The inner monster: Alien and It! The Terror from Beyond Space

6 01 2017


Originally published on PopOptiq.

Otherness is the inevitable theme of films dealing with extraterrestrials. They are the ultimate foreigners, organisms who inhabit planets unlike our own. The problem for artists who tackle such stories is how to portray this Otherness. A common recourse is to humanize it, as in everything from The Day the Earth Stood Still to Star Wars. Another solution, however, is to accept what Fredric Jameson terms the “unknowability thesis,” which he ascribes to Stanislaw Lem (1). As the latter wrote in his novel Solaris: “Where there are no men, there cannot be motives accessible to men.” The truly alien, then, recedes into the shadows or the margins. It can hardly be portrayed if it cannot be grasped by the imagination, so it becomes a vague intangible presence, as in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, or a sheer force of malignancy and death, as in the two examples we will be covering, 1979’s Alien and the little-known 1958 B-movie that likely served as inspiration for Ridley Scott’s classic, It! The Terror from Beyond Space, by Edward L. Cahn. The unknowable, which is impossible to penetrate, becomes a mirror. The animal threats in Alien and Beyond Space, one a so-called Xenomorph and the other a Martian, reflect how humans react when faced with the inexplicable. Failing to find anything human in the monster, some humans might discover a monster in themselves.

The protagonists of Beyond Space, like those in Alien, are trapped inside a spaceship with an extraterrestrial killer. When the story begins, a rescue operation has just taken off from Mars and turned back to Earth after extracting the only survivor of an earlier mission, whom the rescuers believe is guilty of murdering his colleagues in a battle for dwindling rations and oxygen. The survivor, Edward Carruthers, blames a horrifying creature, but Col. Van Heusen, the lead rescuer, will admit to the existence of only one creature – and its very human selfishness and depravity.

Of course, Carruthers is right. When the voracious Martian sneaks into the rescue ship, the once-maligned survivor heads the charge against the intruder. Having initially embodied the figure of the monster, Carruthers manages to free himself of such associations. Indeed, the monstrous becomes an external threat, somewhere and something else. But viewers never shake off that initial impression: that the real monster might be only too human. In Alien, the monster within the human becomes a literal image: the Xenomorph begins its life as an embryo inside a human host, eventually bursting out and growing into a full-fledged assassin.


If Carruthers can temporarily be considered monstrous, what makes the Martian so inhuman? And if the Xenomorph is anything but human, how can it spring out of a man? These extraterrestrials call into question the meaning of being human – as well as the function of environments made for and by humans. While the Xenomorph slinks around a maze-like cargo ship named the Nostromo, the Martian in Beyond Space finds its movements more limited in the narrow, vertical interiors of a rocket, whose crew ascends from one level to the next, closing airlocks behind it. The Martian breaks through each airlock, as the humans retreat to the ship’s nose, the final level, from which there is no escape. In Alien’s gargantuan Nostromo, the protagonists do not know where the Xenomorph is hiding, and the movie’s horror arises from their ignorance. In Beyond Space, meanwhile, the astronauts are perfectly aware of the Martian’s whereabouts, yet cannot do anything against its inexorable advance.

In both cases, the Other reconfigures the spaceship’s role. The winding passages and dank storerooms of the Nostromo become, through the Xenomorph, the underworld caves of a demon. The alien uncovers the inhumanity at the heart of the vessel: built to haul mineral ore, it is not principally meant for human comfort and habitation, and this fact turns against the crew. By contrast, the rocket in Beyond Space operates on a far more human scale, since its purpose is mainly to carry astronauts. Its interiors are optimized for daily life and what cargo it carries serves to protect the characters: an unlikely arsenal of handguns and grenades. Compared to the sublime labyrinthine rat race of Alien, Beyond Space presents a neater situation, easy to diagram along the y-axis: the extraterrestrial is on one level and the humans are on another. What complicates the protagonists, instead, is a lack of time: the Martian, eventually and inevitably, will reach the rocket’s topmost flight. It’s the inverse of the Nostromo’s predicament: the spaceship is not too unwieldy and massive, but too small, too rational, too efficient, too human. It’s as large as it needs to be for living, so there’s nowhere to hide. The Other redefines manmade structures, reveals their unsuspected essence, so that the rocket becomes an execution chamber and the Nostromo morphs into a coiling catacomb. The ensuing struggle in these reconfigured landscapes, however, is an attempt to define humanity’s destiny.

