Archive for October, 2012

Be Our Guest

Lately, I seem to spend as much time editing other people’s posts as I do writing my own—not that I’m complaining, mind you, since I basically brought it upon myself. Some months ago, I invited my daughter, Alexandra, and her godfather, Gilbert Colon, to contribute guest posts to this site, knowing that they both love to write, not surprisingly share many of my interests, and lack the forums of their own blogs, like those of Simon Drax (currently on hiatus but overflowing with nutritious backlog) or the mighty Turafish. The fruits of Alexandra’s labors have already started to appear here, with the first two installments of her well-received “Chicks in Action Flicks” series, which I am proud to say required but the barest of cosmetic changes by Your Humble Correspondent.

After mulling over possible topics for some time, Gilbert settled on a subject that has long fascinated both of us, a phenomenon that—as far as we know—doesn’t have a formal name. It’s that subgenre of the biopic in which the protagonist is a historical artist of some kind, usually a writer, but instead of being a more or less straightforward account of his life, the film has him actually enter, interact with, or prefigure his own artistic creations. Gilbert was thinking in particular of this year’s The Raven, in which Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) is recruited to trace a serial killer inspired by his own stories, but amusingly, a much earlier precedent is the rock-bottom exploitationer The Spectre of Edgar Allan Poe (1974), starring a perennial BOF bête noire, Robert Walker, Jr.

“Huzzah,” says I, “make it so,” and sent him off on his merry way to put pen to paper…but a funny thing happened on the way to the blog. First, he put it on the back burner to write his nice article on Person of Interest for SF Signal (to which I believe Drax gets the credit for steering him), where he had already rhapsodized about Douglas Trumbull and, God bless him, gotten further exposure for his interview with me regarding Richard Matheson on Screen. I was honored to do a little modest blue-penciling on all of those, as well as his long-awaited biopic piece…which, since much of its content was decidedly fantastique, he then decided—with my blessing, naturlich—to pitch to SF Signal, where it has now appeared..

So I’m still waiting for my guest post from Gil, but that’s fine. The longer I wait, the more exposure my little buddy gets (on a real website, yet), which was sort of the idea in the first place. You go, boy!

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Part II: Why Ellen Ripley is the cat’s pajamas, and other stories



So…“Ripley, you say?  Tell me more.”  (See Part I here.)


Well, aside from the obvious factor that Alien is one of the most respected movies ever made and most of the other aforementioned action/sci-fi films featuring female action protagonists are….not….there are subtle but key differences between the leading ladies that set them miles apart from one another in terms of how much I consider them positive steps forward for women.  And for my money, the most pervasive of these is something rather invisible to the viewer:  the fact that Ellen Ripley was never supposed to be an “Ellen” at all, but rather a man.


Now I know that sounds like a reason for me to be the opposite of excited about this character, and I understand why you would think that.  After all, why wouldn’t I want a character designed from the ground up to be a woman who still stood on her own?  Well, that would be excellent, and if I find a great example, I will absolutely let you know.  But especially considering that this is an older movie [Ahem.  —BOF], the filmmakers’ ability to remain true to the character even after turning the he into a she is quite remarkable.


The reason why this gender swap actually makes her such a great female role model is not that she becomes an overly masculine character (because that is obnoxious in a totally different way), but that her gender does not matter at all.  Pretty much every detail about her character is gender neutral, and so she is stripped of all the stereotypes and overcompensations we heap on any character written explicitly to be a badass female action hero.  She does not need to go to great lengths to prove herself as a badass, she does not need to be dressed in a skin-tight leather suit to show how “fit” she is, she does not need to be seduced by the man she trusts so much only to find out that he’s working for the enemy…no, none of these things is necessary because she just IS who she is.


As a matter of fact, the examples I extracted of why Ripley is such a great feminist character come just as much from what she does not do or have done to her as from what does happen. Or, to put it in a different light, it is in how much she is not really any different from any other crew member on board the Nostromo.


Walking into the film, there is not even any real reason to believe she is going to be the one who survives.  We all consider that a given now, but at the time it came out, I would bet that it was kind of a surprise.  As a relative unknown, she isn’t first-billed.  Meanwhile, Tom Skerritt is the captain and the first-billed, so, had I not been about 7 years old when I first saw it and incapable of making those kinds of logical assessments, I would have put my money on him.  She’s also not the only female on board, so she does not stick out as an anomaly and her presence as a female does not require any explanation.  We immediately accept it as fact that in the 22nd century, women are considered pretty capable to do these kinds of jobs, just as men are.  As a matter of fact, everyone in the crew is pretty much just in it for themselves; they are characters written for the sake of being characters, and not for the sake of making some big statement about the coexistence of whites and blacks, males and females, lions and sheep….you get the picture.  Add in the fact that most of the actors are also much older than your average sci-fi/action hero, and you get a pretty perfect formula for realistic characters instead of idiotic young hot-shots driving us all crazy.  But I digress…forgive me; I just love this film so much.


