Friday 23 September 2022

Clash of the Cinema Titans (1972)

This blog post is the fiftteenth in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.

The early 1970s saw a flourishing of SFF cinema. In 1971 alone, Jim McBride’s X-rated Glen and Randa scandalized audiences with post-apocalyptic sex scenes, and garnered critical love along the way. Boris Sagal threw Charleton Heston to the vampires in the blockbuster The Omega Man. And Josef Pinkava offered audiences a whimsical tale of children with a magical computer in The Wishing Machine. But these films were up against long odds to make the Hugo shortlist. 

The shortlist in 1972 may have provided the most star-studded Best Dramatic Presentation ballot the awards have ever seen. 

The movies on that shortlist were directed by a cavalcade of what are now household names for many: George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Robert Wise, and Stanley Kubrick. Between these four people, there’s a total of 46 Academy Award nominations and $23 billion in box office receipts.
George Lucas and Steven Spielberg in the 1970s.
Long before they were beloved by millions of 
moviegoers, science fiction fandom embraced
the works of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
The Hugos gave each of them their first award nods
for feature films.
(Image via Reddit)

Each of these directors moved the art of moviemaking forwards and made extraordinary contributions to science fiction cinema … but to be blunt, none of them produced their best work in 1971.

Despite the Hugo ceremony taking place in downtown Los Angeles, none of the finalists made an appearance at the awards. In fact, none of them even bothered to send someone to pick up the award, with local fan Bill Warren acting as the acceptor.

Four movies made the ballot — and a second Firesign Theatre album. Only Bozos On This Bus loosely continues the story started in the previous year’s comedy album, which may make it the first instance in which a work and its sequel were both shortlisted for a Hugo. It probably would have been near the bottom of most of our ballots though. 

More interestingly, an little-remembered television movie L.A. 2017 did make the ballot.

Just 24 years old at the time, Steven Spielberg was taking short-term television gigs while trying to break into feature film work. He’d had a rocky start with poorly-received work on Rod Sterling’s Night Gallery and on Marcus Welby, M.D., when he had the opportunity to direct a one-off science fiction TV movie for an anthology show about journalists in Los Angeles. The result, L.A. 2017, is a surprising inclusion on the Hugo ballot.

Shot for a paltry $375,000, and with a script by Philip Wylie (author of When Worlds Collide and
Poster for City of Stars
The real Los Angeles of 2017 turned out to be far
more dystopian than even Steven Spielberg had
imagined in his first feature-length movie L.A. 2017.
(Image via IndieWire)
Gladiator), L.A. 2017 is an uneven work at best. The parable about a fascist future United States living underground to hide from pollution is heavy handed, most of the acting is hammy, and the ending is an appalling cop out. But having watched a number of other television movies of the time during our voyage through Hugo history, we were struck at how much livelier the directing was. It’s clear that Spielberg was head and shoulders above most of his peers directing television in the early 1970s, conveying more through effective framing and camera movement.

Although not well remembered, L.A. 2017 is of significant historical value as it opened doors for the young Spielberg. It’s also interesting to note that this nomination means that the Hugo Awards can boast of being the first major award to have shortlisted Stephen Spielberg.

Just two years older than Spielberg, George Lucas was somewhat more established in Hollywood. Fresh off filming the disastrous Altamont Music Festival for the Maysles brothers’ documentary Gimme Shelter, Lucas was given his first chance to direct a feature film through a partnership with more-established filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola.

Intended to launch a new studio, THX-1138 was shot on a modest budget of slightly under $1 million — by comparison Marooned, which was released little more than a year earlier, had cost ten times that amount. Lucas does an extraordinary amount on that small budget, creating a world that is evocative, cold, and sterile to tell a story about rebellion and a search for emotional connection.

Although this may be one of George Lucas’ most visually compelling movies, the plot (which is essentially an unacknowledged adaptation of Brave New World) is mostly unengaging. The coldness of the setting leaks into the dialogue, leaving little for an audience to engage with.
Shockingly, the guy who would go on to write 
screenplays for The Radioland Murders and
Strange Magic wrote some clunky dialogue
in the movie THX-1138.
(Image via Lucasfilm)

Interestingly, the Hugo nomination for THX-1138 was also George Lucas’ first major award nomination for a feature film (a short version of the film had received a nod at the Oberhausen Short Film Festival in 1968.)

