Tag Archives: genre

Blade Runner

Many films which end up on ‘best ever’ lists are rarely watched. I suspect all those old Expressionist films, or jerky, quirky French New Wave classics, or just about everything made in Scandinavia, are rarely enjoyed outside of a classroom. But other films are watched repeatedly, obsessively, and loved. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), I’d guess, falls into this category. Apart from being much-loved, it joins a group of films – Citizen Kane, The Shining, Space OdysseyThe Matrix, Alien, Stalker, and so on – which lend themselves to endless discussion and debate about the director’s intended meaning. Sci-fi of the more thoughtful sort (so, not Gravity, for example) is prone to provoking this sort of chin-stroking, and Blade Runner rewards such investigation as much as any of the others.

The first thing viewers will notice is the aesthetic; the film takes place in a city which is (or was) a mix of neon future and hellish present, and where it is apparently always dark. The first views of the city in Blade Runner are very similar to the opening of Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic Metropolis;  the similarity is such that we know we are in a similar place in every way; oppressive, dark, inhuman, all straight lines and hard angles, a city where humans are dwarfed and insignificant. (Roger Ebert writes, “Unimaginable skyscrapers tower over streets that are clotted with humanity; around the skirts of the billion-dollar towers, the city at ground level looks like a third-world bazaar.”)

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Cityscapes of Blade Runner owe an obvious debt to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis

We are in a noir world. And so, we expect to see the stock noir characters. The Blade Runner himself, Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, appears early on, and he’s about as hard-boiled as it’s possible to be. He looks the part, shambling along in the half-light in his trench-coat. He acts the part too, moodily ordering noodles and (unsuccessfully) resisting authority in the form of the boss who wants him to track down some renegade replicants. His role as the hard-boiled detective is made very obvious by the extremely stylised, over-written voiceover Harrison Ford had to record for an early version of the film (the studios were worried that audiences would not understand the film.) Overwritten dialogue and expository voiceovers are very familiar to noir fans, and the addition of this one seems to confirm that Ridley Scott and the studio bosses were thinking in terms of film noir when the film was made. (It’s pure noir: “They don’t advertise for killers in a newspaper. That was my profession. Ex-cop, ex-Blade Runner, ex-killer.”)

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Deckard, as hard-boiled as they come

As part of his assignment, Deckard has to visit the shadowy Tyrell corporation and there he meets Rachel, played by Sean Young. Wreathed in smoke, confident, beautiful, she’s our femme fatale.

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Rachel as femme fatale

There’s more to noir than the aesthetic, though. Critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton (1955, A Panorama of American Film Noir) offered a definition of the feel, the soul of noir as ‘…oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel…’ Does Blade Runner fit with any part of that? Well, there’s certainly romantic or erotic motivation; apart from Pris, the ‘basic pleasure model’ replicant who flirts her way into the Tyrell corporation, thee’s the relationship between Deckard and Rachel. (If the film has a fault, it’s this wholly unbelievable relationship: James Berardinelli writes, “The love story with Rachael doesn’t work, in large part because both Ford and Sean Young underplay their roles to such extremes that its impossible to believe either could feel anything for the other.”) Despite the clumsiness of the relationship (mostly Sean Young’s fault – she acts as though she actually is a robot) their relationship does contribute to the noir feeling; it’s desperate, unlikely and probably doomed. They are often shot like this, surrounded by bars of light; very recognizable from earlier noir films, it suggests how constrained and trapped they are.

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Chiaroscuro lighting creates typically noirish imagery of entrapment

What about the rest of that definition? There is plenty of cruelty in the film, especially in the so-called Final Cut (there are many versions of the film, and they are significantly different) – we see broken fingers, eyeballs being driven into brains, women shot in cold blood. People are killed for no particular reason – it’s a cruel, dark world. And ambivalence? In noir, we look at the main character to embody this. Deckard is every inch the anti-hero; he is not a particularly good, or brave, or tough man – the replicants have him well beaten on a number of occasions – but he is the closest thing to a hero this world can offer.

The narrative Deckard finds himself trapped in is familiar from noir also. He barely understands what is going on, and he is entirely alone in trying to figure it out. Eventually, he realises how dark and corrupt the institutions of society are; that the good guys are not so good and the bad guys are victims. That ambiguity identified by Borde and Chaumeton goes deeper than characterisation; it infuses the entire world. Mark. T. Conard sees this confusion between good and evil, or the complete lack of such distinctions, as reflective of increasing secularity in post-World War 2 society. There are no reliable police, or any forces for good in the noir world, no heroes, just as there is, for increasing numbers of people, no God to be found in the modern world.

Of course, the film can also be approached not only as neo-noir, but also as one of the best sci-fi films ever. Thematically, it reaches back to one of the foundational texts of the genre; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from 1818. The story – a mad scientist creating life, then struggling to manage the consequences – is the same. The central theme, likewise – when does artificially-created life become ‘human’ – remains of interest to an audience today. (See Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, or Neil Blomkamp’s Chappie, or Joss Whedon’s Age of Ultron… basically, any story where life is created and then becomes confusingly human.) Blade Runner’s theme is not new, then (although, as James Sey notes, Ridley Scott delivers these old ideas well: ‘The film’s main theme is brilliantly realised.’) It is something else than the theme which makes it so persistently a part of modern culture.

Ultimately, what makes Blade Runner so influential is the synthesis of sci-fi themes with neo-noir characters, aesthetics and narratives. Gerard R. Lucas sees it as part of the sci-fi subgenere cyberpunk (“The world of Blade Runner is post-apocalyptic  … human progress has become like a virus for planet Earth. Humanity is dense and dirty on the streets, and represents a mélange of cultures all boiling together in a stew of languages, cultures, styles, tech, and vices. It’s now a wasteland dominated by industry, vague cityscapes supported by crumbling technologies.”) As such, more modern cyberpunk films owe it a huge debt. It’s hard to imagine The Matrix or Ghost in the Shell without Blade Runner. Rupert Sanders’ 2016 remake of Ghost in the Shell is particularly obviously influenced.

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Looks familiar.

So, Blade Runner gave us cyberpunk. More than that, though, the recent crop of dystopian sci-fi films (Hunger Games, Divergence and so on) all seem to borrow the fundamental binary opposition from Blade Runner, that between the individual and the huge corporations which increasingly seem to control our world. The Tyrell Corporation operates, it seems, above the law and without moral restraint; this is a very common representation of corporate behaviour in dystopian sci-fi.

Blade Runner is hugely influential – its aesthetic, its genre hybridity, its representations have all shaped contemporary sci-fi film. (And computer games.) It looks so familiar now, because it has been so influential, that is hard to understand how groundbreaking it was at the time. Berardinelli, again, points out that it was extremely unsuccessful on release and sees this as evidence of its originality: “Cutting-edge science fiction is often viewed negatively at first then re-evaluated later.” Certainly, thirty-five years later, as it receives its first sequel, its greatness and influence is no longer doubted at all.

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The Watchmen

Zack Snyder is  well known for his film adaptations of comic books – 300Man of Steel, and his upcoming Batman / Superman film all, of course, started as comic books. Perhaps he was the obvious choice to film what is often called the greatest comic of them all -Alan Moore’s 1985 masterpiece The Watchmen. Attempts had been made to film this story before; directors who had been involved with the project before Snyder included Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass, and all had withdrawn, creating the idea that The Watchmen was impossible to film. That Snyder finished the film at all, then, is tribute to him; that the film itself is so good is astonishing.

The mid-eighties saw a huge shift in how comic books were created and perceived. Two artists in particular, Moore and Frank Miller (responsible for Daredevil, The Dark Knight Returns, 300, Sin City and more) were responsible for making the form more complex, darker, more adult. If reflection theory suggests that art mirrors to some extent the world from which it comes, then these comic books perhaps imitate a time which was defined by the last violent spasms of the cold war and the  ever-present threat of nuclear holocaust. This film, of course, did not appear until 2009, 24 years after the original comic book, so some of that relevance has been lost. Indeed, in the move from page to screen, much has been lost, and the film is less clever and less ambitious than the book; but the stories and characters retain much of their power and even now, we can see how the influence of The Watchmen (and Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns) has shaped the better superhero narratives of the past decades.

