Sunday, May 20, 2012

What's so special about it?

It’s not uncommon for me to suggest putting on a movie after a night of fun in the city, when those of us still left standing retreat to my friend’s apartment for a nightcap.  Although most people are amiable to the idea, I admit the filter comes off when my facilities are less than 100%.  All too often I take this opportunity to speak at length about the movie we’re watching, divulging behind-the-scenes information, breaking down story and plot or delivering sociopolitical commentary.  It turns out the more movies you watch, the more opinions you have about what exactly makes one good (or bad).  Whether the people still awake are prepared for it or not, this cheerful deconstruction can become a diatribe if the film we’re watching proves to be less than stellar.  While the casual observer may not recognize bad lighting, lazy writing or shoddy editing, those elements can have great thematic importance and can become ‘nails on a chalkboard’ for the drunken cinephile.
I mention all this because I coaxed my friends into watching James Cameron’s Aliens last Friday night.   One of my favorite movies of all time, this should have been a treat; unfortunately, I was not prepared for the 17 minutes of changes inserted into the special edition.  Perhaps the memory of seeing it on the big screen for the first time last year* was still fresh in my mind, but I found myself more anxious and confused as this altered version unfolded before me.  

At first, I took to pointing out the subtle differences:  a brief moment between Burke and Ripley concerning her now deceased daughter, or administrator Van Leuwen delivering Ripley’s sentence following her hearing.  Although minor changes, they expand on Ripley’s character, displaying a maternal instinct that was implied instead of shown in the theatrical version. Then the changes start to get bigger; you see the colony of LV-426 flourishing before the alien attack, and you’re introduced to Newt and her family as prospectors who stumble across the derelict space craft.  Now you’re changing tone and shifting the tension of the movie. 
In the original cut, you’re introduced to Ripley as someone with a psychological imbalance, suffering from nightmares of an event that happened millions of miles away more than fifty years ago.   Clearly a fish out of water, you’re strangely reassured that an event so terrible could not happen again, particularly when the odds are stacked better.  The Nostromo was a mining vessel, and her crew was sparse and small in number.  Ripley’s 2nd trip to the planet is with a group of battle-hardened space marines, packing ‘state of the art firepower’.  You don’t see the colony beforehand, so you’re not quite sure what happened to it until after the marines get there.  All this builds tension and adds to the mystery.

In the special edition cut, however, you show the shark** right away and all of audience’s fears are confirmed before the troops even get there.   Now the audience is focused on dramatic irony, confident the marines are not prepared for what they’re about to encounter.  This tactic is often employed in traditional horror fare, moving the tension from the unknown to the known in favor of character development.   Developing archetypes allows the audience to identify with the cast and provides an emotional anchor which can be yanked to deliver shock value.  Although not a bad story mechanic by itself, it doesn’t fit the mold of the movie’s predecessor, Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece Alien.

You have to remember Sigourney Weaver was not cast as the lead in that film, but was rather an ancillary character who eventually became the sole survivor.  There’s very little character development going on, so you’re not sure what kind of person she is outside of smart and resourceful.  That’s what makes the original so terrifying; the audience expects more prominent actors like Tom Skerritt to make it through, and there’s natural confusion when they don’t (think Janet Leigh in Psycho).  Fast forward to the sequel, and you’re still not sure what drives her character.  Will she survive this time?
Unfortunately, the special edition delivers the goods prematurely, and immediately starts flushing out Ripley’s character to compensate.  Now she’s a mother without a child, and when Newt becomes a child without a mother, it’s only natural for the story arc to become uniting the two.  The raw action feel of the original cut, which many critics have referred to as rambo-esque*** and what makes the movie unique, has been curtailed as the story becomes more personal.  Ripley goes in with the troops when they first enter the compound, and we’re forced to rely on her worried expressions to buoy our fears.   Gun sentries are introduced as protection, and the movie intercuts their presence with personal exchanges between Ripley, Newt and Hicks. As the marines meet their unfortunate end, the audience cares less about them in favor of the surrogate family dynamic that develops. 
I won’t deconstruct the film further; suffice to say I was upset and disappointed by these changes.  I was surprised I noticed so much given how much I had to drink, but it makes sense considering how many times I’ve seen the original.  Although I won’t take this opportunity to decry all movie special editions (that’s another topic for another post), I will say I’m glad the theatrical cut is still in print and available for purchase.  To anyone that hasn’t seen the movie before, I strongly suggest watching that version first. In my opinion, there’s nothing special about the special edition.

*Two theaters in our area, the County Theater in Doylestown, PA and the Ambler in Ambler, PA showcase old movies as part of their summermovie series.
**Due to technical problems during the filming of the movie Jaws, Spielberg and crew resorted to showing the shark as little as possible.  As a result, the audience’s imagination works overtime to fill in the gaps.  This only adds to the suspense.
***James Cameron wrote the screenplays for two sequels, Aliens and Rambo: First Blood II simultaneously, although the latter was never filmed in its initial version.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Where's the Daddy Market??

The absence of a post in the last two weeks or so would suggest I took a break from yard sales.  On the contrary, the warmer weather has translated into a noticeable uptick in yard sale opportunities.  In total, I visited roughly two dozen sales, ranging in size from small, single family garage sales to large community rummage sales and church flea markets.  Unfortunately, the pickings have been slim, and the hauls have been small.  I couldn’t quite put my finger on why, considering the locations were dispersed and income levels were variable.  Where were the toys, movies, collectibles and games of my youth?  A few movie magazines here, a Nintendo GameCube there; not exactly treasures to write home about.
Awesome? No.  Crap?  Yes.
Overwhelmed by the sheer number of baby clothes and toys that seem to be everywhere, my wife was quick to provide an explanation.  Unlike me, she’s more familiar with the ebb and flow of the yard sale season.  It turns out this is the time when young parents look to clear out closets full of clothes their children have outgrown.  Apparently, babies grow a lot between 12-24 months, and there’s only so much room in a toddler’s closet.  The warmer weather also means the tiny winter coats and booties have to go; there’s little chance of them fitting six months from now when the colder weather returns.
While my wife considers this a blessing (more opportunities to buy clothes for our niece), I must admit I’m less than enthused. I understand the novelty and popularity of the Mommy Market concept, but I have to ask: where’s the Daddy Market?  If I spend another Saturday driving around the neighborhood only to find boppy pillows and swimmies, I think I’m gonna lose it.

I’m reminded of the Obi-Wan – Yoda exchange in The Empire Strikes Back:
Yoda: “The boy has no patience.”
Obi-Wan: “He will learn patience.”
Yoda: “Much anger in him…”