Alien (1979)  Sigourney Weaver Credit: 20th Century Fox/Courtesy Neal Peters Collection

Fredric Jameson, in an essay on science fiction writer A.E. van Vogt, describes what he defines as the “two alien narrative” (2). Fans of Alien will find it strikingly familiar (indeed, van Vogt sued for plagiarism when the 1979 movie came out): “One living and terrifying monster (is) superimposed upon the traces and archaeological remains of what we can only supposed to have been very different monsters.” That is, an “evil alien form (…) is juxtaposed alongside a good alien form in which the lineaments of an alternate social organization become visible.” In Alien, the “good alien form” is obviously the pilot of the derelict spacecraft, which the crew of the Nostromo finds on planetoid LV-426, while the “evil alien form” is the Xenomorph, likely responsible for the tragedy that befell the dead extraterrestrial pilot, which in turn foreshadows what will later happen to the protagonists, who unwittingly carry the monster back with them to the Nostromo.

Two different Others, then, serve as contrasts to the protagonists’ civilization. The dead pilot in Alien represents technological advancement fallen to another’s wrath, to a horrible fiend, which stands for everything deadly and nightmarish about the universe. They trace different directions for mankind – either progress or primal darkness – and neither are encouraging. One path, for all its development, signals ruin and death, perhaps through hubris or overconfidence. The other, ruthlessly alive, is nevertheless a return to the basest animal mentality. Both are potential destinies. Among the main themes throughout the Alien franchise is how human short-sightedness attempts to use the Xenomorphs as biological weapons, with disastrous results. No military industrial complex can control the monsters incubated within us. The alien emerges from the human to consume everything its parents have built, finally replacing its progenitors.

Beyond Space narrates a similar process, but its “two alien narrative” is odd in that there is only a single alien, the Martian. Yet the astronauts hypothesize about an earlier and prosperous Martian society, which devolved into the individual monster that now hunts them in the rocket. As a Cold War parable, the point is obvious: humanity can follow the same fate if it insists on armed (and nuclear) conflict. Significantly, the astronauts cannot hurt the Martian with weapons. They will have to experiment with more creative – and less explosive – methods. The two extraterrestrials of Alien, then, are in Beyond Space combined into one Martian, a vicious representative of an advanced society undone by the awakening of its latent savagery. The result of this historical drama, in both films, endangers the protagonists in two ways: as a physical threat, in the shape of a monster, and as a harbinger of forces out to crush humanity.


In its efforts to explain the Martian downfall, Beyond Space reminds us of Carruthers and his earlier, presumed guilt. Or more specifically, it reminds us of the human capacity for monstrosity, still a relevant theme despite Carruthers’s innocence. His eventual heroism cannot promise that human civilization will not someday be destroyed by the animal within – as the Martians were.

It is worth remembering, though, that we never see the remnants of that earlier and prosperous Martian society. We only hear human speculation about it. The unknowable Other is given meaning by humans, who use it to debate their own future. The extraterrestrial might be incomprehensible and unknowable, yet its impenetrable surface can adopt an oracular role. As French philosopher Clément Rosset puts it, “In the face of this Other (…) it will not be difficult to recognize the always strange and familiar traits of the Double” (3). This can occur because the Other reveals itself as surprisingly human, or because humans suspect that they themselves might be harrowingly Other. The fear, at the heart of Alien and Beyond Space, is that humans could one day be unrecognizable, that what we interpret as human could be erased even as we reproduce and evolve. Instead of cataclysmic extinction, we could endure a transformation so complete that it amounts to the same fate.

