Archive for Aliens

Cheap Shots

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on January 11, 2010 by dcairns

Our friend David Wingrove drew our attention to David Thomson’s Guardian obit of Jennifer Jones, which he thought in rather poor taste. I’d read David Edelstein’s rather vile obit of Brittany Murphy so nothing could shock me. But as David says, the striking thing about this piece is that it’s all about how Jones refused to be interviewed by Thomson for his Selznick bio. Jones is judged and condemned on those grounds alone. Consider:

“Well, she’s dead now, at 90. Gore Vidal told me maybe 10 years ago how he’d recently had dinner with Jennifer Jones and complimented her on … her looks? Her cooking? Her jokes? Never mind now. But she did tell him that she was actually three years older than her official age. So was she 93 or 90? What’s the difference if you hardly recognise anyone any longer and if you prefer not to talk to the biographer of the husband who named you Jennifer Jones, who got you your Oscar and turned your life into such a melodrama?”

What does that paragraph boil down to? The last sentence — “What’s the difference” ie “Why should we care about you?” “if you prefer not to talk to etc” ie “if you won’t talk to me?” Pretty incredible. I think it would’ve been nice if Jones had shared her memories with Thomson, and it might have made for a fascinating addition to film history. But I don’t believe she owed those memories to anybody or any such nonsense — they were her own, private, to do with as she pleased.

I think the reason that paragraph reads so snooty and self-important is that Thomson is just not that careful any more what he writes. It pains me to say this, because my contact with Mr T, when I sent him a copy of LA FIN DU JOUR in hopes of changing his mind about Julien Duvivier, was entirely pleasant and I found him gracious and charming. Asked to write something about Thomson’s new book, The Moment of Psycho: How Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder, I shied away, because looking at the opening pages on Amazon I found them disturbingly shaky. For a while Thomson has seemed rather middlebrow in his tastes, his skills as a writer exceeding his verve as a thinker, but now his prose itself is starting to slacken. Consider ~

“People liked his films: in the fifties Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and North by Northwest had all been hits, suspense stories served with the black cream of Hitchcock’s humor.”

That image: black cream. Ugh! And WTF? It won’t do, on a basic level. I’ll pass over with merely a snide snicker the passages in his book on The Aliens Quartet which devolve into an extended sexual fantasy about Sigourney Weaver eating strawberries and cream without a top on — we can put that down to male menopause. What ties together the ugly thought unintentionally revealed in the Jones obit with the casually askew imagery of the Hitchcock piece is a lack of care. Thomson has more or less admitted he doesn’t care so much about movies as he used to* — maybe he should find something he can write about passionately. Something needs to happen.

*His dismissal of Abbas Kiarostami based on a screening of one movie would be enough to confirm this even if he hadn’t come out and said it.

Smurf Versus the Flying Saucers

Posted in FILM, literature, Painting, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 18, 2009 by dcairns

Rushed to see AVATAR at the first available screening — of course I did — propelled somewhat by Fiona who is a bigger ALIENS fan than I. And oddly, I liked the film better than she did, although basically everything that’s in ALIENS is in this, bigger and better and more brightly painted.

DANCES WITH WOLVES IN GLOWSTICK FOREST.

I didn’t mind the neon intensity of the colour schemes, nor the imagery reminiscent of both modern vidgames and 70s and 80s sci-fi paperback covers / prog rock album art. I likes me some Chris Foss / Roger Dean / Rodney Matthews. The film is more nostalgic than it is futuristic, both in its Dragonriders of Pern visuals and its indigenous tribes versus civilization plotline. I think that particular real-world struggle is largely over.

Maybe because Cameron has kind of been away from fiction cinema since TITANIC, unless we count his mission to raise Christ from the floor of the Atlantic where the Messiah has rested since striking an iceberg and breaking in half, or whatever that was about, but this is in a pleasant way quite a time-warped movie, something like EYES WIDE SHUT in that sense of not absolutely belonging to the now. Of course, this is a Cameron film, so it is somewhat more boneheaded and cloth-eared. JC (not Jesus) still writes speech-bubbles rather than speech, and still seems to think stringing buzz-words and catch-phrases together (“What’s wrong with this picture?”) constitutes, I don’t know, writing, or something, but that’s a lot easier to take in this context than it was in TITANIC, which was one of those rare movies that could almost be improved by giving George Lucas a crack at script doctoring. Of course, I exaggerate for poetic effect, nothing’s that bad.

IS IT BECAUSE I’S BLUE?

