Tag Archives: noir

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been involved with the project before Snyder included Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass, and all had withdrawn, creating the idea that The Watchmen was impossible to film.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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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.

Crime #4: Rififi

Rififi, Jules Dassin’s 1955 masterpiece, has been called the greatest example of the heist genre and one of the finest French noirs. It’s perfect, the kind of movie that makes people love film – wonderfully written, edited and acted. A diamond, Peter Bradshaw calls it, and he’s right.

Dassin was a successful director of noir thrillers, most famously Naked City, in the 1940s. In 1950, he fell victim, along with many others, to McCarthyism. Unable to work in the USA or abroad – American companies would refuse to distribute his films – he finally managed to get hired to make Rififi – a project he was singularly uninterested in – in France, after five years of unemployed frustration. Whether his recent history influenced the making or tone of the film, and given what he had been through it’s probably best to assume that it did, he ended up producing a film which is as violent and dark as any of the great noirs (Truffaut himself called this the greatest noir he had ever seen.)

The film revolves around Tony le Stéphanois, a bank robber freshly out of prison. A young friend, Jo, offers him the chance to do one last job, at a jeweller’s store, and after initially refusing he is soon involved. Tony is a classic noir anti-hero – a character blended of equal parts light and dark (and lit the same way.) He risks his life to save Jo’s son, but also brutally beats an ex-girlfriend. He is absolutely faithful to his friends, but will kill those he thinks have betrayed the criminal code. The character, of course, reflect the film’s world; once again, we’re in familiar crime scene territory, wherein morality is relative and there are no reliable definitions of good and bad to cling to.

As ever in crime drama, the film is in large part a study of male relationships. Most obviously, this is done through the characters of Tony, Jo and Jo’s son (and Tony’s godson) Tonio. We see how Jo dotes on his boy, and how, for him, crime is a way to provide for his son. Tony too is devoted to the boy and it’s not too much of a stretch to say that the two of them see in the boy some innocence which they have lost. But we see Tonio’s love of toy guns and fast cars, his desire to always be with his father and godfather; it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to see that the boy may well continue in their footsteps one day. The darker side of these relationships are also shown; when one of the men crosses the line and gives away information, there is only one possible ending for him. ‘You know the rules,’ Tony tells him, immediately before regretfully executing him. Those rules, the mechanics of male relationships, are the real theme of crime drama and of this film. As such, it’s largely a film about and for men; the women in the film are wives and girlfriends or prostitutes and victims. 

The film, then, is largely about relationships. But it’s also about crime, and ‘the job’ itself is shown in the famous central segment; 30 minute of almost complete silence, during which Tony and his three accomplices drill through the roof to the store, disable the alarm, crack the safe and escape. It’s a superb sequence, almost unbearably tense, and clearly the model for every complex, nerve-wracking heist scene since. We are firmly on the side of the criminals; we have seen their lives, met their families and grown to like them (especially the romantic Italian safecracker, César le Milanais, played under an assumed name by Dassin himself.) We want them to succeed. But the heist is in the middle of the film, not at the end, and we realise that this is not to be an Ocean’s Eleven deal where the men walk away rich and happy; the film is too honest, to real to give them that sort of easy ending.

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There is too much to say about this film; the cinematography is beautiful (Paris in the wintertime looks moody and beautiful) and the editing is excellent (particularly in the last race against time in Tony’s car. Jumpy, disorientating, this reminds me strongly of later New Wave scenes, such as the opening of Breathless.) Suffice it to say that it does what all the best noir and crime drama does; it makes us care about and feel sorry for men who are not immediately or easily sympathetic, and it makes us think a little more about what it means to be heroic. As such, it began a tradition which found perhaps its best expression in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Go and watch it. (I know, I know, I always say that. But you HAVE to watch this one!)

Rififi tenderness

Expressionism Round 2: Robocop Vs Metropolis

Dutch director Paul Verhoeven is certainly not so obvious an ‘Expressionist’ as Tim Burton, but it’s not too difficult to trace the influence. Verhoeven has had a wide-ranging career, working in TV and Film (and Bible Studies, at a very high level!), in Dutch and English, and across several genres. He’s also made very well received films (Turkish Delight, Robocop, Total Recall) and at least one that was hated to a level which made it a cult in its own right (Showgirls – really, don’t bother.)

