One can only hope so. It makes “Episode VII” aesthetically consistent with its preceding instalments. Even though there’ll still be digital effects, simply because it’s more convenient in some places. Every mainstream film uses digital effects. Even genres that wouldn’t obviously seem to require digital effects use digital effects.

They’re shooting it on film, too. Actual film! Which means that Star Wars: the Force Awakens isn’t just called a “film”, but really is one. And I care about film more than digital, because it’s less convenient for shooting.

Yes, there’s a better picture quality, and every other reason you can find listed in Mark Kermode’s The Good, the bad and the Multiplex, but apart from that – it requires more care and precision. Which means, if a production’s using celluloid, it tells me the film-makers are of a certain mindset that ensures at least some immediate quality. There’s that question of – so if Space Quest didn’t emulate B-movies, would Space Quest be any good? But that’s question’s invalid.

Because, if Space Quest didn’t emulate B-movies, Space Quest would be pointless. I think. But that’s how I’ve read it. Just about every Bertie Gilbert film is about contrast in some way – contrast between the sane and the insane, contrast between one time period and another, and in some ways, contrast between between two ends of an infinite spectrum.

The contrast here is between digital and film, with digital being a bookend to the “main event”, like old cinema programmes that would present the feature with a shorter, less impressive piece, a… “B-movie”. And although the digital scenes are more presentable, ticking the boxes of YouTube’s video player, the Space Quest film itself is a better achievement because there was more to get right. It’s easy to reassure yourself with the knowledge that something can be added later, but it takes real balls to say “We’re doing it NOW!”. There’s a reason Gilbert’s considered the new Wes Anderson.

Anyway, point is – if these were two films, the Space Quest act in the middle is obviously the bigger achievement, because mimicking a specific style takes a certain kind of skill that requires a film-maker to go inside their own creativity and emerge on the other side having proven they can do minimal. And if I come out of Star Wars: the Force Awakens impressed with it, it’ll be because it looks like the Episode VII that should’ve already been released thirty years ago. The reason Star Trek Into Darkness is so controversial is because, even though it’s a good-looking film, it’s got “Star Trek” in the title, but doesn’t try to actually justify that on screen. And that’s the story here.

More reviews

Blue Sushi — single drama review

Blue Sushi
By Sammy Paul and Bertie Gilbert

Blue Sushi isn’t just about being transgendered.

The protagonist’s transgendered. And the story is developed from the effects of his decision to open up about this. But it’s not the issue here.

Something that Gilbert does really well is narrative catalysism; one subject being used as a conduit for something else. Think “Wes Anderson meets John Lasseter”. With most films, if you were to write a synopsis, the story would be triggered by [one thing] being combined with [another thing]. A protagonist + an antagonist –> synthesis. Blue Sushi is the that synthesis, from protagonist Scarlett and… the antagonist. So that’s what’s really going on here. Blue Sushi‘s actually about two things. This is probably only going to get more complicated.

So then – the antagonist. Rob. I’ve never really liked phrases like “antagonist”, because it belittles the character by eliminating complexity, but this is a Bertie Gilbert film, so I’m inevitably going to end-up talking about narrative theory. So for the purpose of this, I’m gonna say that Rob at least functions as the antagonist because he’s opposing the character whose point-of-view is telling the story.

Rob is Blue Sushi’s manager. Which means he tends to think about things economically, and tells Scarlett that he should wait a while before publicising that he’s transgender for “business” reasons. The problem is, he’s being nice about it. He’s putting-up a good argument, and is clearly not suggesting it to be phobic in any way. It just turns out that he underestimated the support of Blue Sushi’s fans, even though that goes without saying. You can’t blame a person for being a realist. He just wanted to protect Scarlett from what he knew could happen, and ultimately does happen. And yet, I’m still going to oppose his mentality purely on the basis of it not being his place to “strategise” a person’s gender. Scarlett says at the end that he felt as if Rob was suggesting that being transgender is a choice, even though he never actually “said” it. But that’s how Scarlett feels about it. And he’d know.

Scarlett chooses to publicise that he’s transgender via Twitter. And Twitter responds to it well. I can’t help but think of Caitlyn Jenner revealing her new “look” through the cover of Vanity Fair. And I use the word “look” because it’s the way Rob thinks about it. Even though it’s what’s inside that counts. A sentence so clichéd, I hate a part of myself for writing it. Luckily, Blue Sushi never actually says this. It’s not a patronising P.H.S.E. video. I H.A.T.E. those.

Blue Sushi gives us an insight into the way the media makes everything unrealistically simple, but also the way it can be used for good. About the façade of being the thing people know you to be. Rock stars aren’t really rock stars back stage. (Most) writers aren’t really melodramatic geniuses. I wouldn’t actually talk like this if you met me. Most of it’s just dick jokes and self-doubt. In reality, I don’t ramble on about things in the way I do here. Even if I do it brilliantly. That’s why you shouldn’t meet your heroes. They’re not the people they say they are. What you see of anyone is just surface. The part of themselves that they choose to show you for complex reasons that only they can explain.

Social media is used, chiefly, to amplify ourselves. I have this blog because I want people to read it. I want people to think that I’m an intellectual. I use it to promote the parts of myself that I like because it makes me think the things I hate about myself aren’t there any more. The world really is a stage, but it’s the one we make ourselves. We decide what our act is, and we perform it to forget about the things inside us we’re not ready to show people. And then we hope our inspirations will see it, even though they’re just as fake as we are. But ultimately, the majority of people don’t care if we are or aren’t what we purport to be. Which is why, maybe, we should spread our wings and live like we really are rock stars. Live off our wits and survive on instinct. Maybe we should all be worshipped, because then, nobody is.

