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On Movies: The Alien

Ben Nichols spoofing Carly Rae Jepsen as Bob Dylan

Ben Nichols spoofing Carly Rae Jepsen as Bob Dylan.

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A single work of art behaves much like a ray, the line’s geometric cousin. Unlike the line, which extends infinitely in two directions, the ray has a clear and distinct starting point. The point for a particular work of art is the beginning of the artist’s creative career: it’s the amateur and early creations, appreciated by only the most passionate collectors and thorough academics, that lead to the creation of the work in question.

It’s impossible to watch Ben Nichols’s “The Alien,” winner of Best Director and Best Actor at the 2012 Phantoscope High School Film Festival without thinking in ray-based terms. Presented by the Richmond Art Museum (RAM), the festival is Indiana’s only state-wide teen film festival. According to RAM, its mission is “to provide an outlet for high school filmmakers so that they can grow in their art form and associate with other teen filmmakers from around the state.”

Shot on a Sony Handycam Camcorder HDR-XR500V, a Canon EOS 60D, and an iPhone 4s with a budget listed of $500.00, according to the IMDb, “The Alien” is a modern version of J.J. Abrams’s and Steven Spielberg’s overly nostalgic “Super 8.” And in the social context of the film festival, Nichols, as well as the other entrants, showcases a new generation of video artists who, like the child Spielberg buying 8mm film, live in an age where the rise of an advanced, inexpensive technology allows for imaginative and artistic exploration.

When it comes to the context of the artist’s career, seventeen-year-old Nichols is in his toddler years and uncommitted to any particular career. Or, as he said in an interview with the Times of Northwest Indiana, he refuses to identify himself as a filmmaker, because he’s “not the kind of guy who likes to limit himself.”

There’s no reason why he should. Excluding the trailers for his movie, Youtube viewers can about watch 15 videos by Spoofsmanship Films, his production company. Although clearly student work, they go beyond his budding skills as a cinematographer to reveal a talented performer. As a film-maker, he demonstrates a great visual sense with the strong noir shadows and sharp black and white contrasts that please the eye throughout “The Alien.” And as an actor, for example, he goes beyond the cliched mumbling whine most impressionists use, to create a satire Kevin Spacey would applaud.

But all this context raises an inevitable question: why should anyone care about the early works of a young artist who may never again make another movie? There are two reasons. First is the ego-driven pleasure of being in that group of early adapters. Call it hipster appeal. But like the hipster who burned himself on the tamale (he liked it before it was cool), early fans run the risk of getting singed if the artist never fulfills their expectations.

Second and most importantly, when patrons take the risk of joining an artist early on in his or her journey, they not only stand to gain an understanding and appreciation of future work that late comers may not see, they become part of the work.  Every view on Youtube and every like on Facebook shows the artist that his work is not in vain. Those minor gestures, especially early on, have significant power. Through them, the early viewers participate in the artist’s growth become part of the artist’s context.

It’s impossible to predict what Nichols will do next. It’d doubtful even he knows. But the chance to become the context for a new generation of creators is a special opportunity, one that would be unfortunate to miss.


The Alien
Runtime: 14:45
Director: Ben Nichols
Released: April 2012



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