(1) Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (New York: Verso, 2005), 107-118.

(2) Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future, 314-327.

(3) Clément Rosset, Propos sur le cinéma, trans. Ariel Dilon (Buenos Aires: El cuenco de plata, 2010), 67-73.


Blade Runner: reestreno, antecedentes, legado

10 03 2015

Vuelve al cine (al menos en Inglaterra) una de las obras maestras de la ciencia ficción, capaz lo mejor del género en su versión estadounidense, junto con 2001 de Kubrick. Para encontrar algo comparable, es necesario ir hasta Rusia (el Stalker de Tarkovsky o El visitante del museo de Lopushansky), Francia (La Jetée de Marker o Alphaville de Godard), Japón (Cowboy Bebop o Ghost in the Shell) o Alemania (Metropolis).

Los títulos aludidos no son casuales. Trazan un árbol genealógico: Blade Runner es heredera de una tradición francesa del noir futurista, que va desde Alphaville hasta los comics de Metal Hurlant. También, de cierta puesta en escena (poética, melancólica) de lo distópico, elaborada en La Jetée y Stalker. Y, obviamente, de un modelo de ciudad moderna basado en Manhattan (aunque el film sitúe la acción en Los Angeles), especialmente cierta idea febril de una Manhattan colosal y fantasmal, expresada en Metropolis y, también, en muchas ilustraciones especulativas de los años 20, como las del delineador y arquitecto estadounidense Hugh Ferriss. A su vez, Blade Runner se convirtió en un punto de referencia ineludible para la producción ciencia-ficcional que la sucedió: desde animés (las ya mencionadas Cowboy Bebop y Ghost in the Shell) hasta video juegos (Deus Ex, Perfect Dark y The Longest Journey) y otras películas del género (Star Wars: Episodio II, Hasta el fin del mundo de Wim Wenders).

Incluso, en el campo literario, William Gibson, que popularizó el cyberpunk con Neuromante, admitió que, cuando se estrenó Blade Runner, no la fue a ver porque temía que anticipara los temas e imágenes que ansiaba volcar en su novela. Años después, confirmó sus sospechas, y no escatimó elogios para el film. Otro escritor que se entusiasmó con el proyecto fue el mismo Philip K. Dick, autor del libro en el que se basó Blade Runner. Los dejo con sus palabras, que redactó luego de ver tan solo un avance en un programa televisivo (nunca alcanzó a ver la película completa: falleció unos meses antes del estreno):

El impacto de Blade Runner, en el público y en las personas creativas -y, creo, en el campo de la ciencia ficción-, será sencillamente sobrecogedor. (…) Nada de lo que hemos hecho, individual o colectivamente, está a la altura de Blade Runner. Esto no es escapismo; es súper-realismo, tan crudo y detallado y auténtico y convincente que, pues, tras ver el segmento (por televisión) encontré que mi realidad cotidiana era comparativamente insípida.

La regla del juego (y el espectador activo)

2 09 2014

rules of the game

Escrito para la materia Introducción al Lenguaje Audiovisual, cursada en el Instituto Universitario Nacional de Arte (IUNA)

En la mayoría de las películas de Jean Renoir, especialmente en La regla del juego, cada toma muestra simultáneamente las peripecias de diversos personajes. A veces, estos personajes se cruzan y, en otros casos, corren en direcciones opuestas y persiguen objetivos distintos. Como sea, por unos instantes, comparten el mismo espacio, y el espectador elige a quién observar. Renoir filma en profundidad de campo y extiende el metraje de cada toma, para que la coincidencia de los personajes en el encuadre, tanto los más cercanos a la pantalla como los más lejanos, se extienda en el tiempo y pueda apreciarse claramente. Según el crítico André Bazin, estas elecciones formales preservan la ambigüedad de lo real. Al reunir dos o más cuerpos en la pantalla, la imagen se torna más dinámica y permite que múltiples elementos interactúen entre sí: no sólo cuerpos humanos o animales sino también el paisaje, el amueblado o empapelado de una casa, la lluvia, el atardecer, etcétera. Como argumenta Bazin, mientras un montaje violento subraya el sentido único de cada escena, la estética de Renoir permite que cada espectador encuentre sus propios puntos de interés. Se trata, entonces, de un espectador más participativo. Sin embargo, Bazin insiste en la cuestión del respeto de lo real, aunque un estilo como el de Renoir también puede intentarse en un film animado. Podríamos sugerir, en cambio, que en las tomas y encuadres de Renoir, más que lo real, lo que puede verse es pluralidad, variedad de opciones, la presencia de muchos caminos por recorrer.

