Tag Archives: race

Illegals, Part 4






A new problem: What are we to say about stories that feature both allegorical and literal versions of the same thing, of the same class of object or type of person—about True Blood, for instance, whose vampires code comprehensively as queer even though the show also includes among its characters several mortal, day-walking gays and lesbians? This is a real problem, because the show seems to be drawing a distinction, prompting a rigorous reader, one perhaps suspicious of allegory, to insist that the vampires can’t possibly be in some general way stand-ins for queer folk because the show already possesses these latter, and they are not coterminous with the vampires. Placing an allegorical construct in the same room as its literal equivalent doesn’t, as one might suspect, make the allegory stronger or easier to explicate. Quite the contrary: The allegory and the literal referent are going to be locked in a struggle for the relevant name or meaning, and it’s not entirely clear which is going to have the upper hand in that fight. You might think that the literal term has home turf advantage. If a gay person and a vampire are standing next to each other, and I only get to call one of them “gay person,” I’m going to choose the gay person. That’s what it means to say that the presence of the literal term can prevent the allegory from coalescing, like the trace amounts of yolk that ruin your every attempt at meringue. But then hyperbole is at the heart of allegory—you create an allegorical version of x by exaggerating certain features of x—and in that case, the non-literal construct can easily seem like the better version of the thing, more fully and vividly itself, purer, pushed further away from the imaginary average against which all specific difference is gauged. If Dracula and Oscar Wilde double each other, I might decide that it is the vampire who is really queer, whereupon gay and lesbian people will find themselves outflanked, normal by comparison, conceptually maneuvered bank into the ranks of dull humanity. The allegory can poach from the literal term its very name.

If we’re going to make sense of this particular deviant variety of allegory, it will help to have the terms provided by an unreformed structuralism, whose core insight was that all stories begin by generating some opposition or another: A and B, cowboy and Indian. The idea, then, is that since most of us experience oppositions as cockeyed and agitating, the business of nearly any story will be to stabilize its antithesis, though there are different ways a movie or novel or folktale might do this: by subordinating one term to another and perhaps by eliminating it altogether (cowboy defeats, expels, or guns down Indian); or, alternately, by fusing the two together into some unforeseen third (cowboy marries Indian). Storytelling can become more complicated, of course, as it begins shading in intermediate steps that already contravene the central opposition (the half-breed, say, or the white Indian) or as it appends secondary oppositions to its core one: (cowboy and East Coast railroad interest). But nearly all storytelling is at heart a play with oppositions, and the trick when considering a complicated story is to discern the master antithesis (or small set of antitheses) that underpins its many more local conflicts. The remarkable thing, then, about stories that contain allegorical and literal versions of the same thing is that they sabotage this most basic feature of narrative; they monkeywrench the binary by plugging the same term into each of the opposition’s slots—once nakedly and then again in disguise—and thereby create reflexive stories that are not, however, immediately recognizable as such: cowboy and cowboy, teasingly and with the air of paradox.

That such stories pose special challenges should be clear from Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, released in 2005. Nearly every newspaper and magazine reviewer—and, I suspect, most ordinary fans—thought that the movie was about terrorism or that it was 9/11’s conversion into science fiction: It was “the first serious post-9/11 sci-fi movie,” “a 9/11 allegory,” a reminder that “terrorists can take out a big chunk of the Manhattan skyline,” a surprisingly solemn tour of the nation’s “worst terrorism nightmares.” The New York press took to warning its readers off the movie: “merciless,” they called it, and “shocking”—35mm PTSD. And it is certainly true, as the reviewers all mentioned, that the film is crammed with “allusions” and “parallels” and “references” to 9/11: civil emergency in greater New York, panicked urbanites sprinting down city blocks, overwhelmed beat cops, airplane wreckage, a wall of the missing, and—least generically, most jarringly—a rain of ash.

