About Grant

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New York, NY, United States
Film director and screenwriter. Cinephile since birth. Director of DREAMS OF THE WAYWARD (2013). Film Studies MA student at Columbia University.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

"In Space, No One Can Hear You Meow" - Gender in Ridley Scott's "Alien" (1979)

     A domesticated cat becomes a source of terror as it shakes inside a locker, the same cat that would eventually lead a character to his own demise at the hands of something fiercely masculine.  Perhaps the cat is not just a feline critter on board the Nostromo mining vessel, but is in fact a symbol for something greater – something intrinsically human.  In Ridley Scott's 1979 science fiction horror film Alien, the crew of a ship traveling through space to return to Earth is plagued by a visitor from parts unknown.  At the heart of the film is Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), who seemingly has to rise above the dominance of the predominantly male crew to simply become the protagonist of the film.  Her own ability to stand her ground against the machismo presences on board the Nostromo is one of the key elements of her survival by the conclusion of the film.  Alien is much more than just a genre picture as it's a film about the plight of women, a film that presents men as monstrous, and a film that adheres to specific horror conventions in just the right way while rejecting others.
     Throughout Alien, the presence of women feels to be rejected in every way.  Starting from the very first shot of the film, the curvature of the planet that the opening credits are shown over evokes the curvature associated with that of the human female form.  Dissolving from the shot of the planet (which has a very warm and inviting color palette), the space shuttle known as the Nostromo is revealed in a dark and aesthetically cold shot that contrasts with the warmth of the previous shot.  The Nostromo is not a very hospitable environment, as it feels more like a submarine than it does a luxury mode of transportation compared to the sleek spaceships found in other science fiction films.  Unlike those other films, the Nostromo in Alien feels like a piece of machinery floating in space – strictly a piece of function over aesthetic beauty, which makes it a masculine presence with its lack of stylistic or in-vogue embellishments.  Contrasting that masculine presence is the name of the onboard computer system, MOTHER.  The presence of this motherly figure (as the computer should be interpreted as such because of of its namesake) will eventually grow to become a more conventional trope of the horror genre as the film progresses, but upon entry into the film, MOTHER has the answers to all of the crew's questions and concerns.
     When the film begins, a distinct protagonist does not arise at the foreground until after the first act.  That protagonist is Ripley.  Up until that point, the crew of the Nostromo was comprised of five men and two women who were all subtextually competing for the lead role.  In Ripley's possession is a domesticated cat, and much like the protagonist of Alien, Jones (the cat) does what he needs to do to survive.  Though the cat is a boy, in which by being a feline, he is automatically thought of in effeminate terms which makes him a prime metaphor for Ripley.  Ripley is in a position of authority on board the Nostromo (second in command), and even beyond that she is one of the primary enforcers of rules and policies – which does not make her an atypical woman, it just makes her atypical in the confines of a film.  She has a job to do, and she does it well.  Her own role of authority, her lack of makeup, and even her uniform paints her as a woman that is empowered and responsible.  Connecting the symbol of the cat to Ripley as a character, Jones represents her femininity.  Once the alien has boarded the vehicle, the cat is instantly threatened by the alien's overtly male presence that embodies many of the interpersonal problems between crew members on the Nostromo.  With the alien on the loose, the cat runs away seeking shelter.  Ripley's insistent concern for the cat and his wellbeing is that it is a metaphor for Ripley's own gender and sexuality.  As a pussy cat, Jones is representative of Ripley's vagina, and as the film progresses, she'll eventually have to save the cat from being violated by the alien.  In which by doing so, Ripley is saving her own pussy.
