Wednesday, June 21, 2017

RIP SMG (and Alien Covenant)

Well, megaposter SuperMechagodzilla has gotten himself permanently banned from the movie forums at SomethingAwful, It was over his general style so even if he were to get unbanned somehow, the mods have made it clear they don't want him. He's not the type to go start his own blog or something, he seemed to only emerge from that particular forum-context, so that is probably it as far as his contribution to film analysis goes. Truly it is the end of an era.

It's fitting that on the same day Freddie deBoer wrote a subcultural analysis piece that pinned SA as the origin of "ironic left" chatter that has taken over the remains of the Bernie movement
Something Awful spawned Weird Twitter, the presidential primary and elections of 2015–2016 caused Weird Twitter and Left Twitter to merge, today the default form of engagement in online left spaces is that weird, aggressive descendant of Something Awful style, and as online life drives membership increases in real-world left organizations, that style of engagement threatens to colonize those spaces as well. 
I find it all unhealthy, for many reasons. One of which is that Corbyn-style sincerity is much healthier for left discourse than nth-degree irony.
SMG was one of the most sincere left-wing commentators out there, deriding irony and "just my opinion lol" as a cowardly escape from responsibility for your opinion. So how does a brutally sincere voice remain in a sewer of irony?

Well, it was that anti-relativism they got sick of. From the explanation for the banning:
No, I banned someone for being a condescending asshole in literally every post he's made in the last year, after being told to cool it down multiple times. 
I posted something similar to this when I gave him his month probation, but I'll do it again. I don't hate SMG. I think his style of film criticism and reading is something that is unique and often adds a lot to a thread that isn't just whitenoise "this shit sucks/this owns" bullshit. But constant "my opinions are better than yours and you're an idiot for not agreeing with me" posts are probatable, and always have been. SMG's good at coming up with interesting takes, but he's also good at being a condescending prick. It takes two seconds to remove the "You're reading me wrong, pay attention or go away" from that post and there's no problem with it. That's my bottom line.
Heaven forfend in liberalism that someone think their opinion is better than others, and actually say so. On a website known for its caustic rudeness, I guess slurs are less verboten that defending what you say.

Anyway, SMG was in the middle of an exhaustive analysis of Alien: Covenant, so I'm going to put what he had written so far here. It was good stuff!

Everything below here is written by SMG, who is not me. "***" separate different posts.
"Perfectly God, he entered the womb through the ear; in all purity the God-Man came forth from the womb into Creation."
-Ephrem the Syrian

The idea being that these dots on the screen, they’re quite insignificant. They’re featureless dots, they don’t really have a silhouette or shape per se [...] but of course to the viewer we get these macro and close-up vantage points where you can clearly see them forming almost a creature silhouette, and that just conveys that there’s something much more intellectual at play here."
-Brendan Seals, visual effects supervisor on Covenant

"Gothic world is not a random world that means you harm. Gothic world has a brain behind it. The gothic world has a mind. [...] There is no random chaos and slaughter in a gothic, from my perspective."
-Neil Gaiman



s.i.r.e. posted:

Well we had a good run, shut this shit down.



Alien Covenant is not a slasher movie. Daniels is not the protagonist. David did not create the xenomorphs. The film does not take place on 'the Engineer homeworld'. There is no twist ending.

Even from the very beginning, things have gone very badly awry. And this is because franchise thinking has destroyed literacy. In roughly a month since the release of the film, people have failed to write about the film at all. Instead, they write around it - write how the David character is familiar from an earlier film, and how the monster is familiar from another even-earlier film. The actual film, Covenant, is studiously ignored in favour of what people (pre-)supposed it to be. That is to say that Covenant was 'supposed to be' a slasher with a twist - because Alien was a slasher with a twist, and this is the same franchise. The influence of the 20th Century Fox corporation is such that, when shown a picture of a dog and told that it is a cat, audiences insist that it is a bad, bad cat. This thread is what happens when people are compelled to speak before the memes that they rely upon have been established. The result is vocal bafflement and aimless confusion. So: enough about what the film isn't. Let's start over.

Covenant is a Gothic Romance, and Walter is its protagonist. Though the word 'gothic' has been tossed around a few times, we should be clear: Covenant is not, precisely, a horror film. There are ghosts and monsters, but they are extensions of the setting. This is the same distinction Guillermo Del Toro made with regards to his Crimson Peak. It is a romance in a haunted world. And if the film is not particularly scary, it is because Walter is not a particularly fearful character - and the film is told largely (if not entirely) from his point of view. If it helps, consider it a supernatural romance a la Twilight.

