Saturday, October 31, 2009

Friday, October 30, 2009

Link Proliferation: "When Grete Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, she found herself changed in her bed into a Halloween costume."

Whose Dad You Gonna Call?



The Daily Beast features a profile of Peter Aykroyd, co-author A History of Ghosts: The True Story of Seances, Mediums, Ghosts, and Ghostbusters, and his son Dan Aykroyd, comedian and eccentric vodka producer.

The story reveals that Dan's interest in the ghost stuff comes from his family's long-time involvement in psychic "research":

Peter Aykroyd, father of the famed comic actor Dan, isn’t afraid of ghosts.

Even when the long-deceased spirits of Ming Dynasty Chinese, ancient Egyptian princes, and the family’s 18th-century patriarch, Samuel Aykroyd I, called out to him as a young boy in Ontario, Peter says he felt no fear.

And why should he have? Ever since he was 8 years old, purported communication with the dead was a regular occurrence, part of a long series of séances conducted by his grandfather, Dr. Samuel A. Aykroyd, a dentist with a side career as a psychic investigator, and the family medium, Walter Ashurst, who would channel the spirits’ voices through his body.

“Even extraordinary things in life, experienced enough, become commonplace,” Peter, now 87, told me as we sat together with Dan in Manhattan’s Essex House. “If you see a ghost 10 times—”

“—it’s like the family pet,” the younger Aykroyd interrupted, completing his father’s sentence.


Monsters Have Their Uses



In the Chronicle of Higher Ed, there's a nifty little post discussing the use of monsters in the development of our "moral imaginations":

In a significant sense, monsters are a part of our attempt to envision the good life or at least the secure life. Our ethical convictions do not spring fully grown from our heads but must be developed in the context of real and imagined challenges. In order to discover our values, we have to face trials and tribulation, and monsters help us imaginatively rehearse. Imagining how we will face an unstoppable, powerful, and inhuman threat is an illuminating exercise in hypothetical reasoning and hypothetical feeling.

You can't know for sure how you will face a headless zombie, an alien face-hugger, an approaching sea monster, or a chainsaw-wielding psycho. Fortunately, you're unlikely to be put to the test. But you might face similarly terrifying trials. You might be assaulted, be put on the front lines of some war, or be robbed, raped, or otherwise harassed and assailed. We may be lucky enough to have had no real acquaintance with such horrors, but we have all nonetheless played them out in our mind's eye. And though we can't know for sure how we'll face an enemy soldier or a rapist, it doesn't stop us from imaginatively formulating responses. We use the imagination in order to establish our own agency in chaotic and uncontrollable situations.


You've Got a Day to Get Your Shit Together



Dustin at McNally Jackson (SoHo's finest purveyor of vendible books) posts ideas for down and dirty literary-themed costumes. Here's a sample:

A. Gregor Samsa’s sister from The Metamorphosis. What was her name again? Ah, yes, Grete. Thank you internet. I don’t really know what that would look like, but I think it’d be brilliant.

C. You could be A Film Adaptation of Your Favorite Book. So: shorter, dumber, but also sexier, with more kicks to the face, more explosions, and maybe a happier ending. (Don’t take the “more explosions” bit too literally, eh?)

E. A young John Ashbery, in a convex mirror. Wow, I love that one. Maybe I’ll do that. You can still do it, too. I think the more of us there are, the funnier it would be.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Movies: Saving grace.

William Blake once wrote that it was better to smother an infant in its cradle then to nurse unsatisfied desire. The murderous narcissism of nursed unsatisfied desires isn't just a theme in first-time feature director/writer Paul Solet's brilliantly played slow-burn horrorshow Grace, Solet makes it his monster. Sure there is a blood-and-flesh-eating undead tyke at the heart of the film, but it is really just a MacGuffin. Only slightly more grotesque than your average child, the fairly harmless monster baby is scary only in the way it affords the rest of Solet's characters the chance to truly become monstrous. An acid-etched, deeply misanthropic study of the modern family: a vapidly craving, painfully white, shallowly moral existence rendered sick by its own unexamined definitions of happiness, there's plenty of creepy things in Solet's dark flick; but the baby's hardly one of them. Far scarier is that selfish, ravenous egotism that destroys in the name of love. And that particular beast stomps its way through Grace like Godzilla through Tokyo.

For those who haven't seen this film – and you should: there's far more power and truth behind Grace's indiscriminately nihilistic view of suburban malaise than there is in the po-faced slumming platitudes of Mendes' sheep-in-wolf's-clothing American Beauty - it play's out like so: Madeline and Michael are two well-heeled upper middle class types who are trying to conceive. Michael is a milquetoast under the thumb of his tyrant mother, a retired judge named Vivian (Michael takes after his silent, suffering, insignificant father, Henry), which is unfortunate as it basically leaves between the rock of his WASPy mother domestic dictatorship and the hard place of Madeline's vacuously smug pseudo-Enlightenment. As luck would have it, Michael seals the deal and puts Madge in a motherly way. Sadly, fairly late in the pregnancy, Mike and Madge are in a car accident (they own a hybrid SUV, natch) that compels a shuffling off of Michael's mortal coil and snuffs the fetus in Madge's tumbly.

With the approval of her supposedly quite wise mid-wife, Madge decides to take the corpse to term and squeezes out the dead kid in a specialized Jacuzzi the mid-wife keeps for just such a purpose. But – miracle of miracles – the baby does not seem dead. Against all logic, the mid-wife lets Madge take little, cold, creepy Grace home. It's no spoiler to announce that Grace is not what you'd call a healthy baby. She stinks like a poisoned rat that's given up the ghost behind the walls of your house and she boots any food except human blood. And yet, poor insane Madge, fueled by that sacred love that binds mothers to any monster they may manage to force out of their breeding chute, decides to raise Grace as she is, feeding her blood sucked from her own breast (in a bizarre literalization of the Elizabethan Era metaphor that held that pelicans symbolized motherhood because – according to the mistaken notions of the time – they fed their young by piercing their own breast and suckling them on their blood).

To complicate things, Viv goes nuts after the death of her son and hatches a plot to seize Grace. It should be noted that Viv is unaware that Grace is a zombie baby; Viv simply wants to claim control over the bloodline she spawned and is willing to roll over Madge to do so. Viv involves a family doc over whom she seems to exert an erotic influence (there's a hint of misadventure in his past, something Viv might be exploiting given her previous history as a judge) and convinces the repressed skeez physician to call on Madge: All the better to declare her unfit, my dear. Only Madge "Audrey II"'s him, setting the stage for a final confrontation between Madge and Viv.

One of the more interesting aspects of Grace is the irrelevance of its titular character – or, rather, the Godot-ish relevance of her. One can that, in parallel universes, there are versions of Grace in which the baby is just a fun-sized corpse or a post-miscarriage depression induced figment of Madge's imagination. One can even imagine a melodrama in which Grace survived birth, but ended up brain dead or in a comma or something. Her zombie-ness is, while not totally irrelevant, not what drives the story. (Even when Madge feeds Grace the doctor, it occurs after she killed the doctor in an effort to prevent him from seeing the conditions her and Grace are living in – he's not killed to feed Grace.) This isn't to say Grace is sloppily made or doesn't hold together well. Grace's cannibalistic nature is a smartly done visual conceit for the larger family's willingness to eat itself in the mad pursuit of what they crave. Instead, it is praise for how confident Solet is in executing his scheme.

The characterization in Grace has been justly praised, though I think much of this praise has mischaracterized (as it were) Solet's work. Much has been made of Solet's careful handling of female characters and his supposedly feminist agenda; Grace had the misfortune of hit people's Netflix queues just as there was an absurd blogger dust up over whether or not there was such a thing as feminism in horror films (of course there is – the dude who started the whole kerfuffle admitted that he only assumed there wasn't because he never thought of films as feminist; that is about as solid an argument as color-blind person arguing there no such thing as red or green because he's never seen them). Consequently, it briefly became an ill-suited poster-flick for fright film feminism. While it's easy to see how worthwhile feminist readings of the flick can be generated, I think such interpretations miss the real power of Solet's vision: Grace is an all encompassing satire of how we live today, a scorched Earth style examination of the amoral selfishness of a culture that considers relentless self-regard as a form of deep wisdom. Grace is more Lovecraft than Freidan. It's not so much against the patriarchy as, to crib (Hah! That's a joke boy!) a title from a critical essay on H.P., "against the world, against life."

