Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Facehugging the Body Electric

(Yes, that post title makes sense.)

Rewatching movies I haven't seen in years, or even decades now, is a sometimes-pleasurable thing to do. Why only sometimes? Because sometimes I find myself admiring a film anew or rediscovering why I liked it in the first place; other times, however, I find myself either finding that a film I liked once isn't as good as I remember it, or that a film I didn't like to begin with is still a film I don't like.

Fame came out in 1980. I recall it being highly regarded at the time, although since it was an R movie, I didn't get to see it. (Of course, I was nine and my interests were nowhere in the remote vacinity of a movie like Fame.) Later there was a teevee series that ran for several years based on the movie, but I didn't get to watch the film itself until I caught it on teevee at some point in the late 80s. It might have even been on PBS, I'm not sure...but it was a heavily-edited version. How edited? Well, it turns out, now that I've finally seen the whole thing as it ran in the theaters, heavily edited. There are a number of characters in Fame - not all of them, but a few – who are incapable of uttering a sentence without using the F-word at least three times in the sentence, including one very angry rant early in the film from a girl who doesn't get into the prestigious school.

Fame follows a group of students through their years at the High School for the Performing Arts in New York City. We meet them during the audition process, and then track their progress through each of their four years in this school, wherein they learn to hone their respective artistic crafts. We see musicians, dancers, and actors in their auditions. Some are more convincing than others, of course; some are clearly delusional in their attempt to get into this school. One girl is a prospective dancer; she brings a male friend along with her to be her dance partner through her audition. Even though he's just along for the ride, the male friend ends up impressing the judges more than the girl, who is rejected and walks out of the school and back to her regular life with a stream of profane invective. Another girl is auditioning to be an actress; at first glance her audition looks to be a disaster (her scene is someone waiting for an elevator) but when next we see her, she's attending class.

We focus in, of course, on a few of these students more than others. The guy who was only a dance partner but ended up in the school is the "kid with the massive chip on his shoulder" who runs afoul of a stern teacher who won't let him slack off one bit. There are the two acting students who are apparently very talented while also being very insecure, as well as the very talented singer and musician and would-be comedian who are very talented but who hide their insecurities well.

As the movie goes on, we basically follow these kids through their trials and tribulations mainly through small vignettes. We are invited to compare and contrast their behaviors as they grow, and to see them blossom in some cases and retreat into their shells in others. Each character is a fascinating person; there isn't a single uninteresting character in this film. If anything, the film leaves me wanting to spend more time with these kids, and there is the ever-present desire to learn what became of all these kids after they graduate. (There is a cautionary tale there, in the way a graduating senior upon whom our heroes look in awe when they are freshmen turns out to be waiting tables three years later when our heroes are seniors.)

Fame is also a musical. The songs are decent enough; the most famous is the title number, with vocals by Irene Cara. The closing number, "I Sing the Body Electric", is also a fine song. In truth, though, I had a bit of trouble with the musical nature of the film. Maybe it's that the first number doesn't come until about twenty minutes into the film, but for some reason, the film's realism works against the musical numbers. The film attempts to ground the numbers in the realistic setting, but somehow they still end up feeling false in a way. I like the movie's songs, but the film ends up being a musical that just doesn't feel like a musical.

My larger quibble with the film is that I just didn't think it was long enough. The movie creates an amazing world, within the walls of that school, and it populates that world with characters who are fascinating. I wanted to spend more time with them, to see more of their struggles and more of their conflicts and more of their successes and their failures. Maybe the fault here is that the film has too many characters, and thus to get them all in has to short-change them a bit, but I'm not sure that's the case as I can't decide for the life of me that, if that's the case, which character I would cut from the film. But I didn't see enough of the tense relationship between the black dance student and the gruff English teacher; I didn't see enough of the young electronic musician and the cab-driver father who dotes on him; I didn't see enough of the red-haired young gay actor. What we see of these people is great stuff! I wanted to see more of it, to such a degree that I must consider it a fault that I didn't.

What I would not do is exactly what the film was wise enough to not do: we are given no hint at all as to the lives of these characters after they graduate and pursue their individual crafts. There is no American Graffiti-type summation that tells us who went on to be a successful writer, and who went on to be a career insurance salesman, and who got killed in a war. Fame leaves that entirely up to us.