In 1972, Robert Wise was a Hollywood icon at the height of his career. He’d won Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture twice (1961 West Side Story, 1965 Sound of Music). After Universal had won the bidding war over Michael Crichton’s breakout novel The Andromeda Strain, Wise was brought onboard to bring a sense of respectability to a script that might otherwise have been seen as another cookie-cutter disaster movie. Andromeda Strain covers a four-day period after a pathogen arrives from space, and concerns itself with the scientific team attempting to contain the disease.

While it may not deliver high-octane thrills, or incisive social commentary, it’s one of the best depictions of science or scientists that science fiction cinema had seen up to this point. Notably, it's refreshing to see the inclusion of central protagonist Dr. Ruth Leavitt, a caustic, competent, and down-to-earth scientist. Her character — and the lack of objectification — makes Andromeda Strain one of the least sexist SFF movies up to this point.

That depiction stands in stark contrast to the over-the-top misogyny of A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick’s stylish, beguiling, and deeply unpleasant Hugo winner. Set in a near-future England that has slid into fascism, the movie follows a young man named Alex, his friend group, and their experiences with the police and prisons.
Alex in Clockwork Orange screaming as he's forced to watch awful movies.
Documentary footage of our cinema club reacting
to 1960 Hugo-finalist Men Into Space.
(Image via FilmLoverss)

Based on a novel by Anthony Burgess, the movie seems to suggest that the sexual revolution will only provide ways for men to aggressively dominate women’s bodies. Debates have raged over the past five decades over whether Clockwork Orange is a commentary on misogyny, or simply misogynistic in and of itself.

Though Kubrik won his third Hugo Award as a director (a feat only equalled by three other directors), it’s difficult to suggest that the voters got this one right. Clockwork Orange is certainly a classic of cinema, and the actual filmmaking, editing, and camera work are all meticulous. But it’s barely science fictional, and many (including about half our cinema club) find it offensive.

It’s not made by as famous a director, but perhaps the more meat-and-potatoes populist option of The Omega Man might have been a more suitable choice to honour with a Hugo in 1972?

Thursday 15 September 2022

The Gordian Knot of Fan Vs. Pro

Wilson Tucker was a superb author whose prose almost earned him the very first Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1953. His Long Loud Silence — one of the most unflinching and depressing looks at the future of war — came in second to Alfred Bester’s Demolished Man.
Should Tucker have recused
himself from consideration
when he was shortlisted
for the Hugo for best Fan Writer
in 1970? We would suggest not.
(Image via File 770)

But his accomplishments as a professional writer were often overshadowed by his contributions to fandom. He coined the term “Space Opera,” and helped develop the fanzine culture that continues to enrich the genre. He was Fan Guest of Honour at two Worldcons: 1948 in Toronto and 1967 in New York.

In a very real way, Tucker is the case example of a dilemma that has bedeviled those arguing about Hugo Awards rules: the question of fan versus pro, and, specifically, what works should qualify for fan Hugos. Given his output as an author, Wilson Tucker was a pro. Given his contributions to fandom, Wilson Tucker was a fan. But should these roles be viewed as complementary or binary for the purpose of community recognition? And should there be clear guidelines about who counts as a “fan”?

These questions have reared their head in the wake of Worldcon 2022 at which three out of the four fan Hugos were presented to industry professionals. We want to stress that, in our opinion, all of these finalists and Hugo winners are worthy of recognition — in particular we were glad to see Lee Moyer win a long-overdue first Hugo Award. Questions of what a “fan” work is shouldn’t distract from the quality of these projects.

But it is still worth talking about why questions about “Fan Vs. Pro” arise, and hopefully forestall any hasty and ill-considered changes to the WSFS constitution.

This debate has a long history. While it’s clear that “Fan” and “Pro” are not antonyms, there’s reason to suggest that “fan” might be interpreted as being synonymous with “amateur” or “non-professional.”

The category now called “Fanzine” is the second-longest running Hugo category, having been awarded on no fewer than 75 occasions (only Novel has been recognized more often). But for the first quarter century the award existed, it was called the Hugo for best Amateur Magazine, and the distinction was explicit that this was a non-professional award.

From the very beginning, there were questions about what counted as amateur (or “fan” work), and what counted as professional. The first recorded constitution of the World Science Fiction Society from 1963 sets out the fanzine category as a “generally available non-professional magazine devoted to science fiction, fantasy or related subject.” That constitution’s primary author George Scithers noted in a 1964 edition of Yandro that non-professional was not defined, but added “I think the terms are well-enough understood to be clear.”

