By Sebastian Wurzrainer ’20
The Classical Hollywood Cinema by David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson, which theorizes the mode and conventions of Hollywood films until 1960s (although the model is still applicable up to today), is by my estimation one of the most valuable works of film history ever published (not that my estimation as a Junior film and media studies major counts for all that much, of course). Nevertheless, the book is certainly far from flawless; perhaps its most obvious shortcoming is that its three authors have a penchant for envisioning the classical Hollywood cinema as a paradigm that exist apart from the various processes of production, spectatorship, technological innovation and even historical forces. They frequently imagine the paradigm as all-encompassing; so much so that they even posit, “In Hollywood cinema, there are no subversive films, only subversive moments” (81). Such an approach imagines Hollywood classicality as a black hole which ensnares all cinematic elements that enter its vast orbit. But as Dartmouth’s own Professor Paul Young notes in his book The Cinema Dreams Its Rivals, “Classical cinema is … a definition of the medium imposed upon it by an institutional process” (1). Each of the practices that influence this process must be “invented, cultivated, and maintained, decade by decade, year by year, and even week by week and film by film” (1).
Similarly, in his book Film/Genre, film scholar Rick Altman notes a pernicious and ahistorical tendency among genre theorists to view genres as rigid and immutable. Altman comprehensively refutes such an approach, paying particular attention to the clear financial incentives that may motivate film producers to identify, recreate and exploit trends that come to be contextualized as a genre. He writes, “Films are always available for redefinition – and thus genres for realignment – because the very process of staying in the black involves reconfiguring films” (43). The Adventures of Robin Hood (Curitz and Keighley, US 1938) and Avengers: Infinity War (Russo and Russo, US 2018) may be separated by 80 years, but both are highly emblematic of the classical paradigm.
From this perspective, it’s not all that hard to see how Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson might feel comfortable contesting against the possibility of a subversive Hollywood film. As of 2019, clearly no film has been subversive enough to radically alter the course of the dominant American film industry. Indeed, it is probably fair to assess that films which may reasonably be described as subversive tend to refresh and reinvigorate the classical paradigm, rather than upend it. Yet to employ Altman and Young’s approach of invention, cultivation, maintenance, redefinition and realignment when it comes to the classical paradigm and the genres therein is to understand that a potentially subversive film need not upend the paradigm to be subversive. Rather it need only challenge or defy the expectations created by that very process of invention, cultivation, maintenance, redefinition and realignment. The failure to apply this approach is how we come to historically understand a film like Star Wars (Lucas, US 1977) as a return to classical form for Hollywood after a brief period instability during the late 1960s and 1970s, and thus the kick-starter for the ongoing trend of conventional genre film blockbusters. As video essayist Bob Chipman notes in Star Wars: George Lucas’ Subversive Masterpiece, such a view fails to appreciate why Star Wars reinvigorated audiences in the first place, and thus fails to recognize that as a film it is the product of a far more idiosyncratic, experimental and leftist director than its more conservative and conventional progeny would indicate.
Which brings us at long last to Alien (Scott, UK/US 1979), which may not look particularly subversive considering its continued popularity, legacy, and its subsequent multimedia franchise. At best, we as a modern audience might be inclined to note one or two mildly subversive moments, although even those have probably become too iconic to count. Yet a little historical digging implies that Alien was neither the film that producers and studios thought they were making, nor was it necessarily the film for which audiences thought they were buying a ticket. Indeed, this is precisely why I felt it necessary to take the time to explicate not just on the classical paradigm, but also on Altman’s theory of genre and even the low-key subversion inherent to the original Star Wars. Alien is most commonly classified as “sci-fi-horror,” yet the structure of the screenplay was probably influenced less by the likes of H.P. Lovecraft and more by the burgeoning slasher film genre (think Halloween, Carpenter, US 1978, which predates Alien by a year). Indeed, in the film’s behind-the-scenes documentary The Beast Within, producers David Giler and Gordon Carroll all but admit that they agreed to produce the film because it had the appeal of being a slasher/haunted house film in space. In fact, the only thing they initially liked about Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay was the now-iconic “chestburster” scene, wherein the titular alien orally impregnates one of the protagonists only for the offspring to burst through the poor victim’s chest, killing him. Yet they seemed less interested in this scene for its metaphorical implications and more because it remains a particularly unique way to dispatch with a character in a horror film. Indeed, considering the film’s somewhat tumultuous pre-production, when Giler and Carroll’s claim that they rewrote the screenplay with producer Walter Hill to turn it from B-movie material to A-movie material, it’s hard not to wonder if this is an after-the-fact attempt to take credit for the final product’s artistry.