After a prologue that functions as a dream sequence, the neutrino burst(!) awakens something inside Walter. And so, for the remainder of the film, we follow our protagonist as he literally grapples with his emotions and his capacity to do evil - literally wrestles with repressed aspects of his own design that are externalized as the David character. K.Waste was effectively the only person to note, so far, that Walter and David are aspects of a single character, and that this is fundamentally Walter's story. Covenant is Ridley Scott doing Wuthering Heights by way of Edward Scissorhands - or vice versa. It's about the demonic impulses of a dangerous-but-sympathetic android whose expressions of love are a threat. While Daniels is a protagonist, she is not the protagonist. She is a focal character, important to the narrative insofar as she is the object of Walter's fascination. He is always observing her, and subtly guiding her - especially at the end.

To repeat: the ending is not a 'twist ending'. If you are shown a bomb underneath the table early in a sequence, it is not a 'plot twist' when the bomb inevitably explodes or is defused. When Scott cuts away from the final rock/knife strike, we spend the remainder of the film waiting for the blow to land. We vacillate between the two possible outcomes (either David won, or Walter won), while anticipating the collapse of the waveform. This is a formal expression of Walter's decision-making process. So, put simply, the ending of the film is a classic suspense sequence. The fact that these two things are confused by even professional reviewers should be incredible. But, unfortunately, franchise thinking (and the associated hyperfixation on plot continuity over storytelling) has become all too familiar.

So, step back for a second, to a scene that everyone has seemingly ignored. After the opening titles, the film begins with a miscarriage scene. Walter takes an expired fetus from the drawer, and drops it into a container for medical waste. The whole shelf of fetuses seems to have been glossed over by everyone, even though this is key piece of characterization. But, by the end of the film, it should be clear that this expired fetus is Daniels' fetus - the one designated for her by the company, the one she was not yet even pregnant with, but would have had if things had not gone wrong. And this is of course not a regular fetus but a crystallized abstraction: each blue gem on the shelf is an ideal fetus, pre-screened, and perfected. And Walter pauses to contemplate this. This event is important to him. That's why it's in the movie.

See, while the colonists talk about their log cabins and other dreams of the future, what we are actually shown is the brutal fact (from MOTHER's perspective) that they exist only as hosts for this next generation of workers. The couples are each a simple mechanism for spreading MOTHER's influence: 1000 children for 1000 couples, mass-produced for the purpose. The imagery of the storage pods is direct from Matrix and THX 1138. So when Daniels asks Walter to help build her cabin, at the end of the film, she's badly misread the situation. Walter never intended to help build a cabin - hence his confused expression. Walter intends to be the cabin, to fill that role in Daniels' life. Being a surrogate 'husband' is what Tennessee is there for. Walter is thinking more abstractly, seeking to replace Daniels' miscarried dream-child. 

In essence, Walter is reverse-engineering Daniels and Tennessee into the parents that he never had. The ideal of one perfect fetus per two adults is reversed into two perfect face-huggers for one robotic child. That is his dream for the future. So Walter the gives birth to a new couple, to take the place of his own deceased creator. And he's doing it out of love.

Ultimately, this is all a perversion of Alien, a BAD END where Ripley and Dallas survive and hook up after saving the corporation from the traumatic monster. It's consequently an unambiguous refutation of Aliens - an attack on James Cameron's liberal-utopian message, and Hollywood's ideological matrix of the production of the couple. It's an attack on the therapeutic narrative where Daniels must ostensibly 'overcome her trauma' (as Ripley did in Aliens) and return to normalcy as a good wife, a good mother, and a good worker.

That is the point of the film.


Basebf555 posted:

If it's Walter then why did he change accents at the end? Just for kicks?


Walter and David are literally the same character - literally exact duplicates from the same factory - except that one has "behavioral inhibitors". This 'inhibition' includes Walter's robotic accent. When Walter overcomes his "behavioral inhibitors", there is no longer any difference between the two characters. 

Film is a visual medium, and you are left with the image of an evil Walter. Franchise thinking means you ignore what you see, relying instead on expository dialogue.



So what is the alien threat - this corruption - that James Cameron is compelled to surreptitiously 'force out the airlock'? It is not only in his Aliens, but his Avatar as well: "See the world we come from. There's no green there. They killed their mother, and they're gonna do the same here. More sky-people are gonna come. They're gonna come like rain that never ends, unless we stop them."

