Thursday, May 04, 2017

Now is the narrative of our discontent

We are running out of narrative notions, so we are simply recycling them faster and faster.

I know the Campbell/Moyers theory that there are only 7 stories, or 8 heroes, or a thousand faces (and not 1001!) or something.  Frankly, I think that's hooey, though I am convinced there are really only two plots in literature:  somebody comes to town, or somebody goes on a journey.  Homer stood at the beginning of our narrative trek, and greets us when we finally come to the end.

Everything goes around in circles.

But the two "hot" takes that everyone is anticipating or already explicating, are "Alien:  Covenant" (a title that thoroughly ruins the meaning of the title of the first film, where the monster is truly "alien", but not necessarily an "Alien") and "American Gods."  Both are simply retreads, and not in the Campbellesque sense, but in the sense of taking source material and simply doing it again.

Retreads, in other words.  Sequels without an original for reference.  You'll say that's not quite true for "Covenant," and I'll grant you it's a fine line, but I stand by my statement.  "American Gods" may well make you say:  "Huh?"

I read the novel some time back, and don't remember much about it except I enjoyed it.  Then again, the experience was sort of like the old joke about Chinese food:  an hour after I finished I was hungry for a story again.  Disposable, in other words.  Unremarkable, in the end.  Good pulp fiction, but not like, say, a Chandler novel is good.  Just better than Mickey Spillane or Ian Fleming.

I tried to re-read Fleming a few years ago.  I really tried.  Couldn't get the book back on the shelf fast enough.  Life's too short to read that stuff twice.

"Covenant," from what I've seen in trailers, is just "Alien" with a new batch of people to kill off.  The trailers not only make it clear this movie is largely "Alien" redux, but makes much of the "chest burster" scene that scared the bejesus out of everybody 38 years ago.  But that's the loose thread that unravels the whole thing:  we've seen that already.  In the original, that scene came out of nowhere, announcing the horror to follow; but that horror rested, not on the gore and action of the chest burster, but on the darkness and stealth of the never-quite-seen xenomorph (the title "Alien" emphasizes the creature is not us; not in any way at all).  In "Aliens" the scene is repeated, once in Ripley's nightmare (to establish how traumatized she is by the experience) and again when the Marines find the colonists who've been made into incubators.  The horror of that scene is that we know what the Marines don't:  what's going to happen.  It doesn't show up again in that movie because that would simply be tedious.  Now, nearly 4 decades later, all the surprise is drained from that part of the creature's life-cycle, so let's have it come out of someone's back!  New!  Original! Unforeseen!

I even saw an on-line movie magazine trying desperately to make a virtue of this "concept."  Pitiful.

"Alien, " of course, had its source material:  the gothic novel.  It was a science-fiction story (spaceships!  Alien planets!), but the setting was a haunted house/castle.  All it lacked was a thunderstorm, but the dim lighting (very effective, mind) set the atmosphere of the beleaguered castle, the old house with dark shadows and creaky noises, and the sirens and sudden explosions of sound made up for the thunder and lightning, the kind of thing Poe used when Madeline Usher threw upon the door and fell face first on her brother Roderick, bearing them both to an early grave (just as the door bursts open the lightning flashes and the thunder rolls.  Poe was 100 years ahead of his time in visuals).  So "Alien" was not sui generis, but it used the familiar elements in new and unexpected ways, and it still deserves our respect.

"Covenant" looks like "Alien" without Sigourney Weaver.  Been there, done that.  The "twist" is the "Prologue" that picks up where "Prometheus" ends (the movie that "Covenant" is a sequel to, and which somehow makes "Alien" a sequel to a sequel to a sequel.  One more reason to go on living.)  This prologue ends (in this trailer) when the escapees from "Prometheus" find the home planet of the "Engineers."  (Or maybe not their home, maybe just the moon the colonists find later.  It's probably too early to be completely unfair to this movie, but what the hell?)  Apparently David unleashes the black goo (shades, still, of Scully and Mulder!  There is indeed nothing new under the sun!  Any sun!) on the Engineers, no doubt to terrible effect.  (Again:  or not.  That "not" just makes the whole thing seem even more unnecessarily convoluted, at least from here.)  No doubt, too, there is an explanation of this somewhere in the prologue, or in the film.  Apparently David the android meets Walter the android, who is an advanced version of David among the crew of "Covenant," the doomed ship.  They are twins because, of course they are.  One of the charms of the films has been the "artificial persons" look nothing alike (Ian Holm, Lance Henrikson, Winona Ryder), making the line between persons and replicable machine an deliciously blurred one.  But why let that spoil things?

So it's a pastiche of familiar sequences (monsters burst forth in horrible parodies of birth!  No, wait, they did that in "Prometheus") and already known tropes (black goo!) and once again being chased by a beastie on a ship (gee, where did that plot point happen before?).  And narratively, it sounds like it's going to make you long for the simple pleasures of "Prometheus," a movie in which nobody's actions really made any sense (don't get me started).

What does this have to do with "American Gods"?  Only this:  Gaiman cribbed the whole premise from "Star Trek."  "Who Mourns for Adonais?"  Anybody?  Anybody?  Bueller?  The Enterprise crew finds Apollo on an uncharted planet, a Greek god with amazing powers (because before the Enlightenment we were all cargo cult followers!) who just happens to need the worship of humans to stay...well, corporeal, at least.  Apollo wants to keep the crew there for the same reason Wednesday (psst!  Odin!)  wants to claim more than a footnote in America's consciousness (and the same reason we have new gods like Media and Easter (Gillian Anderson and Kristen Chenoweth, respectively; two reasons to watch, anyway).  Gaiman's premise is the same as "Adonais":  gods are simply projections of human desires, anthropomorphic entities we create because we need them, until we don't.  Gaiman's twist is that we always need them, but that's not much of a distinction.  The basic idea is still that, without worship from us, gods die.  Is it a remarkably stupid idea of what "worship" of a god is, even of pagan gods?  Yup.  Is it as anthropologically and historically unsound as can be?  Yup.  Are we supposed to close our eyes and shout "WILLING SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF!" in order to make it work?  Absolutely.  Does that presumption completely undermine the point of the "willing" and "suspension," in Coleridge's famous post-enlightenment phrase?  Well, duh.  Are we gonna go down that rabbit trail?  Not if I can help it (Will power!  Must use will power!!!!)

So Gaiman is cribbing from "Star Trek," and Scott is cribbing from himself and "The X-Files."  And both are presented as "New!" and "Daring!" and..... it's the same old wine in the same old wineskins.

Millions of dollars, and this is what we get for it.  But hey!  "Twin Peaks" is coming back!  That'll be....


"...all is vanity and striving after emptiness."

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