Before We Vanish by InRO Staff Film

Before We Vanish | October 2019: The Lighthouse, Parasite, Frankie

October 24, 2019

OK, so things don’t really vanish anymore: even the most limited film release will (most likely, eventually) find its way onto some streaming service or into some DVD bargain bin assuming that those still exist by the time this sentence finishes. In other words, while the title of In Review Online’s new monthly feature devoted to current domestic and international arthouse releases in theaters will hopefully bring attention to a deeply underrated (even by us) Kiyoshi Kurosawa film, it isn’t a perfect title. Nevertheless, it’s always a good idea to catch-up with films before some… other things happen. | Our September issue tackles a couple recent fall festival circuiters  Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat, Takashi Miike’s First Love as well as Paolo Sorrentino’s latest, Christopher Morris’s much-awaited follow up to Four Lions, and a sprinkling of other small-scale films of varying quality. 


Parasite, the seventh feature by acclaimed Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho, is symbiotically connected, through its English title, to the director’s earlier monster movie The Host. Bong’s latest film is about a monster as well, only this time the monster isn’t some fish-like behemoth terrorizing the South Korean populace. Instead, it’s the corrosive income inequality that’s a feature — it’s decidedly not a bug — of late capitalism. Parasite could have been alternately titled Rich Family, Poor Family, since this is the main dynamic Bong explores in both thematic and visual terms. The rich family lives in a sprawling hilltop mansion, while the poor one dwells in a cramped, squalid semi-basement apartment. We’re introduced to the poor family first, which consists of dad Ki-taek (Bong regular Song Kang-ho), mom Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), and brother and sister Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and Ki-jung (Park So-dam). All are currently unemployed, yet they’re scratching and surviving, just like the people on the TV show Good Times. Their only initial source of income is folding pizza boxes for a local establishment. Ki-woo catches a break when an old friend recommends him for a gig as a home English tutor for Da-hye (Jung Ziso), the daughter of an affluent IT executive Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun). The rest of the rich family consists of Park’s wife Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong) and young son Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun). With the help of forged credentials fashioned by his sister, Ki-woo lands the job. Learning that Yeon-kyo’s looking for an art tutor for Da-song, Ki-woo recommends his friend “Jessica,” who’s actually his sister. Thereafter, the poor family infiltrates the rich family by replacing the Parks’ servant staff with themselves one by one while concealing their familial relation; it’s an invasion of the domestic job snatchers. To reveal much more of the narrative would be as criminal as the behavior of some of the characters themselves. Parasite is considerably smaller-scaled than Bong’s previous blockbusters Snowpiercer and Okja, but it’s no less thematically ambitious and no less twisted in its humor and horror. Bong has created a shape-shifter of a movie, and if its caustic satire is less the precision cutting of a scalpel and more the attack of a blunt object — much like the large stone that figures prominently in the film’s bloody final third — this detracts not a whit from the urgent, visceral power of Bong’s subterranean class rage blues. Christopher Bourne


The Lighthouse is, in some ways, the last film we need right now. A male-centric chamber piece, Robert Eggers’s latest revels in the grotesqueries of guydom: farts, hooch, and fisticuffs all make repeated appearances throughout. The film is even shot in such a way as to signal masculinity, with its sturdy, 4:3 aspect ratio, its frequent close-ups on mustaches and beards, and its favoring of the dramatic low angles pioneered by Orson Welles in his own emphatic presentation of a blowhard newspaper man. The Lighthouse’s sound design is built around the ceaseless groans and swells of dissonant bass horns, and is supplemented by the hyper-literate and historically masculine seaman patois chewed on by Willem Dafoe’s character. Thematically, this is all comfortably in Jack London and Joseph Conrad territory, relishing the man-versus-nature/man-versus-himself dichotomy present in those writers’ texts. But Eggers is up to far more here — or less, depending on your appreciation for the blunt-force artistry on display. While this film does function as something of a gonzo takedown of the XY id, there’s also plenty of opportunity to unpack the symbols and the power dynamics on display. Eggers doubles down on his saturating affects by employing the provocative-imagery-by-way-of-dream trick, but this is new weird genre territory, and the filmmaker has intentionally crafted a maximalist sensory experience. He refashions Universal horror film vibes with something of a Guy Maddin influence, and blankets the proceedings not only with a commitment to scatological humor, but also a pervasive claustrophobia. The camera never strays far from its subjects, utilizing the close quarters and verticality of the interiors to keep tensions high — while also brilliantly emphasizing the expansiveness of the ocean, which becomes a surprisingly analogous symbol of entrapment. The would-be comforts of a meal are rife with palpable unease and tainted water; a night’s sleep is interrupted by creature dreams; and the outdoors are home to accursed gulls. This overall, and specific, ostentatiousness will be a roadblock for many. But Eggers doesn’t mind his film being the province of only those who can tune into its particular shanty horror wavelength. Luke Gorham