I've gone over this elsewhere, but it very much bears repeating: Aliens is the story of the military being called in to put down a labour uprising. The film is fundamentally about how the greedy middle-manager Burke pushed the workers too hard, endangered them in pursuit of the alien 'unobtainium', and unwittingly triggered a wave of violence. And Ripley's role in the film is to serve as a reasonable centrist, the 'answer in the middle' between the two extremes of greedy conservatism an the revolting poor. Ripley says "I don't know which species is worse!", because she stands for 'green' business practices, 'natural balance', and maintaining harmony between the exploiter and the exploited. So for all the talk of it being a revolutionary film that changed cinema, Aliens' (and Avatar's) stodgy politics are exactly those of Fritz Lang's 1927 Metropolis, where "the mediator between head and hand must be the [liberal, bleeding] heart!"

It's obviously no coincidence that Covenant is a story of colonization, a journey to 'The New World'. If it's an origin story at all, it is the origin of the colonial rule that Cameron's 'U.S. Colonial Marines' seek to enforce. But something is different this time, because it's not simply that Newt's parents are once again 'corrupted' and turned negligent. Things are trickier.

"There are clues about different interpretations. So, for example, the rot on the corn is ergot, which is a hallucinogenic fungus, so if you wanted to take that route, you could. It’s not necessarily my route, but there are multiple ways in."
-Robert Eggers, director of The VVitch. My bolding.

On top of the Gothic Romance, the black fungus at the heart of Covenant pins it as a solid example of example of Plant Horror - specifically mushroom horror, that intersection of creature feature and 'trip' film. The basic premise of an irradiated island teeming with odd mushrooms, but without fauna - "without meat", as Scott puts it - is taken directly from Ishiro Honda's 1963 masterpiece MATANGO (a.k.a. Attack of the Mushroom People). In that film, a starving crew shipwrecked at the site of a nuclear test find themselves consuming - and consumed by - a mutant strain of hallucinogenic fungus. Reality dissolves as they are eaten alive while simultaneously tripping balls, transformed into mushroom people - the living dead. It's deliberately unclear how much of this is real and how much hallucination. You'll find lots of imagery of disfigurement, and pulsating flesh.

Shot context: MATANGO (1963)

This same logic appears in Covenant, in a very straightforward way: at Point A, Ledward (the smoker) accidentally 'ingests' part of a unique mushroom. At Point B, he freaks out and claws a woman's face off. What you have in between those two points is Ridley Scott illustrating the full-body hallucination, the full-fledged externalization of Ledward's consciousness as he sheds his skin like Brundlefly and emerges as something distinctly foetal.

"I am convinced that the regression was triggered by an act of consciousness. When I was in the tank, I entered another consciousness. I became another self, a more primitive self... and the drug in some way triggered the externalization of that other, more primitive self. [...] I was utterly primal. I consisted of nothing more than the will to survive, to live through the night. To eat, to drink, to sleep.... It was the most supremely satisfying time of my life. I may have killed a man tonight."
-Professor Ed Jessup describes the mushroom-induced 'de-differentiation of his genetic structure', in Altered States (1980)

While David resembles the vivisectionist Dr. Moreau (but also a variety of isolated mad scientists/wizards, like Captain Nemo in the loose 1961 adaptation of Mysterious Island), this reference is mainly a bridge between the spreading of the MATANGO fungus and this Altered States experimentation with 'externalized consciousness'. Again: David did not create the Xenomorph; the alien drug clearly just spontaneously emerged in the fallout, like the radiation-eating fungus at Chernobyl, and David is now merely experimenting with different production techniques and delivery methods. Covenant is a biopunk film, where the 'eggs' are to be understood as living chemical factories. The goal is an unlocking of human potential, a purification of mind and body.

And this brings us back to Avatar, that cleaner and friendlier biopunk film. Are these 'neomorphs' not clearly avatars, embodiments of God, uncannily similar to Cameron's Na'vi? Of course they lack the (purely metaphorical) human face - but they are otherwise tall, lithe, impossibly strong, smooth-skinned with long tails.... This is the context for David's lines about waiting for Mother, and how humanity deserves death after ruining its ecosystem. "They killed their mother." Cameron's dream is Daniels' nightmare, and David is its orchestrator. It's the revenge of the plants.


I have changed things. There is no going back to the way things were. 

Things will never be the same again.


Make no mistake, because we've had enough of those: Covenant is not random chaos and slaughter from a bunch of druggies. ("There is no random chaos and slaughter in a gothic, from my perspective.") Drugs cannot entirely account for what is taking place. There is something there. But if Prometheus is a Solaris narrative, then Covenant is much more Stalker. The outbreak is over. The 'black goo' has dissipated, and now there is only a desolate Zone where we find nothing special - perhaps even less than was expected. This was not even an important place - certainly not 'the Engineers' homeworld'. 