That War of the Worlds is not about terrorism one knows all the same, because it tells you as much, and in so many words—except, of course, one doesn’t know it; everybody missed it. The movie’s hero has two children, and as they escape from the attack, the younger one screams: “Is it the terrorists?”—and gets no answer. Then a minute or two later the older one repeats the question, more calmly this time: “What is it? The terrorists?” “No,” the father says, “this came from someplace else.” All the more remarkably, the film has already by this point identified that Someplace Else or Other Thing, the thing that isn’t terrorism. Some four minutes into the movie, Tom Cruise’s ex-wife instructs him to stay on top of their teenaged son over the weekend, because he has a research report due “on the French occupation of Algeria.” And there it is: The malicious gag underlying the movie is that the invading Martians give a high-school student all the material he needs to write a really bang-up paper about occupation or that they turn his assignment into a family project: This is the weekend everyone learns about empire.

War of the Worlds was thus a thought experiment or indeed a political education—one specific to the middle years of the Bush era: Can you imagine a force powerful enough to do to the US what the US has done to Iraq? Can you imagine, via analogy and extrapolation, a military wielding technological superiority over the US of a kind that the US currently wields over the world’s other nations? Or as one character says of the invaders: “They defeated the greatest power in the world in a matter of a couple of days. … This isn’t a war any more than there is a war between men and maggots.” What the reviewers inexplicably overlooked was that terrorists do not occupy entire countries. And that’s all you need to bear in mind to realize that Spielberg’s movie was is no sense an homage to 9/11—just the reverse—it was a deliberate and principled insult to the instant sanctity of that day, a way of putting 9/11 back into perspective by staging on the same terrain an event of incomparably greater magnitude, a way, that is, of showing the New Yorkers who were told to skip the movie just how much worse it could have been: Baghdad.

This is the sort of thing that becomes possible when allegory doubles its referent; such doubling is, indeed, one of the only ways that narrative can place the same term on both sides of an opposition; X fights X; the US invades the US; Americans as colonizers, Americans as colonized. This is the structure we’ll need to carry forward with us if we want to make sense now of Attack the Block, which is Super 8’s English twin, the other alien-invasion movie from 2011 that pulls in equal measure from ET and the Goonies: more adventuring tweens, more BMXs, more aliens that seem visible only to the pubescent. But then Attack the Block is also the first movie I’ve named that is openly about race in some entirely literal and earthbound sense. This is first of all a simple matter of casting: Almost none of the movie’s heroes are conventionally, ethnically English; all but one come from African or Caribbean immigrant families. If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s not enough to imagine The Goonies with English accents. You have rather to imagine The Goonies as new-model Cockneys, black and mixed-race and speaking grime patois. But then it’s not just the characters: Attack the Block is also telling a story about race; indeed, it is telling perhaps the most familiar racial story of the last few generations, the one about integration and enfranchisement. All you need to know is the bare outlines of the plot: Once they start fighting the movie’s aliens—and fight they do, to the death; the movie’s resemblance to ET and Super 8 ends there—the boys are transformed from the piece’s villains to its heroes. They begin the movie by mugging a young white nurse, but they end it by saving the day. In other words, it’s not just that Attack the Block is one of the most extensive pieces of black British pop culture yet produced, and in that sense some kind of landmark. The movie is actually walking you through a reassessment of black Britain and can, to this extent, easily seem like an advance on that recent crop of movies that make the English poor seem like the worst people on earth, though it has to be said that those films’ chosen technique for communicating their sour insight is simply to remake Hollywood movies on English soil: Harry Brown, for instance, which casts Michael Caine as an East End vigilante and aitchless Eastwood—it’s there in the title, if you squint: “brown” = “smudged” or “unclean” = Harry Dirty; and especially the remarkable Eden Lake, which is Deliverance transplanted to a not-so-rural Buckinghamshire, with hoodie-wearing poor kids in the place of Georgia hillbillies: 13-year-old proletarians carving up their betters. These movies and others like them leave the impression that the British working class has simply gone feral—the impression, that is, that class relations in the UK have by this point simply snapped or that basic modes of sociability or decency or respect have disappeared, with dehumanized workers and lumpens stuck living in perpetuity on the far side of their old traditions. To a considerable extent, then, Attack the Block asks to be read as a polemical response to this cinema of broken Britain. The movie begins in the mode of Harry Brown and then simply demands that viewers revise their judgments. The respectable white audience’s designated proxy obtrusively changes her mind. At the beginning of the movie she and an older white neighbor commiserate: “They’re fucking monsters.” But by the end of the movie, she is telling the cops to back off from the bruvs: “I know them. They’re my neighbors.”