So, after gushing about Fame, what's the other movie that I re-watched recently? Well, I've never been a fan of the Alien franchise. I didn't care for the first film, I didn't care for the second, the third is crap on a stick, and on that basis I never bothered watching the fourth. But for some reason, I decided to give the original Alien another shot. And I still don't like it.

Alien always gets props for being a classic of the horror genre, but I just don't know. Boiled down, it's just "horrible thing jumps out from the dark", set in space. There are horror stories – movies, books, what have you – that retain their effectiveness on repeat explorations. Now, the specific "creep moments" may lose some effectiveness when you know what happens and who survives and who doesn't and how those who don't meet their fate, but the really great horror stories still manage to horrify on deeper levels, with psychological insights and that sort of thing. The final scene in The Silence of the Lambs can no longer put me on the edge of my seat, even when we see Buffalo Bill's hand reaching for Agent Starling through the night vision glasses, because I know how that turns out. But I can still be disturbed by the film's delving into a harrowing world of human psychosis.

Not so with Alien, where I continue to find that the movie's set pieces lose their effectiveness completely when I know what happens, and where I find all the stuff in between the set pieces largely uninteresting filler. And that's a shame, because the film's production design really is awfully good. Nostromo looks like an actual place, which is essential. But so what? As has been my impression for years, Alien remains a monster movie that doesn't have much to say about the monster, or what it means to be a monster, or how we should react to monsters, or anything else. The characters in Alien are not all that interesting, save for the two "grunts" who keep griping about their pay scale. In terms of interesting characters, the sequel Aliens is much better (and I end up disliking that movie for other reasons entirely).

The first time I saw Alien, I'll admit that it was pretty gripping and scary. But each time thereafter -- well, not so much. I've drawn this analogy before, but a friend once told me about the odd experience she had about a funny amusement park mishap she experienced once while riding a roller-coaster that takes place inside a building with all the lights off, in order to make a run-of-the-mill coaster more terrifying. I don't recall if it was "Space Mountain" or someplace else, but she said that something went awry – maybe a power outage – just as her car was being pulled onto the track. The emergency lights came on, revealing the entire structure of the ride, and revealing it to be what it was all along: a humdrum coaster in a building. I find watching Alien now to be basically like riding "Space Mountain" with all of the lights turned on: when I know what's going to happen, it's a very humdrum movie.

1 comment:

jason said...

Just catching up on some of your older entries that I've missed, and this one caught my eye.

I realized long ago that it is folly to try and convince someone to like a movie that doesn't work for them, so I'm not going to tell you that you're wrong about Alien. Hey, you don't like it, you don't like it. But I would like to note that I have a very different view of this one. In my experience, the movie only becomes richer with multiple viewings. The "horrible thing jumping out from the dark" effect dominates the first time anyone sees it, of course, but the movie actually plays on all kinds of fears, many of them rooted in American culture's discomfort with sex.

Consider: The scouting party enters the derelict spacecraft through an opening that resembles a vulva. The spacecraft itself has two branches with large structures on the ends, like ovaries. The mysterious alien eggs are found deep inside the center of the craft, and obviously horrible things are set irrevocably in motion once they're found. I read this as fear of unwanted pregnancy, and, more generally fear of the mysterious nature of female sexuality. The facehugger's attack can be seen as fear of rape, particularly male fear of rape, since the victim is a man and he is rendered utterly helpless by the experience. Fear of the pain and gore of childbirth is rather obviously represented, I think.

You can also read the film as an industrialized culture's disconnection from and discomfort with nature. The Nostromo is an oil refinery in space, all hard geometry and technology. The derelict spacecraft, on the other hand, is curved and organic-looking -- remember those vulvar openings! -- and the alien itself is all gooey secretions and teeth, as natural as the Nostromo is technological. Even Ash, the robot traitor in the crew's midst, appears to be at least partly organic, with the "milk" and weird visceral innards. The movie thus presents us with recognizable human beings from the late 20th century totally at odds with the natural universe around them... and they're losing the battle.

Does the movie have anything to say about these fears? Well, that's arguable, I suppose. But sometimes art merely poses the questions and leaves the conclusions to us.

As I said, I'm not trying to change your mind on a movie you don't like. But I do think you're being unfair in saying it's nothing more than stuff jumping from the shadows.