Thursday, April 30, 2009

Art: Frankie goes to Hollywood.

Here's some of the work of Miss Bugs. A duo of artists traveling under a single name, the individual units of the Miss Bug collective are identified simply as Girl and Boy.

Miss Bugs's work is currently on display at the Brooklynite Gallery

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Stuff: "Daddy needs a new Sword of Wounding."

Speaking of letting your geek flag fly . . .

The Believer has an article about to D & D'ers who made a pilgrimage to Wisconsin to play D & D with the game's inventor, E. Gary Gygax. Here's the story's intro:

This article is divided into two parts: a manual and a scenario. The first part, the manual, is an exposition of the game Dungeons & Dragons: what it is, how it’s played, how it came to be, and how it came to be popular, at least, in certain circles. If you once played D&D yourself (no need to admit that you played a lot, or that you still play), you may want to skim the manual, or turn directly to the scenario, which is an account of a trip my friend Wayne and I took last spring to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, in order to fulfill a wild and uncool dream: to play D&D with E. Gary Gygax, the man who invented the game (more or less: see below). If it isn’t immediately clear why this would be an interesting, or, to be frank, a fantastically exciting and at the same time a curiously sad thing to do: well then, you’d better start with the manual.

The article contains this gem about the late-'80s role playing game scare:

Even from the point of view of a teenage boy who would have liked nothing better than to be corrupted by any of the phenomena listed above, if corrupted meant meeting girls or even just getting out of the house, the furore over D&D was hard to understand. Didn’t the grown-ups understand what losers we were? That all we did was roll dice and shout and stuff our faces with snacks? Evidently not: in 1989, Bill Schnoebelen, a reformed Milwaukee Satanist, wrote an article called “Straight Talk on Dungeons and Dragons,” which can still be found on Chick Ministries’ website. He listed the “brainwashing techniques” which D&D uses to lure its players into the devil’s world, among which are:

1. Fear generation—via spells and mental imaging about fear-filled, emotional scenes, and threats to survival of FRP [fantasy role-playing] characters.

2. Isolation—psychological removal from traditional support structures (family, church, etc.) into an imaginary world. Physical isolation due to extremely time-consuming play activities outside the family atmosphere.

3. Physical torture and killings—images in the mind can be almost as real as the actual experiences. Focus of the games is upon killings and torture for power, acquisition of wealth, and survival of characters.

4. Erosion of family values—the Dungeon Master (DM) demands an all-encompassing and total loyalty, control and allegiance.

That's how I remember it.

I can't think of a better way to exorcise my recent D & D fixation – and reward you, dear Screamers and Screamettes, for putting up with it – than by the surreal and wonderful camptastic "Unicorns L.A." by the performance art geniuses of My Barbarian.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Music: Roll save versus extreme geekiness.

The group Mixel Pixel and video Dan Meth get their D&D on with the animated video for the band's "Monster Manual."

Monday, April 27, 2009

Stuff: True believers.

The PopSci site has a short interview with author Stacy Horn, details the history of the Duke University's parapsychology department in her new book Unbelievable (review here, on this very web log).

The interviewer's questions are fluff-piece work, but Horn gamely works with what she's got. On the subject of whether or not she grew scared researching ghost stories and possession phenomenon: Wow! So was it spooky reading about the cases?

Horn: Everybody asks me that. No, it really wasn’t to me. It was exciting! The possibility that the things they were studying were real was exciting. I just thought that it was more fun. The only time I became scared was when I was reading about a study of letters about people’s ghost experiences. The Duke lab compiled hundreds of letters people sent them about experiences with ghosts. After going thorough all of them, they found if people were having experiences with ghosts, they were hearing them more than seeing them. It’s known as EVP, electronic voice phenomena, and I started researching this stuff. I started Googling EVP and I found there are people who record the noises they hear and actually do put this stuff on the web. I started listening to the noises and even though I did not believe I was listening to the dead or ghosts from beyond, I got scared. I was at my computer and I looked up at the ceiling in my apartment and said, “Please don’t speak to me.” If there are ghosts or spirits in my apartment, I didn’t want to hear from them. That was the only time I was scared.

Horn, at greater length in her book, defends the scientific validity of the department's work: Most people do not think of studying unseen phenomena and ESP the work of scientists. What did Rhine and his colleagues do to make their work considered scientific?

Horn: They identified an effect, like psychokinesis, and went through the process of studying it. They went about coming up with calculable experiments, just like any other experiment in science. They specifically designed experiments to study the different things like psychokinesis. The most famous of the experiments that I think most people are familiar with were the tests with ESP cards. They used the experiment in the movie Ghostbusters. They would test mostly Duke University students and would see if the students could recall the shapes and symbols on the cards. And it turns out they could. It was all statistics and probability and they tested it over and over again. By the end, they were testing double blind, the researchers and students did not know the symbols on the cards, and they found the students could still recall the images. And that is science, establishing an experiment, refining controls and using statistical methods to analyze the results. Were you a believer in the paranormal and life after death before you began your research?

Horn: No, and I would not say I am necessarily a believer now. I researched this to the best of my ability and found no reason to not believe the work done by Rhine and the lab. Over the years scientists tried to say the experiments were not controlled, but that is simply not the case. I think they made a case for telepathy and to me it is exciting. It implies there is another way to get data out there in the world and some people seem to have access to it. I don’t know if telepathy is necessarily the answer but some people seem to have access to another realm.

From Unbelievable to the unlikely, what to make of Ghostbusters alum Dan Aykroyd's new paranormally inspired vodka, which comes in a skull-shape bottle meant to evoke the 13 Crystal Heads? From Mr. Aykroyd's site:

Thousands of years ago, thirteen crystal heads were scattered across the earth – and they are greater and more powerful than anything we have the ability to manufacture today. Their workmanship is perfect: they contain no tool marks and have been cut against the natural axis of the crystal, defying the laws of physics. Some say they are artifacts from the lost civilization of Atlantis, some say they date back to the Mayans, still others say they were created by a higher intelligence.

Brought together, the Crystal Heads are said to contain vast knowledge and enlightenment capable of unlocking our most enigmatic ancient mysteries. Alone, each is believed to house radiant psychic energy, which has magical powers and healing properties.

They also house vodka. Go figure.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Movies: Stay classy, Part II.

So, after making the raw and effective Class of 1984, Mark Lester was briefly a hot Hollywood commodity. He was tapped for the King-adaptation Firestarter and the Governator vehicle Commando (which briefly held the vaunted and hotly contested title of "most violent film ever" – until the most recent Rambo flick left everybody in the dust with its 15 minute abattoir finale). But, as his star began to fade, Lester and his co-conspirators decided to see if they could capture lightening in a bottle twice. In 1990 they though the time was ripe to revisit the issue of school violence, so they hatched the idea of Class of 1999.

Sadly, instead of updating the original to include things like multi-national youth gangs, like the Bloods and Crips, or focusing on the phenom of teenage mass murderers, which were increasingly common, Lester thought the best way to grapple with the subject was to create a mash-up of Terminator, Robocop, Zero for Conduct, The Outsiders, and Westworld.

As awesome as each of these ingredients might be, the results are a disappointing mess.