All the existing fan categories were hived off from Amateur Publication / Fanzine. First with fan writer and fan artist recognizing those who contributed to fanzines, then with fancast as a new medium of fanzine. They all derive from the same tradition of amateur publications.

Just three years after the Scithers constitution was introduced, Jack Gaughan showed just how unclear the existing language could be, winning both the fan artist and professional artist Hugo Awards in a single evening. There was an outcry over this — why have two separate categories if the same body of work could win both? A clause was quickly added to the constitution to prevent this from happening again, but the language did not seek to clarify what was Fan and what was Pro, rather stating that “Anyone whose name appears on the final ballot for a given year under the professional artist category will not be eligible for the fan artist award for that year.”
In the unlikely event that this blog ever generated more
than $500 a month in revenue via crowdfunding, we would
recuse ourselves from the fan categories. To be clear,
we do not plan to profit from our fan writing, and instead
of ever having a Patreon we would encourage you
to support Trans Lifeline, Planned Parenthood,
the EFF, Wikipedia, or the ACLU.
(Image licensed via Shutterstock.)

Over the years, this question has resurfaced fairly regularly. Questions were raised over John Scalzi winning best fan writer in the same year that his novel The Last Colony was on the ballot. Two years later there was some slight grumbling about Fred Pohl — at that time one of only 25 authors to have won three professional prose Hugos — winning for best fan writer.

So in this context, a well-intentioned but problematic proposal (“An Aristotelian Solution to Fan vs Pro”) brought forward to this year’s business meeting provided an attempt to parse out this question. The Hugo Awards Study Committee suggested that language be added to the constitution laying out strict guidelines about the commercial purposes or uses of artistic works and fan writing. Though this proposal was soundly defeated at the 2022 WSFS business meeting, the subsequent Hugo Awards ceremony featured three of the four “fan” categories going to creators who are full-time professionals within the field. In some cases, the fanworks in question were also commercially successful.

The Hugo Study Committee suggested commercial activity as a means to determine what constitutes professional works, and thus which creators are non-professional. For example, it would be difficult to call an online publication “amateur” if it has a Patreon page that collects upwards of $1,000 per month. But there are more problematic scenarios. What about fan artists who sell a handful of print-on-demand T-Shirts based on their works? They might make enough from these sales to buy a Starbucks coffee every other week… should that prevent them from being recognized in a fan Hugo category?

Attempts to set a bright-line test to determine category correctness are doomed. Should there be a rule to parse out which creators can call themselves “Fans,” it would inevitably fail. No creator who works for both payment and fandom does so in isolation of the other.

To further complicate this question, authorship is a profession which operates in a reputation economy in which an individual author’s future earnings are contingent on the public awareness and appreciation of that person’s works. As such, any publishing activity or communication to the public by an author whose living depends on sales can be seen as promotional activity, and therefore could be interpreted as “professional,” even if they never earn a dime directly from that output. When examining the question under this lens, the work may be fannish, or it may be professional, and the only difference is motivation. Let us say very clearly here that it should never be the job of anyone in fandom to police or attempt to interpret the motivation of creators. 
Alexei Panshin recused himself from the fan
categories after winning best fan writer. Lady
Business recused themselves after winning best
fanzine. It's a courageous decision to make.
(Photo by Jay Klein via Calisphere)

There is no easy solution to this dilemma, no set of rules that will ever be able to parse out what should be considered as fannish activity from that which is not. When it comes to what should count as fan works, we should avoid the temptation to take the same approach that United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart took on obscenity: “I know it when I see it.”

As America has seen with the selective enforcement of obscenity tests, any determination based on a gut feeling will be overly influenced by the unconscious prejudices of those in power. For example if the Hugo Admins or a motivated block of voters took it upon themselves to selectively determine what was appropriate to be a “fan” work in any given year, it’s likely that such decisions would disprivilege the already marginalized — not through ill intent, but due to subconscious factors.

So where does this leave us?

Perhaps the best solution is not to change the rules at all, but rather to foster existing cultural norms that encourage us all to ask ourselves whether or not we are appropriate for the categories we are shortlisted in.

These categories have sometimes recognized pros for their fannish endeavours, but have continued to mostly recognize non-professional amateurs who have contributed to fandom. As long as nobody Langfords a category, the fan Hugos will be just fine.