What I’m building up to is that AVATAR is primarily an audio-visual experience, working on the rational part of the brain mainly by tickling it with absurd implausibilities, which are only worth listing because they’re amusing, not because I take them seriously as flaws or anything: the arrows which bounce off the humans’ helicopters suddenly start piercing them; the humans send their infantry out in T-shirts to fight an enemy who uses poison arrows — no Kevlar?; the lousy security exercised by the military in their own base…

We ignore all that, and enjoy some retina-searing colours, constant kinetic stimulation and really beautiful 3D, and some interesting resonances, as I’m sure Cameron likes to think of them. The Hometree’s collapse “was just like 9:11,” said Fiona. “Only in wood,” I added. And yet, conversely, the humans are the bad guys in this movie and they’re like the Americans in Iraq (the blue Smurf tribe briefly ululate, and are carefully designed to echo every non-white ethnic group ever). But the real resonance comes from the Avatar concept itself, in which the hero inserts his consciousness into a new character to explore a new world. His eyes experience REM movement as he operates his alien body, and when he sleeps as an alien, he wakes up again as a human. So it’s like dreaming, and also like cinema, the process of “identification” with a fictional character. And everybody does it in this film, the aliens plug themselves into horses and dragons and trees, the humans have their avatars and big ALIENS-style robot exoskeletons. It makes total sense that this is a 3D movie, aiming for the kind of total immersion experience its characters keep having.

On top of that, our hero has a double existence in terms of his bodies, and a triple allegiance in terms of his politics, betraying the aliens to the scientists and the scientists to the military, before seeing the error of his ways and going native (I don’t think that’s a spoiler, do you?). And interestingly, he deals with his obvious conflicts of interest in the first two-thirds of the movie by… not dealing with them. He is perfectly compartmentalized, totally loyal to whomever he’s with at the time, and then totally disloyal as soon as he meets one of his other factions. I found that pretty interesting, and although maybe it comes about due to Cameron’s disinterest in character psychology, which is much on display, it seems fairly accurate nonetheless, as a depiction of the way people can separate off parts of themselves to avoid facing contradictions. Anyhow, this hero is one of the most spectacularly non-thinking I can recall having seen. “A character who is dramatically interesting thinks ahead,” says Alexander Mackendrick. Our hero here doesn’t do that, does he? And so he’s able to deflower his artfully draped near-nude leading lady (the film’s extreme reticence about nipples reminds me of the Beethoven sequence in Disney’s FANTASIA) with a clean conscience in a bit of tasteful xenophilia, despite the fact that he’s also selling out her people to the humans, having already supplied them all the data the need to attack.

And yet he’s mostly quite appealing, a tribute to Sam Worthington’s winning performance, which glosses over the moral cracks with troubled good-guy warmth. But top acting honours should go to Zoe Saldana, who does the best job of acting through motion-capture since Andy Serkis’s Gollum and Kong. She’s the only major alien character who doesn’t have a human counterpart. It’s fun seeing Sigourney Weaver as an alien giantess, a slightly more extreme version of herself, with the few marks of time which enhance her beauty erased and replaced with bluish gleam and fangs. Elsewhere, Giovanni Ribisi is a clone of the corporate bad guy in ALIENS and Cameron doesn’t know what to do with his character (surprisingly — slow death seems an obvious choice), Michelle Rodriguez repeats Vasquez from the same film, and undergoes a defection to the side of the aliens which is totally unexplained — compared to Worthington’s, anyway, which takes up most of the story. And Stephen Lang, one of the few actors I enjoyed in PUBLIC ENEMIES, is a ludicrously hard-assed general, taking the role of villain which rightfully belongs to Ribisi, the man in charge.

Cameron’s confusion about who is morally responsible in the story is a free-floating problem that gets everywhere. The final battle is enormously enjoyable, except that we’re supposed to cheer as the aliens kill marines who were the hero’s former allies and who simply weren’t lucky enough to be immersed in the alien culture as he was. And the script strangely withholds information about the state of human civilization, so we assume the aliens need a miracle to win — but the humans are a lot weaker than we’ve been led to believe. It feels like a cheat, mainly because it is one. And it stacks the odds in favour of a happy ending, one which has been generally denied tribal nations of Earth. The tactics used in Cameron’s film, which work when one tribe battles another, are disastrous when used between tribes and the forces of western civilization. By refusing to acknowledge this, the film avoids any honest engagement with its nominal subject.

None of which is probably as important as it ought to be, since this is a comic-book video-game movie more concerned with kitsch notions of beauty than with real political engagement. As with most blockbusters of the modern age, it’s designed to be consumed by the eyes and ears, bypassing most of the mind.

Things Roddy said during Face of the Screaming Werewolf

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on December 28, 2008 by dcairns

Every year at Christmastime, we are visited by a jolly fat man in a red hat:

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Face of the beaming Watson.

Fiona’s brother Roderick. The fun never stops when he’s around. Since he has Williams Syndrome, and since he’s not terribly mobile, he can’t really make his own entertainment — except by talking. So the T.V. comes in very handy, and fortunately Roddy agrees with us about horror movies — even when they’re bad, they’re good.

Like a Benshi film describer, or Tod Slaughter narrating his own death in a melodramatic fashion, Roddy keeps up a running commentary during most movies, considerably more eloquent and informative than any of Tim Burton’s director’s commentaries, and with fewer stretches of numbing silence.

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The movie begins as a comely Mexican lady is sent into hypnotic trance by a special machine.

“What’s that sound? What’s the matter with her?” (Eagerly) “Has she been bitten by the werewolf?”

As the woman sinks into coma, a small boy crawls into the lab and hides under a table. At first I thought he was her hallucination, but he’s not. This is my favouritest thing in the whole film, because it’s never explained. But then, very little is explained. I think the geniuses (genii?) who dubbed the movie decided to cut all the boring plot stuff.