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What are superhero films for? Well, obviously, it depends on the superhero – Superman and Wolverine are two very different beasts –  but there are certain conventions which we can identify. Essentially, in Proppsian terms, superheroes are the narrative ‘good guys’ who save humanity time after time. Even when they have weaknesses, whether it be kryptonite in Superman’s case or a tendency towards gloomy introspection for Batman, the audience are secure in a diegesis where the good guys will always (or usually; superhero narratives were often a little more complex than they were given credit for) do what is right and where they will always triumph in the end. As such, these stories reflect a world where morality is simple; good guys and bad guys. It is no surprise that the Golden Age of Comic Books coincided with World War 2; a time when such simple, or simplistic, morality was needed to shore up patriotic belief in one’s own nation and cause.

More modern narratives, often constructed under the influence of film noir, tend to seek to construct a more complex and nuanced sense of morality, perhaps to reflect a world where people are less likely to cleave to the certainties of religion or patriotism. The Watchmen was the narrative which, more than any other, reimagined the superhero for this new world. It represents a complete act of genre revisionism and we can see its influence today in films where the superheroes are somewhat less than heroic – Kick-Ass, for example – or where the world is seen to be more morally complex than a simple binary of good and evil.

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The narrative centres around a group of masked crimefighters. They have no supernatural or extraordinary powers (with one exception) and rely on speed and strength to defeat criminals. We see that this is no normal superhero caper when the story opens with the murder of one of the group, The Comedian. Already, the representation of the ‘hero’ has shifted; these people are only slightly less vulnerable than the rest of us. This shift in representation changes much more, though, when we delve into the Comedian’s backstory. He attempts to rape another of the superheroes; he shoots dead the mother of his own baby in Vietnam; he might be responsible for killing John F Kennedy; he does very shady work for the US government. In general, he enjoys murder, mayhem and violence on a grand scale. He is most definitely not a clean-cut ‘good guy,’ or any sort of good guy at all, and yet, he is one of our heroes. His iconic smiley face badge is splattered with his blood after he dies; Snyder follows it in (his very characteristic) slow-mo all the way down until it hits the ground alongside the Comedian himself. It gets passed around some of the other heroes until it is finally buried with the Comedian. We see it repeated at the end of the film, now on a news reporter’s t-shirt, the blood replaced by tomato ketchup. Snyder is highlighting this as the symbol of the entire film; the mix of happiness and violence, life and death, good and evil, the shadowy middle ground which is the world of The Watchmen. And, The Comedian would have us believe, the world of modern America – he is semiotically associated with the American flag and describes himself as the personification of the American Dream.

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So, we start with a superhero who is a murderous, cynical, rapist. He’s the least sympathetic (by some way) of the ‘good guys’ in the film but he is by no means the only one who is seriously messed up. The others variously exhibit sociopathy, misogyny, misandry, impotency, narcissism, alcoholism, addiction, solipsism, masochism, psychopathy, promiscuity and sadism. And one of them, Rorschach, smells really bad. Indeed, Rorschach appears to be the heart of the group; the one member who never compromises his moral vision. He is utterly dedicated to the fight against evil, and he sees evil everywhere. He is deeply misanthropic and, in particular, misogynistic – his mother was an abusive prostitute and Rorschach is seriously affected by his memories of her. In his ‘normal’ life he is Walter Kovacks, a near-derelict, borderline-insane bum who reads right-wing propaganda and habitually predicts the end of the world. As ‘Rorschach’ he is basically a hard-boiled noir figure, generally framed in isolation and in chiaroscuro.

Rors chiaroscuro

He is in ways a typically hypermasculine, uncompromising figure (as are several of the others – these are all tough guys) but his backstory reveals him as a very damaged character and by the end his inability to compromise his morality appears more like a liability than an aspect of heroism. He needs his superhero identity to give meaning and structure to his life; when he cries ‘Give me back my face’ after being unmasked, we realise that he is in flight from his ‘real’ identity and is in fact quite a pitiful figure. It’s not that he won;t compromise; it’s that he doesn’t know how to.

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He’s not the only one whose life is rather empty without his secret identity. Nite Owl, the Batman-like alter ego of Dan Dreiberg, starts  a relationship with Silk Spectre, another of the heroes. He cannot perform sexually, however, and this impotence is surely representative of the exact opposite of what a male superhero should be. He can only perform once they have reverted to their superhero identities and it becomes clear that, like Rorschach, he is incomplete without his secret identity; he is more comfortable and effective – more potent – in his costume than out of it. (He admits as much himself. ‘I’m tired of being afraid… afraid of war, of the mask killer. Of this damn suit and how much I need it.’)

Clearly, then, the representations of superheroes are being changed in The Watchmen. The heroes are more deeply drawn, the violence is more realistically brutal, actions have more believable consequences. The story does more than this though. Postmodern theorists talk about ‘Grand Narratives’ or ‘metanarratives’ which tend to apply to our view of life. One such narrative might be that human history is generally moving towards a better state and that what is ‘good’ will eventually triumph over what is ‘bad.’ Superhero films, obviously, support this metanarrative by showing good triumphing over evil and the world as a fundamentally predictable, benevolent place. All of this certainty and predictability is removed in The Watchmen. One character, Doctor Manhattan (a superhuman figure created by a nuclear accident), a man with Godlike powers of transformation and manipulation, says of his girlfriend ‘She tells me I’m like a God now. I tell her I don’t think there is a God’ and this reflects the atheistic, existential uncertainty of the film’s diegesis. By the end of the film, we have no idea who the good guys are or whether there is any such thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ There is no guarantee that the heroes live or even die, or that criminals are punished. The criminals and the heroes, in fact, are the same people. And in this regard, in this challenging of conventional generic structures and moral ideologies, the film is very postmodern (though not even nearly to the same extent as the original comic book.)

Zack Snyder makes a very good attempt at the impossible with The Watchmen; a huge amount of what made the original comic book so special has been lost, and yet enough remains to make it one of the best ‘superhero’ films ever.

Hong Kong #1: Once Upon a Time in China

Like any national cinema, Hong Kong’s is complex and deep. Certain genres tend to dominate, though, and one of the more obvious ones is wuxia. This is a sort of Chinese historical drama, often (but not always) based on real characters or events, centring around the use of martial arts. The hero is generally the martial arts expert, fighting for what is right and good. As wikipedia points out, these heroes ‘can be compared to martial codes from other countries, such as the Japanese samurai‘s bushido tradition, the chivalry of medieval European knights and the gunslingers of America’s Westerns.’ Film can reflect the history of a nation; if the western, for example, is America’s conversation with itself about how their country came to be what it is, then wuxia  serves a similar function in China; it is (sometimes) a working out of historical events and processes which came to form China and Hong Kong.

Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China is one of the classics of the genre, and a good introduction in that it is both very conventional and extremely well-done. The hero, played by Jet Li, is Wong Fei-hung – a fictionalised version of a real person and the subject of an awful lot of wuxia movies. In this version, Wong is the leader of a local militia (essentially a martial arts club – the ‘jianghu’ which features in so much wuxia.) He is very much framed as part of this group – he is hardly ever seen alone – thus reflecting and reinforcing the veneration of the collective which is such an important part of Confucian and Communist thinking. The film opens and closes with beautiful shots of him training his men, their movements perfectly coordinated. As is common,  we see him struggle against local gangsters and another martial arts master (‘Iron Vest Yim’) to defend his community. There is a love story too, between Wong and ’13th Aunt’, a relationship which is the embodiment of the courtly and restrained love considered ideal in the genre. Already, we see how Wong represents tradition, decency, collective responsibility; we can see why this is such a popular and traditional genre in China.

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Most interestingly, though, the film deals with China’s recent history with foreign countries. At the beginning, we hear how China is being divided up amongst foreigners (‘Hong Kong went to the British… Macau to the Portuguese…’) and the primary villains in the film, apart form the local gangsters, are the British and American military leaders. The binary opposition between China and ‘elsewhere’ is established earlier; we see foreign soldiers firing guns at a dragon festival (Wong heroically interjects himself to save the dragon, quickly being established as the embodiment of Chinese tradition), we hear Christian hymns competing with Chinese traditional music as Jesuit priests attempt to establish Christianity in China , wee see Wong refuse to wear a Western suit. (‘Chinese are Chinese,’ he says. ‘Westerners are western.’) These representations and oppositions are established powerfully when Wong goes to meet the Western leaders in order, supposedly to iron out conflicts which have been disturbing the peace. Located in a huge, white “colonial” hotel, littered with all the iconography of Western rule, the meeting soon becomes the first big fight of the film and the audience realises that Western arrogance will never co-exist peacefully with Chinese tradition. Against his will, Wong is drawn into the fight; he is represented throughout as a natural peacekeeper, though obviously when he does fight, he kicks ass all over the place. (He is Jet Li, after all.)

