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Volcanic activity, an ‘Alien’ sighting, inscrutable icons

The curtain call for "Alien," as shown in the film “Alien on Stage."

What looks like an image of veiny, swampy mangrove trees opens Fern Silva’s cryptic, clever, and visually rapturous “Rock Bottom Riser” (2021). A voice-over enthusiastically offers a commentary on men’s fashion, a night starscape undergoes animated delineation, a light appears saying “I am the spaceship of the ancestors,” and then all is swallowed up in a vortex of fire.

Attention getting, if confusing. Silva composes this free-form film essay about colonialism and the political and cultural challenges of the indigenous people in Hawaii with visual metaphors and verbal puns, and it makes for a dynamic, gleeful text that demands repeated viewing.


Some motifs and meanings emerge gradually. Like the “rock” in the title. Eerie aerial views of flowing lava take on an abstract appearance as they spread with boiling viscosity toward a doomed village and across a roadway. A cut is made to the road lava solidified into a 6-foot high wall of black basalt. More magma flows from an underwater eruption. The island, after all is made of this stuff, and volcanic activity has shaped much of the aboriginal culture.

But Silva extends the concept, playing with the word, and includes an interview with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson justifying his casting as King Kamehameha I in an upcoming movie. And in a poetry class an eager teacher plays the Simon and Garfunkel song “I Am a Rock” to analyze the lyrics.

Silva’s thesis is more surreal than linear or logical, and by fiercely engaging the imagination it is all the more cogent for it. It should make for a dynamic discussion when the filmmaker participates in a Q&A following the film, moderated by DocYard curator Abby Sun.

“Rock Bottom River” screens at the Brattle Theatre Feb. 21 at 7 p.m. Go to thedocyard.com/screenings/rock-bottom-riser.

Inalienable rite

In a world of chaos, uncertainty, and apocalyptic dread, make-believe offers not so much an escape from reality as a reprieve. Some might take such a release to the extremes of QAnon, but others are content with the more benign options of cosplay and celebrity worship. The Boston SciFi Film Festival (through Feb. 21) offers a highly entertaining documentary — Lucy Harvey and Danielle Kummer’s hilarious and exhilarating “Alien on Stage” (2020) — that investigates this phenomenon.


Like the working-class stiffs in “The Full Monty” (1997), bus drivers in Dorset, England, wanted to put on a show — a stage adaptation of a classic movie. Various ideas were broached — “Tombstone (1993),” “Kill Bill” (2003) — but they settled on the Ridley Scott sci-fi horror classic “Alien” (1979), about a monstrous, metamorphosing entity that picks off crew members of a rust-buckety commercial space vessel. Maybe it was the idea of a film about working-class stiffs piloting a vehicle that appealed to them.

Somewhat a mom-and-pop operation, with the harried director’s wife starring in the Sigourney Weaver role as Ripley and his son writing the screenplay, the project’s success depended in large part on the work of the FX and production designer. The shocking chest-bursting scene, the face hugger, and the polymorphously hideous alien itself — they required DIY ingenuity to achieve a level of realism, or at least of kitschy ineptitude.

After stressful rehearsals with actors forgetting their lines and with time running out, they finally performed the finished production on a small local stage. But hardly anyone showed up, and the cast and crew were dejected. But among those who did attend were a party of hipsters and filmmakers from London, including the two directors of “Alien on Stage.” It was like Christopher Guest’s “Waiting for Guffman” (1996) except (spoiler!) Guffman shows up.


The visitors were blown away by the show. They arranged to put it on at the Leicester Square Theatre in London’s West End and made a film about it. Spoiler: Both are triumphant.

“Alien on Stage” screens Feb. 19 at 5 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre. Go to www.bostonscifi.com.

Idle worship

While touring the Vatican in 1999, Annie Berman was struck not so much by attractions such as the Sistine Chapel or St. Peter’s Basilica as by the image of then-Pope John Paul II on a lollipop. Was it a miracle? No it was a “Lolli-pope,” one of many shrewd merchandising items tapping into the cult of those who worshipped the popular prelate. Her curiosity stirred, she found other Pope John Paul II collectibles — T-shirts, mugs, snow globes, ashtrays — all of which had been licensed by the Vatican, which took a share of the profits.

Intrigued by this phenomenon of kitschy cults forming around celebrities, Berman spent the next two decades visiting and filming at such shrines as Graceland, where Elvis fans gather to pay their respects to the King, and Kensington Palace, where those faithful to the late Princess Diana make their pilgrimage and pick up such keepsakes as Diana teacups. Berman finally shaped her observations and ruminations into the ruefully funny, thought-provoking documentary “The Faithful: The King, the Pope, the Princess” (2021), an examination of the causes of such obsessions — including her own compulsion to study it.


That compulsion involved recording hundreds of tapes of her subjects — seeming oddballs with whom she learned to empathize. They include a woman who believes an image of Elvis appears on her window in certain light (it does, sort of) and an old codger in an umbrella hat who voluntarily sees to it that the flowers, stuffed animals, and other offerings to Princess Diana are properly arrayed about the palace gate.

Less idealistic are those who own the rights to these images. Part of the reason the film took two decades to complete is that Berman had to haggle with various estates to get permission to include material in her film. But she was obsessed with her project and persevered, and the result is a moving, funny, and unsettling glimpse into the nature of faith and worship — and those who profit by it.

“The Faithful: The King, the Pope, the Princess” screens March 3 at 7 p.m. at the Emerson Paramount Center as part of the Bright Lights series and will be followed by a Q&A. with director Annie Berman. Go to artsemerson.org/events/bright-lights-faithful.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.