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Thinking pop culture

Seeking a Friend, Seeking a Genre

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World - now showing basically nowhere.

It’s a pretty safe bet that if a film is going to include my favourite Frank Black song, involve an ill-fated love affair, run for under two hours and completely destroy my mascara, then I’m going to like it. Hell, I’ll probably even love it.

Premature probably given that it’s not even September, but I think I’m ready to dub Seeking A Friend for the End of the World as the best film of the year (only topping Take This Waltz because the latter failed to solicit tears).

Many questions preoccupied me while watching, while crying, the most pressing being what the hell did this film do to earn such a limited release? How is Magic Mike still running but I had to schlep out of the CBD to find a Seeking a Friend screening?

Of equal importance - and perfectly in line with my professional and personal preoccupations with taxonomy - is questioning whether the film really is science fiction. And how this relates to the pitiful release.

Like those folks quick to dismiss country music because it’s assumed to only ever involve aural atrocities like Achy Breaky Heart and Honky Tonk Badonkadonk, I’m equally quick to dismiss sci-fi.

I recently downloaded an audiobook and about ten minutes in, the very second the “air car” was mentioned and I knew I couldn’t finish it. Aliens and space exploration and fire balls and UFOs are topics I give the widest of wide berths to. Like climate change, I don’t care and I can’t fake it.

So how did Seeking a Friend for the End of the World disrupt my expectations of the genre? Just because IMDb dubs it sci-fi, does that mean it really is? Does it matter?

The backdrop involves an earth-destroying asteroid; people have been given their death sentences. Panic, religious epiphanies and rioting ensue.

In last year’s less-good but still pretty decent Melancholia, a planet is about to collide with earth; less overt panic, but questions of mental illness, patience and anomie arise.

Melancholia - now on DVD.

Joining Drive as my equal favourite film from 2011 was Another Earth about the discovery of, surprise, surprise, a second earth. No panic, but the big questions about choice and love and fate are asked.

Another Earth - now on DVD.

So I’m conflicted as to whether I’m finding the entire concept of “genre” suddenly useless or whether it’s just the sci-fi label that seems wrong for these films; films I liked.

So a fortnight ago I did a shift at my uni’s Open Day. Wearing a charmingly oversized “Ask me about Politics and International Studies” badge, for two hours I answered the very same question: “So what’s politics?”

My answer was “power” with a follow-up on the multitude of manifestations. The colleague standing next to me was peddling his version: “life - politics is about life”.

Ever since I’ve been vacillating between liking his answer and thinking it was completely preposterous.

Isn’t everything about life?

I want to take Seeking a Friend and Melancholia and Another Earth out of the sci-fi genre because they aren’t really about space crap, or new technology or extra-terrestrials, rather are about love and humanity and mortality; i.e., life.

But then, isn’t everything? Even the worst films I’ve seen this year - Margin Call, Mirror Mirror or Once Upon a Time in Anatolia - are still, quite obviously, about life. Life however, isn’t all that helpful for classification.

Wikipedia - offering a definition encompassing many proffered in film texts - defines sci-fi as “imaginary but more or less plausible (or at least non-supernatural) content”.

So then, pretty much everything make-believe is sci-fi? Every film is about life and every film is sci-fi?

If genres are so fluid and elastic and frequently all-encompassing, is there any practical application?

If not, what’s the alternative? IMDb offers keywords for Seeking a Friend including Insurance Business, Orgy and Vinyl Record . Evidently even less helpful than “sci-fi”!

Returning to where I started, the film got a pitiful release in Melbourne. It was billed - certainly by the looks of the poster - as sci-fi. Actual sci-fi fans would likely have flared their nostrils at it - if offers zilch by way of special effects and explosions - and the sci-fi genre eschewers were pitched little to entice.

So who is the film really aimed at?

At the very least, genre classification matters a whole lot when trying to fill a cinema.

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