Fighting westerners

 

So, then, the fighting. Wuxia are martial arts films of a particular type; the fighting is generally highly stylised, with huge dependence on wire-work and impossible leaps. Martial arts are often under threat of banning in these films, and the discussion of martial arts itself is common. Obviously, kung fu is of enormous symbolic importance in wuxia; it represents Chinese tradition and all that is exceptional about China and her people. Here, Wong’s kung fu is pitted against the Westerners with their guns; his skill and power is opposed to their brutality and cowardice. No prizes for guessing who wins. The whole film is, thematically, an exploration of Chinese exceptionalism (just as the traditional Western is a reinforcemnt of white, Anglo-Saxon American exceptionalism.) When 13th Aunt tells Wong that the West has technological advantages (‘they invented the steam train and other things’) but that they don’t have the ‘people’ that China does, this is the point; Chinese people have more soul and spirit, more morality and decency and worthiness, than those from elsewhere. All of this Chinese spirit is symbolised by kung fu.

Martial arts need to be combined with a sense of decency, though, and it is in this regard that the hero of wuxia most closely represents the cowboy in American film or the samurai in Japanese film.  For all of these figures, fighting ability, toughness and courage are a means to an end; the end is the defence of a way of life regarded as the epitome of moral goodness. Wong is not defending himself or even, primarily, his jianghui: he is defending China’s past and battling to ensure that the future is as much like that past as possible. As such, wuxia is an ideologically very conservative genre, designed to construct and glorify a vision of Chinese tradition as the best possible way of life. Nationalism is common her and the representaions of foreigners are rarely sympathetic (this is common in martial arts movies generally; see, for example, the representation of Japanese people in Wilson Yip’s Ip Man.)

We see the effects of separating kung fu from its accompanying ideology of morality and decency (‘chivalry’ in Western terms or ‘Bushidō’ in Japan) in the character of the other martial arts master in the film, Yim. His kung fu is almost the match of Wong’s – in their first fight, he actually emerges (through an accident) as the winner.

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He wants to establish his own school of martial arts in the school and must first defeat Wong (this is a very common plot device in the genre.) Wong treats him with respect and deference, which is not returned by Yim. Already we see that he lacks the important moral component of kung fu and this becomes much more obvious when he joins forces with the local gangsters and their paymasters, the thuggish American military. This is reinforced in the final fight between the to when we find that Yim has a secret blade hidden in his queue (his pigtail.)

There is much more in the movie, not all of it good. Comic relief is provided by Porky Wing the butcher and  Bucktooth So, the American-educated medic. There is the love story between Wong and 13th Aunt. Typically of the genre, there are many elements thrown together to maximise audience appeal; in this regard, it is very like the Indian masala movie. Some of the humour in particular is cringeworthy, but overall the film is a classic of its genre ad one of the clearest examples of the nationalistic and conservative impulses informing wuxia.

Teenagers#1: The Breakfast Club

Probably more than any other director, John Hughes is associated with the representation of teenage high school life and the series of movies he made in an extremely prolific few years between 1984 and 1986 were hugely influential in creating a certain representation of American high school life and American teen life in general.

Generically, Hughes’ films are closest to the teen movie; the characters are teens, they have the stereotypical teen problems (parents, basically) and the action usually takes place in the most typical teen movie location of all, the high school. Perhaps Hughes’ main claim to auteur status, however, comes from the fact that he changed that genre; whatever revisionism it has experienced was started by him. James Berardinelli  points out that Hughes’ run of teen movies ‘…were a cut above the sex and booze-drenched antics of most  teen comedies.’ Such comedies were very popular at the time, and they tended to emphasise crude, sex-based humour, very predictable plots and one-dimensional characters. I’ve mentioned before with regard to The Hunger Games that films aimed at younger audiences are quite often dismissed as being less worthy than those for older people; but sometimes this snobbery is completely justified. It certainly was in the case of a lot of those cheap, predictable, quickly-made teen movies. Now, however, films like The Spectacular Now or Juno  – even The Hunger Games – seem to do a much better job of representing the actual lives of actual teenagers. John Walters, perhaps, started that process of revisionism in terms of teenage representation with film like Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink and Ferris Beuller’s Day Off.

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Berardinelli goes on to say that of all Hughes’ films, ‘…The Breakfast Club was arguably the most insightful and emotionally-true’ and there seems to be a consensus that this is his finest film. The plot is simplicity itself; five kids are in Saturday detention. They are quickly revealed as stereotypes, handily identified in the voiceover at the star of the film as we look at a montage of a typically shabby, vandalised school; criminal, athlete, basket-case, princess, brain. These are the archetypes of the genre, constructed from all the signifiers we use to group teenage characters. They sound like a High School reinvention of Proppsian archetypes. And, like all stereotypes, they are, of course, reductive and simplistic.

At first, they seem confined to their stereotypes, as do their parents. We see each of them arrive outside of the school, ready to serve their Saturday morning detention. The “Princess”‘ father promises that he will make it up to her with gifts if she just does the detention. The “brain”‘s mother is outraged and tells him to make sure he uses the time to study. The “jock”‘s dad cares only about his son’s athletic scholarship, but tells him that it’s normal for guys to ‘screw around.’ Whoever drops the anti-social “basketcase” off squeals off without speaking to her. And the ‘criminal’ arrives after all the others, alone. They all dress appropriately to their roles, easily marked out by their respective clothing signifiers.

Judd Nelson as John Bender

The ‘criminal’ – John Bender, played by Judd Nelson – is the first character to dominate. He pretends to urinate on the floor, threatens to ‘impregnate’ the ‘prom queen’ and generally tries to provoke the others. He is instantly recognisable as the ‘rebel’ – the long hair and grungey leather and plaid clothing functions as Peircian symbols of this character type. He is immediately established as a binary opposite to Emilio Estevez’s clean-cut ‘jock’, who threatens to beat him up. Estevez is seated beside Molly Ringwald’s ‘Princess’ and these proxemics combined with audience foreknowledge and genre expectation make us anticipate that these two – the only two of the five wo are ‘acceptable’ in the social hierarchy of High School – will form a partnership. The nerdy ‘Brain’ (Anthony Michael Hall) and the loner ‘basketcase’ (Ally Sheedy) are situated on right of the screen, and again, we are perhaps invited to start linking these characters together. Bender, the rebel, is by himself, at the back (of course.) And the supervising teacher, played by Paul Gleason, is a bullying, preening idiot. Another obvious and very generic binary opposition, between teens and adults, is well-established in the opening minutes of the film.

We first start to get beyond the stereotypes when ‘Princess’ Claire starts to describe the strained relationship between her parents. She is vulnerable to Bender’s teasing about her weight, her probable virginity and so on – the typical things that boys tease girls about. Clearly, she is more than her stereotype – she appears more thoughtful, vulnerable and reserved than the stereotypical “prom queen”. And this, of course, is the point of the film – to get below these stereotypes and to show how meaningless they are.

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And one by one, all of the characters are revealed. The reaction shots of geeky Brian when Bender (who is the catalyst for change in the film) teases him about his family reveal to the audience that his home life is not as charmingly all-American as we might expect.

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Soon, Bender reveals the nature of his own home life – violently abusive – and we see his own vulnerabilities. His reaction to this revelation is violent – he is verbally abusive to the others and smashes up a  desk -and we start to see how he is made violent by the violence in his own background; but Hughes cuts to a close shot of him, eyes closed, framed tightly and trapped behind bars, and we realise that for all his bravado, he is as much a victim as the others.

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The film is worst when it is most generic – Bender’s ‘escape’ from the storeroom he is confined to, his sexual ‘banter’ (which now would be sexual harassment) with Claire, the dope smoking scene and so on; at these times it is very dated. But when it is focused on delving into the reality of life for these characters, it far surpasses in quality the teen movies which preceded it. The conversation between the two most interesting characters, Andy the jock and Allison the basket-case, in which they both confess the realities of their home lives (‘… they ignore me…’) is beautifully understated given the genre from which it comes. Likewise, the only partially-resolved ending; there doesn’t appear to be any guarantee that these five students will still be friends on Monday. Such details make this film still worth watching even now.

