28 February 2011

Scrabbling at the Airlock

Over at the Faces on Posters (the blog on the 1980s that I'll eventually be posting to at some point), Carl Neville does an astute bit of culture-crunching while hashing through major film archetypes from the Age of Reagan. What caught my interest were his very incisive comments about Ridley Scott's Alien, esepec in terms of comparing it to its 1986 sequel:

"The most striking distinction, the ways in which they seem very much films of their respective decades is in the shift from Alien’s dramatic naturalism to Aliens’ heavy handed, All-American myth-making. Alien also boasts an extravagantly great cast (Ian Holm and Yaphet Kotto together at last!) and what seems to be a lot of loosely improvised dialogue and character work on the part of the actors. There are all kinds of tensions among the crew, tensions of class and gender, tensions of hierarchy and role, lots of overlapping dialogue, the camera and lighting unfussy. Compared to what comes next Alien almost feels like Altman-in-space, a low-key set of reflections on the dynamics of having an alien on board."

Initially characterizing the sequel as "a film that now feels horribly dated in a way the first one doesn’t," Carl elaborates:

"In Alien, Ripley’s survival is arbitrary, she’s not an especially heroic or tough character, none of them are. In Aliens she has become an action hero(ine). This shift, from a complex, 'downbeat' Seventies realism through to a hyped up and remorseless, but also ultimately dumbed down and reductive spectacularism can be directly traced through a couple of film series that span the two decades/ develop through the Eighties. Aliens, the increasingly ludicrous pretension of the Rocky movies, the shift from the relatively credible First Blood to the Rambo films, from Saturday Night Fever to Staying Alive for example."

"The Seventies," as he points out, "[was] a kind of killing-ground for the mythical figures of American film, and also a period in which the great post-war stars themselves died or stepped out of the limelight to wither with as much dignity as possible." But in the decade that followed, "The new era demands new heroes, not the doomed, all-too-human anti-heroes of the Seventies but larger than life figures who can re-mythologize the country, not just men of especial fortitude, tenacity or courage but something more akin to the superhero."

Fortuitously enough, this dovetails with a recent piece over at The Rumpus, in which Nick Rombes puts down some of his own thoughts about Alien as the latest installation in the "10/40/70' series. Noting that the film is (yes) "a profoundly ambient experience" thanks to its art direction and cinematography, Rombes also underscores the film's psychological depth -- the realism of the frank, unmannered interactions between characters, etc.. "If Star Wars was the first film of the 1980s," he states:

"...then Alien was the last film of the 1970s. Not literally. But spiritually and aesthetically. Star Wars, with its polished nostalgia, its uncluttered futurism, its clean-shaved hero, as opposed to the loose, slovenly, unshaved camaraderie of Alien, with its undercurrent critique of corporate greed."

Jump to the lengthy footnote that accompanies that remark, in which  Rombes elaborates further, pointing out that the film appeared in the midst of a socio-economic meltdown, just two weeks before President Jimmy Carter's famous "crisis of confidence" speech. Widening the frame, he offers:

"If in Star Wars, evil is 'out there'—its fulfillment in political life taking form in Ronald Reagan’s evil empire speech in 1983—then in Alien evil isn’t 'out there,' but rather back home: earth. For the evil in Alien is not the alien itself, which is too inscrutable to be evil, but rather the corporation that owns the Nostromo and that has deliberately put the crew in contact with the creature. [...] Could viewers in 1979 somehow sense the coming of the New Order that was hinted at in Star Wars, with its mythological nationalism? As for the Alien franchise, especially with Aliens ..., it became increasingly militaristic and loud, as if to offset the anti-corporate undertone."

A few thoughts of my own. Firstly, yes -- there was the overall style of Alien when it first appeared. The acting and characterizations, the stylized atmosphere and the under-idealized physicality of its overall look; all of which was noted and praised at the time of the film’s release.1

But returning to Carl's "killing-ground" comment. True. Hollywood found itself in a a deep slump at the end of the 1960s, with all its blue-chip genres, formulae and archetypes failing to bring in younger audiences. In the early seventies, a number of newer genres would come along as studios cast about looking for something that'd fill theater seats. And some of the older genres of yore -- the western, especially -- would become scarce during the 1970s, and would usually undergo a heavy thematic retooling in the on those occasions when they dragged off the scrapheap.

As far as science fiction went, much of what appeared throughout the decade was of the dystopic variety. Alien, however, is notable in that it is very much a throwback to the monster-movie model that had been such a staple of the industry during the post-War years (e.g. The Thing, It! The Terror from Beyond Space). But one could argue that we were seeing the emergence of what would become a new cliché that would thread many such films in the decades that followed. That being: With the first-gen of such films, back during the early years of the Cold War, it was usually the military or government that came in (cavalry-style) to save the citizens in the final reel. But with the revival of the genre in the 1980s and thereafter, the common premise would have it that the menace had instead been brought about by the actions of blinkered bureaucrats and power-mongers in the military-industrial complex.

As Carl mentions, Aliens would introduce audiences to another round of clichés. Firstly, there were the Cameronian excesses that we could expect in the years to come. And yes, in almost every respect, it was very flat in comparison with its predecessor. At the time of its release, many commented on of its admirable "strong female lead." Quite a bold and unconventional move, was the opinion. No one, it seemed, found it worth analyzing how the film's one claim to thematic depth -- the whole "dueling maternal instincts" trope of Ripley for Newt versus the alien queen for her own breeding ground -- insidiously undercut that theme by playing the gender/biological essentialism card. As far as the "anti-corporate undertones," well, yes -- they were still there, if not foregrounded in a somewhat heavy-handed manner.2

Of course, one could go all sort of theoretic yarns, allegoricizing the alien creature to the wtfosphere and back. But for me, what comes to mind is the quote that Nombes cites in his piece -- the one from the dying android Ash. "I admire its purity. ... [It's] a survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality." I suppose one could say the same about Rupert Murdock.

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1. I recall seeing in some magazine many, many years ago the original design sketches for Alien -- particularly those for the Nostromo interiors and sets. In their early form, they were in the traditional sci-fi mode of sleek, spacious futurity. Curious that Scott rejected this out of hand; opting instead for a dark, cramped, and often dingy environ. And extrapolating from Rombes remarks about the film being released in the middle of U.S./OPEC gas crisis of the late 1970s, it might also be worth noting that Scott's decision was based on the fact the fast that the spaceship was little more than an interplanetary oil refinery. Not to claim that was any sort of deliberate echo of (y'know) "current events" or whatever; but at the very least, the material correspondences of that aspect of the film's visual atmosphere make for an interesting coincidence.

2. Case in point: Everyone's expendable, even the military grunts. And speaking as someone who saw it in the theater when it was first released, I can attest that the part when the company weasel character meets his fate met with the loudest cheers from the audience).

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