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June 07, 2012

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Alvin Sloan

I really like this post. That last paragraph, in particular, is something I need to print out and keep in my wallet so I can consult it when I watch new movies.

David Ehrenstein

I was 32 when I first saw "Alien." it was in San Francisco and I went with my friend filmmaker Wrren Sonbert. We both enjoyed it -- especially for its production design and lighting. I'll nver forget that weekend because it was when I discovered AIDS. A friend of Warren's dropped by his house that day. He was rail thin, bald and wildly distracted. He borrowed an opera recrd and lfet. Warren said he'd been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that none of the doctors he'd seen knew how to treat.

Warren himself died of AIDS in the mid-90s.

Matthias Galvin

Not only was this a great memoir, but the headline made me laugh. I took a quick look and thought that it was a The Onion headline.

"And when and if it comes around, I hope I have the eyes to see it for what it is, and if not quite that, to actually enjoy it. "

This reminds me of The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, when I almost wasn't ready to take it seriously because of the original (and the *shudder* remake) and the sequels to the original that I'd seen.

It's a funny thing that brand recognition does to color someone's anticipation (indeed the whole experience), and I'm not sure anybody's properly figured out what to do with it and how it works. Well, one movie at a time I guess. Hopefully at least some of the people who made this movie will make the next one in the franchise.

Doug Cummings

"Interestingly, though, as B-movies go, it wasn't THAT expensive." I believe in the DVD commentary, Ridley Scott says one of the film's most beautiful shots, a glowing sun rising over a silhouetted alien landscape, was merely a stage light turned directly at the camera.

I haven't seen "Prometheus" yet, but I enjoyed your comments, Glenn, and I'm reminded that both of Scott's earlier (now routinely christened) "SF masterpieces" were roundly dismissed for years; it wasn't until the '90s and beyond that "Blade Runner" was widely described as anything other than a muddled, overproduced, box office flop. I happened to be an early devotee, and I vividly recall watching the critical tide shift on that one.

Bruce Reid

"...try and look at movies with respect to what was actually on the screen and with less of an urge to outsmart what I was looking at."

One of the key critical attributes that separates the wheat from the chaff. Sometimes I can be well into a movie before realizing it's been ahead of me all along, and that moment is always equally thrilling (for the movie) and embarrassing (for myself, still tripped up by juvenile superiority). Like Alvin says, words to live by.

Thomas D.

My mom actually saw ALIEN while she was pregnant with me, so it might be said that I saw the movie from the alien's perspective. She later took me to see ALIENS in the theater, so I like to think I have a well rounded perspective on the franchise, untainted by grown-up cynicism (?).

I think ALIEN differentiates itself from the likes of IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE not only in terms of budget, but in terms of character, creating claustrophobia, and in establishing and then constraining physical space. I don't think that calling it "a generic B-movie with a bunch of money pumped into it" is fair. I think HALLOWEEN did something comparable to a generic slasher script, but without needing the budget to do so (in fairness, it took place in the suburbs and not on a spaceship).

I find it amusing that Andy Milligan has now become a point of reference for normal people. Ten years ago or so, if you tried to engage someone on the topic of Milligan's films, you'd probably be dismissed as a glue-huffing cretin.

Glenn Kenny

@ Thomas D: Ha! My mom and dad saw "Psycho" at a drive-in, with nearly one-year-old me sitting between them, and my mom pregnant with my sister. This has been consistent fodder for a lot of family humor.

Re Milligan: Yeah, cinephilia marches on, huh?

Thomas D.

Well, you win. I did see ROCKY HORROR at a drive-in with my parents when I was 5, and I think "awkward" is the only way to describe that experience.

Speaking of which, I have the BFI NIGHTBIRDS Blu-ray sitting on top of my "to watch" pile. I'd have sooner thought we'd see a blu-ray of THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED with a drunk Jerry Lewis commentary before we'd see that.

LondonLee

ALIEN freaked me out so much I was convinced the cat was going to burst open and a baby creature come out and kill Sigourney Weaver during the end credits.

I do remember being rather underwhelmed by BLADE RUNNER though, and it's current status irks me a little. It does look fantastic obviously and has gotten better since they got rid of Ford's "hard-boiled" voiceover but I can't escape my memory of groaning over it the first time.

