Somewhere in the dim past of film & TV mediocrity, animator Art Clokey created a lovable little punk named Gumby. In the latter part of the seventies, Clokey presented this amiable fellow riding a skateboard, playing on a PC, venturing into fictional realities and leading an alternative rock band; thus making him the precursor to the contemporary hacker/thrasher dude. Or, to take a post-modern, science-fictional viewpoint; before Gibson there was Gumby.
Now, I'm not really claiming that the plasticine gentleman in question is a cyberpunkin' hip-hype hacker drop-out fiend from an over-commercialised and desensitised meta-topia. But I'm certainly not above visualising Gumby in grungy, high-tech surroundings, burnt out and faded to a dull shade of green, lazing in a grotty bean-bag with upper-derms plastered down the under-side of his arm-thingy, the neural plug-ins along the side of his angular head going rusty at the centre and mouldy around the edges and him not giving a flying fractal, slowly consuming the synthetic booze "Audi White Sprito" while staying out of sight inside his coffin-apartment in the tenement block of a hide-out franchise of Neo-Hokkaido's Yakuza-Inc. And while this image of a hardened, conceptually mature Gumby recuperating before his morphing run into the storybookland-matrix may sound, at first, like so much cyber-shit, it does have appeal, and with the right packaging and promotion, it would probably sell.
So what is it that attracts people to "pop/pulp literature"? What does the consumer hope to get out of books like this, given the often flimsy plot, characters, ideas, and even subject? The answer is attitude. No matter what form it takes, attitude is vital to good commercial writing: we hunger for attitude, consume it greedily, allow it to permeate our psyches and slowly dissipate through the memory's ether before it's finally clouded over by a new rush from a fresh source. Attitude is the staple diet of our socio-spatial consciousnesses. And one of the best sources of fast-food variety attitude is commercial cinema. In film - especially good SF film - attitude is the almighty.
Before I go on, I think I'll try to explain what I mean by "attitude", although I am forced to admit that a precise definition alludes me. Attitude is a bit of an elusive entity; I suppose the closest alternative word for this vague concept is "atmosphere", but that's not really sufficient, in that it fails to convey the essential participation of the individual psyches of both artist and observer. Attitude is how a film feels, the way in which the film-maker wants the audience to look at the subject. However, it shouldn't be confused with the subject; it's what surrounds it, dresses it. Attitude distinguishes an anti-war film from a pro-war film when the subject, and often much of the content, is identical. Attitude is the code-cracker that can reveal the true meaning in film; the most important signpost on the pathway of interpretation.
The power of attitude is far greater than generally appreciated. Attitude almost certainly does more to determine a viewer's final opinion of a film than anything else. In fact, attitude creates the stimuli for seeking the "justifications" for liking one movie and disliking another. It is common for those of the audience who dislike a film's attitude (as they perceive it) to tend to pick up on its flaws and, similarly, for those who "click" with the attitude to seize upon the film's worthwhile aspects. Consequently, an individual's subjective response to a film's (perceived) attitude is commonly the deciding factor in his or her "critical opinion", despite the apparently objective arguments it involves. As such, you should regard with scepticism the words of many critics and their "clinical" justifications for what are simply personal tastes. (Naturally, this applies equally to the reviews later in this article, and to your own opinions as you react to mine.) Finally, it's also important to remember that one's subjectivity has often been determined by one's expectations of a film; particularly when one expects it to be a good film, or to bear an attitude in harmony with one's own.
Social values are always in transition, and thus general mass-preconceptions of what makes a movie a good movie are in continual flux To have subjective values and filmic ideals so fluid is, however, a real nuisance for a production-line movie industry. So much of a financial nuisance in fact that the commercial film industry has long been trying to train preconceptions and expectations into production-line patterns. One major offensive that they have launched to stamp out divergent filmic ideals is the unleashing of a devastating wave of designer culture-viruses. These culturally idyllic, self-replicating symbolic organisms infect bodies of cinematic integrity, infiltrate the story-telling process and, with sheer mass, these attractive but creatively vacuous entities, literally stuff a film. Eventually the diseased film will undergo forced metamorphosis into a commercially desirable, assembly-line product; the easily promotable movie, contrived to a formulation based on market forces. For the sake of a suitable and entertaining name, I shall hereafter refer to these viruses as "ewoks".