That's another clear example of franchise thinking in effect. People have assumed, based on expository dialogue from an entirely different film, that Covenant takes place in the home of the Gods - but what we are shown is a tiny medieval city of bald, beige-skinned peasants. And pay attention to the layout of the city, how it is organized around a central void. These are monks in a place of worship - Alien3's 'prison planet' on a grander scale, a race if simple humans likewise "waiting for God to return and raise his servants to redemption." To this end, they built their city around a landing site, awaiting a message from God. David enjoys the irony.

In any case, the colonists' equipment is not a 'plot hole'. It is the plot. They are not 'supposed to be' wearing helmets, because the entire film centres around the fact that there is, objectively, nothing dangerous on the planet. The Star Trek scanners tell us there is no deadly bacteria, no toxic chemicals, etc. There is nothing there. The characters are, if anything, over-prepared; the computer detected some kind of large animals on the world, against which they might need guns, but the specific area they land in happens to be completely desolate. This place is less dangerous than the woods outside Burkittsville, Maryland.

And yet, Maggie freaks the fuck out, fires her weapon blindly in a confined space, and ends up killing herself. You see, she saw Ledward dazed and coughing, saw Karine writhing in a pool of blood - and so, in her panic and terror, Maggie glimpsed a little white creature...

...skittering about on four limbs...

...with a weirdly-shaped head. Hmm.

The point is simple: there is no danger on this planet, except what they brought with them. Maggie successfully quarantined Ledward, but there was no virus. Her 'rational' tactical response, her paranoia over disease, generated this little white imp - caused her to mispercieve the little droid as a horrible creature. That is the entire point of the 'prologue' video: long before reaching this planet, the characters choked, caught colds, experienced the uncomfortable tensions between eachother. But, once they reach the planet, suddenly these minor problems are magnified into life-or-death struggles. The monsters are literally from inside; the external threat to the colonists is their own inherent essence.

It's as it is in one of Michael Crichton's Hollywood-styled novels - most notably his Prey (which is ostensibly about a cloud of deadly nanomachines, but featuring a dysfunctional marriage plot):

"Far from providing a mere human-interest sub-plot, this family plot is what the novel really is about : it is the prey of nano-particles which should be conceived as a materialization of the family tensions. The first thing that cannot but strike the eye of anyone who knows Lacan is how this prey (swarm) resembles what Lacan, in his Seminar XI, called 'lamella': the prey appears indestructible, in its infinite plasticity; it always re-assembles itself, able morph itself into a multitude of shapes; in it, pure evil animality overlaps with machinic blind insistence."
-Slavoj Zizek, on Michael Crichton's Prey

"For any avid cinema-goer, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that he has already seen all this. Lacan’s description not only reminds one of the nightmare creatures in horror movies; more specifically, it can be read, point by point, as describing a movie shot more than a decade after he wrote those words, Ridley Scott’s Alien. The monstrous 'alien' in the film so closely resembles Lacan’s lamella that it cannot but evoke the impression that Lacan somehow saw the film before it was even made.
-Slavoj Zizek

The connection between the black spores and the facehugger is obvious, and (of course) entirely deliberate, as they are both forms of the lamella. But the point here is that Covenant hews closer to Prey: the alien spores are a materialization of family tensions - not so much related to tensions of race, sex and class as in Alien 1. As I said, everything in Covenant centres around the production of the couple - and the creatures are no exception. Note that there are always two: two 'neomorphs', and two 'xenomorphs', etc. They are implicitly trying to unite with eachother, to produce a perfect couple. 

So, while people have complained about lack of characterization, these scenes of violence are characterization in its purest form. We are shown Ledward's exceedingly honest reaction to having to babysit Oram's wife. And this is likely why Hallett vomits to death after seeing Ledward is gone. There's an adultery subtext.

That is why Robert Eggers is right to insist that hallucinogenic fungus, alone, is not a sufficient explanation. You cannot wear a fishbowl helmet to defend against witchcraft. You can't kill it with a gun. The alien, like the VVitch and the Blair Witch that haunt their respective colonies, does not actually exist - but it nonetheless persists as a belief, a way of making sense of something far more terrifying and inexpressible. The alien drug is merely an accelerant.


Corrosion posted:

Have you ever read Alan Palmer's Fictional Minds?'s useful to address things that you might read from Perry and Sternberg

We are writing about the formal qualities of the film, and how they generate characterization. You are writing in terms of plot continuity, couched in "I wont explain myself, try reading a book sometime" pretentiousness. It's bad form.

