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Gary Westfahl’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Film

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When approaching Gary Westfahl’s online SF resource, the key thing to remember is that it’s described as a work in progress. This is the only thing excusing the absence of an entry for Georges Melies, who arguably invented the SF film to begin with. With that in mind, let us proceed.

Westfahl’s avowed inspiration for his own text is David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film, both in its insistence that while film-making is collaborative in nature, it remains the work of identifiable individual talents, and in its insistence that the author’s opinions about his subject should be stated boldly and clearly. Westfahl inarguably meets the latter of those conditions immediately, saying of Thomson himself:

regardless of his other virtues, Thomson happens to be consistently wrongheaded on those rare occasions when he considers science fiction films (I mean, the man prefers Metropolis to 2001: A Space Odyssey, for heaven’s sake.)

Regrettably Westfahl has entries for neither Fritz Lang nor Stanley Kubrick to demonstrate exactly why this is so wrongheaded of Thomson. I like both Metropolis and 2001, though I do prefer the latter to the former. Then again, I like 2001 better than many other films too. Anyway.

Westfahl seems to have gone online with his text primarily for the simple reason that he seems to have been unable to obtain a print publisher. Curious, since as he notes his book is pretty much unique, and you’d expect a publisher would be keen to pick up a book like that (odder still when you see how specialised some SF reference books can be). Still, the online format has its uses. Primarily it allows the liberty of adding to the text incrementally, and Westfahl promises to add a couple of entries per month. (I estimate, therefore, that he should be finished circa 2014 at his present rate, since he claims to have drawn up credits for 400 individuals before starting and currently has nearly ninety complete entries. That’s assuming he doesn’t add any more over the next decade, either, else he might never finish.)

The incomplete text that exists, then, is a strangely haphazard one. A number of key figures are missing (we might also wonder at the absence of Leonard Nimoy when his Star Trek compatriots William Shatner and George Takei are here), while a number of personages that could be called peripheral at best are present (The Beatles, Ben Hecht and Anthony Quinn, anyone?). Would it not have made more sense to start with the more commonly recognised “important” figures and add the secondary ones later? Why does a non-entity like Frederic Gadette merit being written about before Fritz Lang does?

Unfortunately, too, the reader may feel (as I do) that Westfahl’s negative judgements stand out in the memory more than his positive ones. Examples:

Nick Adams: “…once you link together the phrases ‘handsome young actor,’ ‘absolutely no talent,’ and ‘briefly famous,’ it is almost inevitable that ‘recurring star of bad science fiction movies’ will be added to the string.”
Gerry Anderson: “If the nations of the world ever decide to stage Nurenberg Trials to punish the makers of bad science fiction film, Gerry Anderson will be the first defendant.”
Tim Burton: “Sorry, you’re not paying me enough money to figure out Tim Burton.”
John Carradine: “…he displayed no real appreciation for the genuinely unknown or genuinely unearthly; rather, he tried to convey the strange and terrifying only with a tired repertoire of acting tricks.”
Lon Chaney Jr.: “Lon Chaney, Jr. never gave a good performance in a horror or science fiction film. With his extremely limited talents, the only roles he could really play were ordinary people–as in the westerns that he came to prefer–or less than ordinary people–like Lenny in Of Mice and Men (1939), his only competent portrayal.”
Louise Fletcher: “…she is at her best only when she is playing a bad actress.”
Lorne Greene: “…acting in science fiction films generally demands a modicum of intelligence, and if that intelligence wasn’t in the script, Greene couldn’t, or wouldn’t, provide it.”
Nathan Juran: “…if you’re planning a revival-house double feature to punish your worst enemy, you should seriously consider Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman and The Brain from Planet Arous.”
Glen A. Larson: “…no business other than the entertainment industry would ever be so irrational as to allow a proven incompetent like Glen A. Larson to keep churning out his trademark mistakes.”
Christopher Lee: “…always acts in an utterly joyless manner, displaying absolutely no pleasure or interest in what he is doing.”
George Pal: “…when it came to science fiction film, George Pal just didn’t get it.”
Keanu Reeves: “…one of those rare performers who keeps getting worse and worse as his career progresses.”
Roy Scheider: “No one told Scheider that understatement is one key to successful film acting.”
Steven Spielberg: “…an insufferably awful director and a pernicious influence on the entire genre.”
George Takei: “George Takei is such a nice man–so unfailingly friendly and accessible to Star Trek fans, so consistently supportive of Asian-American performers and causes–that it really is such a shame to report that he is such an awful actor, probably the least talented regular in any of the Star Trek series.”
Peter Ustinov: “Accounts of Sir Peter Ustinov’s life always emphasize how many different roles he has played… They are too kind to point out that he didn’t do any of these things particularly well.”
Edward D. Wood Jr.: “Someday, western civilization may mature to the stage where people realize that it is not polite to stare intently or giggle at crippled movies.”