Tom Block

I like "Blade Runner" okay (Scott's cut, I mean), but that was, or was close to, the beginning of fanboy profundity. All that breathless speculation about whether Deckard was human or not, and what does everything mean if he IS human or if he ISN'T--it's like, man, what the fuck have you people been *drinking*! Get off it, right now! If that crap could've been toned down in the '80s and '90s, maybe we wouldn't be mistaking The Dark Knight for the return of Wittgenstein today.

I don't remember any big buildup for "Alien". Maybe there was, but I was following the buzz religiously back then and don't recall it. What I *do* remember was being surprised 2-3 weeks into its run when people kept telling me about this amazing scene in it I just HAD to see--something that impressed them more than Sigourney Weaver in her tank-top and panties. Anyway, I just love the low-key way the actors talk to each other and the convincing sense that they're blue-collar shlubs who just happen to work in space. It felt like Scott had been pigging out on a steady diet of nothing but Hawks/Nyby for weeks.

Steven Hart

I saw it in NYC with a bunch of friends, either day one or close enough thereto. One was a budding special effects technician, the other was a devotee of Starlog, and we all three of us loved SF. There was buzz all right -- I think there was a comic adaptation being serialized in Heavy Metal. (I used to have my YOU ARE MY LUCKY STAR button, which was handed out at the theater.) I thought then, and I still think, the second half fails the creepy originality and brilliant design of the first half. I wanted something better than the standard funhouse routine where the heroine sets the ship for self-destruct, then has to run down a long corridor full of blind corners, steam jets, and strobe lights apparently designed to make sure nobody will make it off the ship alive. I think James Cameron's retooling was good enough to improve the first movie in hindsight.

I, too, was frequently an asshole back then, but not where "Alien" was concerned. Brilliant opening, barely adequate conclusion. Thought it then. Think it now.

MarkJ

First saw 'Alien' on 4:3 Fox video(crudely pan and scanned with a third of the picture brutally sawn off as Jim Cameron used to say)and it was pretty amazing, my first encounter with sci-fi art cinema. A later viewing of it in 2.35:1 took my breath away, the widescreen compositions were a marvel. Next time I watch it i'm going to try and forget that the space jockey is just a suit and underneath is a cross between Molasar from 'The Keep' and the blue dude from 'Watchmen'.

Don R. Lewis

Good stuff, Glenn. And I so much agree with your point (or what I think is your point, or part of it) about these loudmouth, bully "tastemaker" bloggers. Not saying everyone needs a film PEDIGREE to write intelligently about film but life experience never hurts. It's not all about this is GOOD or this SUCKS. But since that's never going to happen...

I'm running through the ALIEN franchise before my PROMETHEUS viewing this weekend and I'm pretty hung up on ALIEN and what it's various insightful essays really *mean*, especially the ones about the sexual signifiers and the feminist slant on the film. I haven't watched the film in a good 10-15 years and since that time have (hopefully) gained more insight into cinema, psychology, philosophy and all that stuff. That being said having watched it again, there is SO MUCH sexual innuendo in ALIEN and I KNOW it's there. It's clear as day (sphincter muscle air vents, Lamberts death/rape, Ash's android juice facial...just to be crass) but part of me simply cannot believe Ridley Scott MEANT these things.

I mean, I think Ripley as a feminist hero needs zero discussion and I think the politics of that in the late 70's informed that. But the rest of it? I just don't buy that Scott *meant* it. But yet, it's there. Yet Ridley Scott isn't much for the subversive or the allegorical, I don't think. Why would he do such a thing ONE TIME? Or, did he? I guess I don't buy it is what I'm saying.

Before Glenn and I became blogemies these were the kinds of questions I have about film in general and few writers that are still working are as capable or "willing" to discuss such things as Glenn was/is. It's what drew me to your work at Premiere and that kick-ass blog that evolved. But that history is neither here nor there.

My question is: Is ALIEN truly a deep exploration of feminism or did some production designers have some fun behind Sir Ridley's back? If he "meant" it, why didn't he continue exploring these ideas since ALIEN was so successful? Ugh....I hate film criticism.

jbryant

At the height of puberty, I sat between my mom and dad at a drive-in showing of THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. Full-frontal 21-year-old Cybill Shepherd. I'm surprised I didn't spontaneously combust...or something.