Ira SachsFrankie is a film of bourgeois comforts. Set in summery Sintra, it offers any number of picturesque views of the Portuguese town, which serves as the touristic backdrop of a wealthy family’s vacation. The pretext for the trip is provided by Isabelle Huppert’s eponymous matriarch, a renowned actress who unites her children and grandchildren with the knowledge of her terminal illness. Regarding the film’s production, though — the loose script, the ensemble cast, and enviable location shoot — a viewer might sense the same vacationer’s impulse that animates, say, some of Adam Sandler’s recent Netflix work. Indeed, despite its emotionally freighted story, Frankie seems to exist mainly to bring a group of talented actors together in a historic foreign locale — and the script doesn’t venture beyond those expectations. Huppert’s sangfroid forms the emotional baseline of the remaining characters’ minor crises: Frankie’s current husband (Brendan Gleeson) and gay ex-husband (a posh Pascal Greggory) struggle to accept her final diagnosis; her lovelorn son (Jérémie Renier) prepares for a move to New York, while a personal friend (Marisa Tomei) of Frankie’s, a New York-based artist at the turning point of a long-term relationship, visits at her behest; her step-daughter (Vinette Robinson) contemplates finally leaving her partner, while her own daughter Maya is caught in the throes of first love. All the while, there’s a continual emphasis on the town’s pictorial scenery and transformative potential — which is appropriate, as this vividly colored film seems always on the brink of becoming something more. The closing composition echoes the ending of Éric Rohmer’s The Green Ray, a film that’s likewise centered on a search for rare beauty. But as a whole, Sachs doesn’t offer much more than pleasant platitudes. A film of bourgeois comforts can be a fine thing, as Olivier Assayas previously demonstrated with his incisive multi-generational family drama Summer Hours, recalled here by halting fiscal discussions of Frankie’s inheritance. Sachs’ latest, though, is merely complacent — the kind of film that tries for balanced, but ends up feeling just banal.  Lawrence Garcia


With Pain and GloryPedro Almodóvar has made his own , seamlessly melding autobiography and fiction here to the point where they’re nearly indistinguishable. Even though the protagonist is a film director named Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) who’s modeled on Almodóvar himself, this comes across not as a narcissistic indulgence, but as a profound demonstration of how real life is both reflected in, and transformed by, artistic creation. Salvador’s voiceover informs us about the multiple chronic ailments he suffers from: debilitating back pain, migraines, tinnitus, anxiety, panic attacks. These health problems, along with an ongoing creative blockage, have effectively halted his filmmaking career, and he despairs that in the absence of artistic work, his life has no meaning. However, Salvador sticks around long enough to be honored by the Madrid cinematheque with a 30th anniversary screening of a restored print of Sabor, a key film of Salvador’s oeuvre. The lead actor of that film, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), is also still around, but hasn’t spoken to Salvador in ages, after a falling out between the two over Salvador’s public criticism of Alberto’s performance in that film. Salvador’s been asked to present the film, and because he’s too nervous to do it alone, he looks up Alberto to make amends and ask him to join him for a Q&A. Alberto gives Salvador a hard time at first, but eventually agrees. Alberto has become a raging heroin addict in the years since he acted for Salvador, who impulsively joins Alberto in “chasing the dragon,” even though he’s never touched the stuff before. The heroin, besides easing, or perhaps merely distracting him from his pain, takes him on trips through his memories: He revisits scenes from his childhood, featuring his mother (played in those years by a luminous Penelope Cruz) and a handsome young laborer he taught to read, the source of his first stirrings of homoerotic desire. The past connects to the present, as Salvador reconnects with key figures from his past. One of these meetings, with an old lover, occasions what is perhaps the loveliest, saddest, and most tender passages in all of Almodóvar’s oeuvre. This scene is the major highlight of a film in which Almodóvar fruitfully mines his life and art — echoes of his previous films reverberate throughout — to create one of his very finest works. Christopher Bourne