In the distant future of 1999, schools apparently became a battle zone. Youth gangs not only made schools unmanageable, but they took complete control of the blocks around the school creating what "future" citizens call a "Free-Fire Zone." Police officers refuse to patrol the free fire zones, leaving to them become Road Warrior-grade post-apoc areas where aptitude with firearms far outweighs fashion sense. The introductory narrator informs us that "some schools have closed." That's good to know; though, really, isn't the bigger question why would anybody continue to send their child to school in what was officially acknowledged to be a micro-Sudan in your own backyard?

This time, the action takes place in Kennedy High School, a little Gitmo of a school in the lawless zone in the heart of Seattle. (The name of the school alludes to the presidentially-themed school of the previous flick: Lincoln. We also learn that there's a Nixon High nearby. This sort of stuff hints at the notion that there was at least one person on the project who felt, wisely I think, that the whole project should have Gremlin 2 on the first flick. Sadly, these little hints of parody never manage to become a guiding principle.)

One of the students at Kennedy is Cody. A former member of the Dark Hearts gang, Cody is fresh out of juvie and looking to stay on the straight and narrow. Unfortunately, the rest of the Dark Hearts feel that membership in their club isn't a sometime-thing. To make matters worse, the leader of the Razorheads (a splinter group of the Division of Echuca gang, the remains of a civil war between the Bismuth Strontium Calcium Copper Oxide gang and the Pluralistic Walkthrough gang, both of which descended from the Gang with the Stupidest Fucking Name in the World gang), the gang that controls Kennedy's depoliced zone, has a special disliking for Cody. To top it all off, just about the only person in this flick that doesn't want to see Cody's head on a pike and displayed for the masses in the DPZ to see is a cute square by the name of Christie. And, wouldn't you know it, she's the principal's daughter. In a nod to '84, the principal is another McDowell – this time Malcolm performs the rites.

As if Cody doesn't have enough crap to deal with, Kennedy High is the test school for a new program from Megacorp (I kid you not, that's the name) and the Department of Educational Defense. To re-establish a bit of control over the riotous student population, the corporation and the pols decide to insert three military hunter-killer cyborgs into the school under the guise of teachers. These things were originally slated to fight some war in some Second World hellhole in South/Central America (in that more innocent time we didn't know all our hellhole wars would be fought in Asia and the Middle East), but with a few tweaks, perhaps a jacket with patches on the elbows, and maybe a little faux flesh so as not to spook the straights, they're ready for school service. Completeist may note that one of the combat robots slash teachers is Pam Grier; but, honestly, only obsessive completeist should note this. She's woefully underused and never really gets to kick into her full-on ghetto fabulous Amazon mode. (On the other hand, Stacy Keach – sporting a bizarre set of cat's eyes contact lenses throughout the flick – does an outstanding job of thoroughly enjoying his role as the mad jackass corporate who allows things to go well past the point of no return. If there's such a thing as a Stacey Keach fan, then this flick is a must see for you.)

Before you can say "I welcome our new pedantic robot overlords," the robo-subs are killing students for minor infractions and reverting back to their original combat settings. To prevent either of the two major gangs from putting up organized resistance, the robots play them off one another. They kill Cody's younger brother and frame the Razorheads for the job. (A Razorhead is similarly dispatched, but his sole purpose in the flick was to get dispatched at this point, so its hard t feel dramatic about it.) This, of course, knocks Cody of the straight and narrow and encourages both gangs to get their war on.

Eventually, Cody puzzles everything together. He unifies the gangs and they march on the school for a final confrontation with the education/war machines.

The end of Class of 1999 is kinda spiffy. The image of Mad Max'ed out teens laying siege to a high school is more happy-making than you'd think. Especially the pan-gang expeditionary force's mounted troops who, though I can't see that it would be all that useful, refuse to get off their motorcycles and spent a considerable amount of the final scene tearing around through school hallways and classrooms. The heavy-handed washes of color and the surreal image of the teachers, who end up ripping their own flesh off to expose their re-commissioned military hardware, reminds me off whacked out Asian fantasy/horror flicks like Wicked City, though Class never pushes the sex and gore envelopes those flicks do. Which is a shame, because it would have helped.

Other than that last scene, Class of 1999 suffers from having too many influences and not enough inspiration. Riffing off a dozen or so flicks, the movie can't decide if it's an action film, a sci-fi flick with horror overtones, a teen rebel movie, or a comedy. In its effort to be all these things, it fails at becoming anything. This would perhaps be forgivable, if the savage, primitive force of the first flick was still a crucial component of the film. But success seems to have ruined Lester. Though the body count is certainly higher, the petrol is gone. Perhaps jaded by the carnage of flicks like Commando, the danger in this film seems impersonal and tired. The rough edge of crazy is gone.

Visually, the flick (with the aforementioned exception) is lackluster. By cribbing images and ideas from flicks like Road Warrior, Terminator, and Westworld, the movie begs comparison with those films and there's little here that packs the punch those sciffy cinema milestones.

There was, inexplicably, a sequel to this film as well. Though why anybody would revisit this concept is beyond me.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

R.I.P.: Yo, Bea.

I know I promised Class of 1999 chatter, but, well, you know. Here's Bea Arthur wrestling a pack raptors into submission. Because that's how she'd want to be remembered.

Movies: Stay classy, Part I.

It is so painfully clichéd that it seems like spoof.

Imagine a small B-production flick, a straight out exploitation exercise that hits a nerve by tapping a hot-button social issue - school violence - that, at the time of its release, was shifting from taboo topic to national hysterical obsession. The flick's bizarre combination of grim violence, ham-fisted melodrama, ignorance of actual ground conditions, and occasionally verité style gave the relatively cheesy affair a nightmarish edge that resonated with Reagan Era fears that the U.S. was beset by evil empires from without and barbarians from within. Deserved or not, it got the reputation as a hard hitting and unflinching vision of a new strain of bad ugliness that was threatening Our American Way of Life™.

It made nice bank. The filmmakers gathered several years later, ready for the sequel.

They decided to revisit the issue of school violence. Only this time, they could explore facets of the premise that had been unthinkable when the first film had rolled out. Most notably, what if, instead of human teachers, the government had Terminator-style cyborg killing-machines act as school administrators. You can almost hear the pitch being made to Griffin Mill.

"It's the future. And killer robots run the school. It's like Terminator meets Stand and Deliver."

"Will it have action?"

"Tons of action. These robots are programmed to teach and kill. Tons of gore."

"Tasteful gore?"

"Tasteful gore."

"Will it be socially conscious?"

"Yes definitely. It speaks to America's concerns about our out of control youth. And our national fears that killer robots may be hiding among us."

"I like it."

Goofy as that sounds, it pretty much describes exactly what happened to 1982's cult juvie-run-amok classic The Class of 1984 and it's sequel The Class of 1999.

In this post and the post that follows, my dear Screamers and Screamettes, we're going to take a little detour out of the straight-up horror genre and check in on some kids that are definitely not alright. Today we start with the strangely compelling, if totally horrible, Class of 1984. Then we'll jump into our time machine and travel to the distant future, to the last year of the Twentieth Century, and see what high school is like for The Class of 1999.

Ready. Then c'mon gang!

The flick opens on a montage of Lincoln High, an "inner city" school (gamely played by a far too nice Central Tech High School of Toronto) that suffers from all manner of social ill. The administration is full of ass-covering bureaucrats that are simply punching clock until they can politick their way on to the school board, the teachers are demoralized drunks and cynics, and a students live under the spasmatic tyranny of a gang of punk-music loving Neo-Nazi dope pushers.