There are so many examples of things that they could have done wrong with this character but never did that it is hard for me to list them all.  Yet I must try, so here are just a few:  first and foremost, she is not just dumb, sensitive, and emotionally fragile every time something goes wrong.  In fact, she fights back against her colleagues when they want to bring Kane back on the ship in complete disregard of her very valid concerns about contamination and the unknown.  She is not just callous about it, as it’s never an easy call to insist upon leaving a crew member behind, but she is practical, rational, and, yes, struggling a bit with the decision.


She is also respected and taken seriously by the majority of her colleagues, or at least to the degree that any of them take one another seriously.  She has legitimate professional conversations and opinions that are taken into consideration just like anyone else’s.  This may seem like a small thing, but subtle does not equal unimportant.  This is also reflected in a different way later on when Ash starts to have his meltdown.  The filmmakers are not at all shy about letting a female character get beaten up, which is a pretty bold decision.  Again, she is treated as an equal member of the crew, right down to how much she is punched in the face when someone gets out of control.


Another thing that I feel very adamantly about is that badass female characters are still realistic, and this is another example of something they did not mess up with Ripley.  She gets scared and nervous.  Everyone on the entire ship gets scared and nervous (except for Ash but, well, you know…).  There is no reason for her just to melt down in tears every time something happens, nor is there any reason for her to be verging on sociopathic in her inability to show empathy or emotion.  She displays the perfect balance for any action hero—male or female—between anxiety and strength.  And yes, that does mean she loses it a few times (such as when she is speaking to Mother and finally hears the ship say that the crew is viewed as expendable).  Wouldn’t you?  I know I would, and I know most men would, too.


And finally, perhaps my favorite way in which they did not ruin Ripley was by resisting the urge to make her a hyper-sexualized character or hyper-feminine character visually.  There is basically nothing sexy about how they presented this character—she’s dressed in one of the ugliest uniforms ever, covered in true grit for most of the movie, and gets sweaty and gross like any real person would.  Yet that’s not to say that Ripley is not still sexy to some (most?) people, because a line of fan boys (and girls) that could probably wrap around the Earth a few times would rightfully argue that point with me…and I would agree with them.  The point is that there is simply no concerted effort to build up her sexual appeal; she just is an attractive woman, and the fact that she gets out there and gets the job done with such competence probably doesn’t hurt.


And yes, she is in her underwear (gasp!) at several points during the film, and sometimes for a substantial amount of time.  But I would be more annoyed if she wasn’t.  It is established right from the get-go that they all go into hyper-sleep in their skivvies.  So why would she be any different just because she’s a female?  Even the final scene of the film in the escape pod is perfectly reasonable considering the circumstances and the flow of the film.  We are supposed to be calming down with her and becoming vulnerable with her before the final blowout.  We would feel off, as an audience, if she was fully dressed…all by herself in an escape pod…about to go into hyper-sleep.  It just wouldn’t make any sense, and we would immediately know (as a first-time audience) that the show wasn’t over.  I have no problem with putting a female character in her skivvies for the greater purpose of the film—only when it’s gratuitous do we have an issue.


Now, to get back to reality for a second:  did they actually go out of their way to make this character an amazing feminist role model?  Hell no.  They made the decision to cast Ripley as a female because they wanted to break up the male-dominated genre and bring in more viewers, which means selling more tickets and, you guessed it, making more money.  But, once again, that is exactly how her character became so great.  It seems to be in the act of deliberately making a character female that we run into trouble, and so having it be little more than an afterthought is actually the perfect scenario.  Gender bias never really came into play until later on in the series, when the character had already been largely developed.