Por esta razón, Renoir sigue siendo moderno. Hoy en día, todas las pantallas incluyen cientos de caminos posibles: computadoras, celulares, tabletas y videojuegos como Tomb Raider, en los que una cámara virtual persigue al protagonista en interminables planos-secuencia. Existe un vínculo secreto entre los videojuegos y el actual cine de arte y ensayo, que parece haber continuado el proyecto de Renoir. Ambos ubican al personaje en su entorno y no fragmentan el espacio a través del montaje. La psicología del protagonista no es tan importante como su relación con la naturaleza o el mundo doméstico. Lisandro Alonso en la Argentina, Apichatpong Weerasethakul en Tailandia, Hsiao-hsien Hou en Taiwán, Béla Tarr en Hungría y Lav Diaz en Filipinas son sólo algunos exponentes. La principal diferencia entre ellos y Renoir, es que el francés es más clásico en términos narrativos (por eso Diaz, cuyos guiones remiten a las grandes novelas decimonónicas, es el que más se le parece). La regla del juego, justamente, recicla una trama teatral y convencional, un ajedrez aristocrático de amores y desengaños, y la utiliza como soporte para algo más ambicioso. Los actores de Renoir son como bailarines que saltan y se desplazan por una mansión, y utilizan todas sus extremidades para expresarse. Renoir filma desde lejos, con planos generales o medios. Lo mismo sucede en los musicales, como los de Fred Astaire, que pretenden mostrar la coreografía sin trucos cinematográficos.

Por otro lado, los conflictos de los personajes, en La regla del juego, no son anunciados en primeros planos. Cada gesto amenaza con perderse entre otros que comparten la pantalla, y por lo tanto cada detalle que descubre el espectador es un milagro, un verdadero hallazgo. Es “su” detalle. Algunos teóricos del cine, para explicar este fenómeno, apelan al “punctum” de Roland Barthes. El concepto fue pensado exclusivamente para la fotografía, pero puede aplicarse sin problemas al cine. Un “punctum” es lo que lastima, lo que llega al espíritu. Es el pequeño detalle que, más allá del sentido social y culturalmente establecido de la imagen, de su tema u ocasión representado, provoca un efecto inmenso en el espectador. (Barthes objeta que, en el cine, la imagen es demasiado cambiante para que alguien encuentre un “punctum”, pero el cine contemplativo contemporáneo, en el que algunas larguísimas tomas podrían pasar por imágenes congeladas, parece haber resuelto el problema.) Abundan los ejemplos en La regla del juego. Octave, interpretado por el mismo Renoir, vestido de oso durante una fiesta nocturna, intenta quitarse el disfraz, pero el suelo de la mansión está tan resbaladizo que no puede evitar caerse. En otra escena, un personaje secundario, antes de irse a dormir, emerge de su dormitorio y arroja una almohada al fondo del pasillo. Durante una pequeña y ridícula representación teatral, sobre un escenario improvisado en el château, aparecen actores vestidos de esqueletos sobre un fondo negro, en un momento onírico que evoca al cine mudo. Poco tienen que ver estos instantes con la trama, pero son imposibles de olvidar. Otras escenas están más relacionadas con la historia, pero la mano sutil de Renoir les concede una potencia insospechada. Octave, sobre unos escalones, enfrenta a una orquesta invisible. Mientras tanto, le explica a una vieja amiga que siempre se había imaginado como conductor musical. De repente, detiene su pantomima, porque recuerda que ya nunca podrá realizar su sueño, y el hecho le parece insoportable. En otra escena, la más célebre de la película, el dueño del château, que colecciona juguetes mecánicos, revela ante sus invitados una nueva adquisición: un costoso reloj que, cada hora, pone en movimiento media docena de muñecos. Sobre su rostro, se dibujan incontables sensaciones: orgullo, timidez, miedo, entusiasmo. Por unos segundos, vuelve a ser un niño.