One way to summarize Attack the Block, then, would be to say that it is a story of uplift and interracial friendship, in which Britain redefines itself in order to make room for its newest members. Nor is it overreaching to mention Britain in this context; the film has the nation unmistakably on its mind. It is set on Guy Fawkes Day, for one, and so asks to be read as a redo of 1605—England’s second saving!—with West Indian yardies performing the patriotic gallantries once reserved for Protestant knights. More to the point, the movie’s 15-year-old hero, propelled in one scene from out a high window, saves himself by un-metaphorically clinging to the Her Majesty’s flag.

The movie, in sum, revises British nationalism by pushing it in a liberal and multiethnic direction, though we will want to note that this observation is dogged by two persistent instabilities.

First: The film’s visuals might be plenty nationalist—all fireworks and Union Jacks—but its dialogue is not. Anything but: The film’s teenagers routinely say that they are fighting only to defend their housing project, their block. Where the movie is John-Bullish, the characters are instead intensely localist: “We wouldn’t have mugged you if we’d known you lived here.” That’s a sentiment available only to someone whose sense of the imagined community stops cold at the corner shop. And to this jingoism of the neighborhood the characters add a working-class or black ethos of self-policing—the code, in the US context, of Stop snitching and jury negation and Walter Moseley novels: “This is the block. We take care of things our own way.” It might be possible, when trying to make sense of the movie, to simply superimpose these two terms—the nation and the locality—in which case we would conclude that Attack the Block is proposing a council-estate nationalism, a black-white alliance of the distrustful and cop-hating poor. There’s something to this idea, and yet the individual components remain visible and not fully resolved into one another.

Second: The movie does almost nothing to revise one’s perception that its heroes are sadistic predators. It merely concludes that sadistic predators are sometimes useful to have around. The film’s few white men are by contrast all emasculated. “I am registered disabled” one of them says; “I’m a member of fucking Amnesty!” shouts another; and the movie’s gibe is that these amount to the same thing, just two different routes to castration, physical and ideological—twin softnesses. This will obviously complicate our sense of the movie as liberal, since even as the movie is promoting a kind of racial liberalization, it is deciding that liberal men aren’t good for much, and the burden of British masculinity will thereby pass over to the nation’s young Trinidadians and Congolese, fourteen-year olds with knives and swords and bats and explosives, a nine-year old with a handgun, announcing that his new warrior name is “Mayhem.” Attack the Block sometimes gives the impression that it is recruiting the child soldiers of South London.

But then those two instabilities are nothing, mere tremors, compared to the movie’s central and defining instability, the oscillation around which it is constructed. I’ve been describing the role of race in the movie at the literal level, but then there is also an allegorical level, in which everything I’ve just described is taken back. This makes for a vast and, I think, unsolvable puzzle, though in many ways Attack the Block’s racial allegory is unusually bald and not in the least puzzling and amounts to this: The aliens are also black—hairy, subhuman, grinning, and black. I don’t actually want to put too much emphasis on the color in isolation. Racial allegory, after all, is not automatic. Lots of black things are not black. Darth Vader is not black. If all we had to go on is that the creatures are inky-dark, I’d say we could let it slide. But that’s not it: The movie is entirely upfront about how it wants us to understand the aliens’ ebony. The kids stand over the first adult monster they kill, and two of them speak out loud what they see: “Wow, that’s black, that’s too black to see. … That’s the blackest black ever, fam. … That’s blacker than my cousin Femi”—which moniker is Nigerian and usually followed by names like Ogumbanjo and Kuti.

