The Secret Scifi Love Affair Between Almodovar And Spillane

When I was in college, I had two obsessions: art movies and pulp novels. The art movies were everything foreign or indie, from Almodovar to Egoyan to Greenaway. The pulp novels included some science fiction, but also a bunch of Mickey Spillane and Richard Stark. They were opposites, high and low culture, but they actually had more in common with each other than they did with "mainstream" movies and books of the 1990s. And they both had something to teach me about science fiction.

What the art movies and pulp novels had in common was a warping of logic, even if they didn't always warp it in the same ways. In a novel by Spillane or Philip K. Dick, the story would take a weird swerve just because the author got stuck and then drunk or high. Meanwhile, a movie like Track 42 would just veer off in some bizarre direction just to be arty.


Two or three times a week, I'd sit in the local art-house theater and watch a movie about a man living with the decomposing corpse of his roommate, or an author whose characters crash his appearance on a TV show. Some of the Euro-art movies I watched seemed to dissolve about halfway through into half-naked people pulling faces at the camera, followed by a dinner party or something. I don't think I've ever been so open to the allure of the random, either before or since. The zig-zagness of both forms of entertainment appealed to me because I was trying to form an identity as an adult, and figure out whether I actually possessed a sexuality. Pulps were great because they were heroic and open-ended, while art movies showed how overrated "normal" adulthood really was.

(I didn't actually watch any cult movies in college, because I didn't have a TV or VCR, or access to a decent rep theater.)


Meanwhile, Hollywood movies and "serious" fiction, even genre fiction, had a certain orderliness. You would usually pretty much know where the story was going after the first half hour or 100 pages. And even if the stories were contrived or illogical, at least all the pieces would more or less fit most of the time.

Raymond Chandler famously said that whenever he reached a slow moment in one of his novels, he'd have someone enter the scene, gun in hand, and figure out the hows and whys later.


Every now and then, someone in science fiction (or outside it, in some cases) gets nostalgic for pulp. You see anthologies that are paying homage to scifi pulp, or trying to recapture some kind of monstery spirit of scifi. But usually they just go for the trappings of pulp, the bug-eyed monsters and headgear with fins, and not the sheer randomness of truly great pulp. Meanwhile, you see lots of people doing "slipstream" books and anthologies, which are trying to be the art movies of SF. But sometimes what you end up with is a fairly sedate, if slightly surreal, brand of literary fiction with some speculative elements.

But maybe people should be trying to mash them up more, creating a bizarre hybrid of high and low cultures. With as little irony as possible. Combining the manic-depressiveness of a hastily written pulp novel with the loopiness of art movies could yield something weirder, and more artsy, than any purely literary SF or pulp homage.


I stopped watching art movies years ago, and haven't seen one since, unless you count the Anderson brothers, Wes and P.T.* I also outgrew pulp novels, in favor of literary fiction and smart recent SF. I guess I was finally ready for linear narratives and accessible characters. But I'll still flash on random images, or remember a random gunfight (maybe in space, maybe not) from some book that fell apart as I read it. Those books and movies have a dreamlike quality in my head now, and I wish I found that quality in more scifi nowadays.

* - I know that Wes Anderson and P.T. Anderson aren't brothers.


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