The Act of Killing

Anyone interested in film has probably been spending some time recently looking at the end-of-year ‘best of’ lists. The same films crop up, of course – aggregation sites like Metacritic show that big-budget films like 12 Years a Slave and Gravity are topping the polls. Number six on that list, though – and in first place in ‘serious’ publications like Sight and Sound and The Guardian-  is something of an anomaly; a documentary, and an experimental one at that, about the persecution and killing of supposed Communists in Indonesia when the army suppressed an attempted coup in 1965. It’s called The Act of Killing and it was made by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and an anonymous co-director. (That anonymity is the first sign that we are not in conventional film-making territory here; the Indonesian crew stayed anonymous for fear of violent reprisal.) It is a wonderful, strange film – one of those which stays with the viewer long after watching -and though many reviewers say it is ‘difficult’ to watch, it really isn’t. The shocking thing, in fact, is how easily we are drawn into a world of utter amorality and chaos.

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When a story is told, the teller has decisions to make. ‘Where to stand?’ is the first one; that is, whose story are we telling? What angle are we approaching from? This film deals with a series of atrocities and massacres which claimed the lives of anywhere from 500,000 to 1,000,000 people. The obvious approach is to let the victims, or their loved ones, speak, to give them the voice they were so brutally denied. Much more difficult, and controversial, is to stand on the other side and to explore the lives and minds of the men who did the killing. But this is what Oppenheimer does in his film. It is basically the story of Anwar Congo, a small time gangster who ‘rose’ to become the leader of one of the more notorious death squads. The film claims that Congo was personally responsible for killing around 1000 people. This choice to tell the story of the killers has earned Oppenheimer some furious condemnation; Peter Rainer, for example, refused to give the film a grading, writing that ‘Oppenheimer allows murderous thugs free rein to preen their atrocities, and then fobs it all off as some kind of exalted art thing. This is more than an aesthetic crime; it’s a moral crime.’ As we’ve seen, other reviewers considered this the finest film of the year; it obviously evokes powerful emotions and responses, which is surely appropriate for a film about a conflict which still shapes Indonesia today.

old men dressed up

Another question which storytellers need to answer is ‘How to speak?’ How do we tell the story, or, in documentary, how do we get the subjects to tell their own story? Conventional documentarians stick a camera in front of the subject and let them speak or follow them around and let them show themselves. Oppenheimer does this also; we follow Congo and various associates, mostly other gangsters, as they go about their business – extorting money from their neighbours, largely – and to that degree it’s a conventional observational documentary. But clearly Oppenheimer wanted to go beyond the surface of how these men continue to justify what they did and ask more profound questions – how, for example, does a man live with himself after committing mass murder on an unimaginable scale? To this end, he uses more creative methods, more associated with performative documentary; he invites the killers, all huge fans of film, primarily American film, to re-create events and emotions from their past by making a film about them. This is a strange, indirect way of getting at ‘the truth’, and predictably it only succeeds in getting at one version of the truth; but it certainly produces a powerful, affecting film, one that both awakens awareness of the events under discussion and provokes questions about the nature of murder and evil.

Watching these men produce their film with almost childlike enthusiasm produces absolutely bizarre imagery, mostly involving the thuggish Herman Koto, an overweight gangster who plays all the female roles and provides comic relief.

fat bloke in pink dress

At the start, we watch Koto encourage local children to act out the burning of their homes and the slaughter of their parents, laughing and joking as they perform for him. He is a big, humorous bear of a man, warm and affable, and it is easy to forget tat these children are reenacting things which happened, probably to their grandparents, and that Herman and his friends really were those who were burning homes and slaughtering the inhabitants.

Anwar Congo himself first appears as a dapper, frail gentleman with an amusing vanity (he favours bright, old-fashioned suits and we often see him fussing with his false teeth.) He loves the camera, and is more than willing to discuss his past; this quickly becomesa  discussion of chosen methods of murder as he explains how he hit upon his favoured method -strangulation with wire – as a way of avoiding the need to clear up afterwards. (‘We used to beat them to death,’ he says, ‘but there was too much blood.’) Several times, we see him re-enacting the strangulation of victims as he and his friends, usually dressed as noirish gangsters, for that is how they choose to see themselves, make the film about their actions. The film gains some depth when Congo confesses that he has nightmares about what he has done, and this then becomes the narrative focus of the film; we watch as he approaches an (rather underwhelming) understanding of his actions. At the end of the film, he himself is filmed being ‘strangled’; he weeps as he watches it, then retches when he returns to the scene of many of his murders. This is narrative in the classic Western style; one man forced to change, to perhaps start to move towards some sort of understanding or redemption. (And any suggestion of understanding or redemption, of course, might be completely fabricated by the filmmaker or by Congo himself; it is easy to see why so many people were offended by this film.)

dancers

Oppenheimer guides Congo towards this epiphinaic understanding by making, or allowing, him to confront his past. One of the most powerful scenes is when the stepson of a real-life victim nervously tells the story of how his father was abducted and killed and how he, as a child, had to bury the body. He then acts in the film, playing his father as the gangsters strangle and kill him. At this point, and later during the reenactment of a village massacre, we start to see more thoughtful reaction shots as Congo reflects on what he is doing and has done.

anwar reflective

The massacre scene is perhaps the most powerful part of the film. It is a masterpiece of juxtapositon, as is the whole film; we see men gently encouraging women and children to act more realistically, then cut to one of those men bragging about how he would ‘rape the shit out of’ fourteen-year old girls. An Indonesian MP turns up to help with direction, showing us that the people who massacred all these supposed ‘Communists’ (in reality, simply people who attracted the wrong sort of attention) are, in large part, the people running Indonesia today. The re-enactment itself is blurry, filmed with hand-held cameras, the sound muted, and it is devastatingly effective, both for the viewer and those who act in it, many of whom are in tears at the end.

reenactment massacre

There is too much to say about this film; Dana Stevens summarises it well by calling it ‘a movie that makes you want to laugh and cry and retch and run out of the theater, both to escape the awful things the film is showing you and to tell everyone you know that they need to see it, too.’ I hope my students will watch it, not only for the lessons it teaches about life (evil is boring, everyday, everywhere) but also for the example it sets for film-makers; how fearless, creative, unconventional thinking and approaches can lead us to ask uncomfortable questions and communicate powerful truths.

The Godfather Part 2

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is widely regarded as one of the best films ever made (it’s certainly a popular choice with fans, making second place in the IMDB all-time-greatest list, although critics are a little harsher, only allowing it number 21 in the Sight and Sound list. The sequel, 1974’s The Godfather Part 2, is generally thought of one of the best sequels of all time. It’s certainly one of the most successful, being the only sequel ever to win an Oscar. There is much discussion over which of the two is better. To me, it’s wholly artificial to debate the relative merits of the two films; even compared to most films and their sequels, they feel like two halves of one text and the removal of one part diminishes the power of the other.l

Where does the film’s reputation come from? It’s certainly not originality. The Godfather as a whole is a wholly conventional gangster story. If we look at the earliest crime dramas, we see many of the conventions are still evident decades later in Coppola’s movie. The Public Enemy, for example, made by William Welman in 1931, one of the founding texts of the genre, has several similarities. The focus is on the criminals, not the police (indeed, the forces of law and order are pretty much absent.). The criminal is an anti-hero – somehow sympathetic despite doing generally immoral, and often very terrible, things. The text is very much gendered; it’s a film full of men and it’s about masculinity. It’s also about family – actual families and crime families. Such conventions – and more – are evident in both films, and in other crime movies like Nine Queens or The Town or Rififi. Of course, this isn’t just a crime film, it’s a Mafia movie (or ‘mob film’) and that’s a subtext with a range of conventions all its own. The Mafia, as an Italian organisation which spread to America, gives Coppola the perfect basis for exploration of his themes – old world versus new world, tradition versus modernity, father versus son, past versus present and so on.

immigrant

So, is this merely a ‘genre’ film? Is there space to recognise auteurship at work? Certainly; the distinction between genre and auteur theory has always been a dubious one, and if we accept the postmodern view that nothing is particularly original anyway, then auteurship becomes a shaky notion anyway. Coppola’s vision is most definitely recognised in this film, and we can see his favourite themes and motifs appear in many of his other films. We see monomania just like Michael Corleone’s in Apocalypse Now, for example, and paranoia just like Michael’s in The Conversation.  Although the film is not particularly original, it is certainly the most fully realised exploration of many of these common themes and that is how it earned its reputation and what justifies the inclusion of Coppola in any list of great directors. That is, they’re not the first Mafia films, but arguably the best. (Scarface and Goodfellas are in the running, though!)