If one wants to make a claim for Solet's feminism, one could at least claim that Solet does not play favorites with genders (or sexual orientations) and treats them just as he treats the male characters in his film: They are destructive idiots. Never in doubt, especially when they are in error, they constantly place their desires before their reason, deaf to the efforts of others to lure them off the path to their doom. It's a source of darkly humorous irony that Grace's characters are so self-absorbed that they don't even need to fool others – as long as they're sure, then that's all they need to carry on. Indeed, this becomes a sort of motif in the flick: Characters are only able to fool themselves, so they are constantly brushing off the obviously good advice of others on the flimsiest pretences. When Michael wonders if the Madge's midwife has any medical training, he's treated as if he's a boor. When the midwife's assistant says that Madge needs full-on medical attention, she's dismissed on the grounds that the clearly losing her mind Madge "knows what she wants." When Viv puts her plans to steal Grace in motion, her stalking horse doctor tries to warn her off to no effect. And so on and so on.

With reason binned, the characters have nothing left to go on but impulse. Everything becomes relative. Madge's hectoring vegetarianism, for example, is tossed out the window the moment it clashes with Grace's clearly abnormal needs. The midwife's professionalism, which comes wrapped in the high-handed moralism that the distinct privilege of the righteous autodidact, and the ethics of the doctor are similarly disposable. In the face of erotic desire, they shed it easily. Throughout the film, Madge watches vegan torture porn: documentaries about the meat industry featuring extended sequences of slaughterhouses. At first, the viewer assumes this links to Madge's vegetarianism in some way and, indeed, in the flick Madge watches this stuff to reinforce the feelings of moral superiority she feels by abstaining from carnivorous behavior. But, for the viewer, they're meant to send a more general message about just how bloody people are ready to get in order to satisfy their hunger. Madge, Viv, and just about everybody else in this picture are ready to spill all manner of blood, so long as they get their way.

For me, a well done horror flick should be like punk rock – it's a resounding no in a culture of yes. Grace has bucketloads of no to pass out: No to well-meant but shallowly held ideological convictions, no to the modern cult of motherhood, no to smothering morality of family values, no to irresponsibility disguised as empowerment. Whatever it is, Grace is against it. In that sense, Grace is the one of the best horror flicks I've seen in a long time.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Stuff: How David Bowie defended his sperm from sinister occult misappropriation.

A new bio of the Thin White Duke is going to include discussion of the occult's role in Bowie's post-Young American meltdown. From Starpulse:

In the book, Spitz writes, "While planning the follow-up to "Young Americans" (album), Bowie would sit in the house with a pile of high-quality cocaine atop the glass coffee table, a sketch pad and a stack of books. Psychic Self Defense was his favorite. Its author describes the book as a 'safeguard for protecting yourself against paranormal malevolence.' Using this and more arcane books on witchcraft, white magic and its malevolent counterpart, black magic, as rough guides to his own rapidly fragmenting psyche, Bowie began drawing protective pentagrams on every surface."

Bowie told the author, "I'd stay up for weeks. Even people like Keith Richards were floored by it. And there were pieces of me all over the floor. I paid with the worst manic depression of my life. My psyche went through the roof, it just fractured into pieces. I was hallucinating 24 hours a day."

Spitz adds, "Increasingly Bowie was convinced there were witches after his semen. They were intent on using it to make a child to sacrifice to the devil, essentially the plot to Roman Polanski's 1968 supernatural classic Rosemary's Baby."

A friend hooked Bowie up with New York-based white witch Walli Elmlark.

The author adds, "Elmlark quickly and successfully exorcised the pool. Angie (Bowie), who was living there at the time, noted that it started to bubble and smoke, and that it only rained outside David's window while the rest of the L.A. sky was clear. Elmlark wrote a series of spells and incantations out for Bowie as he continued to wrestle with the forces of darkness."


I haven't read the book, so I do not know if Bowie did defeat the forces of evil. The fact that the world didn't end at the hands of a half-demon/half-plastic android Bowie-Satan hybrid implies he won. But, then again, a possession by demonoidic entities bent on harming mankind could explain his musical output from "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" on. We'll have to wait for somebody to read the bio and tell us.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Mad science: Meet the new disease-spawned end times; looks like the old disease-spawned end times.



Over at Foreign Policy they've got a nice post on Black Death 2.0.

Plague has never really disappeared, but it suddenly seems poised for a comeback. Indeed, world health officials have quietly recategorized plague as a "re-emerging" disease in recent years, and it now infects 2,000 people annually, killing 200. The Chinese government even quarantined an entire town this summer after an outbreak of pneumonic plague, which eventually killed three and infected nine more. And experts fear the next stage of the disease will be especially dangerous, fueled by age-old phenomena, such as humans trying to use plague to wage war on their enemies, as well as new ones, such as climate change.

Welcome to the plague years, the next generation. For most people, plague automatically means the Black Death, which began in the 14th century and killed a quarter to a third of Europe's population, roughly 15 million to 25 million people. This is the best-known plague pandemic, but it wasn't the first. That honor goes to a sixth-century outbreak that originated in northern Africa and took out as many as 100 million people. Nor was the Black Death the last major pandemic. Plague spread through China and India during the 19th century, killing some 12 million people, and then spread to the United States in 1900, causing an epidemic in San Francisco.

Between major pandemics, the plague never completely disappeared. It never does: It merely retreats until conditions favor another outbreak.


You may think, "So what? We licked before, we'll lick it again." Ah, not so fast, my too confident friend. The plague hasn't been sitting around, waiting for us to come kill it.

Today, plague is endemic among the rodents of the American Southwest. Isolated outbreaks also occur regularly in East and Southern Africa, Vietnam, Burma, China, Mongolia, Russia, and Central Asia. What's more, there are already troubling signs that the disease is evolving into even more dangerous forms: Scientists recently discovered a drug-resistant strain of the plague in Madagascar.

There is a bright side: This awesome look might become fashionable again.


Monday, October 26, 2009

Music: We is all monsters.

I don't know anything about the Plimptons other than:

1. They're from Glasgow.

2. Collectively, they claim to have 24 limbs.

3. They made this song: "I Hate Halloween."

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Movies: Fresh blood for an old saw.

The only franchise to emerge from the overhyped and still ill-understood "torture porn" moment at the opening half of the decade, Saw opened its sixth installment this weekend. And, as we have for the five pervious installments, trusty horror-wingman Dave and I made or way to Court Street for the ritual.

At this point, I'm not sure I look forward to the release of a new Saw flick. My motivations for going are somewhat murky, even to me. Dave and I both admit that there's a sense of challenge, as if to quit going before the filmmakers quit making them would be some sort of admission of defeat. Though we both understand that this is pretty absurd. Along side that "don't let them win" impulse, I do feel genuine affection for the series. But, honestly, it's kind of like the purposefully irregular visits one makes to the friend that used to be cool way back when but has long since turned into an embarrassment. You can't pretend that you've got no feelings for the schmuck, but you kind of dread the encounter. In that vein, I very much enjoyed the first couple of Saw flicks and, even after the quality of the films started to bottom out, I still found great joy in the Saw ritual of getting drinks, hanging with the Courtesans (who, in contrast to my increasing resignation, are the last practitioners of that energetic school of New York media criticism whose final great gasp was the Astor Place Riot), and discussing death traps over burgers later. That said, I'd be first to admit that, without that ritual framework, the movies since the third or fourth installment wouldn't have been worth seeing. (I assume this was part of the charm of the original slashers - though the fact that the latter flicks still have their fans who defend them on the grounds that they're quality works both confuses me and makes me wonder if we're still talking about the same phenomenon.)