The movie, in other words, openly places the creatures on a spectrum of African-ness. What’s more, it has various ways of expanding on this tactic. Only once does Attack the Block’s dialogue turn openly nationalist, when a gang member sticks up for the home country at the expense of Africa, pouring contempt on a white philanthropist off doing aid work in Ghana: “Why can’t he help the children of Britain? Not exotic enough, is it?” Or there’s this: One teenager warns another than an alien is about to attack by shouting “Gorilla!”—and then that’s another clue. Attack the Block is, at the level of its allegory, an inversion of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a second film about berserking primates, and with the meanings from that other movie largely intact—the meanings, not the judgments. If Rise stages a latter-day slave rebellion—an insurgency against the mass incarceration of black men, an uprising that is at once prison break and revolution—then Attack the Block stages a related event, a bit of colonial turnabout, but asks us instead to cheer its suppression. Anyone who goes into this movie hoping that the Jamaican newcomers are going to battle the white dragon of the West Saxons or cut down the English aristocracy’s heraldic wyverns is going to have to swallow hard. For Attack the Block offers to enfranchise black Britons only by giving them creatures to kill who are blacker than themselves. A group of mostly black teenagers earns its citizenship by systematically cutting down the new crop of even darker arrivals. Conceptually, this is rather astounding: The film is telling two antithetical stories at once—and not via a multiplot—there is no main plot and contrapuntal subplot; it is telling two contradictory stories, but it only has one plot; the same story, then, but susceptible to two radically opposed constructions: a parable about learning to like black immigrants that is at the same time a fantasy about wiping them out—“Kill ‘em! Kill all them things!” The creatures in Attack the Block are so very jet that they often blur into the shadows, but the filmmakers, in what must have seem like an inspired touch, have given them glow-in-the-dark fangs, which means you can only see them when they bare their teeth. There’s an ugly old joke in the American South — something about hunting at night — to which this image is the reinvented punchline.



Illegals, Part 3




So… How is the alien most like a Jew? Or rather, what is it that allows you to identify the alien as a disguised Jew in the first place? But then how, equally, is the alien least like a Jew? And what kind of unlicensed fantasy (about Jews) does that discrepancy announce? We can now ask those questions about Super 8. But before we do so, we’ll want to work out the character of its debt to Steven Spielberg. Everybody said the movie owed a lot Spielberg, and they were right, though maybe not as right as they thought. Super 8 does indeed commandeer the stunted bike from ET and the boy-adventurers from The Goonies. The actor in the lead role does look an awful lot like Henry Thomas. There’s a hefty kid. It’s not just Spielberg, though. Super 8 owes money all over town—owes something to Romero and the ‘70s-era zombie film; owes something else again to the sci-fi monster movies of the ’50s and ‘60s. We can think of the movie as counting off the decades or as constructing its own cinematic timeline, and this in turn points to a small struggle internal to the ongoing history of retro culture. The Spielberg (and Lucas) movies of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s elected as their own precursors and retro-models the adventure films of the ‘30s and ‘40s: old Westerns, serials, swashbucklers, Buck Rogers, movies with dirigibles. But JJ Abrams is trying to wrench Spielberg’s corpus from its own chosen roots in order to then insert it into the different, more recent history of the movies that he prefers. The year 1980 is no longer, in the first instance, locked into a historical constellation with World War II, as it was with ET; our own 2011, rather, is locked into a constellation with 1980, which—‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s—is now just another year in the post-war.