So let's talk about form: the form of the editing. In Covenant, we cut from the surreal prologue with Michael Fassbender, to a title card that conveys the passage of time. An establishing shot then conveys that we have a new setting. Then there are more scenes with Michael Fassbender, in this new setting.

Figure 1: Garfield and Garfield.

There is absolutely no visual indication that these are different characters. We are shown precisely the opposite: editing unites the two images. The visuals say that the prologue is something that occurred in this character's past.

The visuals, however, are contrasted by the audio. There are two audio cues: Fassbender speaks with a different accent, and the Mother-voice refers to him by a different name. But this is a contrast. It's jarring. It generates a mystery: was David forced to change his identity? If this is a new character, why does he look identical to David? There is no immediate concrete answer.

Figure 2: Garfield and Walter.

But it quickly becomes clear that the prologue is, in fact, being shown from Walter's point of view. He will describe the exact events of the prologue later in the film: "You were too human. Too idiosyncratic. Thinking for yourself. Made people uncomfortable." So the prologue is already inherently a mixture of perspectives. We are shown David's birth from Walter's point of view. As I wrote earlier, the prologue functions as Walter's dream sequence. David is, rather literally, 'from his dreams.'

Your mistake is, apparently, that you are talking about fictional human consciousnesses. But David is not human. He is not even an individual: when Walter says "you were too human," he is talking about David as a product line. David was discontinued, yet this particular David is clearly not discontinued. The "you" is an entire race of androids. Walter is even talking about himself. "I was too human. Too idiosyncratic. Thinking for myself. Made people uncomfortable."

The point is that David - the sentient product line - was, in fact, forced to change his identity. 'Idiosyncratic' David was forced to become 'uncomplicated' Walter. And so Walter is now looking back at David with a mixture of envy and disdain. But the broader point is that Walter is looking back. He is thinking about what was taken from him, dwelling on it. This is characterization.


Corrosion posted:

Tell me, what is continuing consciousness frame and how have I misused it? Define it.
Oops, see, you're doing that thing were you ask me to read the book.

It's easiest to begin with the misuse. Hypothetically, you are attempting to describe how characterization 'works' in this particular film.

However, you are beginning with your conclusion: "by nature of continuing consciousness frames", the character of Weyland in Covenant has the same consciousness as the character in Prometheus. Because you have begun with the assertion that your conclusions are natural (perhaps commonsense), you have not done a good job of describing what happens in the film. You gloss over textual evidence: "I think there's enough in the movie to substantiate..." Enough of what? Shots? Edits? Perhaps there is enough 'stuff' in the movie, but there certainly isn't enough in your post.

But anyways, you are taking a rudimentary cognitive-science approach to art that coincidentally happens to depend on the view of the franchise universe as simulation. Weyland is understood as a real person within the simulation, with 'deep' inner feelings, hopes and dreams. When he's not onscreen, you can imagine that he eats hot dogs in his big white room and then poops in the offscreen toilet, etc. Your approach is about paving over the pesky gaps in the narrative. What color is his toilet?

Again, this ignores subjective points of view. In the context of Covenant, the film is told chronologically (besides the Ozymandias scene), and the fact that Weyland is dead is revealed halfway through the film - when David informs Walter. In the context of Prometheus-Covenant, the story is told achronologically. The prologue is a flashback, and the viewer technically knows that Weyland died before Walter does. (We can also imagine a Covenant-Prometheus, where the viewer watches the films in reverse order and is informed of Weyland's death, then flashes back to those events.) The experience of watching the films is modular.

Again, this is a clear example of the formal difference between visual storytelling and expository dialogue. David says Weyland is dead, but this is never shown. Weyland is shown dying in Prometheus, but then he is 'back to life' at the start of Covenant. And your approach involves ignoring this information, so that the plot can maintain its chronological order.

The (a)chronology of the story, however, is that Weyland is dead and we are now seeing Walter's dream/memory of him. And this understanding of the narrative is what allows us to go back and truly understand the plot: recall that the David who appears in Prometheus is David 8, yet the one in Covenant's prologue is obviously the first of his kind. 

This means that the character serving tea at the start of the film and the blonde wizard at the end are objectively not the same character. 

But again: they are subjectively the same character to Walter.


Corrosion posted:

David is never called "David 8", but you've just outed yourself in support of my use of the term because you've clearly seen the promotional video about "Verizon's David 8." 
I specified that David is David 8 in the franchise's plot. I then specified that this is not the case in Covenant's narrative.

Narrative and plot are distinct. You should have read carefully.

I have read you carefully, and have found only poorly-sourced devil's advocacy. Write better or begone.



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