     On the other end of the gender spectrum is the masculinity exhibited by the crew members (both anatomically and interpersonally) and the alien that literally embodies all of their attitudes and physicality.  "I'd rather be eating something else, but right now I'm sticking to food," suggestively remarks Parker (Yaphet Kotto) to Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) – the other female crew member – while they eat their dinner.  In that scene, the alien presents itself only moments later when it bursts out of Kane's (John Hurt) chest like a cesarian-section birth gone wrong.  "All monsters are expressions or symbols of some kind of birth process, however distorted or bizarre," states David J. Skal in his book The Monster Show (Skal 287).  In a film as aware of gender roles as Alien is, this anatomically wild "birth" is horrific and almost blasphemous to the idea of women giving birth to children in general.  Upon bursting through Kane's chest and effectively killing him, the alien rises out of his body, shaped like a phallus and shrieks before zipping off out of sight.  As the creature begins to rapidly grow, other parts of its body become increasingly more phallic in both shape and function.  As an adult alien, the shape of its head is like a rod, and when it opens its mouth, another mouth that is erect in form projects outward.  This second mouth is covered in a sticky substance that resembles male ejaculate.  Even the alien's tail is used as a penetrative device as it is insinuated that it is used to rape Lambert as the stiff tail snakes up her inner-thigh.  Though the alien easily personifies much of the misplaced machismo exhibited on the Nostromo, it is the secretly-robot crew member Ash who best captures the human equivalent of the sexual violence the alien thematically represents.  When Ripley discovers that acquiring the alien and bringing it back to Earth is part of the plan, Ash stops her and tries to kill her.  Using a rolled up pornographic magazine (a phallic object in itself), he tries to force it into Ripley's mouth to stop this empowered woman with something that is often a symbol for repressing women.  Either way, both Ash and the alien are killed off.  As Carol J. Clover remarks in "Her Body, Himself: Gender In The Slasher Film", "the killer is himself eventually killed or otherwise evacuated from the narrative. No male character of any stature lives to tell the tale" (Clover 236).  Clover's remarks are particularly true in regard to Alien, as no human male does live to the end of the film, but at least Ripley has Jones.
     Elevating the horror genre thematically, Alien still manages to function as a frightening film as a result of of particular tropes and conventions that it adheres to.  The opening of the film establishes the world and the characters so that we care about them when everything goes downhill.  When the alien becomes a presence in the film, we do not see it often.  As in Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) or Spielberg's Jaws (1975), the alien is not seen by the audience often or in its entirety to increase suspense and tension.  Elaborating on the role of gender in the film, the movie vilifies men and makes them truly monstrous.  When Ash rejects Ripley's order to not allow Kane into the ship until he is quarantined and cleared for entry, he is enacting his own privilege as a male to do as he pleases.  That particular incident is the first sign of this "monstrous masculine", and the film becomes filled with it by the end.  This directly opposes the idea of the "monstrous feminine", which is prominent in many horror films, but the presence of MOTHER on the Nostromo conforms to it.  When it is revealed that MOTHER and Ash had conspired to protect the alien, the MOTHER computer system is then viewed as abject by Ripley.  In one of the final sequences, Ripley is trying to prevent a self-destruct, but MOTHER will not listen.  "...All individuals experience abjection at the time of their earliest attempts to break away from the mother," writes Barbara Creed.  "She sees the mother–child relation as one marked by conflict: the child struggles to break free but the mother is reluctant to release it" (Creed 72).  Ripley has to escape, and when she does, MOTHER and the Nostromo are left for dead as the nuclear reactor on the ship explodes.
     Though Alien is a film reliant upon genre, it uses the genres of science fiction and horror as a platform for its portrayal of strong women and evil masculine figures.  With Jones, the cat, serving as a symbol of a boy with female characteristics, the cat is a metaphor for Ripley in her own situation as a woman in a man's world.  Further, the cat becomes a symbol of her own womanhood as she must save her vagina and other orifices from being assaulted by the monstrous males in the film.  Whether it's the repressive masculinity of Ash, or the obscenely phallic alien itself, Ripley is threatened by the dominant life forces in the universe, and much of that is delivered on screen using the conventions of the genre that is being rebuilt in Alien.