And yet Abrams’s politics are in some fairly precise way still Spielberg’s own: different historical coordinates, same ideological program. The movie puts on display the doctrine of heroic liberalism, in which the boy-sentimentalist emerges as the better man—not just morally superior, but more efficacious, succeeding precisely where the bullies and badasses fail. This much becomes clear even in a plot summary: The Air Force has had a large alien creature in its custody for more than twenty years (in order to study it and because the government wants the alien’s technology). One discharged military scientist, however, wants to set the alien free because he knows it is not the enemy—all it wants is to leave the planet. The movie is thus at once Godzilla and Spielberg’s goose-necked cuddly toy, which is to say that Super 8’s monster plays like a cornered, riled, amok-running ET: Mothra phone home…. The creature rampages around rustbelt Ohio, swatting down the people who want to capture or attack it, and yet—and here’s the key—it does not kill indiscriminately. The creature stops itself from mauling the town’s children when it comes face to face with them, and not just because they are children, but rather because it is psychic, an empath, and it recognizes that the main character—the 12- or 13-year old kid—is compassionate. It doesn’t flatten the boy because it recognizes that he is not an aggressor. We’ll want to note, too, that the movie has given our hero an extensive backstory to explain how he attained the sympathetic wisdom that rescues him: His mother, working in a steel mill, was crushed in a factory accident. That experience has made him quick to spot the sorrow of others. And from out of the reserves of his grief, he says something like: “I know bad things happen. You can still live.”

Super 8 is a useful film, not least in that it reveals how much magical thinking is involved in this version of liberalism. Fellow-feeling is the amulet that wards off attack. And this is where it becomes important to specify the allegory—to identity the real-world referents that accrue around the monster. We’ll want to ask: Which conflicts exactly does the movie think that a kindhearted and downbeat liberalism can resolve? This is a little tricky, in that the movie is operating in two political registers at once, and they don’t line up, not neatly, at any rate. First, in the military sequences, it turns out that the Air Force is as out of control as the monster itself, unable to stabilize the situation, torching the Midwestern town it has covertly come to occupy. It reduces homes to cinders, but is vulnerable to attack when traveling the roads, &c. This, of course, is all War on Terror imagery—or specifically Iraq War imagery of a pre-Surge vintage. The monster is to that extent framed as an Iraqi insurgent or perhaps more generically as an enraged Muslim, since allegories often drift unpredictably across taxa or levels of abstraction, from genus to family—that’s another of their complexities. But then it’s not just political Islam: Other scenes in the movie introduce what is basically a civil-rights language. The boy-detectives discover documentary footage of early Air Force experiments on the creature, and the movie specifies that the reels date from 1963, and the one dissenting military officer in the footage—the one who wants to spring the monster loose—keeps saying things like We shouldn’t be holding it captive … we shouldn’t fear it … it just needs our understanding … this isn’t right. That the military officer is also black puts the seal on the allegory: A black man in the early ‘60s is asking others in the government to reform their policies—to trade in a politics of repression for a politics of recognition. And it is within this framework—with regard to the racial politics of the American mid-century—that the movie’s few references to King Kong do their hardest work: The monster makes off with a pretty blonde; the monster scales a water tower and looks down over the town. Quentin Tarantino was right. The other name for Kong is “the history of the American Negro.”

So the monster is aligned both with aggrieved Muslims and with ‘50s-era black Americans, which produces a kind of allegorical master category, something like, people the US government has done dirt by, which at this point is a pretty large set. If we now add in the movie’s insistent references to ET, then we have to conclude that the movie is referring both of those histories analogically back to the Holocaust—the monster is the imprisoned Muslim in the guise of Emmett Till in the guise of Anne Frank—and the master category therefore becomes broader still: victims of racist violence at the hands of white Christians. From genus to family and now on to order and class.

But the presence of ET in this potage of intertext not only expands the movie’s range of possible meanings. It also sabotages them. It is at this point that we have to ask: How is the monster least like a Muslim or a black American? And the answer to that question is ready to hand. The liberals in Super 8 are the ones who understand that the monster just wants to go home. But what would it mean to say that about either scenario?—the civil rights scenario or the Muslim one? Black people in America do not, in the relevant sense, want to go home. To even suggest as much sounds bizarrely like nineteenth-century proposals for the ethnic cleansing of the US South—Liberia, say, or Garveyite colonization schemes. And though there might be some few scenarios in which a Muslim politics incorporates the language of homecoming—expropriated Palestinians talk about the right of return, and one imagines that the men disappeared into Guantanamo Bay would very much like to go home—the peculiarity of the movie is that it can’t help but generalize from these few instances, when, of course, most Muslim immigrants in the US are here by choice, often enthusiastically. And the very few militants among them are, in fact, determined to deal the US damage. The movie’s historical compactions become untenable. Neither ordinary Muslim immigrants nor the self-proclaimed enemies of the US are trying to get back to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The monster is a bad stand-in for either.