Into this slough of despond steps music teacher Andrew Norris – played by show biz survivor Perry King. (As an aside, Perry King's had an astounding career. He's been in everything from the recent schlockbuster Day After Tomorrow to the Warhol produced Bad, not to mention a television career that covers nearly four decades.) Fresh from a school in Nebraska, Norris's first bit of culture shock comes when he finds out that fellow teacher Terry Corrigan (the always nifty Roddy McDowell) packs a .45 every day just in case the little monsters get out of control.

It takes all of about 10 minutes for Norris to run afoul with Stegman (played by White Shadow alum Tim Van Patten) and his gang of Nazi punks. After a tense face off that resolves in a threatening, but relatively harmless prank, it looks like Stegman and Norris might be able to get along by simply agreeing to disagree.

This détente doesn't hold for long. In a scene that showcases director Lester's famed subtly, a student hopped up on some of Stegman's drugs climbs to the top of the school's flag pole, attracts a crowd, begins reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and then falls to his death, the American flag wrapped around his shattered frame. Norris can't take the senseless tragedy and obviously profound symbolic importance of the event and starts looking for a student who will testify to Stegman and Co's evil deeds. Specifically, he turns to innocent bystander Arthur (the film debut of Michael J. Fox) who, even though he won't give up the gang, gets shived in the cafeteria anyway.

The battle of wills between the gang and their music teacher escalates to physical violence, culminating in the gang rape of Norris's pregnant wife and a bloody confrontation between Norris and the gang in the halls of Lincoln High.

As far as plots go, the overall arc of the tale will be familiar to anybody who has ever seen a man-pushed-too-far flick, especially any one of the dozen flicks in the teacher-vs. student throwdown late-'80s to mid-'90s subgenre that this movie helped kick start (The Principle, The Substitute and its three sequels, 187, and so on). The plot, however, is rather incidental to the pleasures of the flick. Instead, it's the odd characterizations, over-the-top set pieces (most noticeably Corrigan's pop-quiz-at-gunpoint flip out), bizarre line readings, and the director's exploitation-honed instincts to "go there" – though tame by modern standards, it was nearly saddled with an X rating at the time - that leave a lasting impression.

The film's visual style is clunky and somewhat artless. The colorful plumage of his fictional gang members did not inspire Lester to adopt similarly colorful flourishes. Aside from some oddly framed shots in the final showdown, Lester's camera work feels stagy and static. Oddly, this kinda works for him. Combined with the cornball dialogue and the presence of so many familiar TV Land faces, Lester's workman-like style gives the film a decidedly small screen feel. Not only does this mean it ages well in the era of DVD, but it also gives it viewer the curious sense that they're watching some "very special episode" of a television drama go horribly off the tracks. We're not watching real life; we're watching some sort of cruel invasion of the reassuring world of fantasy. It tells you almost everything you need to know about American culture at the dawn of the Reagan Era that '84 was considered a work of social realism not because it looked real, but rather because it looked like the kind of fictional television we reserved for important social messages.

The film's unapologetic Reagan revolution morality also packs a punch. Despite it's rep as a groundbreaking film, Class of '84 is far from the first teens-gone-wild flick. In fact, several of its scenes are influenced, if not outright cribbed, from Blackboard Jungle. Nor should we praise it for its clarity of insight in our social ills. It's gang hails from the same mean streets as The Warriors; they're more film baddie convention than sociological phenomenon. What is innovative is its utter lack of apology for the solution it offers up for dealing with such kids: Separate them from the good kids and get rid of them. A Western without the antiquated concepts of honor or human nobility, Class of '84 is surreal fable of authoritarian revenge, a bold reassertion of the moral order in the face of a system so weak and corrupt that it can no longer defend itself. Unlike the Brando's Wild One or Dean's Rebel, the revolting youth of this flick are merely vile and the film not only dispatches them with relish, but it endcaps the execution of the final gangster with a strange sort of smirk in the form of a blackly humorous title card that basically says, "And the community said, 'Good riddance.'"

It's the same kind of giddy knuckle-dragging irresponsibility that makes the works of Frank Miller or the any of a million "cop who won't play by the rules" movies so involving. The fantasy of a righteous avenger fills us with an overwhelming sense of the redemptive power of fictional violence. Done right, as it is in Class of '84, it can be weirdly mesmerizing.

The Class of 1984 is real exploitation filmmaking at its best: mean people doing ugly things in the service of gut level appeal. That its raw populist anger and thuggish sensibilities still give off heat is a testament to how perfectly pitched the flick was.

That said, it has this truly terrible Alice Cooper song – a syn-soaked '80s mistake for the otherwise nifty horror glam icon – as its theme song. Watch at your own risk:

Friday, April 24, 2009

Link Proliferation: Do not drill or dig here before A.D. 12,000.

Disco zombies are coming!

My long-suffering wife had put up with me cryptically reciting, often on the flimsiest of pretexts, the following "poem."

Stevie Washington
Angry youth
Born to die
New York's New York
Turn of the century
All crime

So, finally, she Youtube'd the aforementioned angry young man and found an extended clip that ties together all the tiny MTV station break bits into a single almost-narrative. Bask in the warm glow of the very late 1980s. (The density of the sound work on these things is bizarrely rich for the simplicity of the visuals.)

What's cultier than cult?

NYC's Wooster Group aims at that incredibly tiny demographic that digs Baroque opera and Italio-genre cinema. Until the 26th of this month, they're performing a live mash-up of Francesco Cavalli's 17th Century opera Didone (an operatic revision of the Dido myth – with a happy ending, oddly) and Mario Bava's 1965 sci-fi/horror cult flick Planet of the Vampires. I kid you not.

Make with the click and you'll get a couple of scenes – but you can't control the volume of the music or pause, so don't come crying to me when your coworkers rat you out to the overseer for taking a few minutes of the company's precious time to snag a wee bit of culture.

The poster, shown above, not only references the Bava movie in it's title treatment, but alludes to those bags of brightly colored plastic spaceman figures that one used to be able to buy from the grocery shop for a quarter or two. It makes me giggle and do a little dance every time I see it.

NB: It has come to my attention that some bloggers take offense at my use of the term "cult" – as is in "cult film" – to describe certain subgenres and their fanbases. Some find it carries a derogatory connotation. Others seem to feel I'm claiming that such works are idols at the center of genuine religious cults and I'm asking readers to assume that digging, say, the works of Dario Argento is the exact equivalent of belonging to Aum Shinrikyo.

To the former, I see your point, but I believe the "slur" is – at this point in time – a pretty toothless thing. Like the term "grindhouse," I find the cult thing is more nostalgic than offensive: It alludes to a time when there was something subversive and vaguely illicit about outrageous genre filmmaking. Like "punk," "fauvism," "cubism," "impressionism," and countless other art/culture terms, I feel the word has traveled from insult, to badge, to self-aware camp. Consequently, I'm using it in that spirit. If it's continued use offends, I'm sorry, but at least you know what I mean by it.

To the latter, you're an idiot.

How do you scare people 10,000 years from now?

Last week (I think it was last week) Curt (of the Groovy), I, and several insightful commenters got in a discussion on his site about what we could or could not say about the mental culture of our ancient, prehistoric ancestors.

Curiously, eggheads at the DOE are dealing with a similar problem. But they're doing in reverse.