Why ewoks? Well, the furry folks in Return Of The Jedi are indeed the product of marketing and franchising forces. The original concept for the do-or-die battle at the climax of the Star Wars saga had it set on the planet of the Wookies. But how do you sell Wookies? They're far to big and adult-looking to be mass produced and wrapped in plastic on department store shelves. Ewoks, by contrast, are just right. They're cute, cuddly and look just darling sitting on the frilly pink pillow of your nine-year-old daughter's bed, and yet your boys can play with them too, without feeling they are dealing with anything more childish than an attack-koala from Mars.
Essentially, the ewok is simply a living teddy bear, though marketing demands it be called an ewok so that the buying public believe it to be contemporary, refreshing, stimulating and highly relevant to what they consider to be ideal entertainment. However, to achieve the unholy purposes for which the ewok entity was created (no doubt by some evil genius in a secret laboratory), the entity need not look like a common-or-garden teddy bear. Indeed, it can adopt the appearance of a myriad of things; teenage hunks, military-type hunks, soppy soliloquies, irrelevant pseudo-love/sex scenes, huge car explosions, excessive flare out of the ends of automatic weapons, children with seemingly innocent questions that create amused expressions on the faces of understanding adults, children punching out adults, exhumed sixties hits, new age rhetoric, teary people hugging each other under Barbara Streisand and Bette Midler love ballads, cheap post-mortem one-liners, Julia Roberts, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and a billion more examples of mutant pop iconography. And for the sake of distinction, or more to highlight the lack of it, they can all be categorised under that simple heading; ewoks.
Right now ewoks are in plague numbers, a veritable epidemic of biblical proportions. Ewoks are so ingrained in the modus (mortis?) operandi of Hollywood and commercial cinema as to be firmly part of the essential workings, as if entwined within the strands of the filmic DNA by the marketing equivalent of reverse transcriptase. Meanwhile, we are being brainwashed to become critically blind - or at least apathetic - to the tiny bastards scampering about, pushing, shoving, contriving, ensuring the building blocks of story-telling are set in a rigid and predictable arrangement so that the unimaginative film-maker can pretend to producing original work without lifting a creative finger.
This ewok virus is transmitted by exploiting both natural instincts and social conditioning. It targets images and actions which play, usually unconsciously, on our emotions - big round eyes on cute little creatures doing a jig; a shapely figure in tight clothing bending over to pick up a dropped parcel; bulging muscles dripping with sweat, pulling tightly on a strap; bright, smokey flashes from the ends of disposable rocket launchers; cars which miraculously fling themselves into the air; the raucous laughter of big-mouthed and innocent prostitutes; male hands over female hands moulding clay - and then proceeds to replicate mindlessly in the films it infects. But of course these microbial vermin don't exist simply in order to play with our emotions, pulling strings like some Pavlovian puppeteer. No, the main purpose of these transmorphing "ideal images" is to sell the movie by appearing prominently in the promotional trailers, posters and merchandising. In fact, their role in the actual movie can be quite secondary, even to the point of being there simply to avoid accusations of false advertising.
Though movies are usually damaged by the dreaded ewok scourge through being infested with the little shits, they can also be affected by a very different route. In some cases, a film can receive a negative reception because of the lack of these "traditionally associated" icons. In as much as the alternative attitude of a film finds its audience unprepared, so they are disoriented and thrown off-balance as a result. And this seems to have been exactly the case with Alien3, much to the displeasure of some and the pleasure of others.
Alien3 is an intriguing mix of innovative and self-serving dynamics steeped in a mix of rich and indulgent stylistics. For those psyched-up for a continuation of the "boom crash opera" of Aliens, this third instalment of the saga must have seemed the furthest departure possible from the second. But there were plenty of others, myself included, who felt the film was not so much a radical and disturbing departure from its precursor, as a correct and respectful realignment with the original film Alien, much to the pleasure of some and the displeasure of others.
Alien was a ground-breaker in visual SF. Indeed, it's often the case that a lack of ewoks makes a visual SF production ground breaking, and despite some impressive visuals, Aliens (or Alien 2 as it is increasingly and distressingly being called) was a festering heap of the little mites. So crammed was Cameron's film with ewok values, it was natural to expect that Alien3 wouldn't be nearly as wild a departure as it was. Unless, of course, one took into account how little attitudinally Aliens had to do with the first film. This of course begs the question: why assume the third film would be anything like the second? Well, we've been made to expect so - that's why. With the second film, the ewoks were trotted out to perform their magic act, encouraging many to believe - and some to even hope - that they would be around more than ever in any continuation. And, with little help from the promotion, many were taken unprepared, on seeing Alien3, when the expected icons weren't there. This came as a surprise to many; to both those it pleased and those it didn't.