So, you can imagine the shock last night when I walked out a Saw flick pleasantly surprised. Though I know this is weak praise for those who dismiss the series outright, Saw VI is the best installment in the series since the second flick back in '05.

The filmmakers announce their intention to give the increasingly sluggish series a shot in the arm with their opening trap (the pre-title sequence trap scene that is to Saw what the intro mini-adventure is to the Bond series): a savage and minimalist zero-sum game in which two crooked loan officers must compete to see who will trim off the most flesh from themselves before a timer runs down. In this half minute scene, we get a taste of everything the newest crew is bringing to the table. Gone is Jigsaw's tedious moralizing, replaced by a sort of dark avenging "you hurt people, now it is your time to hurt" motivation. He sinks into the background and, instead, we watch as the two players get more and more desperate and violent. This scene plays so hard and so fast (nearly real-time) and so brutal that it provoked appreciative golf claps from the notoriously finicky Courtesans.

For this sixth outing, the filmmakers work hard to re-ground the series in its primary dramatic focus - the fate of the people trapped in seemingly impossible dilemmas - and ruthlessly undertake the work of clearing away three film's worth of distracting and hopelessly tangled backstory. The filmmakers are extremely successful at the first task: Director Kevin Greutert and screenwriters Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton deliver the one of the leanest and most focused Saw films of the franchise. The business of the pulling the franchise out the the continuity k-hole it's been tumbling down since Saw III remains, when the credits role, an unfinished task; but given the scope of repairs that are called for, the progress they make in simplifying the baroque mythology of the Saw universe is praiseworthy.

As with most Saw flicks since the second film, Saw VI contains two related plots lines: one which focuses on an extended trap sequence and another which gets all ouroboros with the franchise's overly-elaborate continuity. Saw flicks are generally better when the former is given more screentime than the latter. Happily, VI has got the ratio right.

The majority of the flick focuses on the staff of the appeals review office of the Umbrella Health Insurance, the office responsible for scraping off desperate sick folks whose infirmities threaten the bottom line of Umbrella. The ten-person staff, from the sad sack janitor to the hungry khaki-clad strivers in the cubical pens, ends up in a series of traps, their fates decided by their sleazy "it's just business" salaryman boss, William. This plotline somewhat resembles the trial series that forms half of Saw III, though this plays considerably harsher. In III, the player - Jeff - had to repeatedly decide if he could forgive the people in the traps (he blamed them all for a miscarriage of justice involving the death of his son). If he could, he could free them and move on. In VI, William's put a grimmer position: His co-workers are stuck in a series of traps built so that William must repeatedly chose which people will live and which will die.

The secondary plot involves Hoffman, Jigsaw's surviving disciple, and Jigsaw's wife, Jill, carrying out what they believe will be the last Jigsaw game. Hoffman also takes on the task of eliminating anybody who can link him to the Jigsaw murders, a bloody process that goes a long way towards thinning out the extensive cast of secondary characters and the loose ends they come with. All the while, Hoffman and Jill eye each other warily, each certain that the other is going to try a double cross. Too often the film drags in these parts - most notably during an extended imagined discussion between Jill and her deceased serial killing hubby - but the work needs to be done given the amount of unnecessary baggage the filmmakers need to jettison. By the end of the flick, the filmmakers have managed to rework Jigsaw's character (yet again) into a more familiar and flexible vigilante type. The Amanda relationship is redeemed, salvaging a truly unique character dynamic that the makers of Saw III squandered. Finally, Hoffman is recast as a more direct, less philosophical sadist - sparing us, hopefully, from future lectures about the pedagogical value of traps. The Saw world is still a bit shaggy, but this pulls the franchise back from the self-reflexive circularity that was becoming liability. As in Saw V, I still can't imagine a first-time watcher understanding any of this secondary plot; but, unlike V, I can imagine a viewer still enjoying the film despite this material.

Visually, this isn't the most attractive Saw flick. I suspect that the strict budgets that have made the franchise so profitable are starting to take their toll on the films themselves. Many of the sets and traps look messy rather lavishly squalid. The lighting is no longer as crisp and the colors are too often overwhleming or washed out. The film is competent, but not stylish. In contrast, the editing has improved. The seasickness inducing editing that was a hallmark of the series has calmed somewhat into a still jittery, but more effective style. Most of the actors turn in adequate performances, with Peter Outerbridge (William) and Shawnee Smith (Amanda). In fact, Outerbridge turns in what might be the first truly genuinely effecting moment of the franchise. When Outbridge's William locks eyes with one of the people he has doomed, the Saw series finally hints at what the real emotional cost or tough moral decisions might be. Even the normally painfully-wooden Costas Mandylor finds a groove. By making his character more brutish, it actually makes Mandylor's inert persona into an asset.

I don't know if Saw VI will turn out to be an outlier or if it reveals that the franchise is going in a new, more vibrant direction. Either way, it is a welcome addition to the series.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Mad science: Finding Albert.


In the history of psychology, there are a handful of truly infamous experiments: Milgram's faux-shock experiment, the Standford prison experiment, and so on. These experiments have not only become crucial landmarks in the history of psychology, both in terms of the results they produced and the ethical questions they raised, but they have become modern parables that even non-experts evoke to remind us of the grimmer aspects of human nature. But, like all parables, they are wildly open to interpretation and mythologizing.

A lesser known, but no less worthy of consideration and no less mythologized, experiment in the 1920 "Little Albert" by the American behaviorist John Watson. Watson and his assistant want to produce empirical evidence of classical conditioning, the habituation pattern first demonstrated by Pavlov and his dogs. To do so, they took a 9-month-old boy- dubbed "Little Albert" for the purposes of the experiment – and systematically induced a phobia within him. Here's the experimental description from Wikipedia:

Before the commencement of the experiment, Little Albert was given a battery of baseline emotional tests; the infant was exposed, briefly and for the first time, to a white rat, a rabbit, a dog, a monkey, masks with and without hair, cotton wool, burning newspapers, etc. During the baseline, Little Albert showed no fear toward any of these items.

Watson and his colleague did not begin to condition Little Albert until approximately two months later, when he was just over 11 months old. The experiment began by placing Albert on a mattress on a table in the middle of a room. A white laboratory rat was placed near Albert and he was allowed to play with it. At this point, the child showed no fear of the rat. He began to reach out to the rat as it roamed around him. In later trials, Watson and Rayner made a loud sound behind Albert's back by striking a suspended steel bar with a hammer when the baby touched the rat. Not surprisingly in these occasions, Little Albert cried and showed fear as he heard the noise. After several such pairings of the two stimuli, Albert was again presented with only the rat. Now, however, he became very distressed as the rat appeared in the room. He cried, turned away from the rat, and tried to move away. Apparently, the baby boy had associated the white rat (original neutral stimulus, now conditioned stimulus) with the loud noise (unconditioned stimulus) and was producing the fearful or emotional response of crying (originally the unconditioned response to the noise, now the conditioned response to the rat).


Under the APA's modern ethics code, this experiment would be considered unethical.

What became of Little Albert, how his parents reacted, and what the researchers tried to do to rid him of the phobia they had created in him has all been the subject of much speculation. Now, after nearly 90 years, researchers have finally discovered the the identity and fate of Little Albert.

From the Mind Hacks blog:

The first step was to find out exactly when the experiments took place and then to try and identify Albert's mother from the information given in Watson's original studies.
Careful sifting of financial and residency records put the researchers onto a campus wet nurse called Arvilla Merritte, but there the trail went cold.
There were no others traces of Arvilla Merritte but a search for her maiden name, Arvilla Irons, revealed that her married name was likely fictitious to hide the fact that her baby was illegitimate.

However, Irons' baby was not called Albert, but Douglas, and it wasn't until the Irons family got in touch to send a photo of the baby that the researchers could try and make a physical comparison.

