Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Alien: come what may

So, are there films that don’t transfer well on TV? Yes, and Alien is one of them. We can remember the publicity slogan that launched it: ‘Out in space no one can hear you scream’. But the space-time of the cinema auditorium is not the space-time of apartments dimly irradiated by our TV sets. We might well scream in fear when the blood-soaked alien pierces John Hurt’s ribcage, but this scream will none-the-less be weaker than the racket of the commercial break that comes straight after it, exploiting our terror to unfurl (Chanel, Braun, Tefal, Oasis, Mir wool and so many others). Advertising bursts into the body of the film in just the same way the alien ‘exit’ the body of the man. Shame follows on too quickly after fear. This is how one of the most disquieting films of the last decade becomes, on the small screen, nothing more than a curious and awkwardly apprehended object. 
With his background in advertising, Ridley Scott remains rare among filmmakers in systematically seeking out cinematic themes to match the sensory tremor that derived from the rhetoric of advertising. What he was after in Alien was a story that would justify the subliminal procedures of advertising and he found it in the most contemporary terror, the one that brings back the organic oozing right in the midst of spotless machines. 
We shall never know whether, with each appearance of the alien, we have seen enough of it. For some it’s already too much; for others it will never be enough. For everyone, however, there will be no way of getting used to the monster since it only comes in avatars. The paradoxical power of Alien is that it is a film at the edge of the visible, compelling its audience to strain its eyes in the effort of focussing the look. It is a film that requires a big screen. It is above all a film that requires darkness. The bigger the screen the less forgivable the failure to see anything. The darker the auditorium, the more time there is to very gradually acquire night vision. 
Like many films that test our perception, Alien has a script which we rediscover with each fresh viewing. In our obsession with the monster we forget that the human crew are undergoing the same treatment; it is only gradually that we close in on their faces with the hope of reading something in them. The film doesn’t encourage any psychologising along the lines of ‘the human group finding itself in the face of danger’ and if, like Ripley (Sigourney Weaver, forever magnificent), we are drawn to learn more about what the enigmatic Ash has in his head, our desire will be fulfilled to the letter. One of the few close-ups in the film is in fact of Ash’s head, frothing and torn off his robot body and disclosing in an even voice the heart of the story. There is no more interiority, there is only a succession of insides and what’s inside them. 
Why do the adventures of those on board the Nostromo (the alien included) work less well on television? Because the desire to still see something is more quickly dampened by the size of the screen. Because the desire to hear is thoroughly stifled by the anaemic sound of the television set. Because television viewers are less used to having to take bearings than film viewers. Because they haven’t even had time to work out where they are on the Nostromo when it becomes a strange and boundless place for its passengers, a real museum of primeval fears (the basement, the hold and the cubbyholes) inherited from the planet Earth. 
And then, thanks to La Cinq, that inveterate grand butcher of film, we become aware of another reason for our discomfort. Among the many commercials that have interrupted the film, there is at least one that seems to come out of the same plastic universe as Alien. This is the Braun commercial where a man and a razor appear to communicate in a futuristic idyll. Now Alien’s story is in a sense about what would happen to this ‘hero’ were he to be placed in a time-span that wasn’t that of the commercial. Maybe he would happen to cut himself, to discover with horror that the razor is an alien, to find himself spattered with blood (like in Scorsese’s parodic little film The Big Shave), and to transform from the status of pure image to that of visceral heap. 
If in 1979 Alien-the-murky really was a puritanical repulsion of advertising hygienic obsession, then it’s perhaps logical that its TV viewing should vaguely irritate. 
First published in Libération on 8 December 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

No comments:

Post a Comment