The U.S. Department of Energy is going ahead with a toxic waste disposal plan – the Waste Isolation Pilot Plan – that, in essence, involves burying in the ground and declaring the area of limits for the next ten centuries.

Here's the problem: How can adequately communicate a message of danger to people who will be living at a 10,000 year remove from you?

To get a sense of that scale, think about how you'd warn people today and trace how old those tools are. Go back just 500 or 600 years and few English-speakers can still easily understand the language that became modern English. Language-based warnings, then, are out. Arabic numerals have lasted a pretty long time – but even then you're only talking about a span of less than 2,000 years for the whole set of nine numerals and the zero. Is it impossible the number system could evolve into something new in a span of years more than five times it's current age? Representing time has it's own challenges. Will they understand the B.C./A.D. split (which is already giving way in some corners to the more secular B.C.E./C.E.)?

On the upshot, visual representations of human fear seem to be fairly universal. Researchers have found notable cultural influences on the interpretation of facial expressions, including the expression of fear. Still, this influences don't change the overriding fact that, regardless of cultural differences, humans can read emotional expressions with remarkable accuracy.

The DOE has proposed the sign shown above, but – more interesting in my opinion – they've drawn up plans to transform the area above the toxic waste into what's essentially a landscaped "stay away" message. The sketch below is one of several artists renditions of their plan.

Movies that stink.

The Philosopher's Magazine has a nifty little article posted on why films won't explore smell, "taken to mean the verb – the act of smelling – more than the noun – the fragrance or stench."

The article stars with a curious declaration by Stanely Kubrick. What book did Stan the Man Kubrick think was unfilmable?

Kubrick did a disservice to smell and to film when he labelled Patrick Süskind’s Perfume unfilmable. If the director who had risen boldly to the challenge of depicting the origins of humans deemed smell an unfilmable sense, there seemed no point in any lesser mortal trying to prove him wrong. Martin Scorsese, Tim Burton and Ridley Scott all followed Kubrick in abandoning the project shortly after they had taken it on. And the situation of olfactory cinema was not alleviated when Tom Tykwer did finally take up the challenge in 2006. His multi-million dollar blockbuster avoided tackling the problem of filming smell at all and so confirmed the audiences’ suspicion that the problem itself was unsolvable.

As smell rises in cultural esteem, challenging the ascendancy of the visual, it seems time to lament that there is no great olfactory film, and to ponder what this tells us about smell itself. There now seems no need to worry about the place of smell in contemporary life. That sense once denigrated by Aristotle as the least distinguished of all now has an assured place in university discourse and drawing-room chatter. We have a distinguished body of smell literature, presided over by Marcel Proust and Patrick Süskind; we have a growing scene of contemporary smell art. Last year Reodorant II: Urban Brain opened in New York, offering a series of multi-sensory installations that attempted to visualise and investigate the brain’s capacity for sense perception, memory, emotion and logic. The thriving state of what will no doubt soon be known as “olfactory studies” was made clear by the publication of Jim Drobnick’s The Smell Culture Reader in 2006, which brought together olfactory work by anthropologists, sociologists, perfumers and cultural critics. Tellingly, though, there was no essay on smell and film, only a brief discussion of smell-o-vision cinema, nestled amongst other newer odorous gimmicks. It is time for a filmmaker to prove Kubrick wrong by capturing smell on the screen.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Real Estate: It's got lake views, is perfect for fishing and shooting, and has a rich legacy of evil.

If you've got $255,000 on hand, perhaps you should consider this unique investment. From the Guardian:

A plot of land once owned by the self-proclaimed "most wicked man in the world" has been put up for sale, attracting interest from rock stars, developers and disciples of the dark arts.

Boleskine Bay, on Loch Ness at Foyers, was part of an estate renowned at the start of the 20th century as "a centre of black magic, evil and sorcery" under the ownership and influence of satanist Aleister Crowley. [Crowley's house, pictured above, is not part of the sale – CRwM]

The "Beast of Boleskine", who died in 1947, owned Boleskine Estate between 1899 and 1913, during which time he tried to smother the Highlands in black magic by coaxing out the forces of evil.

The estate, once the home of millionaire rock star Jimmy Page, has been linked to a number of incidents over the years, including at least two violent deaths.

As well as black magic rituals to invoke the four princes of evil, Crowley and his devil-worshipping followers used the estate to make talismans and offered animal sacrifices to Satan.

"The demons and evil forces had congregated round me so thickly that they were shutting off the light. It was a comforting situation. There could be no more doubt of the efficiency of the operation," Crowley wrote of his experiments at the estate.

Now, a 1.9-acre plot on the former estate has been put on the market for £176,000 with planning permission for a three-bedroom log house, and 140ft of the Loch Ness foreshore.

That's right: For a single price you get Crowley, Loch Ness, and the Led! That's a steal, my friend.

As a slightly meta-aside, as this blog approaches its third year, this will mark only the second time ever that I've been able to use the "real estate" subject tag. In tribute, here's a darn catchy tune from alt-rapper Cadence Weapon: "Real Estate."

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Books: "This is Byronic bunk."

For more than a century, Poe has the poster boy for America's homegrown strain of Dark Romanticism and his biography was often spun to fit the image. Heroically gloomy, perfectly doomed, biographers wrote about Poe as if he were one his own fictions. (In fact, the conceit seems irresistible: numerous films, novels, short stories, and comic books have featured Poe as the main character in Poe-like tales of horror and mystery.)

On the bicentennial anniversary, Poe seems to be going through a major revision. Critics and biographers seem determined to exhume Poe from his own legend. Critics are stressing the variety and craft of his works. Others have tried to save him from being cast as an easily-recognizable, but shallow Goth teen icon. Other's have tried to historicize the seemingly otherworldly author.

The New Yorker joins the revision camp with a profile emphasizing Poe the working artists. Ignoring the long history of treating him as a melancholy isolated genius, the article discusses his naked and mercenary drive for success:

Poe didn’t write “The Raven” to answer the exacting demands of a philosophic Art, or not entirely, anyway. He wrote it for the same reason that he wrote tales like “The Gold-Bug”: to stave off starvation. For a long while, Poe lived on bread and molasses; weeks before “The Gold-Bug” was published, he was begging near-strangers on the street for fifty cents to buy something to eat. “ ‘The Raven’ has had a great ‘run,’ ” he wrote to a friend, “but I wrote it for the express purpose of running—just as I did the ‘Gold-Bug,’ you know. The bird beat the bug, though, all hollow.” The public that swallowed that bird and bug Poe strenuously resented. You love Poe or you don’t, but, either way, Poe doesn’t love you. A writer more condescending to more adoring readers would be hard to find. “The nose of a mob is its imagination,” he wrote. “By this, at any time, it can be quietly led.”

Aside from focusing on Poe's tireless hustling for dough (at his lowest point, Poe was "found starving" by one of his first editors), the essayist also suggests that acute megalomania drove the famed author and informed his work:

In 1841, he published “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the story of a crime solved by a code-cracking French detective named C. Auguste Dupin. (The murderer turns out to be an orangutan.) Two more Dupin tales, the world’s first detective stories, followed. With Dupin, Poe channelled his desire to write above his readers—to dupe them—into a character much like himself, a man who had once been wealthy but who, “by a variety of untoward events, had been reduced to such poverty that the energy of his character succumbed beneath it.” Dupin has a very Poe-ish intelligence; he is “fond of enigmas, of conundrums, hieroglyphics; exhibiting in his solutions of each a degree of acumen which appears to the ordinary apprehension praeternatural.” And, like Poe, he gloats about his superior powers of perception, boasting, “with a low chuckling laugh, that most men, in respect to himself, wore windows in their bosoms.”