The photos were blurry and they recruited the help of an FBI forensics expert to compare the images. The comparison suggested that the photos were likely of the same person and with the other matching biographical details it seems very likely that Douglas Merritte was indeed 'Little Albert'.

The story has a tragic ending, however, as Douglas Merritte died when only six years old after developing hydrocephalus, a build up of fluid in the brain, possibly due to a meningitis infection.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Music: Procession is nine tenths of the law.

San Diego's own Black Heart Procession formed in 1997 as a sort of alt-country Swans or, if you prefer, a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds with a less ironic relationship to their source material. Their early works featured grinding tunes about loss and loneliness accompanied by singing saws and full of newly coined expressions that felt like dead metaphors from deep history of Yoknapatawpha county.

As the band evolved, they moved closer to the mainstream language of the artsy flank of indie rock, though they maintained their bleak and brooding, dusty and weathered tone.

"The Witching Stone" is off their album 6. I don't know if I'm diggin' the low-fi Blair Witch inspired video. Seems a bit goofy to me. I like the song though.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Movies: Something's off.

Offspring, the 2009 Andrew van den Houten straight-to-vid cannibal thriller adapted from Jack Ketchum's novel of the same name, is not a very good movie.

For reasons to banal to go into here, Offspring is a sequel to movie that never got made. For reasons to banal to go into here, Off Season, Ketchum's infamously violent 1981 debut novel about a group of Maine timesharers besieged by a pack of atavistic cannibals, is not going to see an adaptation any time soon. On the theory that any atavistic cannibalism was better than no atavistic cannibalism, van den Houten and the dudes at Ghost House though they'd just skip over Off Season and jump straight into an adaptation of Ketchum's 1991 follow-up, the reheated Offspring. A bad idea, as it turns out.

The slender pleasures Offspring had to offer came almost entirely from the few new wrinkles it gave its barebones, all-business predecessor. Off Season was essentially a bloody siege of a book - the sort of relentless plot engine that ran off the gore of its brutally abused characters. And I mean that in a good way. Offspring had almost exactly the same plot, but spent a little more time with its characters - notably the cannibal clan who gained more emotional and, in a sub-Clan of the Cave Bear way, intellectual interiority. Though, ostensibly, Offspring could be read as a stand alone, it lacked force or interest without the business in the first book. Loyal to fault to its source materials, Offspring inherits this weakness. It further compounds the problem by assuming you're already familiar with book source books. The result: Watching Offspring, you get the sense that you've walked into something already half over.

The plot is simple enough - couple in house gets guests, cannibal attack, police to the rescue - that you understand immediately what you've missed. But why you should care is never addressed. Characters whose story arcs depend on us understanding they survived the horrors of the first film come off as exposition mouthpieces. For example, we have a sheriff whose life was wrecked by his first encounter with the cannibal tribe. His decision to help the new sheriff track down the cannibals should carry some dramatic weight. But, without any emotional connection to the backstory, we're pretty indifferent to his fate.

An emotionally thin story need not sink a horror flick. Like many a horror fan, I'm perfectly willing to swap gravitas for thrills if the filmmaker can deliver on the latter. Unfortunately, the weak plot is highlighted by middling acting, tepid shocks, and slightly better than amateur cinematography and effects. The filmmakers are rigorous enough to break a few taboos - their willingness to put infant characters in harm's way and leave them there is refreshing - but it is ultimately not enough to save the project.

The cannibals got me thinking though: Cannibals get a bad wrap in the movies.

Because they're not so much cannibals as metaphors for the hypothetical blood-stained war of all against all that humanity would suffer without civilizing influences or, in your more cynical fare, we suffer without admitting it because of our thin veneer of civilization, they do not resemble members of cannibal culture so much as they resemble walking manifestations of the id. They act like mildly less excitable versions of the infected from 28 Days Later. Think of the cannibals in the jewel of cannibal exploiters, 1980's Cannibal Holocaust. They get so frenzied with their hunger for human flesh, when they off somebody, they all stop to gather around and tear into the raw body. This despite the fact that we've already established in the film that they cook meat.

In contrast, in the few cultures that ever regularly practiced it, it was a highly ritualized affair that usually involved extended and rigorously systematic procedures. Take, for example, Jean de Léry's description of cannibal Brazilians.

In 1556, a young Frenchman named Jean de Léry took part in a Protestant mission to establish a Protestant religious "homeland" in the New World, one that would be safe from incessant faith wars that regularly shook 16th Century Europe. When his band reached Brazil, he found that the explorer who had preceded them had gone all Heart of Darkness on them: Instead of preparing for colonists, he had set up a surreal and violent dictatorship over the Europeans and native Brazilians unlucky enough to find themselves in his tiny rogue kingdom. De Léry and most of the other second wave colonists formed a splinter group and set off to form their own colony.

During the period in de Léry's life, as an exiled exile, that he got to make extensive observations of the Tupinamba Indians. The Tupinamba were cannibals. However, far from the savage, ravenous creatures that populate horror films, the Tupinamba were meticulous about their cannibalism. First, the Tupinamba got to know their food. The cannibalism process of the Tupinamba took an entire year to complete. It started when they took a prisoner of war (de Léry observed that the Tupinamba seemed to be in a constant state of low-grade warfare with their neighbors on all sides). Victims of the Tupinamba were then married into the tribe. They got a wife and a house and were accepted as part of the tribe for a year's time. During that period of time, the victim lived in a sort of gilded cage, enjoying a life of relative ease and leisure. Many even had children with there Tupinamba wives.

At the end of a year, a group of Tupinamba men would come to the house of the soon-to-be meal, rouse him, and take him on a sort of final tour of the town. During this final tour, the victim would meet each person in the tribe and make boasts of how, in the battle, he had killed the so-and-so the Tupinamba. It was ritualized smack talk.

The victim was then killed, carefully butchered into different cuts of meat, and slow cooked on an open grill pit that - in one folk etyomology - gives us the word for barbeque. After the victim was well-cooked, the remains were shared among the entire village. In the event that the victim had sired a child, the new widow could choose to either add cook the infant with its father or, if she so desired, could wait a year and eat it then.

Now I'm not holding up the Tupinamba as paragons of moral virtue or suggesting that their form of cannibalism wasn't creepy. (Honestly though, the idea that you can get a trial period as a parent before deciding whether or not you should keep the baby seems immanently reasonable - but I would suggest expanding the notion so that you get food-or-kin checks at 1, 2, 5, 10, and 16.) Rather, I suggesting that if one lived in a cannibal culture - if you grew up with cannibalism as an accepted practice - it seems unlikely to me that you would practice it as films depict it.

If you were doing it for food (which, outside of emergency situations, was rarely the primary motive of cannibal cultures - they ate people along side an otherwise full and complete diet), then you would organize your hunts to maximize the catch and develop a distribution method so that non-hunting members of your society benefited from the hunt. This means organized, strategic hunting. This means the processing of food, including prep for storage. This means no stopping in the middle of a hunt to willy-nilly tear into some sucker anthropologist. If it was ritualistic or religious in nature - a considerable more common motivation: the Tupinamba did it to ensure their superiority over their enemies on a physical and spiritual level - than it becomes more ceremonial. Either way, the sort of savage explosion of primal rage wouldn't be a factor. You don't have to work yourself into a berserker in order to violate the ultimate taboo because it isn't, from your vantage point, a taboo. To do so would be like you, dear reader, having to whip yourself in rabid and barely controllable frenzy in order to order a hamburger or go to Christmas mass (or whatever event your particular flavor of faith or freethinking leads you to).

The cannibals of Offspring occupy that middle area between the savage native model in Cannibal Holocaust and the more workman-like crazy cannibals of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and the various incarnations of The Hills Have Eyes. They tend to forget themselves in the heat of the moment: After surrounding the house, cutting the phone lines (curiously, these cannibals know enough to cut phone lines, but they themselves tend to never use anything beyond Year Zero grade tech), and creating a diversion, their hunting strategy becomes scream a lot and run around like madmen. One even goes all Canny Holo and stops in the middle of the attack for a quick nosh. On the other hand, they also are selective about the parts they take, have a long term plan for community growth through semi-selective kidnapping, and cook and prepare whatever doesn't get ate up in the thick of battle.