Whatever Blue Sushi‘s about, it isn’t about being transgendered. So I suppose I should make a guess at what it is about.

This is probably only going to get more complicated. I’ll get back to you on that one.

Killed the Cat — review

Screenplay by Bertie Gilbert.

With Killed the Cat, I can now tell you that Bertie Gilbert is potentially the lovechild of Woody Allen and Wes Anderson. And that isn’t a bad thing. In fact, you only need to follow Gilbert’s tumblr. to see how much he loves Anderson. And, like Allen, Killed the Cat attempts to answer and solve the presence of life’s big questions with comedy.

We begin with three escaped mental hospital patients, and what follows is their journey through the town, intercut and complementing one of the patients’ anecdotes of the events that transpire. Like Cosmic Divide, it’s a manipulation of time and space, with what we see being determined by what we’re told, with information about the facility being revealed through the telling of the anecdote. And yet, unlike Cosmic Divide, it comes to twenty-minutes long, due to the number of characters and details that need to be revealed. It’s those details that make the story, with the patients’ thoughts and actions giving us an insight into how people think, how these characters think, how Gilbert thinks the characters think and how Gilbert himself thinks. That’s a big, complex web of thought there, but it’s true, and it’s those complexities and layers that make Killed the Cat an artistic success.

Ultimately, it ends on an interdetermined note. John goes for a (surprisingly sexy) clothed-swim in the sea, leaving his companion on a rock on the beach. The third member of the group decides to return to the facility, recalling what happened to the other escapees and why she decided to return. There are hints of her desire to leave throughout the journey, with her criticism of theft making her a hypocrite for later stealing something herself, only to then abandon it for no longer desiring it. She wanted to know how it felt to steal, but having done it ultimately didn’t feel as interesting as wanting to do it.

And yet, her context of it only called it theft because that’s what everyone else calls it. She preferred to think of it as just not paying for something, with other people exchanging items for money because that’s just what everyone else does. Which makes Killed the Cat an analogy. It even opens with the definition of “analogy” – “a comparison between two things, typically on the basis of their structure and for the purpose of explanation or clarification”. The telling of the story is an analogy of the story, while the story explains the meaning behind the reason the story’s being told. There’s lots of causation between each half, and it makes the literal journey a psychological journey, but both are of discovery. They discover what the real world is like, and whether it’s that interesting or not, and the conclusion she comes to is that it really isn’t, but discovers how society would view her as a result of her opinion of it, despite not actually considering herself to be of any fault. And so, that further ties-in to its status as an analogy for also telling us more about ourselves; just because most of us consider society to make sense, that doesn’t mean everyone thinks it does. But they’re not bad people for that, and yet, they should still be isolated from society. It’s an interesting ethical debate, and not something Killed the Cat gives you an answer to – it just lets you decide what to think yourself.

Also, the penultimate shot really made me laugh.

Killed the Cat – superb accomplishment, explorative without pretentiousness (8/10).

Cosmic Divide — review

Screenplay by Bertie Gilbert.

As a screenwriter, I care about narrative. Because narrative is everything. On the first day of Film Studies, I learnt that narrative is the manipulation of time and space to tell a story. Which is where we get Bertie Gilbert’s Cosmic Divide, a motion picture I should have seen by now.

Here’s the thing: Gilbert gets motion pictures. Looking at his filmography, he obviously understand how to make ideas work. Even if his earlier work is arguably inferior to his more recent releases (though that can be said of any artist), watching what he creates shows you that he has everything in his head, understands it all, and just has to make it real. With Cosmic Divide, we get an example of how storytelling should work. And that’s because it honours an unspoken rule: stories need pace. Not necessarily a fast pace, but a consistent pace. And what Cosmic Divide does is to take everything that’s happening, present it in a way that we can understand the characters, but compile that in as less time as possible without loss of information to the audience.

That’s a basic rule of editing, too – giving the audience everything they need to see in as short a space of time as possible, without eliminating the artistic value. When you watch Cosmic Divide, you can see he’s doing this, and it’s clever. But what you don’t know is that this idea is being exploited. The twist ending looks so obvious watching it back, yet experiencing it for the first time doesn’t have this advantage. Again: that’s because the final scene gives extra information that alters what’s come before. Only, it does that by tying the two main threads together. The narrative functions with two things happening, and we switch between them, the diegetic narration being the only connection. Narration on its own can often be used as writers’ short hand when information could be shown visually but isn’t. Here, we get narration happening within the story as dialogue, just edited to become narration – an example of contracting sensory information without lossage. It’s not important to see the character recalling his story, all we need to know is that he’s doing it. And we do know that because of the sound quality as a result of using a telephone.

So these two strands are happening apparently exclusive of each other. Gilbert walks through London at night solemnly, intercut with him at home waiting for something. It’s effective because we don’t know what comes first. Is he clearing his head after the event he was anticipating, or is he on his way to it, and what we’re seeing takes place later that night? You don’t know. But we’re not meant to know. The execution of whatever happens is intentionally ambiguous, but its minimalism is what keeps you watching – it knows how vague it’s being, and all you need to do is just keep watching.

And you do keep watching. And ultimately, what the ending reveals probably wasn’t supposed to have already been known. But in so simple an exchange of shots, with costume becoming significant, everything you’ve just seen makes sense. It’s the kind of thing that Christopher Nolan accomplished with Inception, and Gilbert’s doing it here, just on a smaller scale that’s more personal.

Lev Kuleshov once made a point that audiences will assume shots are connected if placed together, and it’s always fun to see artists experiment with established conventions.

If you haven’t seen Gilbert’s pieces, the link to his channel’s on the video page.

Cosmic Divide – impressive, experimental manipulation of narrative. 8/10