At first glance, adapting a story about the seat of privilege that is the throne might seem like an unexpected move for Australian director David Michôd — whose 2010 film, Animal Kingdom, is about working class Aussies turning to a life of crime to get out of poverty. Michôd’s The King, though, moulds Shakespeare’s Henry V into the story of a man drawn into dangerous moral territory, which turns out to be a snug fit for the filmmaker’s brand of hypermasculinity. Co-written by Michôd and Joel Edgerton, the prose of this adaptation retains a level of elegance, but there’s also an emotional accessibility to the film’s approach. Unfortunately, The King is inconsistent in terms of its drama, leaning into a slow and ponderous tone in its middle section that dulls the intense self-seriousness of its other passages. Hollywood’s dauphin du jour Timothee Chalamet also seems an oddly fragile fit for the role of Henry: there’s a fight scene towards the beginning of the film that hardly shows off any actual, physical prowess. And yet the actor is highly capable of selling the gradual sense of decay that eats away at this antihero’s sense of nobility. Which is to say that his performance is far more effective than Robert Pattinson’s, whose thick, sleazy French accent recalls the sort of one-dimensional villainy of early James Bond movies. It’s a testament to the universality of Shakespeare’s themes that filmmakers still believe that their own  reinterpretations of his work can add something to the discourse. But there ultimately isn’t much evidence that The King accomplishes this. Michôd serves up yet another big-screen adaptation of this very familiar tale, with only modest variations. Calum Reed


Ridley Scott’s Alien is celebrating its 40th anniversary, and so here comes Memory: The Origins of Alien. Part behind-the-scenes featurette, part essay film, one wishes it were a little more unique. As is, it’s a serviceable video essay, reasonably well-organized and featuring a few genuine insights into the film from writer/director Alexandre Philippe. But at this point, Alien has to be one of the most scrutinized films of all time, certainly up there with Star Wars and Wizard of Oz as pop culture touchstones, and every aspect of their history and production has been pored over ad nauseam. 20th Century Fox (now, of course, absorbed into the Disney monolith) has beaten Scott’s film into the ground, releasing so many home video versions over so many formats and in so many box sets that one could conceivably own a dozen copies of the movie. Memory can’t help but cover some of the same material, even including interview footage originally used in the exhaustive, nearly three-hour The Beast Within: The Making Of Alien, which has been attached to Alien releases on home video since at least 2003. Memory doles out all of the same history, featuring archival interviews with (now deceased) screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, as well as new interviews with Ronald Shusett and O’Bannon’s widow, Diane. This early history stuff is well known, and is mostly a few different writers (including David Giler and Walter Hill, neither featured here but frequently mentioned) jockeying for the most credit. There are also the standard assortment of talking heads, including a couple of academics and TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz, who’s easy going, casual on-screen demeanor and camera-loving comfort throws everyone else’s slight discomfort into sharper relief. The bottom line is that assigning various elements of Alien’s cultural impact to ‘Jungian signifiers’ and the ‘collective unconscious’ while trotting out the same platitudes for Giger’s unique sexy-robot-insect-vagina aesthetic is annoyingly vague (more interesting is a kind of mini-narrative that erupts about Francis Bacon, as we get a brief tour of his best known paintings and how they visually relate to the chest-burster scene). Memory is most interesting when it focuses on the nitty gritty of filmmaking, correlating various ideas and ideologies to the actual visual language that winds up on screen, and addressing how camera movement, composition, and editing assign meaning in a formal sense. These seem like more worthwhile avenues for investigation, and Ridley Scott talking about what kinds of lenses he was using and why, the intricacies of the set design, and the aesthetics of using a hand-held camera (but not shaking it) are infinitely more edifying than some bland academia about ancient Egyptian mythology. The final result is a mixed bag, but deep fans thirsty for another documentary about Alien will find this mostly worthwhile and, at only 90 minutes, welcomingly concise. Daniel Gorman