In her trance state, the woman experiences a vision of dusty mesas (mesae?) and pyramids.

“Where’s that? Is that Transylvania?”

Some Indians appear.

“Is this to do with Indians or something?”

(Roddy notices I’m jotting down these notes. I feel guilty.) “What’s that you’re writing?” (Looks at squiggles.) “Mmmm!”

The Indians begin a ceremony deep within their pyramid, which involves a lot of walking about.

“Why are they walking about, David?”

After what seems like twenty minutes of walking about, there is a sacrifice, and we cut to our modern-day hypnotic conquistadores entering the tomb, followed by the small boy, who’s sneaked after them. We still don’t know who anyone is.

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Something shambles about in the darkness.

“I ken what that is — the mummy! Am I right? Is that a woman or a man? I can’t tell.”

A sound.

“Is that a wolf?”

The scientists retrieve a female mummy, and Lon Chaney, who turns out to be a modern man who’s transfused himself with mummy juices in order to bring about “a state of death”. But we never learn why. Scientists put Lon in a big machine, which makes a noise.

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 “What’s that noise?”

“A machine.”

“What kind of machine? Where is he — can’t see the mummy! What’s that funny noise?”

“Another machine.”

“Looks like Frankenstein. Wow, that’s some storm, is it?” (Seems to be a Dundonian habit: saying “is it?” instead of “isn’t it?”) “Cheesy peeps!” (This is an exclamation of awe unique to Roddy.) “What’s happening now? Oh my God!”

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I like how Lon rests his jowls on the window sill, in a rather defeatist manner, just before beginning his wolf-out.

Lon Chaney, his apparatus struck by lightning, comes to life, turns into a werewolf, and gores people. I decide that poor Lon must have taken the mummy transfusion as a cure for his lycanthropy, and now these science guys have guffed it up. But this hypothesis is never confirmed.

“Where’s the werewolf? Hmm-hm!”

Lon changes back to non-hairy. Some more stuff happens.

“Is he going to change into a werewolf, do you think?”

He does.

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“Oh my God, the werewolf’s scary, eh?”

Lon creeps up on a sleeping scientist. Roddy finds this particularly exciting.

“Oh, watch this, watch — he’s asleep still, is he? Watch this, watch! Oh my God, ho-ho! Got himnow! Oh-oh! Something’s happened to him. My God. Look at that mist!”

We return to the subplot of the mummy woman, who abducts a little girl. No idea why.

“How can a mummy be a woman? A mummy is supposed to be a man. Where’s she taking her? What’s that noise? Is she taking her away? What’s happening there?”

Now Roddy gets slightly sidelined from the plot:

“I would like to be in a horror film. I would be a vampire. I’d be pretty scary.”

I dare to express doubt.

“I would if I had real fangs, like Christopher Lee.”

I suggest that Christopher Lee does not, in civilian life, have real fangs.

“What do you mean?”

I elaborate.

“That’s what I was saying.” (Vampire voice.) “I’m Roderick, from Transylvania.’ I’d be a good vampire, I would.”

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Meanwhile, a scientist manages to get Lon Chaney locked in a cage.

“Uh-oh, the wolf’s in trouble, he can’t open the gate. Oh, he’s got it. Nae trouble! Where’s he going now? Is he in the forest? Is that a woman and a man? What’s he doing now? That’s the police. Do you think they’ll catch him?”

The wolfman starts stalking a woman. Roddy gets very tense.

“Uh oh. Ssshh! Watch this. Uh-oh. Uh-oh. Uh-oh. He’s getting closer and closer to that woman. What’s going to happen now? Uh oh. David… I heard something. What? Uh-oh! Uh-oh!”

Having crept into the woman’s home, Lon Chaney is startled by his own reflection in her mirror.

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“Ha ha, he got himself a fleg!” (“Fleg” = Dundonian word for “a fright”.) Ah, she locked him in, good one! That means he can’t get out. Uh-oh!”

He gets out. The woman hits him with a vase.

“Nice one, got him a good one, on his head. ‘At’sa cracker! Give him a punch on the nose, that’ll sort him out. Heh!”

Lon’s nose does look pretty tender. But he overpowers the woman and carries her off.

“God’s sake, woman! What happens if the police catch him, that’ll be it, won’t it?”

My favourite bit of action — Lon climbs a building, while carrying the woman. A white-coated scientist follows him. The image of a lab guy climbing a building is a pleasing one.

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Somehow we get from here to another fight, with chairs being smashed over Lon.

“Nice one! Hey — oh — nice one! Oh, hey, he hit him first! Watch this one — here we go — watch this — oh, that’s a good idea. Oh hey, you idiot, no’ him! It’s the wolf, you idiot.”

Lon is incinerated. The police arrive, too late to do anything, and calmly dismiss all reports of monsters as the overactive imagination of the stupid public.

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“It’s the bobbies, look.”

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STOP PRESS: Here’s Roddy’s capsule review of ALIENS.

“That took a while to sort out.”