Through death or oblivion: Tokyo Story by Yasujiro Ozu

6 05 2013


Kyoko: “Isn’t life disappointing?”
Noriko: “Yes, it is.”

Yasujiro Ozu places a family drama inside a broad social canvas. Near the end, one of the main characters suggests that the conflicts they have suffered were the products of generational gaps, thus removing some blame from the supposedly heartless older siblings who have forgotten their parents. Their detachment, under this view, would be a natural element of growing up in Japan. This challenges our instinctual condemnation of the siblings: forced to look at these people as subject to a universal law, we appreciate them as representations of a grander tragedy.

A similar idea is contained in Ozu’s famed “pillow” shots. Veering away from the plot, these shots contextualize the main event within a larger world. The story does not inhabit a vacuum, it is not an isolated island but is surrounded by continental mass. Although we are only afforded glimpses of this mass, we still sense its weight, its lingering presence outside the borders of the story. We are aware, not just that there is more to this celluloid tale than the claustrophobic intimacy of a family, but that said intimacy is occurring in a landscape of unknown individuals, modern buildings, traditional houses, idyllic towns, and hectic cities. The main event loses its tyrannical grasp, its absolute rule. It is merely a thread among other threads, which has received the camera’s gaze almost by chance. And so we are encouraged to see how the main event relates to the events around it, and how perhaps there is nothing special about it.

When the elderly father reunites with his friends, we realize they all have similar complaints, as if the plot of the movie were being reproduced all over Japan. They all moan about their children, about how they’ve grown distant or failed to meet expectations, except for those who died in World War II.  These anecdotes, and the affinities between them, define the lives of the tellers as unremarkable, and suggest that some ubiquitous historical force is leading them all in like directions.


It is indeed the War and its memory that watches over every scene like a specter. We feel its tragic aftermath in the lingering shadow of those no longer there.  The daughter-in-law, Noriko, still suffers her widowhood after a decade. She is tormented by her supposed responsibility to her former husband. She wants to move on, yet she holds fast to a mode of conduct that prevents her from doing so. For her, the War remains a jealous captor.

Another effect of the War has been economic and urban growth. During the fifties, Japan began what, ten years later, would be termed an economic miracle. Industrialization and urbanization were flourishing, and the immediate economic woes of the post-War period were buried under an era of new-found prosperity. The siblings in Tokyo Story are too preoccupied with success in this dynamic environment to properly attend to their parents. At an important juncture in the concluding act of the film, they choose not to look after their father because of their jobs, and even before this, we have already perceived the hints of generational rupture. While the old couple lives in a serene town, the siblings have blended into the frenetic schedule of a swelling metropolis.

These juxtaposed rhythms – the peace of old age and the speed of middle-aged dissatisfaction – unearth the profound disparities between each generation’s approach to life, as potentially inevitable as they are, perhaps, also a matter of choice. Kyoko, the youngest daughter, still lives near her parents and holds different values than her older siblings. However, if we agree with Noriko, who believes in a kind of cyclical generational process, then we might suspect that, if Kyoko has not distanced herself from her parents, as the other siblings have done, then it is only a matter of time before she does. However, there is a competing explanation: Kyoko, in addition to being the youngest, is also the least involved of the siblings in the future economic miracle. Her aspirations, as well as her daily routine, are unassuming. If we adopt this “social dimension,” as David Bordwell puts it, then we will notice that “Shige and Koichi,” the most selfish siblings, “have been changed by the Tokyo rat race, while Noriko is at least temporarily content to be simply an ‘office lady,’ and Kyoko can live at home and teach elementary school.” We have, then, two outsiders to the financial boom, Noriko and Kyoko, and both prove to be the most faithful to the old couple. This undermines the argument in favor of inevitability, since age is no longer the discriminating factor and is, instead, replaced by lifestyle choice. In this new reading, children step away from their elders when their value systems cease to be compatible. Those children who retain a measure of the ‘old ways’ – and Noriko, after all, in her steadfast widowhood, might be more conservative than her parents-in-law – can continue to foster a connection with the elderly.