American (and thus global, pretty much) crime film, of course, is closely intertwined with the noir tradition, and at its heart, The Godfather Part 2 is a noir. Aesthetically, it is one of the darkest films I have ever seen – not for nothing is the cinematographer Gordon Willis known as the ‘prince of darkness.’ The darkness of the cinematography (as well as the exceptionally affecting minor-key score by Nino Rota, noted and praised by Roger Ebert, who says ‘it stirs emotions we shouldn’t really feel for this story’) connotes, as in all noir, the darkness at the heart of the story, at the very heart of the world represented in the film and the people who occupy that world.

thumbs_godfather-ii-001

It’s Michael’s story, of course, and the almost Shakespearean wallop that the film packs is a direct result of the focus on his descent from his family’s moral touchstone – the boy his father, Vito, tried to protect from the family business – to what Coppola himself called a ‘monster.’  Pacino turns in a magnificent performance (no small feat in a film which contains just about all of the generation’s greatest American actors) which conveys the deep loneliness and emptiness within Michael; that theme, that we are spiritually dead, is classic noir. Noirs from the classic period, of course, were informed at least in part by spreading secularism and the decline in religious faith caused by World War 2. The resultant crisis of faith and conceptions of the universe as a cold, Godless and chaotic place found expression in the bewildering narratives and moral relativism of films like Kiss Me Deadly. Here, we see it more obviously in the religious iconography and symbolism; Michael marking Fredo for death with a kiss, like Judas with Christ, for example, or the opening Catholic funeral which leads to more violence. These symbols are empty of religious signification and full of violence and deceit, and the implication is clearly that religion has no real part to play in this world, despite the (conventional, of course, of the mob film) many instances of characters praying, blessing themselves or offering thanks to a God they clearly have no time for. This rejection of religion – the rejection of Catolicism, Italy, the Old World –  perhaps reaches its fullest expression in 1990’s (much inferior) The Godfather Part 3 when we see Michael – murderous, treacherous and amoral – receive special commendation from the Pope for his ‘charitable work.’

In terms of context, The Godfather Part 2 is rather difficult to pin down, and that’s a compliment. It is amazingly undated and looks like it could have been made just about any time in the last forty years. Again, this gives it a Shakespearean weight and relevance in that it is not constrained by reference or relevance to one place or time. Bu there are contextual points to be made. It clearly grows out of the New Hollywood movement, most obviously in the way it takes an existing genre and reworks it somewhat (just as, for example, Dennis Hopper would do much more drastically to the Western in Easy Rider.) Likewise, it can be seen to deal (as crime movies often do) with several important contemporary issues – the immigrant experience, for one, or the way women are treated in Italian-American cultures or, indeed, more generally.

Primarily, though, the social importance of the film comes from its examination of the American way of life itself. Michael, like Vito before him, is absolutely in pursuit of the American dream. He wants a better life for his family than he had himself (we are repeatedly reminded of his desire to put the family’s business on a legal footing, even as it becomes clear that this dream of legality and respectability is impossible) and he wants professional success – to be the best at his job, to live up to his father’s memory. He wants financial security and safety; all the things which Americans are told to aspire to. Maryann Johanson writes of the Corleone family that ‘their story is pretty much the story of America in the 20th century.’ The entire Godfather saga is an analysis of what this dream, this ambition, does to Michael, and the obvious answer is that it destroys whatever is good in him. John Hess, writing at the time of the film’s release, casts all this in a Marxist light; he sees the film as detailing the binary opposition between capitalism (The American Dream) and humanity (represented by everything Michael loses.) He sees opposition between Michael’s family and his crime family, his ‘work.’ The two, clearly, are incompatible (Hess writes that ‘the benefits of the family structure and the hope for community have been destroyed by capitalism.’ It’s a fascinating way to look at the film; Michael’s family are taken from him by violence, or they are alienated or, most tellingly of all, he has them killed. Fredo’s death at the end of the film is extremely affecting, marking as it does the final nail in the coffin of Michael’s own humanity. The final shots of Michael show him entirely alone, firstly in flashback at his father’s table, secondly in the present time as an older man.

young alone old alone

Michael has, in some way, always been alone. In the first scene he has just announced his desire to join the army, against his family’s wishes. In the second, he has had Fredo killed, (obviously) against the wishes of what remains of his family. Clearly, he has never understood what family actually is, what it is for; he understands it as something to protect, to make prosperous, but he doesn’t have the emotional wherewithal to understand why he is actually doing all this for his family.

In this, he is opposed to his father, Vito. Their stories – Vito’s climb to ascendancy as Godfather in the 19oos and Michael’s descent to monstrousness in the 1950s – are told in parallel, thus creating the binary oppositions – past and present, old world (Europe) and new world (America), father and son – which so profoundly inform the film. Vito is shown to be a man who loves his family – properly, affectionately – and his friends. As he is gathering friends about him, Michael, 50 years later, is alienating them (sometimes, the very people his father befriended all those years before.) At one point, we see Vito with his family, telling his son how much he loves him, being the conventionally happy family man:

kids

When we cut back to the film’s present day and Michael’s story, he is arriving alone at his home to meet his wife, who has just a had a miscarriage (we later find it was an abortion.) He looks at her, then turns away; he does not have his father’s ability to be open and emotionally natural – to be a good human being – even with people he once loved. It’s not so simple as father/good, son/ bad, of course; immediately before returning to be with his family, Vito had gunned down a local mobster. This is his first killing, and one which does not appear to trouble him in the slightest. Nobody here is a ‘good guy’ (this is noir, at least in spirit, remember) but Michael apparently does not know how to maintain his humanity in the midst of so much evil. In Michael Hess’ terms, already mentioned, he is a business man, not a family man; he can’t be both.

All in all, a truly magnificent movie, one that does what the best narrative art does; shows us real, believable characters being buffeted by life and managing or failing to manage to reain something of themselves. By the end, when Michael is completely without humanity, we still feel for him, because we understand how he came to be like that; the film shows us how ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are, perhaps, merely constructs, how we are all the product of our environments, how even the best of us- Michael Corleone, the young charmer, the war hero – can be corrupted.

Everything is Illuminated

And then my sister. She was pregnant. They put the gun to her pregnant belly. They said they would kill the baby inside her if my father did not spit. He could not… He did not spit.

Directed by Liev Schreiber, and based on (part of)  Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel of the same name, this film takes a cheerfully anarchic tour through a few different genres and forms; it’s an autobiography- comedy- road movie- Holocaust movie (or something.) And despite all this (presumably) ironic self-awareness (which is actually much more a feature of the book than the film) the film does manage to make moving, serious points about the Holocaust. It’s not entirely successful, but it’s never less than engaging.

It details Foer’s (played by Elijah Wood) efforts to trace his own Jewish-Russian roots in the Ukraine, and focuses around a journey he makes with his Russian guide Alex and Alex’s grandfather, a mad old anti-Semitic driver who thinks he’s blind, thus necessitating the use of a ‘seeing eye bitch’ called Sammy Davis Jr Jr. Eugene Hutz as Alex just about steals the show, particularly with his mangled English (‘…my friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name..’) which is a delight to listen to. There ‘s a lot to like about the film. It has a distinct aesthetic, with some lovely, comic cinematography, and the performances are all strong. The Russian actors get all the best lines, though; Wood, as the nerdish Foer (‘..an anaemic straight-man caricature’, according to Michael Atkinson) is very much in the shade.

in the car

But despite strong cinematography and performances and everything else, this a writer’s film, unsurprisingly given the source material. It is ambitious in its handling of genre; to use comedy to attempt to address themes around the Holocaust is, obviously, fraught with difficulty (not entirely unprecedented though – Robert Benigni’s superb Life is Beautiful did something similar in 1997, although Roger Ebert points out that even that film received criticism for apparently making light of the Holocaust.) The comedy in Schreiber’s film is joyous; Alex’s obsession with and clumsy appropriation of all things American and pop-culture (hip-hop, Michael Jackson, ‘negroes’ – they are ‘premium people’ apparently – and so on) is obviously rooted in a familiar representation of Russian youth, whilst Foer’s nerdish, obsessive, vegetarian, dog-phobic writer is just as rooted in another stereotype, but despite this familiarity, the characters are wonderfully sympathetic and engaging.

The narrative gives the film its backbone, though. It is essentially a road movie – the three main characters are off to find a lady who helped Foer’s grandfather survive the Holocaust. She lives in a village called Trachimbrod, and the hunt for this village – and the ‘finding’ of it – are what ultimately turns the story away from comedy. This is actually not entirely successful; it’s a fiendishly difficult tonal shift to handle (Stella Papamichael writes that ‘Schreiber’s most difficult task comes at this halfway point when he switches gears from comedy to drama’) and although it is handled well, the film’s engagement with Holocaust themes never provokes the reaction that it could, simply because the first half of the film hasn’t been doing the work of building up to such a reaction. As such, we get a smaller, less ambitious pay-off, but that’s fine; it’s moving and effective, albeit somewhat too ‘tidy’ at the end.