On that note, you can catch a glimpse of what might have been when you look at the writing of the character Lambert, whom I consider a much more traditionally “female” character.  She’s still pretty great, because this is still an excellent movie in every other respect in addition to Ripley, but she meets your expectations of a female character in an otherwise masculine world.  She doesn’t do a whole lot in comparison to everyone else to help get rid of the alien, gets extremely emotional at various points in the film, wants just to leave rather than fight it, and becomes paralyzed and hysterical with fear when the alien shows up at the end.  Now, that’s not to say that those aren’t very realistic things that some people would absolutely do in response to such a situation.  However, had she been the only female on board (as she originally was supposed to be), it would have been a really obviously gendered choice to have her be the only one who does all of those things.  Let’s be frank:  in real life, women are not the only people to behave like that, and a large proportion of women would not behave like that either.  Plus, I have read that, apparently, Veronica Cartwright rather agreed with my analysis of her character, though she did ultimately take the part because they talked her into it, so I can’t be that far off.  [And, that said, performed her high-strung role brilliantly.  –BOF]


This ability to conserve the purest form of the character rather than allowing her to fall into either heavily gendered direction is thanks in large part to the deft hand of Ridley Scott’s direction and the rest of the behind-the-scenes folks responsible for the original Alien film, as unfortunately we progressively lose this element of Ripley’s character as the series goes on.  But that’s another story for another day.  For now, suffice to say that this is my rationale for believing that Ellen Ripley is the greatest female action hero of all time.  Agree or disagree with me as you will, because this is just one woman’s opinion, but I hope that my analysis and opinion has been informative or eye-opening for at least some of you, and that you may go forth to new action/sci-fi films with a bright, shiny new perspective on female characters in tow.


If you like what you see here, look for my next post on Daddy BOF’s site in the near (but not too near) future, this time looking at the next stage of Ripley’s progression in Part III: Where Alexandra laments the immense popularity of Aliens.

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The Dreyfus Case

My friend Tom, who hosts our insufficiently frequent Movie Nights, has a legendary antipathy for the work of writer-director Blake Edwards, but while no big fan myself, I always make an exception for his first four Pink Panther films. I mention them today because for 30 years, the steadily deteriorating series gave Czech-born, British-based actor Herbert Lom, who passed away in his sleep on September 27 at the venerable age of 95, a rare chance to show his comedic side as Charles Dreyfus, the long-suffering and increasingly deranged superior of Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Peter Sellers). Like Kato (Burt Kwouk), Clouseau’s seemingly indestructible manservant, Dreyfus was one of the supporting characters introduced in the second entry, A Shot in the Dark (1964), which was written by Edwards and sometime collaborator William Peter Blatty (yes, that one).

Lom starred in the original London production of The King and I in 1953, and appeared with Sellers and Alec Guinness in the classic Ealing comedy The Ladykillers (1955); his film credits also include the original Night and the City (1950), Fire Down Below (1957), Spartacus (1960), and El Cid (1961). Hell Drivers (1957) featured the actors later known for portraying agents James Bond (Sean Connery), John Drake (Patrick McGoohan), and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum), while I Accuse! (1958) was an account of the real-life Dreyfus Case directed by its star, José Ferrer, and scripted by the late Gore Vidal. But in later years, Lom was increasingly typecast in genre movies, e.g., Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969), the infamous Mark of the Devil (1970), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1971), Asylum (1972), —And Now the Screaming Starts! (1973), The Dead Zone (1983).

From Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! (1966) to Masque of the Red Death (1989), Lom made a dozen films with writer-producer Harry Alan Towers, often featuring the latter’s wife and producing partner, then known as Maria Rohm. Most notable were Jesus Franco’s 99 Women (1969) and Count Dracula (1970), two versions of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians (1974 and ’89), and adaptations of Oscar Wilde (Dorian Gray, 1970) and Alistair MacLean (River of Death, 1989). Count Dracula added Professor Van Helsing to Lom’s literary and historical roles: Napoleon (The Young Mr. Pitt, 1942 and War and Peace, 1956), Herod Antipas (The Big Fisherman, 1959), Captain Nemo (Mysterious Island, 1961), The Phantom of the Opera (1962), Simon Legree (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1965), General Huerta (Villa Rides, 1968), and the apostle Barnabas (Peter and Paul, 1981).

“Herbert’s death really affected me,” Maria told me. “I liked him very, very much. I loved him in all his roles, he had a great screen presence, and he was a true gentleman of the old school. We used to talk for hours about the world, aristocracy, and the terrors of WWII, which had affected him so sadly. When Herbert went to London at the beginning of the war [fleeing the Nazis], he took his then girlfriend with him, whose papers were not in order, and she was sent back and died. I don’t have any anecdotes as Herbert was not a man of antics. Even in Isfahan [where the ’74 Indians was shot at the remote Shah Abbas Hotel in the Iranian desert], where all kinds of trouble went down, Herbert always managed to keep out of any unpleasantness. He was so very proper and genteel, cultured and most enjoyable to be around. He had studied philosophy before he left for London.”

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