If Dupin sounds uncannily familiar, that’s because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, like every other author of detective fiction, not to mention the creators of a thousand TV crime shows, is incalculably in Poe’s debt. “The children of Poe” is what Stephen King calls the members of his guild, and with good reason. But horror stories predate Poe, and have many other sources. Not so the literary sleuth. All detective stories and police procedurals begin with the intellectually imperious C. Auguste Dupin: methodical, eccentric, calculating—and insulting. We, mere readers, are so many Watsons, Hastingses, and Goodwins. Poe is the only Holmes.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Free Stuff: It's my party and I'll burst out of your chest if I want to.

This coming May 1st will not only be Free Comic Book Day, it will also mark the 30th anniversary of the release of Alien, the Scott helmed sci-fi/horror flick that launched the long-running franchise and, along with Scott's later Blade Runner, carved out a delightfully inky vision that very nearly put paid to the utopian-strain that dominated pop sciffy since its pulp days.

Never one to miss a cross-marketing opportunity, Dark Horse Comics will be re-launching their licensed Aliens series, kicking off with a free Aliens/Predator one-shot for Free Comic Book Day. BPRD scribe John Arcudi will be taking on writing duties while Sean of the Dead adapter Zach Howard and cape-and-cowl set stalwart Mark Irwin hold down the art end of things.

Some stores will be giving out special "Alien Anniversary" covers. Still free. Isn't that nice?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Movies: Gives new meaning to "Midnight Meat Train."

When I went to college, something like a trillion years ago, there was a stylish lit crit term being bandied about the hallowed halls of the academy: "Closeted text." I've not had much reason to keep up with the cutting edge of queer theory (if, indeed, it's still called that), so I have no idea if this term is still in use. Back in the day, when we still fought against the wily machinations of Tammany Hall and regularly fell victim to Yellow Jack fever, the term was used to describe a text that contained two separate and fully functional levels of meaning. On the surface was the "straight" story. Underneath was an allegory of homosexuality. The cleverness of the closeted text is that each layer of meaning was simultaneously functional. You didn't need to grok the queer subtext to puzzle together the straight meaning of the work. Rather, like the Victorian homosexual demimonde that pioneered the form, the queer meaning ran parallel to the straight text, open to those hip to the signs and clues, but otherwise unassuming. Perhaps the most well-known and successful of closeted texts would be Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray. At once a classic Faust tale with Gothic overtones and an elaborate metaphor for being a homosexual in Victorian England, this book's continued popularity in American high school English courses is a testament to both the narrowness of the instruction provided the average American student and the unobtrusiveness of the novel's gay themes for those with no need to seek them.

I bring up this possibly antiquated critical term because today's movie, the 2008 Ryuhei Kitamura helmed Clive Barker adaptation The Midnight Meat Train, seems to me to be a closeted text.

First, let's dispense with the straight story. I should admit here that I can't speak to the fidelity of Kitamura's adaptation. I read the short story a long time ago and, embarrassingly enough, actually remember it more for being the inspiration for a module for the Call of Cthulhu role-playing that appeared in the pages of White Wolf magazine. (A module I then re-purposed for the Shadowrun role-playing game because, dorky as the original was, it apparently just wasn't dorky enough for me.) Now that I've spent all my street cred . . . The movie opens with a photographer, let's call him Dorian. That's not his name, but humor me. He lives with a blonde, available hottie named Sibyl. Again, not the name, but if the shoe fits.

Dorian wants to be a big time photog, but he can't seem to make it work. A studio head tells him that he needs to gritty his work up, so he ends up snapping photos of a potential subway rape, a crime that his presence on the scene foils. However, his intervention leads him down the rabbit hole of a deeper mystery.

Apparently, the powers that be in his city have been using the subway system to send sacrifices down to a clan of subterranean mole people (who have been around for centuries – a cannibalistic diet is good for you). Key to this operation is a gigantic and strangely melancholy gent by the name of Mahogany. Every night, he rides the trains, dispatching meals for the deep ones.

Dorian's effort to stop this conspiracy forms the bulk of the film.

I can actually see why, despite the very public protestations of Clive Barker, the studios hesitated to release Meat Train. It has a very slow wind-up and, and after starting like a typical slasher, it makes a turn for the Lovecraftian. Personally, this shift pleases me. I can't think of anything more dreary than another autopsy of the slasher genre: the hair metal of the horror world. But bait and switch games are always tricky propositions and the addition of supernatural elements in this flick often pushes the film into self-parody.

Some of the blame for this unintentionally comic tone must be assigned to the CGI effects. Kitamura relies heavily on computer effects and the results are often cartoonish, as if somebody was mocking the modern tendency towards ever mounting levels gore. What is supposed to be shocking is, instead, puzzling. One wonders if the film was meant to shock, scare aware non-gorehounds, or simply induce laughter.

That said, aside from the tone issues, Meat Train is a visually arresting film with a couple of fine performances at the core. While I wasn't particularly taken with Bradley Cooper's Dorian, Vinnie Jones and Leslie Bibb (as the killer and love interest, respectively) turn in fine performances. Roger Bart, the reluctant client in Hostel II does a nice job as well. I'm also a fan of the surreal sense the flick gives one of a darker, more sinister reality under the mundane world one knows. Good stuff, well handled.

There. Now you can sell that stuff to the tourists.

Here's the other story behind The Midnight Meat Train:

Dorian has a wonder girl, but for some reason he can't commit. This sexual incompatibility extends to him buying a committed-to-be-engaged ring. His excuse: His photography hasn't taken off and he can't afford to marry her. (Girls, don't by this excuse. Poor people get married all the time. It's how we make more poor people.)

After being told to get grittier photos, Dorian begins sneaking out at night. He ends up taking photos of Mahogany, a strangely compelling man who ushers him, only somewhat unwillingly, into another realm of existence. Dorian researches the world of Mahogany and finds that there's a long, secret history there. There's been a secret, parallel history to the world he knows.

Dorian's not-a-wife suggest that he morbidly obsessed and tells Dorian to "shoot what makes you happy." He claims that she's what makes him happy; but when she starts to strip for some boudoir pics, all Dorian can think about is Mahogany and his world of tunnels and trains. This is part of a string of unappealing depictions of heterosexual sex. After a generic, giggly scene at the start of the flick, we get near rape, a backdoor bang on the counter of a greasy spoon that seems a hair's breadth away from being non-consensual, and this phoitus interruptus scene.

As he gets more obsessed with Mahogany, Dorian, a tofu-lovin' vegetarian, develops this deep inner desire to eat meat. I'm going no further with that particular thread.

Intentional or not, this might be the greatest closeted horror flick since Scream.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Stuff: The latest from the Department of Crazy Crap You Didn't Even Know You Had to Fear.

The golden thing is this photo is the handle of a scalpel, conveniently marked with centimeters. The red mess of stuff is a part of a dude's lung. The brown and spiny looking thing is a tiny fir tree that took root there.

That's right: a freakin' fir tree.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Link Proliferation: You don't need money with a face like that, do you honey?

Let the Right Poem In?

Was the Academy of American Poets' new National Poetry Month poster inspired by the film poster for everybody's favorite vampire Lolita import?