Other readings are possible. We cannot forget that, despite what I pointed out above, it is Noriko who argues in favor of inevitability, as the quote that opens this essay demonstrates. She is the one who anticipates that, one day, she will be no different from the other, supposedly heartless, siblings. Indeed, she submits to life’s inescapable disappointment. Perhaps the “social dimension” does little other than reinforce preexisting likelihoods. Time has always ravaged everything and everyone, and the War’s only effect has been to trace a clearly defined boundary between generations. How long will Noriko and Kyoko resist until the world consumes them? Are they really special? Keiko McDonald, in an essay on the film, writes about the final sequence: “Aboard the train, Noriko puts her watch, the memento, to her ear and falls into a reverie. These watch images are a clear indication of the flux of time, to which human beings are subject.” Yes, but must this “flux of time” bring the same tidings to everybody? By allowing inevitable disappointment into her outlook, Noriko seems to argue that, yes, time passes, and in its passing, it destroys or ruins everything that is old, and in so doing erases, through death or oblivion, those who populated the past.

Originally published in the first incarnation of the Next Projection website, now unavailable. Revised slightly for this republication in Elevator to Alphaville. 

— Guido Pellegrini

Twitter: @beaucine


Corrierino Consensus Project: Syndromes and a Century

10 01 2013

The users of The Corrierino forums have recently compiled a consensus list of the best films ever made. Once the votes were tallied, calls for write-ups began and I signed up to pen a few. I will post my entries here as they’re revealed in the relevant thread


This remains Weerasethakul’s greatest film, to my eyes. Commissioned to celebrate the 250th Anniversary of Mozart’s birth, and supposedly telling the story of Weerasethakul’s parents, Syndromes and a Century has precious little to do with Mozart, and its connection to the filmmaker’s mother and father is either tenuous or completely irrelevant. What we find, instead, and despite what some plot synopses might say, is the same plot told twice, once in a rural hospital and again in a modern, urbanized, unnervingly sterile hospital. Thing is, the plot cannot evolve likewise in these vastly different environments. Although the second half begins much like the film started, the new setting prevents certain developments from taking place, and, rapidly, the narrative deviates drastically from what preceded it. A dentist befriends a monk in the first half, but cannot in the second, because modern dental paraphernalia cancels any opportunity for conversation. A female doctor speaks to a shy, platonic admirer in the first half, but they don’t even cross each other in the mazy hospital hallways of the second.

What results is a wonderful experiment in storytelling, and an even better mood piece. Since the deviations in plot from first to second half are often triggered by environmental factors, Syndromes turns into a movie about natural and human-made surroundings, and how these affect our daily lives. Weerasethakul is a mesmeric image-maker, bestowing organic and inorganic matter with ineffable spirits. A Letter to Uncle Boonmee has a striking, dusky shot of swaying foliage, which is among the most mysterious, stirring portraits of magical nature ever filmed; Tropical Malady is equally adept in the cluttered flatness of supermarket products, as it is in the shadowy myths of the forest. Syndromes, then, plays on Weerasethakul’s strengths, being wholly about environments, about the whispered power behind trees, walls, windows, and cavernous ventilation tubes, sucking us into the darkness.

