The American Society of Cinematographers

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Lessons learned — sort of — from It! The Terror from Beyond Space.




Wise people often claim that the small pleasures are the ones that truly make life worth living. I’m inclined to agree, especially when I consider the enjoyment I get out of tuning in to the Turner Classic Movie channel. The other night I was drowsing out before bed and stumbled upon a lousy picture that nevertheless shook me out of my torpor and got me thinking on a level that was way too sophisticated for such trash. It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) is certainly no Citizen Kane — it’s not even Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. But it is as informative in its own way as any movie I can think of.

Why? Because of the context within which the movie was created and its relativity to the world we live in now.

I’m not a big science-fiction fan, and this one did nothing to change my orientation. ASC member Ken Peach was the cinematographer, and it’s no knock on him to say it was hardly his best work. The story is a simpleton’s dream, too: A group of astronauts on the first launch to Mars is stalked and murdered in their spaceship by a mysterious, shape-shifting force. Don’t be surprised if the premise sounds familiar; it served as the source material for a tremendously improved treatment of the same dilemma — Alien — but that’s where the resemblance ends. Bad writing, clumsy direction, cardboard sets and terrible acting all conspire to send you screaming from the room. The special effects are laughable, and the monster, when it finally appears, looks like the Creature from the Black Lagoon’s destitute cousin. Insult to injury, the hysterical proceedings are underscored by a relentless Theremin-driven music track. I assure you, this was not what inspired Jimmy Page to use that instrument in the Led Zeppelin stage shows some 15 years later.

Obviously, the world has changed in a million ways since 1958. On a certain level, this movie was about the technology of its day, its fantasies and aspirations. That the makers’ treatment of it has become comical is not entirely their fault and begs a troubling question: Six decades from now, will people have a similar reaction to aspects of the work we produce today? In the worst-case scenario, will the fruit of our careers appear as pathetic to them as so much of this film does to us now? Or is the best we can hope for to simply seem antiquated?

Just think about how we mark so much of our work lives. Hop onto a feature or TV series, and you see six months of your life go by in a flash. In terms of style and culture, what used to become old hat in a year now burns out in a couple of weeks. With time passing so quickly and our society changing so rapidly, we may well find ourselves and what we’ve done appearing as discarded anachronisms sooner than we imagine. Appreciably sooner.

But then again, maybe not.

As contemporary people always have, we think of ourselves as the epitome of sophistication. We’re arrogant; we imagine no one has ever done or thought about anything the way we do right at this moment; and we think we’ve got it more right than anyone ever has. What idiots we are! The fact is that there is no idea, emotion, impulse or action left on earth that hasn’t been conceived of or experienced by someone — more likely many someones — long before any of us were on the scene.

And that’s okay. After all, we can only make films with the awareness and sensitivity we embody at this moment, hoping for the best in the process. Beyond that, we have no control. Fortunately, this allows a freedom that helps us to create wildly and without regard for consequence. It’s also not the worst thing in the world to have someone get a good laugh out of your work some six decades down the line. At least you’d be remembered for offering a witness to the time and world in which you once lived.

So, how will we ever know our fate? My best wish is that we’re all around in 2074 to find out.

 

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