But now that we're over the shock of a product dramatically tangential to general expectations - ewok-marines with ewok-pulse-rifles, falling from the sky in ewok-gunships, tossing off gruntish, red-neck, ewok-one-liners - what were the virtues and flaws of Alien3?
Well, for me at least, Alien3 was a worthwhile and arresting techno-gothic experience; an intriguing clash of cultural iconography. It marked the return of the first film's Ripley (not to be confused with Rambolina from the second) in confrontation with rogues and braggarts; like a xenomorph dropped into Hard Times - a sort of Dickens in Space. The juxtaposition of hi-technological awareness and neuromantic perception was an original experience that would have seemed unlikely from a film of that nature; namely a sci-fi horror flick from a major Hollywood studio.
I pity anyone who thought it would, and even should, be a feel-good movie with lots of violent action; but the harshness, bleakness and noticeable lack of kindness to Ripley in Alien3 achieved a quality and depth of emotional response that went beyond even my hopes. This is quite an achievement when the plot appears so simple; but of course that need not mean the story is light on the ground. Alien3 is a tale exploring Ripley's humanity and limitations while maintaining a strong sense of the dignity of the character. This story - with its inevitable conclusion revealing the ludicrous pretence of the second film's "happy ending", which relies on a naive audience to forget that nothing has been truly solved - is Ripley's best tale as a hero. Indeed, with Ripley's help, I developed a respectable empathy with the characters of this film which I simply couldn't muster for its forerunner. In Alien3, the group are treated as a broken and estranged remnant of humanity, while in Aliens they are de-humanised and comic collection of pathetic, cardboard pod-people.
Newt, oh yes poor Newt (she got newted from orbit); I did appreciate the death and autopsy of Newt. It seemed appropriate for her to be disposed of so graphically: She became the sacrificial ewok that allowed Ripley's characterisation to be freed and to run its natural course. And, partly because of this, I believe that Alien3 was a better piece of feminist SF than Aliens. People have praised Aliens for its Earth Mother gone a-Schwarzeneggering attitude, which I think is fairly sad - simply a gender-swap for that repulsive Hollywood construct, the indestructible God-hero of Vendetta. Aliens used motherhood as an excuse rather than a valid theme, and Newt was simply a dialectic tool to propel Ripley's sudden macho transformation (a significant shift in attitude from Alien, where she was hard because, in space, you have to be hard). Just compare Ripley in the closing scenes of Aliens with Arnie in Terminator 2 (both Cameron films); the similarity is quite amusing. I don't see feminism here, I see fetishism; a mere prop for Aliens' true narrative intent; an emotional salve for frustrated wet-dreams about kicking the ass of the invisible, drooling monsters lurking under beds - audience participation as mass hysteria.
In Alien3 Ripley is a vehicle for exploring our fear of death. Ripley's relationship with death - through Dallas, the rest of the Nostromo crew, her daughter, Hicks and Newt - becomes the foundation on which to build a complex character who must face up to her own end. The entire film, both through its visuals and pacing, parallels Ripley's emotional and intuitive state as her story draws to a close. Indeed the director, David Fincher, intended that the film be stylistically structured around the Kubler-Ross five stages of death - Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance - nudging the audience through these stages as the film ran its course. The mechanics of this could well have been a pivotal factor in the seduction or repulsion of individual audience members, irrespective of whether the deeper symbolism succeeded in touching them or not. In fact, some may have disliked the film because it worked too well. Either way, this five-stage structure makes Alien3 appear somewhat compartmentalised in its flow. At times it can feel like it was made in sections and welded together like a ship in dry-dock. However, as distractions go, it certainly wasn't a severe one.
For its own reasons, Alien3 tries hard (some might say too hard) to undo every major point of development in the second film, rendering it an intervening incident between the first film and the third (even the title seems designed in pursuit of this goal). But then the first film is a far more significant work than the second - though Aliens has some merit as a piece of mindless escapism - and it should be remembered that Alien was a greater financial and critical success, despite the attention that has been awarded Aliens (which is largely due to its coterie of cult followers). Largely therefore, I can't blame David Fincher and the producers for making what is basically a direct sequel to Alien. And it has paid off for them, as Alien3 has been successful enough to even warrant a fourth film. The death of Ripley does not end the Alien saga; it simply ends Ripley's and, in my opinion, satisfyingly so.
