More Cinema: On Alien, PTA, and Los Angeles

by Jamey McDermott  ·  January 26, 2015

Alien is my favorite movie.  There have been challengers over the years—Brazil, Chungking Express, and Blue Velvet, to name a few—but I can’t shake that first time watching Alien in my parents’ basement, struck with a sense of cosmic dread that was somehow thrilling.  “The universe is a place where the possibilities are endless and unfathomable,” the movie said, “and most of those possibilities manifest in ways that are totally indifferent, even hostile, to human existence.  Still, you’ve got to admit that they’re pretty cool either way.  Take this alien, for example!”  It’s a perfect movie:[1] the script is immaculately constructed, the actors are great, and H.R. Giger’s designs—for the alien and the Space Jockey, among other things—are among the most memorable images in cinema.  In his essay about Alien and 2001 at Paris Review, Jason Z. Resnikoff does great work elucidating part of what makes the movie so resonant, specifically its downbeat late-70s vision of outer space as the ultimate extension of Rust Belt postindustrial decay.  It’s easy to think of the movie as grand blockbuster spectacle—in part because it is pretty spectacular in the blockbuster sense of the word, and in part because its sequels and spinoff media grew more bombastic and less subtle over the years—but really it’s a transitional film, with one foot planted in murky 70s naturalism and one in 80s effects-driven escapism.  It’s an exhausted coda to the era of cerebral sci-fi movies that The Dissolve’s Keith Phipps termed “The Laser Age,” a beautifully pessimistic counterpoint to 2001’s epic consciousness-expansion. Resnikoff’s piece explores the comparison in depth, historicizing both films nicely; it’s well worth your time, especially if, like me, you’re a fan of 70s sci-fi movies.

Also at Paris Review, Dan Piepenbring writes about Paul Thomas Anderson’s brief period studying under David Foster Wallace, when Anderson was an undergraduate and Wallace was an adjunct professor at Emerson College.  I am, admittedly, a fairly predictable MFA student in the sense that I’m a big fan of both DFW and PTA, so I found this story—and especially the WTF with Marc Maron episode Piepenbring is writing about—interesting.  It’s worth noting that Anderson’s latest film, Inherent Vice, is the first cinematic adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel, and that, as reluctant as Wallace was to embrace the legacy of 60s postmodernism, Pynchon’s influence is pretty much all over his work. These three are/were all working in the same tradition, albeit in starkly different ways.  (Inherent Vice is a stunning movie, by the way, even though, like Scott Tobias, I think I might need to see it a couple more times in order to properly wrap my head around it. It’s hard not to love a movie that features Can’s “Vitamin C” so prominently in one of its opening scenes—convoluted or not.)

At Tinhouse, Stewart O’Nan lists his favorite L.A. novels.  Especially after watching Inherent Vice (and recently rewatching Chinatown, Heat, and Repo Man), I’m fascinated by stories that use Los Angeles (or southern California in general) as…well, it’s an enormous cliché, and inaccurate, to describe the setting as a “character,” but maybe as a space that’s not only physical but also moral and psychological. Admittedly, this is how setting often works, at least when a writer or filmmaker explores it deliberately enough, but I can think of more L.A.-centric examples of this than just about any other city.  The best L.A. stories are about plumbing the depths of the city’s psychosis: think of the long line of morally compromised lunatics Mike Hammer (who is, of course, also a morally compromised lunatic in his own right) shakes down over the course of Kiss Me Deadly, or David Lynch’s depiction of L.A. as a deceptively beautiful waking nightmare in Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive.  Or, to cite a few musical examples, X’s Los Angeles, Ice Cube’s Death Certificate, and Love’s Forever Changes all convey as vivid a sense of place as any popular music I can think of. O’Nan’s choices are all interesting: I’ve admittedly only read the Chandler and Fitzgerald selections—although Nathaniel West has been on my to-read list for years—but there’s something so compelling to me about L.A. as a setting that I’m eager to read more.

[1] Don’t bring up the clunky moment when Tom Skerritt is trying to track the alien down in the air vent and—with his motion detector beeping away—turns around, only to find the xenomorph grinning and flinging its suspiciously human-looking arms toward the camera, like it’s cheerfully trying to throw confetti at Skerritt. Seriously. Don’t. Knock it off. It’s a perfect movie, I swear.