Typically of the road movie, the real journey is internal, and this is where the actual surprise of the movie is. The journey at the heart of the road movie is always a metaphor for the change and development of one or more of the characters, and obviously the most obvious example of this is in Foer himself, who learns about his own roots and who seems to open up a little (he is friendlier with Alex at the end and has somehow overcome his fear of dogs, giving Sammy Davis Jr Jr an affectionate kiss at the end.) But he, it turns out, is not the main character. Foer’s extreme uptightness, for all his quirkiness (he collects things as he goes along, sealing things like potatoes and handfuls of soil in plastic bags to add to his ‘collection’), makes him hard to penetrate, and Wood’s performance, strangely reminiscent of his portrayal of Kevin, the psychotic cannibal from Sin City (yes, I know that seems an unlikely comparison) doesn’t help. Likewise, we might expect Alex to be the central character, the one who makes the all-important change reflected by the journey at the heart of the movie. After all, he is the one who delivers the voice-over which controls the delivery of the plot; it is he, it turns out, who writes the book upon which the film is based (there’s some postmodern self-aware jiggery-pokery here, of course.) But he is the character who changes the least, and as such he is more caricature than character; an absolutely delightful caricature, but not developed or rounded beyond that.

illuminated house

As it turns out, our attention should have been on the grandfather, the supposedly blind driver of the knackered Trabant which takes them to Trachimbrod (based on the real-life Trochenbrod.) As the story progresses, and we start to investigate the grandfather’s character with flashbacks to the scene of an execution of Jewish prisoners by Nazi soldiers, we realise that the story of Everything is Illuminated is actually his story; the journey into the past, a past which Alex is more or less ignorant of, and which Foer is only tangenitally connected to. The grandfather, however, lived it and is directly connected to what happened at Trachimbrod, and the audience is soon wondering about the nature of that connection; bluntly, which end of the gun was he on? His blatant anti-semitism (he is horrified to learn that Sammy Davis Jr, his favourite singer and, obviously, the inspiration for his beloved dog’s name, was Jewish) lead us to conclusions which are, of course, not necessarily correct. As Stella Papamichael goes on to point out, the grandfather ‘… takes the story into more wistful territory and ultimately provides the heart’ and at the end, it is his exit from the story which provides the actual emotional kick of the film.

grandfather

A lovely film, then, and thank you to my ever-helpful student Adrian for recommending it (other students: what else should I be watching?) It offers a small-scale look at the effect of the Holocaust on people both directly involved and those born generations later; it is both very moving and extremely funny (it’s certainly the most quotable film I’ve seen in a while) and it provides an interesting comparison to more traditional Holocaust films like Schindler’s List.

Aliens and auteurs; the rest of Ripley

The Alien series of films is one of the best ever made; it gets weaker as it goes along but the first two are up there with the very best of sci-fi films. In the last post, I wrote about the importance of Alien as an attempt to re-frame the horror and sci-fi genres as less gendered, less exclusively male. As a result, he made one of the most forward-thinking and important sci-fi films ever. And you can’t stop at one, obviously; watch one, watch ’em all.

So, what happened to Ripley in all the follow-ups? The next three films in the series (we’ll deal with the final film, Scott’s own Prometheus, separately, if I get around to it!) were made by James Cameron, David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. That’s quite a line-up, and it opens up some interesting questions about whether these directors (all men, obviously) managed to maintain Scott’s basically feminist ideologies or reverted to genre norms. Equally, it might be possible to interrogate some ideas about auteurship in mainstream American genre cinema; is it actually possible for a director to pursue an individual vision whilst working within such a commercially driven cinema and within such clearly defined genre conventions?

When James Cameron came to make the first follow-up, Aliens, in 1986, he was straight off the back of 1984’s The Terminator. That film bore some resemblance to Scott’s Alien in that it was a relatively low-budget sci-fi film which went on to turn an enormous profit. The similarities end there, though – while Scott’s sci-fi tends towards horror, Cameron’s is most definitely action-based. So, we might expect Aliens to be more of an action adventure than a sci-fi horror, and we wouldn’t be disappointed, because that’s pretty much what it is. (Note how the taglines on the posters change. From ‘In space no-one can hear you scream’ to ‘This time it’s war.’ The change from horror to action is pretty clear there.)

aliens poster

The plot continues from the end of Alien. Ripley has been floating, frozen, on the Nostromo for 57 years. She finds herself sent back to LV-426 to investigate the disappearance of the colonists sent there by the company for whom she works, Weyland-Yutani. This time, however, she takes a company of particularly gung-ho marines with her, so we’re quickly into action-adventure mode. The planet is crawling with Xenomorphs and there is only one human survivor left – a young girl nicknamed Newt, who quickly becomes a surrogate daughter to Ripley (her own daughter died while she was in stasis.) The battle against the Xenomorphs culminates in an encounter with their Queen.

So, the plot owes more to action adventure than horror. What of Ripley herself? Has Cameron turned her into an action star? Well, she becomes a lot handier with a gun, and the guns, the primary index of the action film, are a lot bigger.

ripley gun

But even as she appropriates the gun – the primary (phallic) index of masculinity in this genre – she is once again defined as powerfully anti-masculine; the men show themselves to be variously incompetent, cowardly, deceitful or just plain insufficient. As in the first film, the action really starts once RIpley, exasperated at male indecision, takes charge. There is another female character, Private Vasquez, who is actually the most boorish and macho of the marines. With her short hair, defined muscles and very large gun, she is in effect a woman who is presenting herself as a hyper-masculine man.

aliens vasquez

It is telling that, as the film proceeds and male responses to violence are shown to be useless, she becomes a lot quieter, more observant and more effective. In effect, she becomes more like RIpley and less like the other Marines, and that makes her more sympathetic.

So, Ripley does indeed become more like an action hero, but Cameron has most definitely taken on board that she is not simply a female version of a male action hero. One of Ripley’s most obvious traits is compassion – specifically, motherly compassion. We saw her care for Jones, the ship’s cat, in Alien. In Aliens, we see her reaction to the news that she has missed her daughter’s entire life whilst in stasis; then, she quickly steps up to act as Newt’s mother and it is here we see her at perhaps her most iconic and her most free of gender limitations; wielding a hyper-masculine pulse rifle in one hand, protecting a child with the other.

ripley gun newt

Indeed, by the end of the film, the men do not matter at all. It’s Ripley against the Queen, fighting for Newt. Two women – two mothers – fighting over a girl. The only man of any importance to the plot by the end is Bishop, the executive officer, and he’s not a man at all, but an android. So, almost unimaginably for an action movie made in the mid-eighties, this is a wholly female-centric plot.

Cameron does an excellent job of taking the franchise further, adapting it according to his own action-based strengths, and understanding the gender representations which make it so important; his film is often regarded as the best of the four, and though I don’t quite agree with that – Scott’s Alien is, for me, by far the best – it maintains the intelligence of the original whilst being one of the most exciting action films ever.

Could it last? David Fincher was up next, in 1992, for Alien3. (One of the taglines this time: ‘The bitch is back.’ Oh dear.) This was Fincher’s debut feature, his previous experience having been with music video. Stories about the making of the film do not exactly inspire confidence; Fincher was brought in at the last minute and had no time for pre-production, the cinematographer had to be replaced, Sigourney Weaver was reluctant to be involved and the studio would not permit Fincher to make the film he wanted to. To this day, Fincher refuses to have anything to do with the film:  in 2009 he said, ‘No one hated it more than me; to this day, no one hates it more than me.’

alien3poster

So all that doesn’t bode well. The film starts like Aliens – RIpley’s in stasis again, returning to Earth after the events of the previous film, and a fire breaks out on the ship. She is ejected in a pod and crashes on Fiorina ‘Fury’ 161,a prison planet reserved for ‘YY chromosomes’ – murderers and violent sexual criminals. Unsurprisingly for those of us who’ve been following the series, an alien is on board with her and it proceeds, in best horror film style (because we’re now back to horror again, after Cameron’s action adventure) to start picking off the inmates. Eventually, we find out that Ripley has one of the aliens gestating inside of her, and she ends up contending with both the Alien and the company, Weyland-Yutani, who consider the alien to be of more importance to their research than the health or lives of their human employees.