If you were one of those perplexed ingenues who were dissatisfied with Alien3 because of its lack of rampant ewoks then I would be very surprised if you reacted favourably towards David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch. To put it in even simpler terms, if you want ewoks, don't see this film. Not because there aren't any; it's just that when one does occasionally poke its furry head into shot, it is quickly grabbed and disposed of; buggered with literary semantics.
Now Naked Lunch has some elements of theme in common with Alien3. Both deal with worlds that seem to exist for the specific purpose of tormenting a displaced protagonist, confused as to their precise purpose in the dank quagmire of vain hope. Also like Alien3, Naked Lunch is a set-bound production; both adapt set restrictions to their advantage by using them as a stylistic device. With Naked Lunch, the very set-ness was integrated into the story to the point where it seemed to relate directly to the experiences of the central (and, really, sole) protagonist, William Lee. Indeed, to have expanded the spatial dimension of the story - its surroundings, in the form of rooms, streets and emotional vivacity - could actually have lessened the film's thematic and psychological impact.
The central theme of Naked Lunch is William Lee's search for identity while detached from all modes of communication and severed from the real world, or more precisely, his own view of the world as he chooses or chooses not to see it. And as his perceptions keep him distant from what is around him, so it is with the audience: We are there to observe Lee in his strange encounters with a world that seems to exist exclusively to feed his questionable senses and addictions, and perhaps to watch ourselves as voyeurs of Lee's real, hyper-real and surreal experiences (an experience, incidentally, which provides the only truly shocking moments in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer). As Lee is strangely remote even from his own direct stimuli, so must we be from his experiences.
Because of this intentional aloofness, the audience is not encouraged to participate empathically in the inter-relations between the characters, nor the emotional experiences of the characters themselves. Instead we're invited to study and analyse the motives and purposes of the central protagonist. Despite how it sounds, this can be quite amusing and quite enthralling, and makes Naked Lunch an innovative Detective Story of impressive stature.
There are, however, two points in the film where there seems to be pressure for the audience to let themselves go with the emotional flow. These occur when Lee brings about the death of the woman and only person he loves, twice. Joan seems to be the only character that Lee can identify with or has attachment to, though he seems to realise this only after he puts a bullet in her brain. It is his relationship with Joan, both the Joan he kills in the "real world" and the Joan he meets in Interzone, which allows Lee to find his humanity and to redeem himself. Curiously and ironically he does so by coming to terms with the intuitive truth that his acts are irredeemable. His success is to acknowledge his failure. For William Lee, as for William Burroughs, that fatal gun-shot will echo in perpetuity - as long as the creative process exists to understand truths and defy lies, and vice-versa. As the bug-writer said; all agents defect and all resisters betray themselves. Exterminate all rational thought and the point of this unique and masterful film will reveal itself, like a razored diamond you've always known was there but which has only just struck you, resonating to the world's vibe, deep inside your skull.
With films like Naked Lunch and Alien3, it has become a real point of interest that they contain a singular lack of traditional ewok images. Because almost all modern fantasy movies are constructed from packages of ewok concepts, it generates a critical shock when a film comes along that appears to defy the rule. This is now so much the case that recently the notion of a Hollywood fantasy film avoiding the standard ewok icons has been seized on by the promoters themselves. With Batman Returns the very idea of "no ewoks" becomes an ewok in itself. The first Batman film was quirky, visually original and, against the odds, very successful, so naturally the promotion of the follow-up emphasised the attributes that made the first interesting; namely the quirkiness and the originality, "faithfully reconstructed". As a result, the whole of Batman Returns is one giant ewok. (And it should be noted that the same method was used for the promotion and design of The Addams Family, to similar effect.)
Ewoks have to come from somewhere (they weren't really made by some mad scientist after all) and, as the monumental ewok of Batman Returns came from something that was original and fresh, so do all the other ewoks. Once, when those ewok icons were used for the first time, they were intended as risk-taking, ground-breaking images, both innovative and original. Sadly, when they proved successful they were immediately incorporated into that Hollywood success-mill formula "How to Make a Movie in Six Easy Lunches". I think it's appropriate to end on the thought that the ewok was once The Artistic Gamble and now is The Commercially Secure. I suppose it explains the fact that, while I have nothing but contempt for the over-exploitation of ewok ideas, I still have a certain fondness for many an ewok situation I have encountered in the movies. I must confess I see all of Arnie's movies and, after all, he is the true King of the ewoks.
Originally appeared pp. 56-61, Eidolon 10, October 1992.
Copyright © 1992 Robin Pen.
Reprinted by kind permission of the author.