I think I'm no more than a couple of years older than Glenn, and I remember liking ALIEN pretty well right off the bat. I don't think I fully appreciated it, however, until a midnight showing back in the late 90s or so. I haven't warmed to much of Scott's other work though. I'll try to check out PROMETHEUS.

Glenn Kenny

@ jbryant, I don't know if I've told the story of my GRANDMOTHER taking me to see "Frenzy" at my request when I was twelve. Most awkward. Car ride home. Ever.

@Don Lewis, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I'm willing to put our blogemies thing behind us if you are. For real, no relapses, I won't do a Lucy-with-the-football act on you. Just putting it out there.

Patrick

For some reason, I associate Alien with the first time I saw the Siskel and Ebert show, back when it was just starting on PBS, Alien was one of the movies they reviewed, I think it has stuck with me because their show seemed such a fresh idea. (they did like Alien I seem to recall) I also note that I'm 5 years older than Glenn.

Shane

This is one of my biggest frustrations with modern movie 'criticism' - the 'fanboy absolutes'. This movie is awesome or this movie sucks. Reading responses to Ridley Scott's Robin Hood was bewildering. What movie was everyone else seeing the 'sucked' so much. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Sure it was a bit silly towards the end but, for the most part, it was an enjoyable new take on the myth, very well made, and not aimed at 14 year old boys. 'NO' apparently I'm incorrect, it 'sucked'. I throw my hands up.

Jaime N. Christley

I have always liked ALIEN, and it keeps rising in my estimation - my recent encounter with the Blu-ray confirmed that. It's really beautifully made. It's interesting to me to look at each ALIEN film not as a part of a franchise (well, okay, yes you do, duh), but as a demonstration of what each director was like - at least at the time they made their film. Cameron's rarely shown an affinity for horror, or "space horror," but in his film you've got the Space Marines and unmanned (deep-space instead of deep-sea) probe-bots, and isn't Ripley a lady-from-yesteryear, telling her tale, at the beginning? And I'm sure he couldn't wait to improve those low-altitude aircraft for AVATAR.

It's hard to connect the Ridley from ALIEN to the director of ROBIN HOOD - a film I maintain is pretty good for about the first 40 some-odd minutes - but there seems to be a stronger connection to the Brit cinema of its day, just getting into the shaky-cam, very much under the influence of the Roeg-Lester takeover... not at all a feeling I get from Cameron's sequel.

Of course if we are talking "authors" you have to follow the path of HR Giger and Dan O'Bannon as well. http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/feature/shock-value-dan-obannon/265

And, in the larger picture, Ridley Scott's "first three" unquestionably eclipse his later work, although lots of movies he's made since are good, really good, or (weirdest of all) start out well but inevitably nosedive in their second or third acts...

Note! Hate to be "that guy" but it's IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE, not X! Unless there's an alternate title or that's just what your friend said, etc.

And on that tangent, IT! is on Netflix Instant for any know-something-ish 19-year-old or seen-almost-everything 50-something to check out. While it doesn't stack up to ALIEN, it's really good in its way - the best film that I've seen from "micro-auteur" Edward L. Cahn. Under its no-budget constraints it is a graceful, supple little hunk of sci-fi.

David Ehrenstein


"Fanboy absoules" are playing a mjor role in the reaction to the Scot/Car contretemps as reflected here --

http://blogs.suntimes.com/scanners/2012/06/ao_scott_on_criticism_this_is_.html

Truly depressing. Anti-intellectualism is now regarded as a badge of honor.

Paul Duane

I remember seeing Alien in the cinema when I was, what? 12? 13? and next day begging my parents for some extra pocket money so I could go back and see it again. They refused and I never really forgave them. It lives in my mind much more so than the experience of seeing Blade Runner (though THAT I did manage to go see twice in one week). Alien is somewhere buried deep inside me and it'll never go away, not even after the horrible disappointment of Prometheus, which I take as an illiterate attempt to mutilate everything beautiful about the earlier film.

Oh, and at one point I lived in the same London apartment that Andy Milligan lived in when he made Nightbirds. It came as quite a shock to me to find that out. He left some strange, spooky vibes after him, too.

MarkVH

For me, Alien just continues to get better and better with each passing year, and I still consider it to be Scott's best film to date by a country mile. I remember first seeing it at about 9 or 10 with my parents on TV when we were on vacation and not being able to sleep for the entire remainder of the trip.

