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Classic Hollywood Movie Spotlight: 'The Black Hole'

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Jan 04, 2011 | 8:33am EST

The Black HoleA while back when I wrote up Point Break as a classic movie, a number of people got their panties in a bunch. "It’s genre trash." "It’s overrated now because of Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar for The Hurt Locker." Opinions abounded.

I don’t care, because there is no algorithm for determining a classic movie. It’s like art or porn: You know it when you see it. Which means that it’s completely subjective.

Of course, some categories of value for classic movies can tip the scale in a way that’s fairly inarguable – like influence. Birth of a Nation, Citizen Kane, Snow White, Star Wars, Toy Story ... classics due to influence. Then again, The Great Train Robbery is just as influential as Birth of a Nation, and that doesn’t show up on a lot of classic-movie lists.

Other determinations, however, are completely subjective. They are the movies that changed you. They are your personal pantheon. Knowing what they are, whatever they are, helps you understand yourself and your relationship to aesthetics, history, identity, knowledge – you know, all the stuff that comprises your world. In fact, I’d recommend everyone come up with their top 10 classic movies, letting go of whatever AFI or Roger Ebert says. If Heartbeeps is in your top 10, so be it. In fact, if Heartbeeps is in your top 10 and you’re a single lady, get ahold of me through my editor; we probably have a lot in common.

All of which brings me to this week’s classic movie:

1979’s The Black Hole.

If you’re watching really carefully, you can see a poster for The Black Hole in Flynn’s kids’ room in the recent Tron: Legacy. That’s because The Black Hole was the other reasonably successful cheesy science fiction movie Disney released in the late '70s early '80s, in a continuing effort to ride the sci-fi wave of Star Wars.

The Black Hole is a strange, scary movie that makes very little sense and ends with a drop into the truly bizarre that Disney should be very proud of. It is also one of those movies that makes physicists want to wrap their hands around Hollywood’s throat and squeeze. That's because it tells the story of a bunch of wayward starfarers who happen upon a ship run by a crazy scientist, played by Maximillian Schell. The crazy scientist has a ship that can defy the gravity of the black hole, and plans to head inside to explore “beyond.” The black hole, of course, you can see with your naked eye – because, like, it’s blacker than the rest of space. And also a little bluer.

As a kid I couldn’t appreciate the silly physics. I think what drilled the movie so deeply into me was its other strange aspects. For instance, the crazy scientist is attended to by these robed and masked attendants. He’s cagey about what these things are – maybe androids – but eventually we see one of the masked attendants limping, and then later we see them carry out a funeral for one of their own. So naturally one of the starfarers sneaks up to one of the attendants and pulls off the mask. This sequence so terrified me as a child that I didn’t know what the starfarer saw behind the mask until I was well into my 20s.

The Black Hole - MaximillianThe movie also has a giant red robot that kills with razor fans, an aging floating robot and a telepathic connection between a blonde and another floating robot. And Ernest Borgnine. Let’s not forget Ernest Borgnine.

None of that compares, however, to the final sequence in the film. As Chekhov once said, if you introduce a black hole probe ship in Act One, you must have your protagonists head into the black hole by Act Three. And so they do. What follows is, well, let’s just say that Stanely Kubrick, Milton, and J.G. Ballard would be proud. I’m talking traversing what might be heaven and hell, celestial robot/human embraces and the absolute “beyond.”

In a world where studios pay brain trusts of Oscar winners to ensure that everything in a movie is clear, that all loose ends get tied up neatly, and every question is answered, a movie that’s just plain strange can be refreshing. As my third-year playwrighting instructor Nicole Burdette used to say, when telling a story, you don’t have to explain more than life does.

And life, frankly, doesn’t have that many answers. Which is why, in my own personal pantheon, The Black Hole is a classic movie.

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