Perhaps the best known (and best) films of those he made in English are 1987’s Robocop and 1997’s Starship Troopers. Both of these, you might have guessed, are sci-fi movies, and to a film student, that’s almost without exception going to suggest a link back to Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis (1927), the first feature-length sci-fi movie ever made. Both films are fantastic, but Robocop is perhaps the best and most typical of Verhoeven’s auteurship. He has a very characteristic blend of violence (Robocop had to be trimmed substantially before release), humour and social satire which shouldn’t really work but (usually) does.
The story is set in Detroit at some point in the future. The city, in a familiar representation for fans of crime film or dystopian sci-fi, is seen as a broken, amoral hell. where crime and brutality are the norm. Everyone we meet, just about, is either a criminal or a victim of crime.  Given Detroit’s current problems, this choice of location seems remarkably prescient.
The police force in this dystopian future have been privatised; they are run partially as a private enterprise and their bosses are eager to make developments which will both control crime and create new areas for profit. The idea of a robotic cop is introduced early (and hilariously, when the first prototype goes wrong) in the move. It’s just a matter of time until our protagonist Murphy shows up, gets killed and is reanimated as Robocop.
Already, there are several themes and devices here which are typical of dystopian sci-fi and which originate fairly obviously in Metropolis. The choice of an urban location, firstly, and more generally the establishment of a location and a diegesis which is defined by conflict. The urban location is easily enough explained; crime generally happens in cities, so it makes sense to locate films which depend on crime for their narratives there. More than this, however, there is often a suggestion that the city itself engenders crime, that urbanisation or industrialisation or capitalism are processes which corrupt and brutalise humanity and actually encourage crime. It’s pretty obvious in Robocop that the ‘legitimate’ businessmen, those in charge of the police force, are not much more morally grounded or more useful to society than the ‘proper’ villains; the profit motive, the thing which defines all of them, is an inherently wicked concept, opposed to ‘proper’ human values as represented by the unquestioning commitment to service shown in Robocop and his sidekick, Anne Lewis. The dehumanising effect of urban, commercialised life is shown in many ways; for example, the news broadcasts which intersperse the action tell us about terrible tragedies which are then dismissed casually by the smiling news anchor. As such, conflict in this world is not caused by ‘bad people’ (although the baddies in Robocop are very bad indeed) but by social processes. When the film was made, Ronald Reagan in America and Margaret Thatcher in the UK were pushing aggressively capitalist-friendly policies – deregulation and privatisation of various industries, for example – and reflection theory might suggest that  Verhoeven is commenting on that from a more socialist European context. It is perhaps telling that there was quite a crop of dystopian sic-fi films made around this time.
Secondly, Detroit in Robocop is shown to be two cities in one. The first locations we see include the police station, which is swarming with all sorts of criminality and harassed cops. This is the city at ground level; criminal, seedy and typically noirish. We are also taken to the opulent boardrooms and homes of the executive class, however, perhaps most obviously to see one of them snorting cocaine from the breasts of a prostitute (the same cocaine, presumably, supplied by the chief criminal gang in the film – again, we see the ties between ‘real’ criminals and the ‘legitimate’ business class.) The offices and homes of these people are spacious, airy, full of light: a direct contrast to the dark, noirish interiors of the police station.
Verhoeven is offering us a view of a deeply divided society, one split between bosses and workers, masters and slaves. Again it seems that Verhoeven is offering a critique of a capitalist society which encourages the success of a small elite at the expense of the rest of society. America is often described as a society free of British-style class divisions; in Robocop, we see that there is a class system in operation, but one predicated upon wealth rather than birth.
The final tie to Metropolis is thematic; the philosophical question common to this sort of sci-fi, and one which links us back once again to Frankenstein and The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, is -what is a human? Where is the line between man and machine or man and monster? Murphy’s character arc is perhaps predictable, but it is compelling nonetheless – not long after his transformation into Robocop, he starts to remember aspects of his previous life – his death, first of all, but then his son, his wife and so on. And he gradually becomes less robotic – especially once his mask comes off and he looks and becomes more human  – certainly, more human than many of the actual humans in the film. We’ve seen this before, most obviously in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, where the replicants (the robots) are often more human, more alive and aware of the beauty and fragility of life, than the humans:
Obviously, the point is that humanity is being dehumanised and degraded, and this is, perhaps, the defining theme of all dystopian sci-fi. It’s commonly said that sci-fi reflects an audience’s fears for the future and that these fears often involve humanity’s increasing dependence on technology. Robocop, like Blade Runner, complicates that theme a little; it’s not technology that is the problem, but human greed.
So, three things; a dystopian urban setting, a vision of a divided society, and an examination of the nature of humanity. All of these, as I’ve indicated, appear first in Metropolis so a quick examination of that film should show more clearly exactly how Verhoeven is working in an expressionist tradition. In terms of location, Metropolis absolutely established the conventions for how cities are represented in dystopian film. The famous images of a city which is both futuristic and grim are amongst the most iconic from any film.
This is, predictably, more expressionist and less naturalistic than Robocop; in terms of verisimilitude, Verhoeven’s vision of future Detroit is pretty much just 1987 Detroit. Lang, on the other hand, has constructed an amazing futuristic vision. Metropolis was one of the most expensive silent films ever made, and clearly a large part of that budget went on the astounding sets. Locations tend to be huge, dwarfing the humans who inhabit them, and the iconography is all of mechanics and machinery.
Clearly, what capitalism was to Verhoeven, industrialisation was to Lang; a dehumanising, brutalising process which turns people into parts of a machine.
Moreso than in Robocop, we see how strictly divided this society is. Here the divisions are formalised and official, and they are exemplified by the comparison between the conditions the workers labour in and the lifestyle enjoyed by the spoiled ruling classes. Freder, the son of the city’s ruler, spends his time at the start of the film idling in a beautiful garden, a location which clearly contrasts the dark, enclosed factories and workshops inhabited by the labourers.
Finally, and famously, we have Lang’s thoughts on the division between humanity and machinery, delivered through the figure of Maria; a robot, built in the image of a dead woman, who is given another woman’s appearance in order to deceive the inhabitants of the city.
Confusion between the ‘real’ woman and her robotic counterpart informs much of the film’s action, right up until the point when the robot woman is burned at the stake. Thematically, it seems clear that Lang is warning us about an over-reliance on technology; the robot is used (like Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari or Edward in Edward Scissorhands) by immoral people as a tool for evil. Indeed, the city itself depends for its existence on a central ‘Heart’ machine which, once destroyed, allows the entire city to flood. This dependence upon machinery, Lang suggests, leaves humanity both dehumanised (for the machinery itself demands consent maintenance, to the point where the population of the city are slaving permanently, reducing themselves to parts of that machine, simply to keep the city running) and vulnerable. There is a clear line between what is human and what is mechanical in this film; it is perhaps less thematically complex in this regard than Robocop.