Synonyms is a film driven by an idea, one that rattles around in its protagonist’s head and belabors him at every step. The question is one of personhood and its creation through language — whether one’s nationality is something malleable or, at most, a lie that a citizen can either accept or reject. Taking a number of cues from director Nadav Lapid’s experiences in Paris after his own departure from Israel, Synonyms follows Yoav, a young Israeli running away from his country and its history, as he attempts to find stable footing in Paris. After a symbolic rebirth wherein Yoav finds his personal property stolen and spends the night naked in a bathtub, a young, rich couple offer him clothes and money so that he can start anew in la Ville des Lumières with his adopted language. Both the structure of the story and the oft-disorienting camerawork convey an implacable feeling of alienation, reflected not only through Yoav’s increasingly frustrated mental state, but also the gauntlet his body is run through for the sake of money. He’s told that to give up his language is to lose a part of his person, but this is exactly what he wants. Indeed, if Hebrew is directly associated with any images here, they can be found in the scenes where Yoav interacts with his co-workers on the security detail for the Israeli embassy. Upon starting there, he’s told to watch for minorities and to profile Arabs, thereby infecting his new life with the culture of hypermasculinity and Israeli militarism he’d hoped to rid himself of. One of the most harrowing sequences features Yoav’s colleague, Yaron, storming around on the subway aggressively humming the Israeli national anthem in everyone’s face. He singles out a middle-aged Arab, which here suggests that his violence exists in a predetermined matrix, where the historical conflicts of one’s people are forced onto the individual, thus consigning them to the cycles of discord that plague modern Europe. And here rests the film’s pessimism: Yoav is certainly not free from this; his mother’s father committed acts of terror against British presence in Palestine. And so, as Lapid has said in an interview, “the political, the physical, and even the sexual merge in the clearest way,” dooming Yoav’s body to the fatalism of a conflict perpetuated by a reluctance to speak in the language of another. Sam Redfern


It’s nigh-impossible to discuss the new film In My Room, from Berlin School-affiliated writer/director Ulrich Köhler, without revealing that a third of the way in, seemingly all of humanity vanishes overnight, save schlubby protagonist Armin (Hans Löw). Until that jolt, Köhler’s film is a muted, semi-drab character study following thirtysomething Armin as he amiably bumbles through a TV news dayjob and a sloppy personal life lived out of a dingy one-bedroom where he’s crashed for more years than he cares to admit to a repelled one-night stand. Köhler lays on the humdrum abjection thickly — lingering on Armin’s paunchy nude form (even his bicep tat is basic) and showing him brushing his teeth while urinating, and then mirrorlessly flossing in his bedroom. When Armin returns to his childhood home to tend to a dying grandmother, he and his oversharing father (Michael Wittenborn) take turns walking into different rooms to stare off at nothing. Before this studied miserablism can grow unbearable, Armin wakes up in a car, very alone (as in the similarly lugubrious The Leftovers, the “departure” is never explained, though it seems to have something to do with the grandmother). And after Armin’s initial panic (which allows for some virtuosic hood-cam driving footage around the I Am Legend ghostscape), subtle edits push the action forward an indeterminate number of years, revealing a new Armin, one who’s expert at tilling the land, tinkering, and hydroelectricity. Armin’s loneliness is interrupted, though, by a violent meeting with the intimidating Kirsi (Elena Radonicich). It’s a seeming jackpot for both of them — they’re relatively attractive heterosexuals in the same age bracket — but soon their relationship is poisoned by the usual boredom (she glumly watches Bridges of Madison County on a Macbook while shooing away his interruptions) and bickering (she does not want to procreate and he betrays her trust). Even as The Last Man on Earth, Armin can’t get the girl. Throughout, Köhler’s narrative portioning is masterful; banal moments from the first section take on new significance after the apocalypse event, while the film’s final third works as a wryly pessimistic microcosm of modern romance. Justin Stewart


