Documentary, not rated, 68 minutes
Here’s a film of surprising power and fluidity, considering director-producer Arwen Curry began the feature documentary all the way back in 2009 and didn’t complete it until this year. Typically, films don’t take nine years to finish unless they have been hit by severe production problems — say, film footage goes missing or gets damaged, or perhaps a camera operator dies before wrapping the work. In this instance, the delay doesn’t seem to reflect any major technical snafus but rather represents a conscious desire on Curry’s part to follow author Ursula K. Le Guin through the final years of her life.
Renowned for her science fiction and fantasy, as well as her innovative children’s books, Le Guin died at the age of eighty-eight on Jan. 22, 2018, at her home outside Portland, Oregon. Curry released this warm tribute and biography a few months later. Along with a few choice animated segments, we are treated to Le Guin’s sharp wit and keen observational abilities through her personal reflections, which cover the breadth of her career. She could be blunt and direct but usually reserved her most derogatory and critical comments for her own body of work, noting how in her early years — when she was still developing her own voice — she posed as “a woman pretending to think like a man,” even smoking a pipe.
As her style grew more elegant and elevated, she came to define a new realm of fantasy, not only incorporating feminist themes, but also a deep reverence for the environment. The worlds she created were never simple and straightforward, but always more dynamic and complex, involving competing societies with diverse peoples, peculiar religious cults, and all kinds of ethnographic origins (a logical extension, as her father was a distinguished anthropologist). She won four Nebula Awards and two Hugos for novels including Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, and the Wizard of Earthsea trilogy.
Many of Le Guin’s writing peers salute her here, from Margaret Atwood to Michael Chabon, from Samuel Delany to Neil Gaiman. “I don’t think Harry Potter could have existed without Earthsea,” says Gaiman, underscoring Le Guin’s importance as a fantasy writer as well as a groundbreaking feminist. It’s fitting the film is playing at George R.R. Martin’s Jean Cocteau Cinema, because he, too, fell under her spell soon after reading Earthsea in junior high school. Writing in his “Not a Blog,” Martin noted, “The golden age of science fiction is usually reckoned to have been the [John W.] Campbell era at Astounding, and its Big Three were [Robert] Heinlein, [Isaac] Asimov, and [A.E.] van Vogt. Yet as important as that era was, for me the true golden age will always be the late ’60s and early ’70s, when the Big Three were Roger Zelazny, Samuel R. Delany, and Ursula K. Le Guin. We shall never see their like again.”
Jean Cocteau Cinema, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 20; 6 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 21.