Moreover, no one has ever been particularly shy about admitting that 20th Century Fox expressed next to no interest in the film until the release of the studio’s own Star Wars in 1977. Alien was far from the only science-fiction/fantasy film greenlit in direct response to Star Wars (that’s why the Star Trek film series even exists, and why Ian Fleming’s third James Bond novel, Moonraker, takes place entirely on Earth but the subsequent 1979 film adaptation heavily features a space station). But Alien is especially interesting as one of the many ships lifted by the rising tide produced by Star Wars for at least two reasons: 1) both films were produced by the same studio, and 2) the two films are radically different in tone, aesthetic, narrative and intended audience. Indeed, their only real similarity is that they both take place in outer space. Thus, Alien embodies one of Altman’s hypotheses about the formation and evolution of genres; they are often the result of producers attempting to replicate previous successes and thus serve an economic function that extends well beyond their existence as an outgrowth of literary theory. When viewed from a historical lens, Alien is the product of producers who saw it as little more than a slasher film with sci-fi trappings and a studio who wanted it for nothing more than those sci-fi trappings in spite of its slasher film plot.
The miracle – and thus the subversion – of Alien is that the final product was not just another slasher film, nor was it another attempt to cash in on Star Wars’ success that failed because the two films are so distinct. Instead, Alien is widely remembered and regarded as an artistic triumph. Consider the degree to which the film has been both praised, critiqued and analyzed for its visual splendor, narrative efficiency and thematic potency. In particular, theoretical readings of the film’s motifs pertaining sex and gender abound (i.e. the phallic design of the titular alien, the aforementioned “chestbuster” pregnancy scene, and the last surviving protagonist being a fiercely independent woman). I can’t do justice to that line of discourse here, but needless to say it is fascinating. And although screenwriter Dan O’Bannon may insist that the film’s sexual metaphors were intentional, that’s clearly not why Giler, Carroll, Hill or 20th Century Fox agreed to produce his screenplay, nor what audiences would have been primed to anticipate.
On the one hand, it would all too easy – and perhaps not entirely inaccurate – to posit that the real intrepid hero of this story is director Ridley Scott. It’s nothing short of astonishing that a director with a few commercials and one film under his belt (a costume drama, no less) simultaneously saw such potential in O’Bannon’s screenplay and managed to successfully execute his resultant vision. While watching Alien, it’s certainly hard not to admire Scott’s laser-precision as a filmmaker. If for nothing else, the pacing of Alien puts the deliberateness of Jaws (Spielberg, US 1975) to shame. Yet if Scott’s instincts as a director were good, then his instincts as a team leader were arguably better. Scott’s wisdom as a filmmaker derives not just from his own self-assured approach, but perhaps even more so in his reliance on the strengths of his collaborators. When discussing Alien from a filmmaking perspective, there’s a tendency to place emphasis on the work of Ron Cobb, Chris Foss and H.R. Giger, the artistic who collectively designed the film’s unmistakable aesthetic. And while highlighting them is important, I also think that it can overshadow the contributions of other departments, whether it be the cinematography, editing, acting, or even Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score.
Watching The Beast Within, it’s clear that Scott was always the one with the exacting vision and plan. However – at least for this film – it appears that Scott achieved his vision not by acting like a petulant dictator (I’m looking at you, Hitchcock, Kubrick, and French New Wave auteurs!), but rather by ensuring that he collaborated with among the most talented professionals available. The result is a film that both subverts and transcends its labels; it’s too esoteric and cerebral to be just another slasher film, but it contains far too much eldritch horror to be just another work of science-fiction. What’s curios, though, is that we don’t really have a better genre label for Alien because its unique formula has so rarely been replicated (the best recent example I can think of is maybe last year’s phenomenal Annihilation (Garland, UK/US 2018)). As Altman notes in Film/Genre, not every successful film or group of films that has the potential to set a new genre into motion manages to do so. Star Wars, for all its subversions, clearly represented a formula that producers felt more comfortable replicating than Alien. And although Alien has been highly influential, it’s telling that even its sequels and prequels fail to properly maintain its legacy. After all, the franchise’s second film, Aliens (Cameron, US 1986), while enjoyable, still relies quite heavily on a more conventional combination of outright-thriller and military-science-fiction tropes. Even Ridley Scott’s return to the franchise with the recent prequels Prometheus (Scott, UK/US 2012) and Alien: Covenant (Scott, UK/US 2017) demonstrates his inability to recapture the unique alchemy that he initiated. In that sense, it might be said that Alien was not just subversive for its time and place but remains somewhat subversive now – even for the man who fully realized its potential in the first place.
Bordwell, David, et al. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. Columbia University Press, 1985.
Young, Paul. The Cinema Dreams Its Rivals: Media Fantasy Films from Radio to the Internet. University of Minnesota Press, 2006.
Altman, Rick. Film/Genre. British Film Institute, 1999.