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Alien³ (#110 of 4)

Ripley’s Got a Death Drive Alien³ at 25

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Ripley’s Got a Death Drive: Alien³ at 25

20th Century Fox

Ripley’s Got a Death Drive: Alien³ at 25

David Fincher’s Alien³ may be the only film ever made to peak with its logo. As the 20th Century Fox fanfare crescendos over the studio’s familiar logo, the music holds on the minor chord before the usual last note, replacing jubilant bombast with a dissonant groan of strings. The alteration produces an immediate sense of discomfort and unease, setting the tone for something ominous and fearsome. It’s an ingenious shot across the bow from Fincher, ushering in a feature career dotted with immaculately ordered, carefully scored works of blockbuster entertainment that veered from audience-pleasing major keys to their grim underbellies.

The perversion of the Fox theme epitomizes a succinct grasp of horror that only occasionally surfaces in the film proper. Too often, Alien³ shows its seams, whether in its thematic arc or the design of the xenomorph, and at not even two hours it still feels weighed down by unnecessary exposition and padded suspense scenes. But blame for much of this cannot fall at one person’s feet, as the film was notoriously the product of years of production hell that saw the studio soliciting wildly different drafts from writers including (but not limited to) cyberpunk author William Gibson, writer-director Vincent Ward, and producer/filmmaker Walter Hill. Eventually, ideas from each version found their way into a Frankenstein monster of a shooting script, one further plagued by endless on-set rewrites that left Fincher so exasperated that even Fox’s officially released behind-the-scenes footage shows the director railing against the pressures of the studio’s poorly planned project.

Auteur! Auteur! Mark Gallagher’s Another Steven Soderbergh Experience: Authorship and Contemporary Hollywood

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Auteur! Auteur!: Mark Gallagher’s Another Steven Soderbergh Experience: Authorship and Contemporary Hollywood
Auteur! Auteur!: Mark Gallagher’s Another Steven Soderbergh Experience: Authorship and Contemporary Hollywood

Though Mark Gallagher has indeed set his sights on Steven Soderbergh for his second, solo-authored film studies monograph (the first being 2006’s excellent Action Figures: Men, Action Films, and Contemporary Action Narratives), it’s the book’s subtitle that reveals his true, and more compelling, interests: authorship and contemporary hollywood. In fact, a work like Another Steven Soderbergh Experience could arguably not have been written even just a decade ago (or would have been received with maximal skepticism), given that cinephilia still existed in a pre-Hulu state, not yet having seen the fruits of the Criterion Collection’s labor, where the complete oeuvre of Keisuke Kinoshita can now be seen in essentially the same place as Kristen Wiig’s return to Saturday Night Live. What’s at stake, it seems, is exactly how one discusses cinema (not movies, to use Soderbergh’s recent distinction) in a complex, thoughtful manner that would necessarily take into account both the modes of production and viewership prevalent in the 21st century, and not simply under the banner of a director’s intent or other films.

Skeptics may refuse to alter their methodological means—that being a purely auteurist line of critical inquiry. However, Paul Schrader has recently stated that even he, at 66 years old, has had his brain rewired by digital technology, to the extent that he finds it “harder and harder to sit for two hours straight. Even in a theater,” and goes on to claim that “the concept of movies itself is pretty much becoming a 20th-century concept.” Schrader’s words offer a nice segue into Gallagher’s, who states near the beginning of his book: “Soderbergh’s work illuminates many trends in industry practice, media authorship, technologies of film and television production and distribution, and motion-picture aesthetics.” Soderbergh’s intermediary status here affirms the very struggle of defining how to place a filmmaker-as-author now, especially one as prolific, in both output and medium vacillation. Gallagher’s intent is less to embark upon another attempt at auteur baiting (as the title ironically suggests), than casting Soderbergh as his fishing lure to demonstrate how he “complicates our recognition of authoring figures’ positions within global circulation networks.” Although Gallagher engages textual analysis in brief (more as evidentiary support than an end), the bulk of the book’s focus is in exploring alternative methods for understanding precisely what a screen author does in contemporary Hollywood.

New York Film Festival 2010: The Social Network

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New York Film Festival 2010: <em>The Social Network</em>
New York Film Festival 2010: <em>The Social Network</em>

David Fincher’s films coil around an invisible center. His protagonists chase after something that they don’t know and can’t see, sometimes spending years in the hunt. In his first several features (following a successful career as a music video director), the center held, and the characters uncovered the thing that they were looking for. Ridley zaps the alien; Pitt and Freeman catch the killer; Michael Douglas solves the game; Norton sniffs the masculine high of his inner Tyler Durden; Jodie Foster and daughter finally break out of the room.

But then something happened inside Fincher’s movies, something roving and difficult to place. Five years passed after 2002’s Panic Room, and when Fincher’s next film, Zodiac, came out in March 2007, many audiences didn’t know what to do with it. Like Se7en, it was a serial-killer movie, and Fincher used many of his standard techniques, which Matt Zoller Seitz and Aaron Aradillas discuss in a fine video essay: wide lenses, deep focus, swooping crane shots, low-angle tracking shots, crosscutting between events in different locations, shock cuts that punch us toward unexpected spots. A visual whirlwind took us on a search for the killer, but unlike in Se7en, where he’s uncovered, Zodiac spends nearly 25 years without finding him. In Se7en, the murderer walks into the police station and cries, “Detectives! I think you’re looking for me”; in Zodiac, the chief suspect looks directly into the camera and says, “I’m not the Zodiac. And even if I were, I certainly wouldn’t tell you.”

The Conversations: David Fincher

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The Conversations: David Fincher
The Conversations: David Fincher

Jason Bellamy: Ed, earlier this year we had a lengthy and spirited debate about Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. Encapsulating that exchange is difficult, but to nutshell it as best I can: I argued that Kaufman’s film is “complex for complexity’s sake” and that Synecdoche, New York’s inner themes aren’t worth the effort of their labyrinthine design; you disagreed and argued that the structure was “encoded with elegant metaphors.” Throughout our exchange, at my blog and yours, I’m not sure that the word “gimmick” was ever used, but thematically that was the bonfire we danced around.

I bring all this up because David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, inspired by a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is a 166-minute exercise about a man (Brad Pitt’s Benjamin Button) who ages backward. He’s born, on the night after the end of World War I, the size of an infant with the physical maladies of an old man, and from there his body grows younger while his spirit and soul grow older and more experienced. Within the margins of this story are ankle-deep philosophical waxings about the aging process (body vs. mind), a fairly straightforward love story and a Forrest Gump-esque trip through American history. But I wonder: Is Benjamin Button anything more than a gimmick?