So, given that, I'm going to have to say that, while Offspring has many flaws, the cannibal community should perhaps view it as a step in the right direction and a hopeful sign that, someday, Hollywood will see fit to depict them in a less dehumanizing light.

While we're still on the subject of Offspring, I think it is time to admit that Sam Raimi has done more harm than good to the horror genre. I'll be the first to credit his contributions with Evil Dead; but since then his horror contributions have been a remake of his own film, a slapstick flick in horror dressing, and a perfectly fair PG-13 greatest-hits sampler or his previous flicks. Now, add to that the damage his Ghost House production company is doing. Aside from this dog, GH is also responsible for the Boogeyman and Grudge franchises, knock-off crappola like Last House in the Woods, unfunny horror comedies like Dance of the Dead, and numerous other straight to DVD stinkers. With the exception of Drag Me to Hell, and that's a pretty weak exception, the label's distinctive skull logo is pretty much the kiss of death. It wasn't but a few months ago that Raimi's "triumphant" return to horror was the big story of the year and a sign to many that we were, indeed, in horror's golden age. But with friends like these . . .

Monday, October 19, 2009

Mad science: Dead man's hand.

Everything old is new again. Remember when the global nightmare scenario of choice was Soviet nukes? Prepare to get nostalgic for the good old days of mutually assured destruction. From Wired magazine:

The point of the system, he explains, was to guarantee an automatic Soviet response to an American nuclear strike. Even if the US crippled the USSR with a surprise attack, the Soviets could still hit back. It wouldn't matter if the US blew up the Kremlin, took out the defense ministry, severed the communications network, and killed everyone with stars on their shoulders. Ground-based sensors would detect that a devastating blow had been struck and a counterattack would be launched.

The technical name was Perimeter, but some called it Mertvaya Ruka, or Dead Hand. It was built 25 years ago and remained a closely guarded secret. With the demise of the USSR, word of the system did leak out, but few people seemed to notice. In fact, though Yarynich and a former Minuteman launch officer named Bruce Blair have been writing about Perimeter since 1993 in numerous books and newspaper articles, its existence has not penetrated the public mind or the corridors of power. The Russians still won't discuss it, and Americans at the highest levels—including former top officials at the State Department and White House—say they've never heard of it. When I recently told former CIA director James Woolsey that the USSR had built a doomsday device, his eyes grew cold. "I hope to God the Soviets were more sensible than that." They weren't.

The system remains so shrouded that Yarynich worries his continued openness puts him in danger. He might have a point: One Soviet official who spoke with Americans about the system died in a mysterious fall down a staircase. But Yarynich takes the risk. He believes the world needs to know about Dead Hand. Because, after all, it is still in place.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Movies: I want to play a game, Part 3 - Don't everybody all volunteer at once.

In this last post on what game theory can teach us about the Saw franchise, we're going to cover traps that involve three or more players. But before we do that, we should quickly recap posts one and two.

To start, the only factor you can know that effects the outcome of your game is the number of players, where "player" is defined as a person whose choices can affect the outcome of the game.

In a single-player game, you've always only got one option for survival: play the game.

In a game with two-players, your playing either a zero-sum game or a deadlock game. Either way, the only survival option is to play; but everybody in the trap needs to evaluate whether or not they are really players or not, or you could end up turning a deadlock game into a zero-sum game.

Most importantly, in any game with one or two players, your only chance for survival is to play along. Always choose to play.

On to group games!

Jigsaw model 1.0, John, was not a big fan of building traps with more than three players in them. Perhaps this was a purely logistic issue: As his cancer began to eat away at him, the idea of constructing and organizing taps involving multiple players was simply outside the his physical performance profile. It might also be an issue of access. Once Jigsaw 1.0 picked up disciples, we get two large games featuring eight (Saw III) and five (Saw V) players. Jigsaw, a former architect, focused on individual sins, mostly the kind he could discover through his time in the his wife's health clinic or his own time in the Doc Lawrence's hospital. After he picks up Hoffman, a police detective with access to people's criminal records, Jigsaw starts snatching up networked groups: All the victims, except one, in Saw III were criminals who were caught through evidence tampering by a single detective; all the victims in Saw V were linked to a dubious Atlantic Yards-style land-grab development scheme. Regardless of the reasons, there are only two mass games in the franchise as of this writing.

The first group game involves as set of eight people waking up in a house full of traps that is full of a slow-acting nerve agent. The group must negotiate a series of traps, one per member, in order to retrieve an antidote and escape the house. In the second game, a group of five people must progress through a series of chambers, each of which contains a Jigsaw style test. Plus, Dexter's wife is one of the players, which is funny because you half expect Dex to show up and save her.

The first thing that's different about games with three or more players is that, for each individual player, deciding not to play may be a viable survival option. Unlike single- and two-player games, playing along with Jigsaw may not always be the best option.

In Sawworld, games with three or more players best resembles a well studied game theory game called the volunteer dilemma. Basically, the game breaks down like this: To achieve a positive outcome N number of players have to choose, in Sawian terms, to play; but playing comes at a cost (from disfigurement to potential death) so, provided that N can equal less than the total number of players, the best strategy for each individual player is not play and hope that the other players will take up the slack needed to reach N. In normal people terms, it's the reason you most likely don't donate money to NPR. You know that you want public radio and that public radio requires donations from listeners, but you also know from experience that enough public radio listeners do kick in that they can continue broadcasting without your contribution. Consequently, you know that you can get what you want without making a sacrifice. Therefore, why make the sacrifice? Of course, the dilemma is that if everybody followed the same logic, nobody would donate, public radio would collapse, and nobody would benefit.

In Sawian terms, the more players in a game that choose to play, the less necessary each individual contribution is. This means that, in theory, if the game's conditions can be satisfied without sacrifices for every player, than your best option is opt out of playing the game and let other players play the game for everybody.

We should note here that "playing the game" has a very specific meaning in our context. When we say a player opts to play the game, we mean that the player chooses to play the game according to the rules and expectations Jigsaw has set for the game. Not playing the game does not mean that you are inactive. Rather it means that you are choosing not to go along with the plan as presented. Saw III has an excellent example of a active non-playing character. In that film Xavier, a gansta type, decides that he's opting out of the game. However, his form of opting out means that he forces other players to run through the traps, taking damage meant for him, moving the game along without any sacrifice on his part.

That's all good and well for Xavier, but it screws the rest of the folks in the game. This is known in economics as the free rider problem: The more you work for the common good, the more it benefits others to let you work for them. This can lead to a death spiral in which more and more folks depend on the work of select few. That's unsustainable and the collapse screws everybody.

(WARNING POLITICAL CONTENT: This is, for those who may have stumbled here on a game theory Google search, game theory is an unintentional, but brilliant critique of free market ideology. Games like the volunteer dilemma, the prisoners' dilemma, and the tragedy of the commons show how rational self-interest can lead to less than optimum results. Give it up, fanatics.)

So what's the solution? Here's where the Saw series is horror at its best. The solution is that, in a game with three or more players, you need to get really fucking Fascist. You need to practice enforcement ruthlessly. Think back to the mausoleum trap we discussed last post. The mausoleum game turned from a win-win deadlock game into a zero-sum "one of us is going to die" game the moment one of the players chose the non-optimum strategy. When faced with a player that was working against the winning strategy, the winning player enforced the optimum strategy. Fatally. That's what you need to do.

If you find yourself in a game with three or more players, you need take a serious moment of introspection. Ask yourself: "Am I an utterly badass motherfucker who could totally bend all the other players to my will with the threat of violence?"

If the answer is genuinely yes, then you can enforce your unilateral decision to not play. Your best strategy is not to play and, instead, to force the other players to play the game - sucking up the damage meant for you and winning for you.