For Serious Though

Over a the Conceptual Fiction site, Ted Gioia argues that the emphasis on realism in fiction is temporary trend and that the fantastic, from Gulliver's Travels to The Road, represents the norm of Western lit.

From the post:

Is it possible that the idea of "realism" as a guiding principle for
fiction is itself unrealistic? After all, there are no Newtonian laws
in stories—an apple can just as easily fly upward from a tree as
drop to the ground. Characters can ride a magic carpet as easily
as walk. Any restrictions are imposed by the author, not by any
external "reality," however defined.

The first storytellers understood this intuitively. That is why
myths, legends, folk tales and other traditional stories recognize
no Newtonian (or other) limitations on their narrative accounts.
These were the first examples of what I call "conceptual fiction"—
in other words stories that delight in the freedom from "reality"
that storytelling allows. Conceptual fiction plays with our
conception of reality, rather than defers to it.

In the past, conceptual fiction existed at the center of our literary
(and even pre-literary) culture. Nowadays it is dismissed by
critics and typically shuffled off into "genre" categories such as
science fiction and fantasy. Realism gained preeminence as a
supposedly rock hard foundation for fiction. From that moment
on, Newton's laws (and a million other laws) gave orders to the
imagination, with the stamp of approval of the literary

But here is the more interesting question. Is it possible that this
trend is reversing, and that conceptual fiction is now moving back
from the periphery into the center of our literary culture?

While there's a bit too much of the tired old "I'm a genre man and I'm bein' oppressed" boo-hooing in the article, it’s a nicely wide-ranging discussion of the topic.

Collect 'Em All

Light in the Attic, the re-issue specialists responsible for the critically praised re-release of the Gainsbourg's Histoire de Melody Nelson as well revived interest in the works of forgotten disco genius Betty Davis (no relation) and psych-out ghetto groove oddity Rodriguez, have put out a set of the Monks trading cards.

Now you can follow the history pf these proto-punk pioneers, from their start as the Torquays in 1964 to their chaotic collapse in 1967, in a pocket-sized and tradable format!

Portrait of the artist as a teenage cave man.

It is, perhaps, the longest running shell game in horror analysis: the idea that horror-themed art connects to the antiquity of humanity, an expression of a primal emotion that has been part of the human experience as long as our particular varietal of naked ape has been bold enough to claim the brand name.

If you've been around the horror blog-and-twit pro am circuit long enough, you've seen the claims. Critics claim that horror of one brand or another touches "primal" fears, either evoking Freud's zombie-like unkillable Poe-swipe "the Id" or his rebellious student's slovenly creation, the hero-with-a-thousand elisions: the archetype. Fans of this sloppy trope like conjuring up images of "cave men around a campfire" telling scary stories or they allude pseudo-scientifically to the deep survival functionality of the subgenre, advancing the notion that humans are specifically evolved to consume fright-industry product.

All this theorizing runs into the same problem: We really don't know anything about the inner life of our most-distant ancestors. And what little data we do have comes to us context-free, giving us very little clue as to its meaning.

Case in point, cave paintings and the problem of taphonony.

From the Culture and Cognition blog on the work of paleozoologist Dale Guthrie:

Guthrie’s no-nonsense, scientifically rigorous study shatters our most cherished and deeply entrenched beliefs about rock art, demonstrating for instance that most of it was not terribly good, that it was probably not very important to Paleolithic people and to top it off that these awesomne paintings had less to do with metaphysics than with testosterone-fuelled young men’s feverish imaginations . . .

The most important thing to keep in mind when discussing Paleolithic art is the dog that did not (and will not) bark, namely the overwhelming majority of artistic productions for which there is no trace whatsoever. A cardinal sin of cave art interpretation is to ignore taphonony, in other words to mistake the record for the fact - to think that what is central, important and interesting in the available record was the central, important and interesting part of the activity studied. Knowing that Cro-Magnons had the same brains as we do, and assuming that same causes produce similar effects, we can be confident that these people (who dwelt in ingeniously built shelters - emphatically not in caves) wore elaborate clothes, used make up and jewellery, danced, sang, played musical instruments and enjoyed well-crafted narratives. Of all these artistic achievements nothing survives, except a few drawings and paintings in the confines of a few deep caves. We know of rock art because caves preserved pigments - not because it was of any special importance to European Stone Age people.

In short, making claims regarding the mindset prehistoric humanity on the basis of what we currently know is like trying to mentally model the mindset of all of modern humanity on the basis of a collection of Frazetta paintings and a handful of vandal's tags (fun as that might be). You can try it, but you're revealing more about you than you are about the culture you're explicating.

At best, we can make some careful claims that certain social traits would be consistent with what we know about evolution. But even this gets tricky. Recently, for the first time since accurate records on the issue have been kept, infidelity rates for married women have equaled the rates for men. Why is this such an important detail? Because, for several decades now, people have been spinning elaborate theories regarding the biological basis of male infidelity. In their broad outlines, all theories went something like "men cheat more because it helps them spread their genes, while women cheat less because a stable domestic situation is the best way to ensure healthy off-spring." Only, well, women cheat just as much as men. Either all this theory spinning was assigning biological determinants to cultural factors (making these determinants useless as predictors in cross-cultural situations – including the study of past cultures) or the evolution of major social adaptations can occur over an incredibly short time span, meaning that the presumed continuity between us and ancient man is somewhat dubious.

What's the take home? It's time to put horror's just-so origin story to rest.

"Cute Beats Smart"

Skynet, you devious bastard!

Welcome your new, painfully cute robot overlords.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Music: "What a charming notion: elementary, practical, and appropriate as always."

In 2005, at the 75th birthday concert of Stephen Sondheim, the actors that originated the roles of Sweeney Todd and Ms. Lovett, Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury, performed "A Little Priest."

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Comics: Tilting at cannibal organ-theft conspiracies.

The cover of Strongman, the lucha-centric graphic novella by Charles Soule and Allen Gladfelter, is deceptively simple. The front cover shows a bleary-eyed luchador with a cig dangling from his mouth. The smoke rises to make a tiger's face, the eye's are fierce, but the mouth is strangely pursed, giving the impression of tired old age. Something once awesome, now grown feeble. In the background: a tattered movie poster. Open the book up, so you can see both covers at the same time, and the spine acts like a flashback swipe. On the back cover, one sees the same mask. The eye of this luchador is lively, almost playful. He smiles. Behind him, a movie poster shows him taking on a gang of bat-eared, be-clawed luchadores. You can't fully make out the title, but you get enough to know that the luchador's name is El Tigre and the baddies he's about to apply some heavy manners to are demons, possibly from outer space. Above the poster's title, there's an abstract, harshly angular logo of a tiger's face.

These two images basically tell the entire story of the comic, but the real treat is in the color of the mask. On the back cover, the lucha's mask is a pristine white – a testament, no doubt, to his good living and an homage, I suspect, to Santo: patron saint of luchadores, hero of the multitudes. On the front cover, it's a sickly yellow. Stained from years of smoking. Little details like that sell the thing.