With all the attention paid to the production design and visuals, how come the sound design is so rarely mentioned? I've always considered it to be the film's strongest aspect and, more than anything, the one that contributes most consistently to its overwhelming sense of dread.

Andrew Wyatt

Don:

Recall that Scott *did* make G.I. JANE and THELMA & LOUISE, two of the better films with explicit feminist themes to come out of mainstream Hollywood in the 1990s. I'm not necessarily disagreeing with your skepticism re: ALIEN's feminism, but it's not inconceivable that Scott had feminism on his mind even at that early date.

Dan Humphrey

Why does it matter whether Scott intended the film to have a feminist theme or not, or whether he was consciously orchestrating such a theme via the art direction? The first thing one learns in Film Analysis 101 is that intentionality is completely beside the point. The issue should be what's up there on the screen, not how it got there.

Andrew Wyatt

Dan:

You're correct to an extent. Yes, authorial intent doesn't *really* matter in Film Analysis 101, as you say, and if one wants to craft a feminist analysis of ALIEN, one can certainly do that, regardless of what Scott or any of the other filmmakers involved "really" intended.

However, I was responding to Don's assertion that a feminist reading is arguable silly, since Scott has exhibited no subsequent interest in feminist themes. And that just seems counter-factual, given, again, G.I. JANE and THELMA & LOUISE. (And, to an extent, HANNIBAL and MATCHSTICK MEN as well.) So, yeah, perhaps we're arguing about something that doesn't really matter in the realms of rigorously text-centered criticism. But it still raises a red flag for me when whole swaths of a director's oeuvre are disregarded for convenience's sake.

LondonLee

Ridley Scott may or may not have "meant" the feminist/sexual power subtext in ALIEN but HR Giger knew what he was doing.

Jaime N. Christley

Having attended one of those august institutions where "film analysis" serves as one of the support beams, it might interest some of you to know that, in such places, "what's up on the screen" takes a reclining backseat to feminist readings and gender "performativity" and all that wot. Artist intentionality tends to be passed over with little comment.

Of course, being a cro magnon auteurist critic then as I am now, I fled that community just as soon as I had my diploma in my (knuckles-to-pavement) hands. But that's another story.

Jette

Was talking the other day about the first truly shocking film I ever saw, in terms of sex and blood onscreen, etc. and realized it wasn't MASH (which I saw as a sheltered Catholic teen thinking it would be like the TV show) but rather ALIEN, when I was about 12. My little brother and I were invited to an elderly neighbor's house to watch it via their brand-new cable access. The neighbor didn't quite realize the film might not be appropriate for an 8-year-old and 12-year-old. It was the first time a movie really frightened and shocked me, although I didn't tell anyone that at the time. Probably the first unedited-for-TV R-rated movie I saw.

Years later, I was in a screenwriting class and the instructor told us we were about to see a movie about the power of corporations and how they affect the working class (or something like that) and surprised us with ALIEN. Less shocked, but more entertained than at age 12.

Jaime N. Christley

Funny you should say that, Jette - I revisited ROBOCOP the other day (it's aged better than many other blockbusters from the same period), and while its depiction of violence (and the '80s Alpha Male attitude that underwrites it) in the corporate workplace has a deliberately over-the-top edge, part of me kept thinking, Hey, just another day at the office at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

Don R. Lewis

Dan/Andrew-
I guess my point was more aimed at MY issues with film criticism and how alot of it seems like sticking a square peg in a round hole for the sake of forcing film to be art. I've got a masters in film studies and throughout my time in school I had more "oh, that's bulllllshit" moments than "wow, how insightful!" ones. Not to say film cannot be art and that politics, social attitudes and all sorts of other things go into creating a film but much like that brilliant doc ROOM 237 on the various "meanings" of THE SHINING, it's pretty easy to slap a meaning on any old thing and claim it right due to intellectualism.

To be clear- I DO think ALIEN is a nod to feminism and that THELMA AND LOUSIE and GI JANE comment was well played, I forgot about those. But all the weird sexuality stuff in ALIEN, like I said, is clearly there....or is it? Did Scott mean it to be and if so, what's he really saying? Etc.

And Glenn, I'm totally down for a truce. Fighting on the internets is silly and a huge waste of time and energy.

Shane

As all good film critics say - 'You just make the movie, I'll tell you what it's about'.

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