I should note here that Xavier, the Saw III character who tries this strategy, is a cold-blooded gangbanging mo-fo with an absurdly gym-hard physique and no qualms about applying heavy manners to any situation. And he fails. He can't enforce his strategy. He acts as a the "you must be at least this gangster to ride this ride" sign on this strategy. If you think you're more sociopathic, hardassed, and amoral than Xavier, then rock this strategy. But be honest, you probably aren't.

Let's say that you're not an insane gangster, then your problem is how to eliminate the free rider problem. The more free riders there are, the more likely you are to to get mauled or die without actually reaping the benefit. To do this, you've got to make the consequences of not playing worse than the consequences of playing. I'm going to propose that your best strategy is to organize with any other players who agree to play and enforce the " we play" strategy. Anybody who announces that they aren't going to play, gang up and force them to play.

If you're clearly in the majority, I recommend establishing a policy that the "yes" players announce that they will immediately kill any player chooses not to play. This eliminates the free rider problem by making playing, with its chance you may survive, better than the certain death that will come from not playing.

If you're in the minority, then go on strike. As stupid as is sounds, just sit down and refuse to anything. In a Saw context, everybody loses if nobody plays, but there's a chance everybody might win if somebody plays. You need to make sure nobody plays so long as anybody chooses not to play. This will also eliminate the free rider problem.

Admittedly, all these strategies are pretty foul as you basically start threatening the dudes you're trapped with. But, dude, you're in a deathtrap. Get tough.

Thanks for sitting through this series, which was basically me geekin' out for three entries. But seriously though, next time you wake up chained in a death machine, good luck.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Movies: I want to play a game, Part 2 – Hate the game, not the player.

To boil down everything we discussed in the previous post to its most essential point: If you were a victim in a Saw movie, the only salient survival factor that could be known, and therefore acted on, would be the number of players in your particular game. There are at least two other potential factors that could determine whether you survive or not, but they are unknowable prior to your death or escape and there's crap-all you can do about them. You're better off assuming that they aren't in play.

Once we've established the focus of our thought experiment on the number of players, we can divide the traps into two groups: 1) single- and two-player games and 2) games with three or more players.

At this point, the skeptical reader might well ask, "CRwM, why arbitrarily divide them into these two groups?"

Fair question. The reason I divided them into these two groups is that, after working through all this, I found that single- and two-player games essentially have the same strategy. Once you go above two players, though, there's a host of new issues that you have to take into account. However, because we haven't walked through the thought experiment together, that what I think is a natural division looks arbitrary from this point in the journey. Which is to say, lighten up Francis.

On to the survival strategy for single- and two-player games.

Let's get single player games out of the way because they're the simplest and least interesting.

A truly single player game is one in which only a sole person in the trap can affect the outcome of the game with their choices. The player could be the only person in the trap - examples of this include the web of razor wire web and the flammable slime traps from the first film and the fly-trap death mask from the second film – or they could be the sole decider in a trap that involves others – examples: Amanda's test, Jeff's various trials in Saw III, the hair-puller from Saw IV.

The strategy for a single player game is simple. Always play. You don't, you die. Arguably, there are reasons that somebody might choose to die. Many of the traps are disfiguring or involve profound psychological trauma. Though it never really happens in the flick, it isn't hard to imagine a game player deciding that the cost of escaping just isn't worth it. But, for the sake of this thought experiment, we decided to assume that every player wants live regardless of the costs.

So, if you're in a one-player Saw trap, assume it is well built, assume it is a valid game, choose to play along, and you will have done everything you could to live.

Told you it was simple.

Two-player games are a little more interesting. First, they rarely happen in Saw. There's only been two of them. Second, each of the games was a unique game type that demanded different strategies. Third, the characters in the first two-player game failed because they understood the form of the game they were playing but couldn't bring themselves to play, but the characters in the second game misunderstood the game and one of them still survived.

In the jargon, Jigsaw's two player games are either zero sum games or deadlock games. Because the term deadlock game is somewhat obscure and the term zero sum game has a common usage that doesn't fully jibe with the meaning of the term in game theory, we'll get some quick definitions out of the way.

In a zero sum game, the sum of wins (+1) and losses (-1) always come out to zero. If somebody wins, somebody else lost. In Sawian terms, it means that there are two players in a trap and only one of them can get out alive.

Jigsaw doesn't make many traps that are zero sum games. For all the bizarre radical individualism in his personal religion, Jigsaw's big on teaching lessons about interdependence and teamwork. However, he does occasionally build a zero sum game trap. Most notably, the bathroom trap that anchors the entire first film is a zero sum game. Dr. Lawrence and Adam get locked in the world's filthiest bathroom. The good doctor can only get out if he kills Adam. Failure to kill Adam means not only will he be screwed, but his family gets it as well. Adam is expected to saw his own foot off and escape, leaving the doc and his family high and dry. Basically, only one of them can win. It's built into the game.

In the film, both Adam and the doc bite it. They fully get that they are playing a zero sum game and are ultimately unable to play on those terms. The opt not to play – instead they try to work their way out of their predicament – and both end up dying.

Sadly, the only way to survive a zero sum game is to play before you get played. If, as we agreed to assume for this discussion, survival is your ultimate goal, then no matter what the other player chooses, you must choose to play.

The other type of two-player trap is the deadlock game. To explain a deadlock game we need to touch on dominant and dominated strategies. In simplest terms, a dominant strategy benefits you no matter what the other player chooses to do and a dominated strategy screws you no matter what the other player chooses to do. Not every game includes dominant and dominated strategies; but when they do, always play the dominant strategy and never play the dominated strategy. In a deadlock game, the dominant strategy also leads to the most mutually beneficial outcome. It's one of those happy cases where everybody following rational self-interest actually leads to the best result.

The best example of a deadlock game in the Saw franchise is the mausoleum trap at the beginning of Saw IV. This over elaborate trap works thusly: Player 1 and Player 2 a both connected by a neck shackle to chains that lead to an automated winding drum in the middle of the floor. The game begins when one of the players's movements trigger the winding action. The winding action pulls the two men closer together. Eventually, it will strangle them both. The key to player 2's neck shackle is connected to the back of player 1's collar. Once player 2 is free, he can get retrieve a key for player 1's collar. Player 1 has his eyes sewn shut and cannot see. Player 2 has his mouth sewn shut and cannot effectively communicate with player 1. Various stabby and slicey weapons are shattered about. This is a deadlock game. Both players can win if they both play the game correctly. There's no need for either one to die. In fact, doing the rationally self-interested thing means they both escape.

But we don't always do the rational and self-interested thing. In this case, the problem is that one of the players literally cannot see what the rationally self-interested action would be. Unable to communicate, player 2 can't explain to the blind player 1 what is going on. Assuming he is under attack by the trap maker, player 1 starts lashing out with stabby things left about the field o' play. Player 2 is eventually forced to fight and kill player 1. He frees himself and escapes.

There are two neat survival tip hidden in that mess. To really be a player in a game, you need to be able to make a genuine choice to play or not play. If, for some reason, you can't understand what it means to opt in or out, then you aren't really choosing to do either and you don't fit our definition of a player. That sounds bad, but it doesn't need to be. Think in terms of the mausoleum trap. If player 1 had simply not acted in any way, player 2 could have easily freed them both. What's the take home: Don't act like a player if you're not a player.

One of the most interesting things about the mausoleum trap is that it's a deadlock game that, if one of the players does not choose the dominant strategy, becomes a zero sum game. This curious shift in the mausoleum game is important; it provides us with the key (fittingly enough) to surviving games with three or more players. But, that's for the next entry. Let's recap.

ANTSS READER! You've just found yourself in a Jigsaw trap with one other person! What do you do!?!?!

First, determine the number of players in the game. You may need to decide that, for some reason or another, you are not actually a player in the game, but just another trapped person. That's cool, but act like what you are or you'll fuck everybody up.

Second, the players need to determine the actual rules of the game. If you can't complete this step, go back to step 1: Somebody thinks they're a player, but they aren't.

Third, no matter what your partner chooses, always, always, always choose to play.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Music: Swing, you sinners.