Works Cited
Clover, Carol J. "Her Body, Himself: Gender In The Slasher Film." The Film Studies Reader.
     London: Arnold, 2000. 234-36. Print.
Creed, Barbara. "Horror and The Monstrous Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection."
Skal, David J. "Chapter 10: It's Alive, I'm Afraid." The Monster Show. N.p.: n.p., 1993. 287-89.
Scott, Ridley, dir. Alien. Perf. Sigourney Weaver, and John Hurt. 20th Century Fox, 1979. DVD.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Pasolini, or The 12 Days of Cinema - Day 12: "Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom" (1975)

   On October 22, 2015 (just twelve days ago), I set out on a mission (which I dubbed "Pasolini, or The 12 Days of Cinema") to see all twelve of the feature films that Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini made during his career before he was murdered on the 2nd of November in 1975.  By starting on the 22nd of October, I was able to revisit Pasolini's final film, his masterpiece, Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975), on the 40th anniversary of the day Pasolini was killed.  Though Salò was not intended to be Pasolini's final film, its subject matter and formal presentation exemplifies everything that Pasolini embodies as a filmmaker.  
     All at once a piece of provocation, a comedy, a war film, and a substantial work of art, Salò invites its viewers to be bystanders to acts of debauchery committed against innocent young adults.  Set between 1944 and 1945 during the Nazi occupation of Italy, the opening scene shows the Duke, the Bishop, the President, and the Magistrate of Italy signing their allegiance to the rules that they previously determined for their stay in Salò.  These rules are unknown to the audience, but the motives of these leaders quickly manifest themselves.  Nazi soldiers mobilize through towns and villages in search of the most beautiful young men and women.  Families are separated as fifteen year old boys are marched out of town while their parents and the townspeople look on in horror.  Armored military jeeps transport the beautiful finds that the Nazis have made to a mansion where the Duke, Bishop, Magistrate, and President are able to select their favorite boys of the bunch.  Asking some of the finest specimens to strip, Pasolini uses point-of-view shots to place the viewer in the eyes of the leaders orchestrating this deranged beauty contest.  Once the leaders have selected the best-of-the-best amongst the young men and women, they are transported to a palace in Salò where the rules of their extended stay are divulged: everyone must stay at the palace for the entire time, awake at 6 am to engage in orgies and listen to erotic stories, praying to God is forbidden, and if you're a man you cannot have sex with women.  
     Salò, much like the films that comprise Pasolini's "Trilogy of Life" (The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, Arabian Nights) is a film about storytelling.  Though the Italian leaders are the masterminds behind this 120 day debauching-session, since they have created this for their own personal pleasure, a former prostitute named Signora Maggi guides the sexual exploits of the leaders with the themes of her stories.  Whatever she speaks about finds its way into the sexual depravity engaged in later that day.  
     Structurally, the film is divided into four parts.  The first is a prologue entitled "Antechamber of Hell", but the primary three chapters that follow are all products of the stories told by the prostitute, Signora Maggi: "The Circle of Obsessions", "The Circle of Shit", and "The Circle of Blood".  Alluding to the seven levels of Hell depicted in Dante's Inferno, these chapters take on a life of their own as they precede the events that are yet to be seen.  Further, they serve as a way to calculate the escalation in depravity as everyone's stay at Salò continues.  
     Tonally, Pasolini masterfully makes a film that could be completely dark and unwatchable into a work of comedy – albeit, a highly uncomfortable comedy, of sorts.  The theatricality of Signora Maggi's delivery of her stories is a core source of humor as she jovially dances and sings at times.  Beyond that, the absurdity of the sexual acts (particularly those committed by The Duke, who is skillfully played by Paolo Bonacelli) are often so sick that there's no way that humor can't creep into a scene.  During these acts, jokes are made, the cancan is performed, and literally anything can happen – there's a sense that the events unfolding on screen are as much a surprise at time as they are to the viewer.
     Much of the film is at the mercy of its visual components, but Salò's sound design is of a very high quality.  Ennio Morricone provided the soundtrack for the film, a light and elliptical piano piece that is all at once comforting and comical when juxtaposed against the content on screen.  Music aside, the use of sounds from outside of the palace contribute to the more frightening atmosphere in some scenes of the film.  The droning sound of repetitive cannon fire and explosions in the distance echoes into the palace during several key scenes of immorality and filth.  
     All of these factors collectively make Pasolini's adaptation of Marquis de Sade's The 120 Days of Sodom a true masterpiece.  Had Pasolini not been murdered, this likely would not have been his final film, but that it is his last film, Salò does have some extra weight.  Though it may seem to be a far cry from Pasolini's faithful adaptation of the Biblical book of Matthew, Salò manages to find its justification (for those who seek it) near its conclusion.  "My God, why has thou forsaken me?" screams the daughter of one of the leaders as she awaits her death.  When the camera pans over to the guards, they are playing cards just as the Roman soldiers who cast lots over Jesus' possessions.  In Salò's final moments, two of those young men who were tasked with protecting the leaders and ensuring that none of the youths escaped during their 120-day stay in the palace engage in a touching moment.  With the radio on, one of the young men asks the other to dance with him.  He promptly sets down his machine gun, and dances with the other guard.  In the room next door, the Magistrate is watching the other leaders as they torture the young men and women that they've deflowered over the past few months.  These guards don't care that these inhumane acts have occurred, but if they did, they could've saved everyone as they were armed.  Pasolini condemns them for simply choosing to observe – the nonchalant joy that they experience in these final moments is more repulsive than much of anything that was seen prior.  For them, and for us, life continues after seeing such cruelty, but that's the point as Pasolini designed Salò so that such violence could be observed.