The film is a shambles in many ways. Ripley immediately starts a sexual relationship with the prison doctor, Clemens, which is entirely unbelievable. The deaths of major characters, supposed to be shocking and unpredictable, simply feel random. The dialogue is cliched and wooden (‘Your ass is already on the line! What are you going to do about it?’) One of the most interesting parts of the movie is the strange religious fervor of the prisoners – their ‘apocalyptic millenarian Christian fundamentalist’ belief system – but it never really goes anywhere.

shaved ripley

Perhaps most disappointing is the way the interesting aspects of Ripley’s character are abandoned. She has her head shaved and becomes yet more masculine; Alien3 was made 13 years after the original film and Sigourney Weaver looks tougher, older, leaner. She’s a lot more gung-ho this time, more ready and able to take on the alien. So, although we’re faced with a diegesis of dark, creepy horror (which FIncher would realise fully in his next film, Seven), Ripley herself has gone into full action-hero mode. There is little vulnerability, little in the way of depth or shade to her character. In a way, this is appropriate since Alien3 forms a natural end to the first trilogy of films and by this time it could be argued that Ripley has had all the vulnerability battered out of her. Still, it makes for a much less interesting film, and the one which is generally regarded as the franchise low-point. It’s still worth watching – you could hardly bring this cast and this director together and not get something at least decent out of it -but it certainly does not compare to the earlier films.

In terms of auteurship, obviously Fincher had little chance to exercise his own creative muscles. The studio, perhaps acting out their own Weyland-Yutani fantasies, interfered at every turn and thus we have what is basically a mess of a film. And yet, we can see his style in there; if Alien was terrifying and Aliens was creepy, then Alien3, more than anything else is creepy and disturbing, exactly like Fincher’s Seven would be a few years later. The autopsy scene, the creepy religious influence, the ever-present threat of sexual violence; all of these things create a diegesis which would become much clearer and more effective once FIncher was given some room to work. His editing style, presumably learned from working on all those music videos, is in place too; lots of fast cuts, so fast it’s hard to tell if we just saw the rather shocking thing we did, lots of cross cutting (notably, between the burial scene at the start and the birth of the alien elsewhere in the ship.) So, perhaps this offers hope for us that even within the most restrictive circumstances imaginable, a director can be an auteur with a recognisable style and tone.

res poster

Finally, then, Alien Resurrection from 1997, directed by France’s Jean-Pierre Jeunet. He was best known as the director of Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children and he had a well-established taste for the playfully macabre and grotesque, so we’d probably expect a more darkly humorous tone than Fincher created . We might also expect him to bring some of the French tradition of artistry and auteurship to play here. And we’d get it all, or at least an attempt at it. THe film is generally regarded as being better than Fincher’s but still far below the quality of the first two in the series. Reviews were mixed; many were relatively positive, but Roger Ebert in particular gave it a savaging, concluding that ‘There is not a single shot in the movie to fill one with wonder.’ That’s too harsh – there are many fantastic sequences, particularly the underwater chase – and Jeunet has done a good job of giving the alien a new face and a new character. He shifts our sympathies, in a process that had been ongoing throughout he series; like RIpley, we are torn between sympathy for the alien itself and the humans trapped with it.

The film takes place 200 years after the end of Alien3  and it opens, again, with a cloned Ripley being awoken from sleep (or reanimated.) The alien is still there in her womb from the end of Aliens3 and it is delivered in a pretty gruesome scene at the opening (it would be unlike Jeunet to shy away from disturbing imagery.) So, now we have the narrative complication that Ripley is actually the mother of the alien being chased – and it’s a queen, a breeder, so she quickly becomes grandmother to many more. Again, the struggle is between women, Ripley and the Queen, and the most significant other character is another women, played (without much effect, truth to tell) by Winona Ryder. All the male characters are caricatures – all, to different degrees, motivated by greed or machismo. Only the women really understand, actually and morally, the significance of what is going on.

ripley alien

RIpley herself has become as much alien as human by this point in the series. Carrying the alien has affected her to the extent that she is now stronger and faster (and better at basketball) than the men on the crew; being hit in the face with a metal bar doesn’t phase her. SHe is now, apparently, stripped of the affection which she showed earlier in the series for Jones the cat and Newt. She does show some interest in Call (Ryder’s character) but it actually appears more sexual than maternal. The only affection she shows is towards the alien she bore; it appears she has finally given up on humanity; particularly, the male part of it. Not only has she now transcended gender limitations; having died once and given birth to an alien, she has pretty much transcended all human limitations.

So, Ripley moves from reluctant heroine, to action star, to something which is ultimately not only not particularly feminine but not even entirely human. There is a logical progression here, and remarkably, all four directors managed to maintain this progression whilst also showing off, as far as is possible given the circumstances, their individual styles. Certainly, the first two films are leagues better than the last two, but none of them are bad and watched as a whole, they constitute perhaps one of the most artistically satisfying film franchises ever conceived.

Alien

My most recent posts have been about two sci-fi films, Gravity and Stalker. I tried to frame those films as belonging to a tradition of philosophical sci-fi which also includes such films as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Duncan Jones’ Moon from 2009. There are, of course, other traditions within sci-fi; a popular one for study, for example, is that branch which reflects audience fears. Most discussed in this vein are those American films from the fifties which reflect the fear of Communist invasion supposedly rife at that time; Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956) is perhaps the most famous. Alternatively, current films like Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (2007) mirror contemporary concerns about environmental damage. These traditions seem to me to be close to the tradition embodied in sci-fi’s alternative name, ‘speculative fiction’; they use the conventions of the genre to explore ideas and speculate about possible futures for humanity.

So, there are a range of traditions or types within sci-fi. Like any genre, it is increasingly being expanded through hybridity – that is, the joining together of genres. So, we get sci-fi action films (John Carter), sci-fi comedy (Mars Attacks!) sci-fi superhero movies (X Men) and so on. One well-established hybrid is the sci-fi horror, and it was pretty much invented by Ridley Scott in 1979 with Alien. This is the film which established Scott as a major player in Hollywood (making $100 million at the box office on a $10 million budget will do that) and thirty-odd years later it remains absolutely as sharp, contemporary and terrifying as ever; it has not aged even slightly. It finds its real heirs in contemporary sci-fi horror games; if you’ve ever guided Isaac Clarke down a seemingly endless series of corridors in Dead Space, for example, you’ve got Alien to thank for every single narrative and aesthetic convention.

The action takes place for the most part on board the Nostromo, the name (and the film’s plot, pretty much) taken from a Joseph Conrad novel. (The references to Conrad’s work continue throughout the Alien series.) An encounter with an alien nest results in the alien making it on board the ship and terrorising the crew. The heroine is Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley – one of the great female film protagonists.

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Aesthetically, the film is in the tradition of expressionism and noir which we explored in other posts. We see a lot of the conventions of that particular mode of filmmaking – the chiaroscuro lighting and bars of light, the smoky interiors, the canted angles and extreme low shots and so on.

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Given that the typical noir narrative -a protagonist is caught in a near-incomprehensible web of misfortune and must fight his or (occasionally) her way out – is exactly what happens here, the aesthetic suits the tone and mood of Alien. It was obviously a preferred mode for Scott since his next film, 1982’s Blade Runner used it again, to exceptional effect.

That expressionist style is also the foundation of horror film-making, of course, and Alien is an outstanding horror movie.  (David Thompson points out that is is ‘basically a haunted house film’ but set on a spaceship rather than in a spooky house.) The narrative conventions of horror are there – just as in every teen slasher ever, the beastie starts picking the victims off one by one as they heroically, or stupidly, go off by themselves to thwart it. In many ways, it’s very conventional. But as many theorists have noted, what makes it interesting and important (and it is important – in his excellent essay on the film, Jordan Poast calls it ‘one of the most politically progressive films ever made’) is the way it differs from horror conventions. The most obvious way is in its protagonist, Ripley. Originally, she was a man; Ridley Scott insisted on changing the character to a woman, and this is what makes Alien so special. Firstly, it’s a big deal for the protagonist in such gendered genres (sci-fi and horror are both usually dominated by men) to be a female. Scott makes a habit of ‘regendering’ genres – he would go on to feminize the road movie (very successfully) in Thelma and Louise, and the army film (not so successfully) in G.I . Jane. As Proast writes, ‘the film blazed trails for female protagonists to lay claim to the male-centered cinema that had reigned since the inception of motion pictures, including the most entrenched forms, the action genres.’