Corrierino Consensus Project: Stalker

7 01 2013
The users of The Corrierino forums have recently compiled a consensus list of the best films ever made. Once the votes were tallied, calls for write-ups began and I signed up to pen a few. I will post my entries here as they’re revealed in the relevant thread
Stalker is a film of silence. And, yet, it’s full of dialogue. Indeed, a common criticism of it targets the far-too-frequent conversations maintained by the three protagonists: Writer, Scientist, and the eponymous Stalker, guide and self-defined believer who leads curious souls into a mysterious Room – where wishes are fulfilled – stranded in the middle of an off-limits Zone, created by an undefined series of events, perhaps a radioactive disaster or an alien visitation. Chitchat notwithstanding, the movie that exists in the memory of the viewer is silent, a film of soothing, enigmatic, oneiric contemplation. Even the dialogue seems to rumble like a private thought, like a Malickian internal monologue. The Zone constantly hints at some deadly supernatural force, and this is conveyed by the images it has inspired in moviegoers and advertisement agencies alike. A well-known promotional poster for Stalker, quite hilariously, suggests that the heroes are chased around by gigantic cats. Another promotional image, used for the DVD cover, shows Stalker’s head blowing into a thousand pieces as he screams in Edvard Munch-like horror. But, for all the physical danger promised by the Zone, its only visible effect on those who enter is to force a confrontation with their souls. Like the island in L’avventura, the material Zone doubles as a metaphysical alternate reality, a virtual landscape which, though apparently composed of grass and abandoned instruments of warfare, is really built by ideas and fears, a cloud of introspection. Which is why the talk in Stalker is recalled by the viewer – or, at least, this viewer – as silence. We can almost picture these dialogues happening in a dream, murmured echoes of telepathic transmission. Writer, Scientist, and Stalker travel the empty nature of the Zone, but their real journey is inwards.

Corrierino Consensus Project: Playtime

23 12 2012

The users of The Corrierino forums have recently compiled a consensus list of the best films ever made. Once the votes were tallied, calls for write-ups began and I signed up to pen a few. I will post my entries here as they’re revealed in the relevant thread


Playtime is not as funny as it could be. Which is not to say it doesn’t inspire laughs, but its gags can often seem like academic exegeses on the mechanics of comedy, procedural deconstructions of bodies in motion, captured by a distant, omniscient camera shooting satellite images of our modern urban tragedy, tracing the webbed span of our society without concern for the humanity of the individuals.

So, Playtime might not be as funny as it could be, but it is certainly depressingly dystopian. What its sparse narrative implies is nothing other than the complete annihilation of Paris. In its stead, rises the famous set built by director Jacques Tati, a full-blown, modernist nightmare, all boxy buildings, right angles, smooth surfaces, transparencies, and ungainly windowpanes. A riff, perhaps, on Le Corbusier’s “Plan Voisin” for downtown Paris, which was never approved. In Playtime, only reflections remain of the 19th century architecture that we associate with the French capital. Mirrored on the glass doorways and storefronts of Tativille, we glimpse the images of monuments and landmarks, the Eiffel Tower and the such, reduced to postcard immateriality, an apparent, reflected presence off-screen. We never see anything besides these reflections, so that the monuments and landmarks become like the ghosts of Paris past, mourned by the city of tomorrow.

Anthropologist Marc Augé famously coined the figure of the Non-Place: airports, freeways, and shopping malls are non-places of passage and transaction, facilitators of international travel, evocative of nothing, flat surfaces that speed our journey onward. Augé reminds us that his non-places also suggest a way of interacting with the environment. Even if the location is profoundly ancient, like the ruins of Rome, the tourist will flatten his environment, superficially consume it in an itinerary that doesn’t lead downward into the depths of history, but outward, to the abstraction of a traveler travelling, parading through a storied terrain that has morphed into a kitschy background, a scrolling screen of local European color. What the human automatons of Playtime do is wake up, not to the existence of an historical Paris – irredeemably lost – but from their own dumb slumber. Their chaotic destruction of a restaurant late in the film is like the victorious return of texture, back to wreak detail on the featureless Tativille.

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