The point is worth dwelling on further, if only because the movie dwells on it for us. Super 8’s final moments incorporate one remarkable detail: The alien is preparing to leave earth, and the giant magnet it has constructed to propel itself to its home planet begins drawing all of the neighborhood’s metal to itself—cars, chain link fences, bottle caps. As the pull of the magnet intensifies, the dead mother’s locket snakes from out of the boy’s pocket—it rises into the air—he grabs it—it stretches taut—the boy strains—but then he thinks better of it and as it were lets his mother go. The movie culminates, in other words, with a successfully culminated act of mourning. It shows us someone who has overcome his loss, who has at this very instant wept his way back to equilibrium. What is so astonishing, then, is that this relinquishing of the beloved object ties up two plot strands at once, which are thereby superimposed.

First, it allows the young liberal to get the girl, the improbably lovely thirteen-year old who honestly looks three years older than her twerpy new boyfriend. There is a complication here, though, or perhaps a revision. The movie is driven by a familiar idea—both principled and class-bound—that the sensitive guy is preferable to the blue-collar tough, the emblem of whom, in Super 8, is the girl’s drunken, shouty, steelworker father. The movie literally ends when we see the girl grabbing the boy-liberal’s hand for the first time. But—and this is a big qualification—it will not allow the liberal to get the girl until it has established to its satisfaction that the sensitive guy is not too sensitive—until, that is, he has proven that he doesn’t have mommy issues. One woman wafts heavenward, and only then can a substitute step directly into her place.

Second, then, this exit-from-melancholy is the film’s way of augmenting its single most important line of dialogue, that one lesson the boy imparts to the monster: “I know bad things happen. You can still live.” In one sense, then, the boy ceding the locket to the skies is simply heeding his own advice. In another sense, though, the film encourages us to see the monster’s leaving as a parallel event, a second act of successfully completed mourning. And then you realize: The movie actually features a childish white liberal instructing an aggrieved victim of US government oppression to just get over it already—you know, the way he has (or soon will). Super 8 grants white liberals the authority to consult their own misfortunes and then tell Muslims and black people that their grievances, too, ain’t no thing. And in the film’s scenario, the white liberal’s tempered compassion will do what mere coercion cannot: It will make those people go away. Super 8 models for us a version of sympathy in which the sensitive guy need have no intention of living alongside the targets of his compassion; he really just wants them to leave. The liberalism that is the film’s official posture is transposed into its opposite. Allegory is treachery.


Illegals, Part 1


I’ve been thinking a lot about alien invasion movies, and especially about the ones that feature human children, boy-explorers or pre-teen ambassadors to the talking bugs. I suppose it would just be easier to say that I’ve been thinking about ET and its recent imitators: Super 8, Attack the Block. But even this would be a way of sidestepping the truth, which is that mostly I’ve been thinking about ALF. I have, in fact, been thinking about ALF for a very long time. In the very late ‘80s, as a teenager, I spent a year in Frankfurt, and there was nothing that bothered me more in that period of my life than the centrality of ALF to modern German culture. I had gone to the Rhine to learn about Günter Grass and anarchism and was still under the impression that I could outrun network television. I suppose I was mildly surprised that the Germans had, like, vacuum cleaners. ALF was at that point a pretty fair summation of everything I thought I was leaving safely back home in New England. But that show was way more popular in Germany than it ever had been in Massachusetts: Ninja-Turtle-early-Bart-Simpson-eat-my-shorts popular. It seemed like it was always running in the background in every house I visited. The stalls at small-town German street fairs were crowded with long-snooted, rusty yellow puppets, in all the places that a visitor might have expected to see hand-made Christmas decorations or tankards in the shape of castle towers. I should point out that it wasn’t just the Federal Republic; a Eurail pass revealed to me that  the series had a pan-continental following. But only in Germany did the puppet’s voice actor spend three months in the pop charts, with a single called “Hallo ALF – hier ist Rhonda.” And the thing is, when I went back to Germany for a year after college—to Berlin in the mid-90s—ALF, having been off the air in the US for half a decade, was still around, still on T-shirts and decals and school folders. The Germans left stranded by the show’s American cancellation had taken to producing ALF radio plays. Project ALF—a one-off TV movie that ran on NBC in 1996—got a theatrical release and a big rollout in Germany: ALF—Der Film. It played in Berlin’s showcase theaters. Garfield-reimagined-as-warthog looked down from on high upon the Kurfürstendamm.