But that’s not where the film’s real importance lies. It would be noble, but not especially remarkable, if all Scott had done was to switch a female protagonist for a male one. But starting from that switch, the whole film becomes a study of gender roles. We see how the crew treat each other according to gender; Ripley’s orders, for example, are ignored by the other men even though she is at that time the commanding officer on the Nostromo. Quickly, though, the men are shown to be essentially incompetent. The audience is led to believe that the hero of the film will be the ship’s captain, Dallas. But it soon becomes clear that Dallas has no more clue how to deal with the Xenomorph (the alien) on the ship than any of the other men, and Ripley has to take charge. From this point on, she moves into the centre of the action and the frame, increasingly crowding the men out. Importantly, the men are useless exactly because of the characteristics most usually associated with masculinity; they are too impetuous, too given to violent response, too confident in their own competence. Dallas, for example, acts like he’s in an action movie, and he goes to solve the problem alone; but this isn’t an action movie and his male heroics are quickly and bloodily shown to be inadequate.

useless men alien

The man most opposed to Ripley is Ash, the ship’s science officer. Finally, he snaps and attacks her and, in a strange and unsettling scene, attempts to choke her with a rolled-up pornographic magazine. This is a softly intertextual reference to a convention of the slasher; the inevitable scene where the female is stabbed repeatedly by the antagonist. It’s been said many times that the slasher movie is an acting out of violent male sexual desire; all those bad guys aren’t stabbing those girls, they’re symbolically raping them. The same is true here: Ash is trying to put Ripley in her place by violating her orally. Again, though, Ripley is empowered to fight back and triumph; the females are most definitely not the victims in Alien as they would be in a more conventional horror movie.  David McIntee, in his book Beautiful Monsters, writes that ‘Alien is a rape movie with male victims.’ He goes on to point out that gender roles are reversed in more ways than one in the film – in the film’s most famous and shocking scene, it is a man who gives birth to the Xenomorph. If Alien is anything, it is a tribute to female resilience, caution and perseverance and a warning against male aggression and arrogance. That Ridley Scott chose two of the most male-orientated genres to make his points in (revitalising and reinventing those genres in the process) is tribute to his, and the film’s, genius.

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Alien is an amazing, important, terrifying movie. It’s exceptionally well made and extremely effective. But it will be remembered, I suspect, for how it treats gender. It might be appropriate to compare it again to Dead Space, a game which effectively rips off every possible aspect of the film. But the makers of the game obviously thought the female protagonist was a step too far, even 30 years later in a post-Lara Croft world; they’ve changed the iconic Ripley to the faceless Isaac Clarke, and lost the point of the entire narrative in so doing.

Stalker

…our small country has seen the birth of a miracle – the Zone.

My last post, on Gravity, became less a recommendation to see that film (though you should – it’s very good) and more a plea to see this one – Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker from 1979. It’s been said that sci-fi reflects humanity’s fears for the future or even for the present – something like Neil Blomkamp’s District 9, for example, deals with fears around immigration, while Danny Boyle’s Sunshine reflects contemporary anxieties about environmental damage. But sci-fi is a versatile genre, and it can do more than this; as a genre which examines the interplay of humanity and space, technology and ‘the unknown’, it is uniquely well placed to interrogate huge questions about human development and evolution. Gravity tinkers around with these ideas, but bends them towards a typically Hollywood focus on the individual (it’s not humanity who evolves; it’s just Dr Stone.) Tarkovsky, on the other hand, like Kubrick before him in 2001: A Space Odyssey, tackles them directly and at a profound level. (Well, as directly as he ever tackles anything.)

The story is based on a novella, Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. The story, or maybe the film, also spawned a (really good) series of PC games called S.T.A.L.K.E.R. All three iterations of the story are worth investigating, particularly given that none of them are remotely similar to any of the others. Tarkovsky has borrowed ideas and character names from the novel (indeed, the screenplay for the film was written by the Strugatsky brothers, authors of the original novella) – most obviously, the Zone, the mysterious location at the heart of the story, and the eponymous Stalker – but the film diverges hugely from the book in terms of tone, subject matter and theme. It is very much Tarkovsky’s own work, and it is also entirely in keeping with the rest of his work.

The film’s plot is simplicity itself. We start with an interview which explains that ‘our small country’ has possibly been struck by a meteorite, or visited by aliens. Whatever happened, it left a ‘miracle’ in its wake – an area where apparently laws of physics no longer apply. Various mystical objects are found there and most famous of all is ‘the room’ which is reputed to grant wishes. Either because of the powerful objects to be found in the Zone, or because of the extreme danger there, entry is prohibited and the place is heavily guarded. A stalker is a man (always a man – Reynard Seifert points out that ‘…the Zone is a male place… where man journeys to contemplate his alienation’) who guides curious travellers into the Zone and, ultimately, to the Room. In the film, the Stalker guides two other men – the Writer and the Professor – against the wishes of his wife.

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The character of the Stalker himself is one of the biggest changes from the novella. There, he was a hard-bitten character called Red Schuhart, a drinker, fighter and wheeler-dealer. In Tarkovsky’s film, he has changed into a much gentler, more introspective and anxious character. Alexander Kaidanovsky was only 33 when he played the role, but he looks much older; when we see how he lives, the kind of a man he is and what he does to make money, this is entirely appropriate. He acts as a physical and spiritual guide for the men; in ways, they all act for guides for each other, but Stalker is the most knowledgeable, the most open to learning, the most aware of the power and beauties and danger of the Zone. Put simply, he is the one who best understands life, and he has come to his knowledge, it seems, through experience rather than art (the Writer) or science (the Professor.) Unlike the others, he is a spiritual being, a mystic; he knows how to behave in the Zone, with a sort of mix of respect and gratitude, but he struggles to communicate this knowledge to others, especially the deeply cynical Writer, and he barely seems to understand his own understanding.

STALKER

What, then, is ‘The Zone’? The Stalker, writes Matthew Pridham, ‘regards the Zone as an oasis in his gritty, down-trodden life, as a salvation from the position of non-entity in which he finds himself in the city.’ It is, perhaps, heaven to him; a place which can grant all wishes but must be treated with respect and which must be earned. This is a common idea in sci-fi – a place (usually outer space) which functions as an alternative to Earth or quotidian reality. In Gravity, we see George Clooney’s veteran astronaut explain to Sandra Bullock’s rookie how he understands the attraction of space as an escape from Earth and daily responsibility; the idea is the same, but on a more basic level. Stalker can be read in many ways; given the context, it’s fairly common to see it as a Christian, and thus anti-Soviet, film: Mark Le Fanu writes that ‘The film, it is clear, is in favour of belief and of what goes with belief: piety, watchfulness, self-abnegation.’ Even if we don’t read it as specifically Christian, it is certainly spiritual, and the Room itself – demanding, as it does, that the entrant be deeply aware of his own desires – is a powerful symbol of self-knowledge and self-interest, both deeply anti-Communist ideas. We hear the cautionary tale of another Stalker, nicknamed Porcupine, who is destroyed by his own lack of self-knowledge; he did not realise what his own deepest desires were. It is perhaps unsurprising that Tarkovsky had a strained relationship with the Soviet authorities (rumours persist that he was actually murdered by them) and that Stalker was the last film he made in the Soviet Union.

Aesthetically, the film is stunning. The opening scenes of the Stalker’s home, of everyday life outside the Zone, are all shot in sepia with a film grain almost rich enough to touch. Dreary, depressing, and beautiful. Colour enters the frame when we go into the Zone (Geoff Dyer suggests offhand that the film is Tarkovsky’s take on The Wizard of Oz. This is actually not so ridiculous a suggestion as it might appear!)

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A huge part of Tarkovsky’s aesthetic is the slow pace of his films – in Stalker, he averages more than a minute a shot and this is very typical of his work. Long takes are fairly conventional of this type of philosophical sci-fi  – we see it in both A Space Odyssey and, to a lesser extent, in Gravity. Time, including the pace of editing, was of enormous importance to Tarkovsky – in his book, called Sculpting in Time, he wrote that “The dominant, all-powerful factor of the film image is rhythm, expressing the course of time within the frame.” Where other directors might consider cinematography or plot or character the defining features of their cinema, for Tarkovsky it is the manipulation of narrative time. The film has a truly poetic lyricism, largely due to the long takes –Eugene Izraylit points out that this in itself can be seen as a subversive act given the context of the time, writing that ‘His poetic interpretation of reality is as far away from social realist filmmaking as anyone ever dared to go in the former Soviet Union.’

Ingmar Bergman said that ‘…Tarkovsky for me is the greatest [director], the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.’ That captures well what to expect from a Tarkovsky film, and it gives some indication of Tarkovsky’s stature; he is one of the greatest directors ever, and this is perhaps his finest film.

Oh – and all of his films are available for free online!