My rating: 5/5

My top Pasolini films:
1. Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
2. Accattone (1961)
3. The Gospel According To St. Matthew (1964)
4. The Decameron (1971)
5. Oedipus Rex (1967)
6. Arabian Nights (1974)
7. The Hawks and The Sparrows (1966)
8. Mamma Roma (1962)
9. Teorema (1968)
10. The Canterbury Tales (1972)
11. Porcile (1969)
12. Medea (1969)

Pasolini, or The 12 Days of Cinema - Day 11: "Arabian Nights" (1974)

   Capping off the "Trilogy of Life" is Pasolini's penultimate film, Arabian Nights (1974).  Next to The Gospel According To St. Matthew (1964), this might be one of the most positive films by Pasolini.  Where Arabian Nights is about childlike innocence and love, Pasolini's final film (Salò) is the exact opposite on a moral and world-view level.  Featuring a cast of hundreds that is primarily comprised of untrained locals, the speckling of Pasolini's regular actors such as Franco Citti and Ninetto Davoli lends the Arab world that Pasolini is depicting a truly exotic atmosphere.  It's neither here nor there, and yet it's set against the backdrop of ancient Baghdad.  
     Following in the same vein as The Decameron (1971) and The Canterbury Tales (1972), Arabian Nights is a collection of vignettes, but this time they are expressed more naturally: as stories spoken or read by characters in the film.  The central characters of Arabian Nights are the incompetent (yet well-meaning) teenage boy Nur Ed Din (Franco Merli) and his beautiful slave girl Zumurrud (Ines Pellegrini).  Opening with the gorgeous Zumurrud being auctioned off to whomever she wishes, she selects Nur Ed Din to become her new master.  Though Nur Ed Din has no money, Zumurrud gives him some money so that he can properly purchase her in front of the crowd of elderly men.  This moment of fate leads to Nur Ed Din's sexual awakening as he and Zumurrud instantly fall in love.  Zumurrud is a masterful seamstress (as great as she is at giving "head massages"), so to earn some extra money for Nur Ed Din, she makes an elegant blanket for Nur Ed Din to sell at the marketplace.  Her only request to Nur Ed Din is that he cannot sell it to a man with blue eyes (as she has a terrible feeling that something will come between them if he does).  Naturally, when Nur Ed Din goes to the marketplace, the best offer he receives is from a man with blue eyes, and Nur Ed Din reluctantly accepts his money.  On his way home, the man with the blue eyes follows him the whole way, drugs Nur Ed Din's food, and then kidnaps Zumurrud.  For the rest of the film, Nur Ed Din is on a journey to find the love of his life.
     During his journey, Nur Ed Din meets many beautiful women, and from those women he receives sexual favors and stories.  One of the most emotionally impacting stories recounted follows Ninetto Davoli as a man on his wedding day who takes his wife-to-be for granted and misses the ceremony when he falls in love with a woman that he sees for the very first time.  When Davoli returns home to his wife-to-be, he discovers that the wedding has been delayed by his parents for a year, so he tells his fiancé about the woman he fell in love with.  Even though it pains her, his fiancé chooses to help him win her affection.  By the end of this devastating tale, Davoli realizes that his heart was always with his fiancé, but he doesn't realize this until it's too late.  
     The vignette following Davoli's character isn't just remarkable for its emotional catharsis, but because it's a story within a story.  In fact, during that particular vignette, several other stories are told (some going as deep as a story within a story within another story).  Like the dream sequence in Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of The Bourgeoisie (1972), Pasolini is playing with narrative form.  Following the opening credits of Arabian Nights is a quote from the original source material which reads: "Truth lies not in one dream, but in many."  Those words become the key to interpreting the narrative purpose of the stories told throughout Pasolini's Arabian Nights, and the film benefits from the additional stories that buffer the core plot – in Arabian Nights, they aren't just stories, they're parables..
     Like the Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger, and Tim Whelan film The Thief of Baghdad (1940), Arabian Nights is a spectacle through the eyes of young people.  Though Arabian Nights is not a children's film (by any stretch of the imagination), it still manages to evoke many of the same feelings of childhood wonder that The Thief of Baghdad does so effectively.  Arabian Nights is a tribute to love at first sight, the power of love, and the strength of young love.