You would be forgiven for thinking that director Michael Beach NicholsWrinkles the Clown is yet another horror film capitalizing on the current coulrophobia craze, following the gargantuan box office returns of 2017’s It adaptation. But whereas Pennywise is a fictional character stemming from the mind of Stephen King, Wrinkles the Clown is indeed a real-life person, a party clown who gained worldwide notoriety when he started posting stickers across his hometown of Naples, Florida that featured only his grotesque visage and phone number. You see, Wrinkles is no ordinary clown — parents can hire him to scare their misbehaving children. In fact, it usually doesn’t even require a visit, but simply a call to that goes straight to a gravelly-intoned voicemail message. Michael Beach Nichols’s documentary purports to follow the real Wrinkles, who became an internet sensation following an unsettling Youtube video where he appeared to be hiding under the bed of a sleeping five-year-old girl. Who is the man behind the makeup? What are the moral and ethical implications of the services he is providing? Nichols wants to address these questions, but also much more, and the resultant film becomes scattershot and wildly unfocused for it. By the time the movie starts following a group of children who have become borderline obsessed with the clown’s online presence—and the effect that internet culture as a whole is having on a generation of adolescents—it’s fair to wonder what the hell Nichols is even attempting here. A 75-minute film should be focused, but this is instead a hodgepodge of talking heads addressing a variety of topics, some seemingly unrelated, intercut with footage of the real-life Wrinkles, face carefully obscured, making TV-dinners in his van. And just to keep everything askew, right as things become maddeningly repetitious, Nichols serves up an Exit Through the Gift Shop-level twist that is supposed to make us question everything we have witnessed. But instead of providing any sort of narrative or thematic clarity, it simply adds — pardon the pun — another wrinkle to the proceedings, little more than a momentary distraction. By the time we get to the film’s laughable final message, it has become clear that Nichols is the one hiding behind a mask, that of a documentarian even remotely interested in any meaninful exploration of his fascinating subject. Steven Warner


America has a sickness, and Upright Comedy Brigade alumni Dawn Luebbe and Jocelyn DeBoer have contracted and spread the disease with their absurdist suburbia horror-satire Greener Grass. The feature adaptation of the SXSW award-winning short of the same name sees Luebbe and DeBoer donning multiple hyphens, and the director-writer-actress-producer team has crafted a meticulous reflection on the cultural rot in the outskirts. Playing a pair of perfect soccer matriarchs, the duo leads a cast of disconcertingly familiar faces, like their interchangeable husbands — handled goofily by Beck Bennett and Neil Casey — or townspeople played by Mary Holland, D’Arcy Carden and Jim Cummings. They could live anywhere, but they happen to reside in a pristine, pastel town where golf carts assume the role of any wheeled vehicle. One day, while attending her son’s soccer practice, Jill (DeBoer) flippantly gives away her newest infant to her best friend Lisa (Luebbe) as a gesture of southern hospitality. Lisa apathetically and nonchalantly accepts, commencing a cycle of deadpan switcheroos in which children turn into dogs and soccer balls become babies. Greener Grass never goes in the direction it seemingly lays out, and it maybe attempts too many genre ideas, but that feels forgivable when the aesthetic and the ideas that Luebbe and DeBoer trade in are so cozily perverse. Comparisons to David Lynch, John Waters and The Stepford Wives may all be apt, but Greener Grass is something as unexpected and zany as the duet behind it —the pair have become the toast of the genre festival circuit as they’ve traveled to audiences around the world to introduce the film while in elaborate costume. Unlike certain cast members (Beck Bennett, looking at you) Luebbe and DeBoer’s debut doesn’t rely on the cheap, overplayed offerings of the current administration for satirical inspiration. Instead, the auteurs reveal the disguised nastiness that’s hidden on the other side of any beltway: the always lurking threat of perfect appearances. Tanner Stechnij


François Ozon‘s latest jumps from the testimony of one character to the next, following the thread of its main subject: a priest’s sexual abuse of children over the course of many years. But at some point in the midst of developing an investment  in each of these on screen individual’s personal accounts, more thorny sub-themes enter into the film. By the Grace of God is a narrative film constructed around the real life case of the sexual abuses committed by a French catholic priest, Bernard Preynat. The focus is less it’s true crime hook, though, than it is the way an organization is built-up by the victims of these abuses, as a means to try and raise awareness of the institutionalized crisis at the heart of the Catholic Church. The film doesn’t visualize the accounts of these individuals, but it’s still tough to watch the characters just talk about what they’ve been though, and how it has affected their lives. Particularly powerful is the testimony of Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), who gradually comes to a realization that the abuse he was subjected to might be the reason that his life is such a wreck, but that it’s also given him a purpose and a goal in life: to raise awareness. Ozon’s approach is stylistically flat and overall a bit rushed, since this story was still developing even as the film was being made. But By the Grace of God is still compelling for the way it speaks to the realities and ramifications of pedophilia in the Catholic Church. Jaime Grijalba Gomez


