#ThrowbackReviews: 17 year old me on "Alien Visitation Films"
Because it’s the holidays and a slow time of year around these parts, I figured I’d have a little fun and take a break from contemplating the Grim Reaper’s current mass celebrity killing spree and post this term paper I wrote back in college. Yes, even before this blog existed, and in fact before any blog existed, and even before the internet, I was writing long-winded essays about movies.
This paper was actually written for an intro to cinema class I took my freshman year in college. Recently, I was going through all the junk I have in storage and I came across this paper, as well as the course syllabus, which reveals this is one of only two papers I had to write the entire semester (the other being an essay on Bergman’s Wild Strawberries that I doubt would be of much interest to our readers). The rest of the course consisted of sitting in a university auditorium and taking in the likes of A Clockwork Orange, Shampoo, Casablanca, Day for Night, Victor/Victoria, Goodfellas, and many more. It’s fair to say this was one of the best (and of course, easiest) classes I ever took.
I don’t recall the specific assignment here, but I think it was along the lines of “here’s a list of genres, along with three movies for each genre. Pick a genre and find the commonalities between the three movies”. I don’t know the grade I got on this paper, but I’m pretty sure I did okay. I long ago lost the floppy disk that had the original soft copy, but I was able to scan in the pages and extract the text. I haven’t made any alterations, other than tweaking the formatting and adding a few links and images. I think that as far as essays written by college freshman go, it’s not that bad, but of course I realize it’s not that good either, so feel free to have at it.
Non-Conformity as Seen in
ALIEN VISITATION FILMS
The film genre of science fiction is a broad one that is not easily defined. My personal definition would be a group of films that detail things that could not conceivably happen in real life, but have some basis in scientific knowledge. Yet many could dispute this definition and come up with their own. In fact, I could dispute it by saying most films could not “conceivably happen in real life.” However, there are many sub-genres within science-fiction–time travel films, space exploration films–that can be easily defined.
One such genre I will call alien visitation films. These can be defined quite simply as films where a being or group of beings from another planet come to earth and have an effect on human beings. Though the exact circumstances of each film vary, many broad issues addressed in these films do not. Because they deal with a being from another planet, an outsider, there is always a contrast shown between the outsider’s civilization and human civilization. The outsider will always introduce a thought process and beliefs different from the rest of society. So we can say that alien visitation films will almost always address the issue of conformity versus non-conformity, the strikingly unusual outsider versus the rest of society. And because the alien comes to earth in all of these films, and not the opposite, we assume the alien has the capacity to move between planets. We assume that the alien is superior to earthlings, and we thus also assume that the non-conformist is superior to the conformist society. This assumption is presented over and over again in alien visitation films. In three examples of this sub-genre of films, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and Man Facing Southeast (1989), the idea that non-conformity is always preferable to conformity is central.
Alien visitation films, like all other genres, evolve over time into three stages identified by film critic Thomas Schatz. In his book Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and the Studio System, he details three stages a genre goes through once it is established. First there is the classic stage, where the conventions of the genre “are mutually understood by artist and audience…(p.37)” In this stage, the filmmaker has recognized a certain type of film that people will readily understand and accept. In alien visitation films, one such example of the classic stage is the film The Day the Earth Stood Still. It was made in a time when films about flying saucers landing on earth were accepted by filmgoers, but the genre was never fully explored.
The international situation will always contribute to what society deems acceptable and normal. In 1951, the tensions between countries, especially the superpowers, was strong, but not directly. It was a subtle, non-aggressive tension called the Cold War. This tension had a direct effect on the making of The Day the Earth Stood Still. We see references to the world situation many times, especially in the world’s reaction to the alien visitor. When Klaatu asks to speak to all the heads of state in the world, he is told, “they wouldn’t even sit down at the same table together.” At the time, this was more or less just an accepted situation. But Klaatu, in his superior non-conformist stance, refuses to speak to one nation or one group of nations because it would only contribute to their “childish” disagreements. He goes so far as to say the squabbles between countries are sheer “stupidity.” These films are usually seen from the point of view of an outsider and from seeing this way, we are inclined to agree.
Had there actually been an alien visitation at this time in history, many Americans would have voiced the same cynical statement as Mrs. Barley in this film: “If you ask me, [the alien] comes from right here on earth, and you know what I mean.” She implies that the flying saucer is really a scheme created by the Soviet Union to further the expansion of their Communist empire. As a result of the Cold War, fear of Communism in America was running high at this time, forcing people to either conform to a certain societal standard or be labeled a “red” sympathizer. The anti-Communist sentiment eventually led to an almost religious glorification of and conformity to the ideals of capitalism. Tom Stephens decides to turn in Klaatu for one reason that he explains to his girlfriend Helen: “It’ll make me rich,” and “I’ll be on the front page of every paper!” But Klaatu refuses to conform to these ideals, and in fact shows complete ignorance of them. He shows he has no interest in personal monetary gain by practically giving away valuable gems to Bobby. Many characters refer to his not having money and are suspicious of him for it. But Klaatu, despite his non-conformity, or perhaps because of it, succeeds at the end.