My rating: 4.5/5

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Pasolini, or The 12 Days of Cinema - Day 10: "The Canterbury Tales" (1972)

     One year after the release of Pasolini's The Decameron (1971), Pasolini's tenth feature film is another collection of stories: an adaptation of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.  Following the texts of English writer Geoffrey Chaucer, Pasolini's The Canterbury Tales (1972) is another series of vignettes that portray sexuality, but often in a darker light.  The stakes in The Canterbury Tales are higher than in The Decameron, and the divide between youth and the elderly is emphasized upon to a great extent.  Death, quite literally, is often just around the corner, and there aren't always smiles at the end of the sexual excursions depicted in this film.
     Opening with the arrival of Chaucer (portrayed by Pier Paolo Pasolini) to a town where many of the people are travelers headed to Canterbury, the idea of telling stories is introduced from the start.  A woman, The Wife of Bath (Laura Betti) speaks of herself in third person to a group of onlooking men.  When everyone migrates to a diner that evening (Chaucer among them, the owner of the diner invites everyone to each tell a story to make their long journey to Canterbury go by more quickly.  Perhaps no one takes the diner's request seriously, but Chaucer and the observance of him writing stories becomes the narrative glue for this disjointed assemblage of stories.  
     Comparatively, Pasolini's film of The Canterbury Tales feels less of a whole than the sprawling stories that comprise The Decameron which may be a result of clashing themes.  Much of The Decameron focuses on young love, but The Canterbury Tales often has young women married to men more than twice their age.  It's often uncomfortable to watch young women (such as Geraldine Chaplin) to be forced to sleep with elderly kings, but there are often young men trying to sexually free these women from their old husbands.  As the film progresses, age becomes more of a presence in the film as one of the stories involves a group of young men who decide to hunt for "Death".  What they do not know is that "Death" is a natural phenomenon and not a person – which is certainly the core theme of that vignette, as the young men kill themselves off during their quest to kill "Death".  
     Though age is one facet of The Canterbury Tales, one of the most compelling stories in the film is of a man portrayed by Franco Citti who follows (what appears to be) a peeping tom as he goes from house to house observing homosexuals.  Franco Citti soon discovers that this man is actually a spy for the Church who is going to have the gay men that he found burned alive for their sins unless they can pay a hefty fee to the Church.  The first man has plenty of money to spare, but the second is less fortunate and is sentenced to death.  Dark clouds of smoke fill the air from the wooden alter that he is burned alive on before a full audience.  During this, Citti stares on in horror.  
     It is not to The Canterbury Tales' detriment that the film is less enjoyable than The Decameron, as Pasolini should not be expected to repeat himself, but it certainly is not as accessibly humorous as its predecessor.  Where The Decameron spoils its viewers, The Canterbury Tales is more likely to challenge them, which is totally fine.  The larger concern with The Canterbury Tales is that it's not as focused thematically and is held together by a passive story (the observance of Chaucer writing) rather than an active story.  Beyond that, The Canterbury Tales is a very well-crafted film with plenty of tricks and surprises up its sleeve – including one of the most sensational finales to a film that I've ever seen (Hieronymus Bosch would be proud).

My rating: 4/5