Just in time to save your Halloween mix from being subsumed in a flood of ill-constructed novelty tunes about Frankenstein's pajama party or the Mummy's beach blanket hootenany, the Free Music Archive features the Diablo Swing Orchestra's album The Butcher's Ballroom.


Here's the description from Marvin Vernon, web master of Free Albums Galore:

This Swedish ensemble has one of the freshest and most exciting sounds I've heard in a long time and they manage it through an insane combination of heavy metal, swing jazz, a traditional European music smorgabord, and a classical soprano voice that probably broke wine glasses in the studio. By the time I got through the first two tracks, I considered going to the emergency ward for the possibility of impending head explosion. There is an operatic feel throughout the tracks and an intensity that hold up marvelously through every musical twist. There are actually two vocalists, male and female, and these two work to good effect on "Rag Doll Physics", a weird cross between Wagner and Ozzy Osbourne. Just about when I thought my head might explode, soprano and guitar make love on the gorgeous ballad "D'Angelo". However if you really want to get the sense of this album start at the first track with "Balrog Boogie", a full-assault barrage of swing and metal that has to be heard to believe.

Best part? The whole damn album's free. Seriously. All treat, no trick.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Movies: I want to play a game, Part 1 – Think like a victim.



There was, for a brief time, a horror blog meme in which people waxed bloggy on the horror films victim that you would save if you could. (Mine's the first victim, the hippy chick, in Jaws, but that's beside the point.) While I never officially participated in this ring o' posts, it did get me thinking about a curious viewing habit of mine: I never really ponder saving a victim in a horror flick. Instead, I find myself wondering if, in their place, I could find a way to escape their fate. For example, I'll imagine that I'm one five kids trapped in the posh country house with Jason lurking outside. What would I do? I think the answer, for the curious, is to split up. Despite the logic of a million horror movies saying otherwise, splitting up is the best strategy. Each person separates and books it in as straight a line as possible in different directions. The different directions thing is key. Splitting up to search an old farmhouse, for example, isn't really splitting up. Splitting up makes distance and time work in your favor. For every victim Jason managed to claim, it becomes increasingly unlikely that he can claim another victim as the distances between potential victims increase and Jason's knowledge of potential victims' locations decreases. Continue running until you reach an Air Force base with access to nuclear weapons.

I first noticed this habit of mine watching Two Thousand Maniacs, Herschell Gordon Lewis's low-fi splat Southern revanchist fantasy. In that flick, one of the victims is nailed into a relatively small wooden barrel. Dozens of long nails are then hammered into the sides of the barrel, making it a sort of economy-class iron maiden. Then the barrel is rolled down a hill. The victim, presumably, bounces around inside, being pulped by repeated impact with the nails. After seeing that flick, I got obsessed with question of whether or not one could survive that death trap. I eventually came to the conclusion that, if you agreed that that painful mutilation was better than death, then you should shove your feet and hands against one side of the barrel and prop your back hard against the other side. This will, unfortunately, cause massive damage to your hands, feet, and back. But, if you could hold that pose for just a minute or two – which, granted, is no small thing – then you could prevent yourself from being bounced around, which is where the real damage of the whole barrel roll thing tips irrevocably into fatality. Sadly, the whole thing's academic as the first thing the ghost rednecks do when the barrel stops is look inside to see their handiwork; but still, you'd have given yourself a few more painful moments of suffering existence and the chance to try to think your way through another deathtrap. For what that's worth.

As it is Halloween, it's time to roll out yet another installment of the critically reviled, yet perennially popular long-running Saw franchise. This got me thinking: If the structure of each kill in the Saw flicks is, essentially, a game in the truest game theory sense of the term. Therefore applying a little bit of game theory logic to the traps of Saw should allow us to generate a few survival strategies for Jigsaw victims. What does game theory tell us about Jigsaw's traps.

Reader beware: I'm no expert on the subject of game theory, so this series is something more along the lines of a thought experiment informed by limited exposure to game theory. We're just thinking aloud here. Still, I think the results are interesting.

First, let's define some terms. We'll keep it simple. Games are discrete events that have a set number of players, a defined number of strategies (in Jigsaw traps, these are always "play along" or "don't play along"), and a set number of outcomes. NB: Not all game theories games meet this criteria, so you can already see were abusing the concept. This is why I've never been awarded a Nobel Prize in Economics.

All this sounds obvious, but it is important. Within the Saw franchise there characters who start off in a trap alone only to realize that they are, in fact, part of a bigger game. For our purposes, we'll say that every time you change any of the three criteria of a game, you're in a new game. If you are wandering through a trap maze and you suddenly find yourself with a group of people all in the same fix, consider yourself in a new game.

The idea that each trap is a discrete event is sometimes very easy to figure out: Often a Jigsaw trap involves a single person making a single yes/no choice. But more complex games confuse the issue. In Saw II and Saw V both featured characters working their way through a trapped filled environments. Is each trap a separate game or is the game over when the players are either all dead or have exited the environment? This is wrapped up, curiously enough, in a later issue: the number of players. We'll discuss it in more detail later, but for now let's agree that in games with one or two player games, each trap is a new game. In games featuring three or more players, the entire time spent in the trapped environment is a single game.

Every game needs players. Players are defined in our little thinkie thought post here as any person within a Jigsaw trap that can affect the results of the game by making a choice of whether or not to play the game according to Jigsaw's rules. Again, this sound obvious, but it is an important distinction. Throughout the franchise, we meet characters trapped in Jigsaw games that are not actually players. In the first film, Amanda (not yet a Jigsaw cultist) must decide whether or not to kill a man for the key trapped inside him. If she does not kill the man, a bear-trap like device on her head will spring into action and rip her head apart. There are two people in this trap, but Amanda is the only player as only she can affect the outcome of the game with her choice.

Number of outcomes is tricky, mostly because some strategies lead to certain outcomes, but others only might lead to specific outcomes. Namely, your dead meat if you don't play along, but playing along does not ensure that you're going to survive. Case in point, the man in the web of razor wire web in the first film (seen in subsequent flashbacks): Though he tries to play Jigsaw's game, his body gives out. Furthermore, living through the trap might not be a given victim's best-case scenario. In actual game theory, this would not be incidental. In some Jigsaw traps, part of the game's logic involves the victim pondering whether or not living mutilated or implicated in a crime or whatever is worth playing the game. For the purposes of making the conceptualizing Jigsaw's traps as games as easy as possible, we'll consider just two outcomes: Players either live or die, and living is always better than dying.

For all the gonzo Rube Goldbergian inventiveness of Jigsaw's traps (and we'll consider traps designed by any member of his cult to be a Jigsaw trap), there are only three variables that actually make any difference to a victim's survival.

1. Trap rigor: Is the trap well made? In his early period, Jigsaw made a few traps that a person might survive simply on the basis of blunder. Such a fuck-up appears in the fourth film. This is an unlikely out, but it is there.
2. Game validity: Is there really an out? Like ideological and religious leaders everywhere, the second Jigsaw starts to fade, his followers start to screw-up his teachings. Specifically, Amanda and Hoffman both construct traps that don't actually have escape routes. If this is the case, you're screwed no matter what.
3. Number of players: How many people can affect the outcome of the game? Remember that we're counting only those people who can alter the course of a game by choosing to play along or not as players.

That's it. At rock-bottom, whether you've got a bear trap on your head or you're on the bottom of a Jacuzzi full of puréed rotting pig corpses, those are the only three variables that matter. (There's a single exception to this – we'll get to that later.) You'll note that, from the perspective of a victim within a Jigsaw trap, you can only be conscious of the last one. If factors 1 and 2 are in play, there's no way you could know it and, therefore, no way you could reasonably factor it into any strategic response. Maybe you'll get lucky and the trap has an unforeseen out that you'll stumble across (this happens twice in the series: in Saw 4 and Saw 5) or maybe you're screwed no matter what you do (this happens at least twice in the series: S3 and S5 - curiously, the death trap in S5 also happens to be the trap that lacks vigor, so it was built to strictly kill, but had an unforeseen out): Either way, you cannot be sure and your better off acting as if you are in a rigorous trap that's a valid game.