Since the Syrian Civil war began in 2011, there has been no shortage of documentaries about the plight of the nation’s people, the most memorable among them being Silvered Water, Syrian Self-Portrait (2014) and Feras Fayyad‘s own Last Men in Aleppo (2017)Consider The Cave, Fayyad’s latest capsule of a war-torn state, as a testament to those great works. Essentially a wartime artefact intent on documenting the government’s assault on human rights, the film profiles a hospital built into a cave within Syria’s isolated suburb of Gouta and the female manager at the centre of it. “Let’s keep smiling for the children. That’s all we can do,” Dr. Amani says, as she wades through the literally cavernous hospital she runs, having been thrust into a position of great importance. As she’s a 30-year-old woman, things aren’t easy for her. A man who can’t get access to his medicine berates her for being in charge, telling her she should stay at home. It’s a minor problem for her in the grand scheme of Syria’s desperate plight, but it’s clear that others also feel that way. The sense of impending doom is palpable, and there is little doubt that, eventually, the war will catch up with the hospital workers. The Cave is edited accordingly, ramping up the severity of the attacks as the detailing the film unfolds: It goes from a harrowing moment in which Amani goes to her office to sob after meeting with a woman whose son was killed by a bomb, and culminates in a scene where children hurt by chemical weapons are admitted into the hospital. “How can I hold back the tears while watching humanity being destroyed right in front of me?” Amani asks, visibly broken by what she has seen. Films like The Cave will be valuable in years to come, when a war such as this has run its course and been consigned to the history books. Fayyad’s brave, bold filmmaking gives us an inside look at a living nightmare, revealing the distressing ordeal of a people betrayed by their own ruler. Calum Reed


Shane Carruth stars in “The Dead Center”

Another in a long line of recent horror entries chronicling an everyday individual possessed by an evil entity, The Dead Center sparks initial interest simply through the presence of Shane Carruth, the writer-director-star of both Primer and Upstream Color, and the hope that his participation signals some baseline of quality. Here, he takes on the starring role of Dr. Daniel Forrester, an emotionally troubled psychiatrist at a Tennessee hospital who discovers that a patient presumed dead is still very much alive and suffering from severe trauma and bouts of violent rage. As Forrester becomes obsessed with figuring out what ails our John Doe in the present, a medical examiner goes on an investigative journey into the man’s past, leading him toward a confrontation with Death itself. As that synopsis would imply, there is nothing here you haven’t seen before. Luckily, writer-director Billy Senese (Closer to God) is able to both create and sustain a palpable sense of dread remains gripping and steady across the film’s runtime. This is very much the definition of a slow burn, but one that ultimately works to the film’s advantage, as it has atmosphere to spare, with its sound design a particularly notable asset. One does wish, though, that Senese had shown such finesse with a few of the other technical aspects: the score is downright oppressive at times, while his choice to represent the film’s malevolent spirit though shock cuts, claustrophobic close-ups, and shakycam is both obvious and annoying. Yet, surprisingly, the biggest blemish is Carruth himself, delivering a performance that is community theater-level bad. His very appearance in this, amd its lack of quality, feels like form of procrastination, a way to avoid working on his next long-rumored directorial project. It’s true that he could have picked far worse projects to star in, so its unfortunate that his participation, rather than elevating, actively weakened what is ultimately a serviceable little genre diversion. Steven Warner


Kicking the Canon | Film Selection


Casablanca is not just one film. It is many films, an anthology. Made haphazardly, it probably made itself, if not actually against the will of its authors and actors, then at least beyond their control. And this is the reason it works, in spite of aesthetic theories and theories of film making. For in it there unfolds with almost telluric force the power of Narrative in its natural state, without Art intervening to discipline it. … When all the archetypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths. — from “Casablanca, or the Clichés Are Having a Ball” by Umberto Eco