The plot of the slim volume fuses a last-shot-at-redemption tale (a staple of gringo comics since Watchmen and Dark Knight) with elements of the late career Santo actioner Border of Terror. The book opens with El Tigre, a second tier lucha legend from the late 1960s, living in NYC. Instead of fighting villains and acting as the champion of the oppressed, he mostly spends his time drinking, smoking, and conducting a sustained low-intensity full-spectrum campaign of self-destruction. He makes his cheddar playing dozens of semi-individuated "villains" on the sub-sub-sub-pro wrasslin' circuit. His job is to show up, put on a new mask, get smashed about by the main attraction, gather a Grant, and then beat it. Occasionally, something reminds him of the good old days, when he and his partners – brilliantly inventive Brujo and the hot-headed archer Conejo – used to cruise the streets of Mexico City, righting wrongs, winning matches, and filming the occasional cinematic blockbuster. But, mostly, he just wastes away.

Then, of course, the shot at redemption. Because this is a lucha tale, you know it's going to come in the form of either a small child woefully lacking in father figures or a lovely woman in jeopardy. Strongman opts for the latter: a sexy and perhaps too innocent plot device named Maria. This beautiful and mysterious woman pulls El Tigre into a slightly gonzo noir-tinged conspiracy involving government corruption, drugs, sex slavery, organ trafficking, cannibalism, and the nearly 30-year-old betrayal that marked the end of El Tigre's golden age.

The story is well handled, combining a mean and efficient hardboiled plot with the highly stylized, over the top muscle melodrama of lucha flicks. The lucha noir a combo has attracted other American lucha-lovers – see Hoodtown by Christa Faust – and can be surprisingly effective. The characterization El Tigre stands out both for its sincere love of the lucha hero as an icon of justice and for the smart awareness of their surreal and almost Quixotic place in the world. Also, while there have been enjoyable spoofs of the genre – the bombast of lucha tradition almost begs for it – it is nice to see somebody get mileage out of playing it straight.

The art is fine with bursts of awesome. I have a suspicion that the smaller format of the book (8 1/2 by 5 1/2) took some of the petrol out of Gladfelter. Several scenes are inventive, energetic, and bursting with smart details. Gladfelter has a cinematic vision and a taste for the well-made pop allusion. But often, his work feels constrained by the limitations of the format. Should El Tigre ever be revisited, I hope Gladfelter's given more of a chance to explore the space they've created and flesh out his ideas.

Why does lucha work? Curt, of Groovy fame – come on now, don't play like you don't know him – once wondered how I could dig on lucha flicks, many of which are admittedly awful enough to actually qualify as slanders against the concept of cinema, and yet I was unable to wrap my head around the appeal of, say, the painfully inadequate filmmaking of Spanish horror icon (they've got to have one, I guess) Paul Naschy. In trying to explain Naschy's appeal, Curt described a sort of genre fandom "double vision." Nobody is blind to the cheesy make-up, occasionally awkward acting, or often heavy-handed "stylishness" of these films. But, for the fans, you see through - not past - these things to the mental world they suggest. In the works of Naschy, it's a darkly seductive alternative universe driven by the erotic and forbidden impulses we confine and suppress in the real world.

I suspect my love of lucha works on almost the exact same principle, only the end result is different. I don't really buy the whole "dark and forbidden thing." When I look around me, I see a world that happily caters to our basest whims. Short of homicide on demand, is there anything we can't pull up on the Internet? Certainly there are self-appointed guardians of morality out there – folks who'd like to scrub clean our minds and return to a (utterly fictional) prelapsarian past – but their efforts have been considerably less effective at squashing free expression than, say, computer glitches in the search algorithms of amorally-capitalistic monopolistic cultural gatekeepers. Instead, what I see is a world sadly lacking in nobility.

Most luchadores, taken at face value, are not all that noble. Beefy, sweaty entertainers that slap one another around for a few pesos; it's bread and circuses, certainly. But when I see Santo putting the beat down of some hoods or sending a vampire (and what's a vampire but a metaphor of exploitation in fancy evening wear?) back to the infernal pit that spawned it, I think I catch glimpses of a slightly better world: a place where the poor and those in need have ready and capable champions, where the corrupt and vile do not prosper. They remind me of the image of Christ chasing the moneylenders out of the temple with a lash – violent, righteous, simple but confusing, inspiring but profoundly impossible. But, I suspect, you either see it or you don't.

Strongman's got that a healthy share of that charm, the pathos and nobility of the better world we don't have. I recommend it for lucha fans.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Mad science: "Oh, no worries. It doesn't rampage."

One of my favorite mad science movie tropes is the idea that scientists in books and films always seem profoundly unaware of the nearly 200-year-old debate about the responsibility of playing God kicked off in modern English literature by Mrs. Shelley's seminal Frankenstein. (Arguably, the argument could be said to trace its way all the back to Greek mythology, an argument Shelley herself might have supported given the subtitle of her novel: "A Modern Prometheus.")

Despite the fact that anybody with even a passing knowledge of Western popular culture is familiar with run-amok dinosaurs, rampaging neo-Golem's made of reanimated dead flesh, murderous AI's, Revelations-grade disease outbreaks, and other joys of leap-before-you-look science, the lab rats of popular culture always seem blissfully unaware of any of it.

"What are you doing?"

"Well, you know how we have that cloning tech?"

"Yeah. That stuff could revolutionize medicine by basically eliminating the wait and costs associated with organ replacement."

"You could do that, sure. Or you could, you know, use it to make an elephant crossed with a great white shark!"


"I call it a great white shelephant. Twelve thousand kilos; able to walk on land or swim in seawater. Fourteen rows of razor-sharp teeth the size of railroad spikes. Two tusks. It's pretty bad ass."

"Why would you make such a monstrosity? Think of how destructive its inevitable rampage will be!"

"Oh, no worries. It doesn't rampage. Too smart for that. I gave it enhanced mental capacities and keen strategic senses. It'll know that a rampage would lead humans right to it, and it's too clever by half for that."

"This is madness! What possible reason could you have for unleashing this beast on an unsuspecting world?"

"Oh I was figuring that we could work out those kinks in the marketplace. Let the end user find the bugs and then fix it in later releases."

I always assumed that this insane cultural blindness was a just convenient narrative short-cut. But, as time goes on, I'm beginning to think that it is a reflection of how cutting edge science actually precedes.

Case in point, what should be done with the Neanderthal genome?

On February 12th of this year, a team of European and American scientists completed a draft of the complete genome sequence for Neanderthal man. This leads to the obvious question. What great insights does this give modern researchers into the murky prehistory of human evolution? No. Don't be silly. The obvious question is how quickly and cheaply can we create a Neanderthal.

Here's author Ronald Bailey for the perhaps ill-named Reason Web site:

Once the Neanderthal genome is complete, could it then be used to clone an actual Neanderthal? Harvard University biologist George Church thinks so. He told The New York Times that a Neanderthal could be brought to life using present technology for about $30 million. How? Church would modify a modern human genome so that its DNA matches the Neanderthal version. To avoid ethical problems, Church tells the Times, this Neanderthal genome would not be inserted into a human cell but instead into a chimpanzee cell. This chimp cell would be reprogrammed to an embryonic state, and then introduced into a chimpanzee's womb where it would develop into a Neanderthal infant.

Among the implications of resurrecting our closest genetic relative, buried at the bottom of the article, we find this treat:

One science fiction trope says that it is impossible for two intelligent species to evolve simultaneously on the same planet since one would inevitably out-compete the other. This may have happened on our planet. Neanderthals disappeared around the same time that modern humans began to move into their territory. New research suggests that our ancestors killed them off. Perhaps we should use modern science to resurrect Neanderthals in order to right an ancestral wrong.