In this society, going hand-in-hand with the notion of capitalism is the idea that every woman should have a husband that will go out and earn money for her. Tom’s reason for asking Helen to marry him is almost completely justified for job reasons. He says his boss will treat him differently once he has, according to him, “two dependents,” Helen and her son. Mrs. Crowley even says, in response to the alien being on the loose, “I wouldn’t go out on a night like this… unless I was courting.” In this society, “courting” is all-important. But in complete opposition with 1950s society, Helen completely rejects this ideal once she sees who her boyfriend really is. At the end, this non-conformity is rewarded by Klaatu’s trust. He entrusts her with giving the crucial message to his robot Gort, the now-famous “Klaatu barrada nikto.” By going against her boyfriend’s attitude and society’s attitude of every man for himself, Helen helps to save the earth from possible “elimination.”
In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the genre of alien visitation films is refined. The refinement stage, according to Schatz, is one in “which certain formal and stylistic details embellish the form… (p.37)” By this time, the genre was almost ingrained in the subconscious of every American, but still considered a subject for B-movies and lesser efforts. But with Close Encounters, the subject was given a new respect in the public eye. At this time, the Cold War was not causing as much tension, but it still gave the filmmakers the notion that the Federal Government would not deal openly and casually with any alien visitation. In this film, the government knows of the visitation ahead of time and orders a cover-up. They spare no measures in this cover-up, killing animals in order to convince the public of a toxic gas leak. But the notion of countries working together was becoming more probable than in The Day the Earth Stood Still. In this film, a French scientist works together with an American team in places such as India and Mongolia in trying to discover why planes and ships are mysteriously appearing in strange places. Despite this slight relaxing of tensions, the notion that governments are irrational remains.
Capitalism may not have been as glorified by this time, but the patriarchal sentiment was nearly as strong as it was in The Day the Earth Stood Still. But in the Seventies, this sentiment resurfaced as the “macho” ideology. This ideology stressed the long-time societal belief that men are not supposed to cry or show emotion. They were expected, and are expected to be inhumanly strong and to be the stable rock upon which the family was built. We see Roy Neary early in the film as a man living out this role, living a perfectly accepted but hum-drum family life. As a result of an encounter with aliens, he suddenly starts to stray from his place as the stable center of the family. We see how his deviations from societal standards lead him to be labeled crazy, a non-conformist. He becomes more emotional as a result of his fantastic experience with extra-terrestrials, and he breaks down in front of his family. However, he has already ingrained these social, masculine conventions into his son, who then loses all respect for him. In a tense scene, his son repeatedly bangs a door open, screaming, “Cry baby! Cry baby!”
But, just as in the previous film mentioned, his non-conformity is rewarded at the end. On the landing pad, he is singled out by the aliens to be the only human being to come with them to their planet. Ultimately, his breaking of societal rules makes him superior to all the other humans on the landing pad.
But in the baroque stage of this genre, non-conformity, even though it must be considered superior by the very nature of the genre, is not rewarded at the end. Schatz describes the baroque stage as the time “when the form and its embellishments are accented to the point where they themselves become the ‘substance’ or ‘content’ of the work. (p.38)” At this point, the genre is no longer seen as a vehicle for a storytelling, but as the story itself. Man Facing Southeast is such a film, in that it explores the genre from a completely different viewpoint, one from outside of this country. The visitation in this film is not as clear or concise as a flying saucer landing in the Mall in Washington D.C. The same notion of non-conformity is still central, but it does not succeed at the end.
The setting for this film is a mental institution, a place geared especially for treating people like sub-humans. We see the entire staff of the asylum devoted to the task of trying to make people “normal,” non-individual members of society. At the beginning, Dr. Julio Denis, a psychiatrist, almost wants to break from the conventions in dealing with mental patients. He wants to reach out and show affection to a patient he is talking to, but he know he cannot. “He wouldn’t accept that from me,” Dr. Julio says.
Rantes arrives as almost the physical manifestation of Dr. Denis’ feelings. We are never plainly told whether or not he is actually an alien. Denis immediately recognizes him as different from all his other patients. “There was nothing wrong with him,” Dr. Denis says, “except that he claimed to come from another planet.” Rantes defied almost all the rules of the asylum, and was treated as a leader by the rest of the patients, all non-conformists themselves. Eventually, he gets Dr. Denis to defy rules himself. Dr. Denis takes Rantes to the circus and to a symphony, well aware that this is unconventional treatment of a patient.
During the concert, Rantes defies the rules of what is normally accepted: he gets up and dances, and eventually gets on the podium to conduct the orchestra himself. But in this film, this strikingly bold move is not rewarded at the end. The conformist establishment, personified by the director, beats this individuality down. He uses medication to destroy Rantes uniqueness and non-conformity. Because this is the very essence of his character, he in effect destroys Rantes himself.
But the ending is not completely bleak. Through his experience with Rantes, Dr. Denis has allowed his non-conformist feelings to show. In one scene, he questions the director, asking, “Why are we here doing this? We don’t cure anyone!” Denis has learned through Rantes not to merely accept society’s rules. He recognizes the things he does that Rantes calls “stupid” and “self-destructive,” and questions them. And while complete and utter non-conformity is beat down at the end, the film suggests that any amount of questioning of societal rules is worthwhile.
It is a sentiment expressed, subtle or blatant, in all three of these films, and in all alien visitation films. The filmmakers behind The Day the Earth Stood Still, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Man Facing Southeast all exposed the uselessness and down-right stupidity of some rules of society. In the end, they all say that non-conformity of any degree can only help you as a human being.
Schatz, Thomas. Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and the Studio System. Random House, New York: 1981