Eco was trying to get to the heart of something here, how Casablanca, despite not being a very good movie, somehow became a very great one instead, a kind of accidental classic. One does not need to wholeheartedly agree with his assessment to still see the point in it, trying to discern how some works transcend their making, transmuting into something bigger – an attempt to articulate the inexplicable. It’s an interesting lesson to contextulaize Alien within, itself a canonized classic of both sci-fi and horror, traversing genres and launching careers in the process. It’s a defining work, assembled from oddly disparate pieces that come together through some strange alchemy. Typically, that assemblage might be assigned to auteurism, but Ridley Scott isn’t that visionary director at the helm. Scott is one of the most successful bad directors of all time, a counterintuitive claim certainly, but one that has consistently proved true across the years. Scott has no real ‘signature’ of which to speak, his willingness to establish trends (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator) matched only by his desire to then chase after them, presumably hoping for lighting to strike twice (Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood, Prometheus, Alien: Covenant). If nothing else, Scott is probably one of the most successful producers in film history, any aesthetic or philosophical concerns sublimated to market research and star vehicles. Which is not to say that he is untalented, but rather that his talents seem dinstinctly dissimilar to those assigned to pantheon directors. Perhaps, then, this is what made him the perfect person to shepherd Alien to the big screen. By his own admission, Scott was obsessed with the film’s sets and production design — less so with the screenplay or his performers — and Alien has endured as a classic for decades, despite endless imitators and even Scott himself returning to further tarnish the franchise he helped start. When Ian Holm’s murderous replicant Ash declares that he admires the alien’s ‘purity,’ he might as well be speaking about the film itself.

Alien is a messy text in many ways, although not ‘incoherent’ in the Robin Wood sense of the term. There is not proclamation of a specific ideology, only to then subvert or undermine said ideology. Instead, Alien contains several germs of ideas, each one a potential thread for unravelling or interpreting. It’s a decidedly feminist text, and Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley is one of the great female action characters of pop culture, but the film is also saturated with other concerns of gender. The creature is one of the most iconic designs outside of the classic Universal monsters; madman artist H.R. Giger produced conceptual paintings replete with vaginal canals and phalluses and weird, amorphous bio-mechanical surfaces that are simultaneously organic and metallic, all hard, sleek, shiny surfaces and semen-like goo, freely mixing male and female signifiers. Any psycho-sexual intimations of male rape are absolutely intended. The ship is also called the ‘Nostromo,’ inviting any number of literary interpretations by way of Joseph Conrad, and situating plot within themes of power and capital. The crew are coded as simple blue collar workers, who will ultimately be betrayed by an unseen and unfeeling mega-corporation (indeed, the evil Weyland-Yutani company becomes are recurring touchstone in the ‘Alien’ franchise, a kind of weirdly prescient nod to our current condition of global corporate domination). And of course, none of this would matter much if the film wasn’t scary, and scary it is. Alien is clearly indebted to legions of spooky funhouse horror films that anticipated it, but it synthesizes all of them into something altogether new. Critic Dave Kehr was happy to disparage the film as ‘an empty-headed horror movie… with nothing to recommend it beyond the disco-inspired art direction and some handsome, if gimmicky, cinematography. The science fiction trappings add little to the primitive conception, which features a rubber monster running amok in a spaceship… for the most part, things simply jump out and go “boo!”’. He’s not wrong, exactly, but also what art direction! What a rubber monster! One cannot un-see the iconic face hugger, or the gaping, jagged jaw of the alien, slowly opening to reveal…another jagged jaw. If the only thing that happened in the film was the chest-burster sequence, Alien and actor John Hurt would still rate a mention in any history of the horror genre. Alien is a haunted house, a ghost movie, a creature feature, a silly response to 2001, and serious-minded response to Star Wars.

At the end of his above quoted essay, Eco states: “… the height of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the sublime. Something has spoken in place of the director. If nothing else, it is a phenomenon worthy of awe.” Alien will live on as a manifestation of that phenomenon, almost built to insist itself upon a new, unsuspecting generation. Ridley Scott, whatever his flaws, will always be the magician that gave us this one perfect film, where all of its disparate elements somehow came together and produced something remarkably greater than its familiar parts. I admire its purity. Daniel Gorman

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