Or, you know, perhaps it will give them a chance to "right" that particular ancestral wrong.

So, admitting, even slightly, that the presence of two intelligent species on a planet may lead to the inevitable destruction of one or the other, here's the author's conclusion.

Just because these moral conundrums cannot be answered in advance is not a good enough reason to preclude future efforts to clone Neanderthals. The only way to find out what rights Neanderthals should have is to bring them back into our world.

Just let the marketplace work out the kinks.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Music: I hope you've got your things together.

I hope you're quite prepared to die.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Stuff: Get carded.

Though I don't normally plug stuff that get drops off in the comments of this here blog, but I thought this was nifty enough to highlight.

UK-based Coop has new art project called A Patchwork of Flesh. Here's his pitch, from the project specific blog:

I am attempting to amass a large collection of portraits of Frankenstein's Monster in as many different styles and in as many different media as possible as an ongoing art project. The only stipulation is that the size is 2.5 inches by 3.5 inches (standard artist trading card size).

I welcome cards from both amateur and professional artists.

I will be leaving blank cards with instructions and mailing address in galleries, colleges, art shops, on buses, handing them out in the street and wherever else I can think of.

If you are reading this and would like to get involved, please send a portrait to:

A Patchwork Of Flesh
45 Silversea Drive
Westcliff on Sea
United Kingdom

Each card I receive will be uploaded here to produce an on-line gallery, I then hope to put on an exhibition of these cards in a gallery.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Link Proliferation: Chewed, swallowed.

Easter Kong

Here's some beautiful holiday-themed art from pop surrealist Todd Schorr.

The Zombie Holocaust Began 3 Days Ago, and Nobody Noticed

Actual headline from the New Orleans Times-Picayune:

Metairie man says stranger chewed, swallowed after taking bite out of his arm.

Beauty Is In the Eye of the Beholder

Some more art stuff.

Currently on display in the "Abstract Thought Is A Warm Puppy" show, at the Center for Contemporary Non-Objective Art in Brussels, is Esther Stocker's short, silent video "Sehen als 1", which appears to show somebody writing on their eye. Sadly, I can only find stills on the Interwebs.

Available in Regular and Mint

From the McNally Jackson site. I detect the fell hand of Dustin in this matter.

Recession Proof the Fright Biz?

Perhaps horror could learn a few tricks from the bodice rippers. Despite the widespread carnage the Great Depression 2.0 is causing to the culture industry, apparently romance publishers are making a killing. Megham Daum, of the LA Times, drops some numbers:

Harlequin, still the biggest name in serial romances, saw a $3-million gain, year to year, in North American sales in the fourth quarter of 2008 (by contrast, book sales in the general marketplace are down slightly).

It's so easy to poke fun at contemporary romance novels that there's really no sport in it. The plots, by definition, are formulaic; the prose manages to be at once overwrought and underdeveloped; the covers, well, they're where that famous, flaxen-haired slab of manhood named Fabio got his start. But romances have long dominated sales of mass-market paperbacks (which, in turn, dominate sales of books in general). According to statistics from Romance Writers of America, an organization of more than 10,000 published and aspiring novelists, romances generated $1.375 billion in sales in 2007. It's even been said (granted, by a Harlequin author) that, worldwide, someone buys a Harlequin book every four seconds.

How does this genre – which, along with true crime, might be the only genre with less cred in straight world than horror – keep bringing in the bucks?

1. Stay cheap.

It's not exactly a surprise that the romance novel business would be pretty recession-proof; as bad as things get, a lot of people -- OK, mostly women -- can still afford a $5 paperback.

2. Serve as many niche groups as possible.

But, in parsing the titles listed on Harlequin's website, it struck me that the real reason serial romances are thriving in a desiccated economy is not just because they're the ultimate escape fantasies but because, in their own way, they are that Holy Grail of marketing and business -- they offer something for everyone. Among Harlequin's 10 imprints are dozens of categories and sub-categories, including medical romance, Christian romance, paranormal romance, suspense romance and even NASCAR romance (titles include "Checkered Past" and "Black Flag, White Lies"). Unexpected pregnancy scenarios are popular across categories ("Forced Wife, Royal Love Child," "The Heart Surgeon's Baby Surprise"), as are single-mother situations ("The Aristocrat and the Single Mom"). I even saw one book about an unwed pregnant woman courted by a man who isn't the father of her baby but wants to be. He also happens to be super hot.

3. Be escapists in an emotionally relevant way.

In most of these novels, the heroine is in a position of not really being able to trust the intentions of her love (or lust) object. And although she desperately wants a happily-ever-after with a cardiologist/secretly wealthy ranch hand/oil tycoon/Ralph Fiennes, she can't shake her fear that she's being lied to. And yet she also can't allow herself to believe that her spicy encounters are anything more than a house of cards that will eventually leave her destitute and alone.

You don't have to like romance novels -- or even cardiologists or ranch hands -- to know what that kind of uncertainty feels like. All you have to do is follow the financial news. In fact, given that many Americans are feeling as distrustful of the bank bailout and the economic stimulus package as Harlequin heroines feel about their suitors, maybe the term "escape fantasy" is a misnomer. Maybe these books are recession-proof not because they offer an alternative to uncertainty but because they reflect it back at us -- with a lot of sex thrown in (and a happy ending).

And End with a Big Musical Number

Here's Still Flyin's insanely happy-making "Good Thing It's a Ghost Town Around Here."

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Mad science: You scream, I scream, we all scream for thousands of years.

The Archeology Magazine Web site has up a spiffy post exploring the phenomenon of "screaming mummies" – the gaping open mouth common to mummies that appears, on initial observation, to be a sign of agony and pain.

For well over a century, the contorted features of ancient mummies have led to speculation of untold pain and horrible deaths. The examples quoted above are from the examination of Egyptian mummies more than 120 years ago. Today, similar descriptions can still be found in television programs and academic writings. "Is this the face of a queen? What kind of terrible end did she meet?" and "a terrible head wound, an agonized scream," intones the narrator of "Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen," a 2007 documentary. A photo caption in the scholarly volume Mummies and Death in Egypt (2006) reads "mummy of a boy five years of age, fixed in agony." And the widely covered 2007 discovery of Chachapoya mummies in Peru prompted this newspaper headline "Moment 600 years ago that terror came to Mummies of the Amazon" and copy "Hands over her eyes and her face gripped with terror, the woman's fear of death is all too obvious."

Author Mark Rose suggests a different explanation: Ancient funerary practices that did not account for postmortem changes in the jaw.

Your jaw bone ascends toward the back (almost at a right angle to the horizontal line of the teeth), ending in a rounded protuberance (the condyloid process), which fits into a shallow groove in your temporal bone on the lower part of your skull.

The nature of this joint is a key to understanding why mummies scream. Physician Trisha Macnair explains in "Human decomposition after death" on the BBC Health website.

"This temporo-mandibular joint is fairly loose.... Unlike the tight ball-and-socket linking the leg and the hip, the jaw and cranium are held together only by ligaments and muscles. If unimpeded--by the position of the body, wrappings, or very fast desiccation--the jaw will drop down as the muscles relax and decompose after rigor mortis."

For the curious, we keep modern corpses from opening their mouths by tying the mouth shut. Morticians run a thread up through the bottom of the chin, loop it through the nostrils, cross over in the mouth, out the chin again, tighten, and tie.