❉ After-Image looks at single images and the emotional and narrative weight they carry. This week: Industrial Relations, ‘Alien’-style.
Sometimes we get so caught up in world-building, or narrative that we forget that cinema is a visual medium. In this occasional series we look at single images and the emotional and narrative weight they carry. This time: Industrial Relations.
Film is political.
From the very birth of cinema, with the racist epic Birth of Nation, through the propaganda triumphs of the will of the 1930s – from both Axis and Allies – the very act of creating these flickering images on the wall has been weighted with political meaning. This can be unintended subtext – one thinks of the 1970s economic shocks that colour The Amityville Horror – or can be the entire point; the scathing indictment of consumer culture of Dawn of the Dead is baked in right at the beginning. Yet the political reading of film can be a trap of itself, and that’s nowhere more evident that in the 1979 classic Alien. The trap is in one image, and it’s this:
There can’t be anyone unfamiliar with the basic plotline of Alien, nor with its unique place in genre history with gender-blind casting; Alan Ladd Jr of 20th Century Fox famously just made two of the all-male character roster female almost on a whim. Most importantly this included Ripley who is destined to become the final survivor and a feminist icon. In this shot we see Ridley Scott’s famously layered mise en scene. The corridors of the Nostromo are cramped – notice how Yaphet Kotto has to stoop – and functional. They resemble the interior of a submarine more than the spacious environs of a Kubrickian space vessel. Constructed from junk bits of aircraft and industrial waste they prefigure the lived in retrofitted future of Blade Runner and show up with simplistic, over-designed iFuture of Prometheus for the self-conscious tosh it is. The crew are dishevelled and Brett is caught in the act of lighting a cigarette with a blowtorch. The conversation at this point is about pay and the ‘bonus situation’; it includes a non-too subtle threat of the ship’s engineers going on strike. The authority figure, blocking out the right of the frame, who faces down these two bolshy roughnecks is Ripley: a woman. Notice that, although the frame includes her backside she is filmed and lit in such a way as to negate the usual male gaze (That will be saved for the end of the film).
The horror genre is politically reactionary; it is about the destruction of the abject, the rejection of the other and the embrace of the status quo. Normality is the goal, the prize, the thing worth fighting for. Science fiction is usually progressive, democratising; in fantasy on the aristocratic chosen one can wield the Sword of Power but in SF anyone can pick up the Big Fucking Gun. In Alien, a science fiction horror, which political strain will come out on top?
This shot suggests an answer; blue collar workers, deep in the working spaces of the ship, arguing with their female boss – who overrules them. The fact that Parker is played by Yaphet Kotto fresh here off his turn in Blue Collar as a working stiff betrayed by both bosses and union gives added weight, as does the casting of Harry Dean Stanton, the Eternal American Working Stiff. As we discover later, this crew has been thrown to the xenomorphic wolves by The Company, faceless representative of capitalism (and the only entity that appears in every single one of the Alien series, fact fans) putting this firmly in the realm of corporate conspiracy thrillers so beloved of the 1970s. So that’s pretty clear cut, right? Alien with its female lead and working class characters is progressive: SF wins out over horror, right?
Look again. These guys are going to end up dead. Obviously they have to end up dead because this is a horror movie but just like libidinous teens in a slasher movie they have to deserve it. Parker and Brett’s sin? Well. We could examine their rejection of the patriarchal authority figure – seriously, find me one moment when they treat Dallas anything like a Captain – which is pretty much a cornerstone of the Gothic tradition. In all Gothic literature it is the breakdown of authority that allows the invasion of the ‘other’; Kane allows his greed to push him too far; Ash ignores the rules to allow the infected Kane back aboard. So is this insubordination their original sin? But I think it’s a lot simpler than that: they don’t know their place. They’re jumped up worker bees who, in the final analysis will be devoured by the Alien while the patrician officer class escapes. Even in this moment the steam we see blowing out of the corners of the frame are fake, engineered by Parker to drive Ripley out of ‘their’ space.
Ah, Ripley. Surely she is the proof that this film embraces the brave new world of feminism? No; remember, this is the Ripley of Alien, not the uber-Mum matriarchal badass of Aliens. Ripley survives by ignoring any female impulse and by taking on the mechanical plot driven actions of the male action star. Only at the very end is there the implication of something else where she literally penetrates the Alien with a whacking great big harpoon: but even then she is leered over by the camera in her vest and pants before she can don the asexual suit of an astronaut again.
When I think of Alien, I think of the enclosed spaces and the working stiffs. I think of Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton. Yet I have to remember that they do not die to make a Marxist point about the evils of capitalism – beyond the facile subplot about the Company trying to capture the alien. They die because they do no respect that natural order of things. And in their deaths they act as a reminder to me that, like the Alien itself, the horror genre is a perfectly evolved machine. If you cross breed it with any other genre it will devour its sibling and emerge on top.
You have to admire its purity.
❉ Herbert West – when he’s not reanimating the dead – teaches at a secondary school in the north of England. He is the host of the Trial of a Timelord podcast which can be found on Twitter at @WhoTrial