In delivering his drubbing to George Lucas, Westfahl makes one amusing error:

But what Lucas did to Richard Marquand’s Return of the Jedi was particularly reprehensible: recognizing that the film’s outcome was a less than happy one for the isolated Luke Skywalker, now bereft of family, friends, and lovers, Marquand evocatively crafted a subdued conclusion, with the victorious forces quietly celebrating around a campfire as Luke wanders off for the cold consolation of friendly waves from his ghostly departed companions. But Lucas, feeling that there was something insufficiently gee-whiz about all of this, added some colorful new scenes of spontaneous celebrations on various other planets and re-edited the old footage to make things zippier and more cheerful. Marquand should have sued to have his name removed from the credits.

He might well have done, had he not actually been dead for ten years by the time Lucas released his retooled trilogy. But we’ll let that pass.

Leaving aside the issue of the justness or otherwise of the above statements (be honest: how many people would make a case defending Keanu as an actor?), I’m kind of irked by them. Lest I be accused of misrepresenting Westfahl, the negatives are probably outweighed by the positives and some of his good judgements (particularly his appraisal of Adam West) are also memorable. Even so, for me the negative judgements–most notably his seeming bottomless loathing for Spielberg–seem to remain more prominent.

Perhaps the key to what irritates me about Westfahl’s Encyclopedia is this passage from his entry on Lon Chaney Jr.:

Because it is impossible to fabricate any arguments regarding his importance to science fiction films, Chaney must rather serve as the occasion for a critique of the literature surrounding horror movies. Blinded by their catholic fondness for the genre, these authors regularly offer effusive praise for all the prominent actors who ever labored in its films; yet words of appreciation for genuine talents like Karloff or Peter LORRE become meaningless when exactly the same compliments are bestowed on the likes of Lon Chaney, Jr. And I am tired of reading that bad horror movies occur only because these wonderfully gifted performers are being abused by terrible scripts and inept directors; in some cases, the actors themselves must shoulder some of the blame. Lon Chaney, Jr. made every movie he was in worse; that is the unvarnished truth, and people who call themselves film critics should be able to recognize that.

Here, methinks, we have it. Westfahl seems never to have been part of a cult audience for a film or genre, which is odd because SF is a genre which attracts cult followings if ever there was one. After all, the fantastic genre has always enjoyed a certain level of critical disrepute, and historically SF and horror films have been the preserve of the smaller companies (cf. the Universal horror films of the 30s, and the American International films of the 50s and 60s; cf. also the predominance of fantastic fiction in pulp magazines). This rule has always had exceptions and things have changed in recent decades, but even so the genre still retains a strong cult appeal.

Westfahl seems to disdain this cult aspect, not to mention the critical abilities of cult audiences. Personally I think he does a great disservice with the above quote. A cult audience I subscribe to myself is that of the silent film in general; it’s a mode of filmmaking I’ve always had a feeling for ever since I got interested in films to begin with. It’s a minority interest and I’m happy to be in the minority. At the same time, my “catholic fondness” for silent film doesn’t mean I can’t tell shit from strawberry jam, and I think Westfahl’s dismissal of the critical faculties of cult audiences is frankly unfair. The more you become acquainted with a period or genre or style of filmmaking, the more equipped you become to make judgements as to the relative merits of different examples of same. This is something Westfahl seems to not have much understanding of, which is a shame.

In the end, Westfahl’s Encyclopedia is a good idea, I think, though while it remains incomplete and haphazardly arranged its usefulness is evidently going to be limited. That said, however, I suspect that even when it’s finished it’ll be a manifestly unbalanced work if he continues in his present way. I suspect the best way of working this book out would be a multi-author approach. Suppose I was asked to contribute to a book on opera. I might be able to do a bit on Berg’s Wozzeck since I like that one. On the other hand, I can’t stand Mozart, so why would I write an entry on his operas if I couldn’t give a worthwhile judgement on them? Get someone more capable of providing an informed and worthwhile judgement to write it instead. Similarly, let Westfahl write about the figures he really wants to write about and let someone able to approach Spielberg in a more balanced fashion write about him. That way you’d probably end up with a book I’d be rather happier to make room for on my shelves than the one currently underway.

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About James Russell

  • james cole

    I recently came across the website for Gary Westfahl’s “book” in the making, and thought it was the worst idea- if you hate science fiction why write about it?
    In his attack on Space 1999 (surprised?) he states that the mooon travels each week past a new planet, which is an idiotic idea to him. Except this never happened in the show! The moon did travel past several planets and into a couple blak holes and worm holes, but not a new system each week as he stated. If you want to be accepted as a credible writer you shouldnt have to make up things that are false. Space 1999 aside from star trek, has had a huge influence on the genre in the last 2 decades, like it or not. How could he possibly have any thing good to say about 2001, but not 1999? The above writer does a good job pointing out the massive failure of mr. westfahls’ book-no wonder it will not get published. Why write about a subject you don’t understand?

  • Tom Gander

    Lon Chaney, Jr. did a great job in Spider Baby.