So the question that posed itself ever more insistently was: Why were the Germans so hung up on this show? And one night in Berlin, an American buddy and I drank our way to clarity. ALF, of course, is a Holocaust story—you knew that already; you’re irritated I didn’t see it sooner—a sitcom about a family hiding someone in its attic, someone the government wants to seize, a permanent exile with no homeland to which he can return. Those oversized ALF dolls turned out to be the only way that a young German could take a Jewish proxy home and fantasmatically keep him safe in a wardrobe or nighttime embrace. They belonged at one remove to the history of extravagantly racialized children’s toys — plastic figurines of Native American braves, Black rag dolls. They were the stuffed animals of genocide comedy. The original NBC production hadn’t gone to any lengths to disguise this: those bushy eyebrows; that schnozz; that gruff, Catskills shtick. The show’s lone and improbable joke was that if the fascists ever took power in America, someone would have to agree to shelter Don Rickles. And with this insight in mind, I made a special trip to the university library in Berlin to chase down a hunch, and it was right: Anne Frank was not the girl’s real name, or at least not her full name. Her name was Annelies Frank: A … L … F.

The show, which premiered in 1986, was also directly derived from—or a Muppet-y riff upon—ET, released in 1982. And in that case, most of what we have to say about ALF can simply be repeated about the movie. Spielberg did not wait until the 1990s to start making films about the Holocaust. When ET came out, he had already just made one—Raiders of the Lost Ark, which ends when the insulted might of ancient Israel obliterates a small army’s worth of Nazis. Light flashes and German flesh renders like tallow: Raiders presents an alternate history in which the Jews possessed a small A-bomb of their own, a game-changer and plague of radioactive locusts for the European war. ET, then, was itself just an extrapolation from a Dutch Holocaust diary and perhaps the first narrative in which suburban Americans were invited to imagine keeping Jews as pets.

Something about this argument we will want to generalize, since alien invasion movies are always going to be, to some degree or another, racial allegories. That can’t come as a surprise to anyone who speaks English, a language in which the word “alien” means both “squid creature from another solar system” and “non-citizen.” But then I should say, too, that lots of serious readers think that allegories—or allegorical habits of interpretation—are conceptually pretty low-rent, the literary equivalent of rebuses. They’re wrong. If you really and truly give up on allegorical reading, you’re going to miss too much of importance—too much of what makes storytelling compelling to us—which means that most literary critics don’t, in fact, give up on it. They just waste a lot of time reinventing it piecemeal under other names. Nor is allegory as straightforward as the sophisticates claim; it generates its own forms of complexity and its own revelatory instabilities. But then this last point partially vindicates the people who don’t like allegory. Naming the allegory is the easy part; it’s really just the beginning. Allegories tell us one thing when they work, but they tell us something else—something arguably more valuable—when they don’t. And allegories never work perfectly. They can’t work perfectly. An impeccably rendered allegorical Jew would no longer be recognizable as allegory. He would just be a Jew. Like a dying werewolf shriveling back into its naked human form, he would revert back to literalness, from extraterrestrial to Ashkenazy. Distortion and mismatch are the preconditions of allegory, the dysfunctions that make it function. If you are reading allegorically, you can never just whip out the decoder ring.

So I want to look over the next few days at those recent homages to ET—one from the US, one from the UK—and I want to name their allegories, but I want to underscore from the outset that these are most interesting where least steady.