This means that you focus on the remaining factor: How many players?

From a perspective of survival strategies, all of Jigsaw's traps can be organized into two categories, each of which demands a separate approach.

1. One and two player games.
2. Three or more player games.

In the next post, we'll discuss how you'd survive one and two player games.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Stuff: "Tastes like a bloody Band-Aid."



In a previous post, I mentioned my weakness for swag that, rather than just pitching the show/flick/whatever, pretends to actually be from the world of the property it's pushing. Though this wasn't exactly what I had in mind . . .

The Onion's AV Club test drive HBO's Tru Blood blood orange soda drink, a tie-in to their sturm und fang vampire soap opera.

From the post:

In the show, most vampires don't seem to really like how Tru Blood tastes. They choke it down—most like it served warm—only because they want to live in peace with those pesky humans. So how does a company make a drink in the real world that mimics the taste of badly mimicked blood? Why, with blood oranges, of course!

Here's what the HBO Shop has to say about its exclusive, expensive product: "It’s official! The Tru Blood drink has now been 'de-fictionalized' and emerges into reality as a delicious blood orange carbonated drink. Meticulously crafted, the Tru Blood Drink is an exact replica of the bottle design as seen on True Blood. The 14 oz glass Tru Blood bottle is stained in a rich red, with raised Tru Blood English lettering and matching Japanese Kanji. This blood orange flavored soda is slightly tart, lightly sweet and subtly carbonated. Designed to taste great while matching the appearance of Bill's favorite drink, the drink pours like a regular soda, but with the standing appearance in a glass is stormy and mysterious."


How's it taste? Along with the opinion that does duty as this post's headline, here are some other notable comments:

"This is actually really good. It's a little sweeter and a little less sharp than most orange soda. It doesn’t get up my nose as much. But it’s richer and fruitier."

"It's chalky. Probably why it tastes like ground-up Smarties."

"Tastes like a melted cherry Slurpee."

"With bacon vodka, it tastes like biting a live pig, which I suppose is pretty vampire-like."

"I guess fans of the series will find this kitschy, but my appraiser tells me my Addams Family collectors' cups aren't worth shit."


The original story contains video of some of the Onion crew trying the faux faux-blood drink straight up and as a mixer.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Stuff: A post-horror world?

Though it is mostly focused on sci-fi, Guardian UK blogger Damien G. Walter throws in a little horror into his consideration of a post-science fiction world. We should note that Walter sees a distinction between "sci-fi" and "science fiction." Perhaps that's a UK thing - can any international readers enlighten us? Anywho, from the blog post:

But even as sci-fi powers its way to full spectrum dominance of the cultural battlefield, many readers and writers of speculative fiction are looking at the banners proclaiming Mission Accomplished with, if not awe, then certainly shock. Among these readers, sci-fi is a term of derision, in much the same way that literary fiction would reject being labelled as soap opera simply because it happens to have similarities with EastEnders. Sci-fi is at best a dilution, at worst an absolute corruption of the ideas born out of fantasy, horror and science fiction over their long history. The wave of sci-fi overwhelming the mass media today, while often fun, is rarely on the level of the best those genres have to offer.

Yet the literary tradition that has its roots in HG Wells and Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe and George MacDonald, that grew through the writing of Tolkien, Lieber, Howard, Heinlein, Clarke and Asimov, and branched into the modern genres of fantasy, horror and science fiction, may have reached its fruition. The modern mythology of speculative fiction that those writers shaped is now as familiar to modern audiences as their everyday lives. Alien civilisations, robot overlords, zombie uprisings, elven nations and starships have become a lingua franca for artists of all kinds to draw on, whether to create light-hearted entertainments or to use as metaphors to explore the darkest recesses of human psychology and society.

The walls that defined speculative fiction as a genre are quickly tumbling down. They are being demolished from within by writers such as China Miéville and Jon Courtney Grimwood, and scaled from the outside by the likes of Michael Chabon and Lev Grossman. And they are being ignored altogether by a growing number of writers with the ambition to create great fiction, and the vision to draw equally on genre and literary tradition to achieve that goal.


So the question for today is, can we imagine a what post-horror-ghetto world would look like? Is it even possible?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Movies: Three kinds of apocalypse.



Yesterday, the wife, my horror flick wingman Dave, and I went to go see the latest recrudescence of zombie cinema, long-time Jimmy Kimmel Live! director Ruben Fleischer's Zombieland. Watching Fleischer's rigorously non-objectionable zom-com actioner, I realized that my taste in end times has changed radically over the years.

For those who haven't heard the news, because you just came out of a coma, in your private isolation ward, in a special secret lab, on the bottom of the ocean, on the Jupiter moon of Io, Zombieland features Woody Harrelson (doing a cleaned up, good guy version of his Mickey character from Natural Born Killers) and the poor man's Michael Cera, Jesse Eisenberg, on a wacky road trip across a zombie infested post-collapse US. Along the way, the boys meet a hottie and her younger sister, Woody gets dangerously close to having to emote, and not-Cera learns that sometimes to win somebody's heart you need to do an awful lot of killing. Built around an uninspired plot, populated with thin characters, and breezily predictable, Zombieland is aimed as people who find Shaun of the Dead too cerebral and Diary of the Dead too frightening.

What is innovative about Zombieland is its tone. Zombieland may put to rest the idea that the engine of zombie cinema runs off steady flow of cultural anxieties, from war to financial meltdown. It is hard to imagine a less angsty, troubled film than Zombieland. Not only do our characters gleefully dispatch zombies with giddy abandon, but when one of the characters accidentally dispatches a pure strain human the most notable reaction is laughter followed by a hasty, "But it is sad though."

What Zombieland has done is take the Merry Looter Scene typical of zombie flicks since Dawn of the Dead and made it the entire basis for the flick's charm. The Merry Looter Scene is the near inevitable scene in a modern post-apoc flick in which our protags go hog wild in a grocery store, shopping mall, whatever. Despite the apocalyptic conditions that prevail, there's something carnivalesque about the scene and, more often then not, the scene involves our protags wallowing in fancy clothes, nice booze, fancy new cars, or whatever else symbolizes that the lowly survivors are now free of the economic constraints the once bound them. Doom's all around them, but in the topsy-turvy world of the zombie holocaust, the bike messenger and the beat cop are now the rulers of all they survey. They aren't really the meek - they've usually had to do a metric assload of killing to get where they are - but they have definitely inherited the Earth. (As an aside, this is hardly novel. As seen in this years Silent Scream Series, the French silent film The Crazy Ray features a carnivalesque apocalypse.)

The thing about this is that it is expresses an essentially conservative, in the most literal sense of the term, impulse. In flicks like Zombieland, 28 Days Later, and the various "of the Dead" franchise films, the world is pretty much the one we recognize, simply more dangerous and more depopulated. More importantly, there's a crucial continuity with the old world. In Zombieland, aside from the rubbish in the streets, the infrastructure of the old world is still intact. (In fact, we even get a gag in which the narrator explains that a particular Texas town looks like it was destroyed in the zombicaust, but it is actually just a dump.) Everywhere they go has power, there are no unchecked wildfires, nobody frets about leaking nuclear power plants, and so on. All that has happened is that the people who were once the losers and outcasts are now free to do as they wish. And what they wish to do is drive nice cars, stay in plush joints, drink A-grade booze, get laid, and play Monopoly with real money. The characters in Zombieland don't want to be on the bottom of the heap, but they want the heap.

Which brings us to Thundarr the Barbarian. When I was a kid, my favorite post-apoc landscape belonged to the short-running Thundarr the Barbarian cartoon (1980 to '82). In the "future" of that show, in the then far-distant year of 1994, a runaway planet zipped between the Earth and the Moon. The Moon split in two, but gravity held each half in about the same position of the current Moon. The Earth was racked by catastrophes and, 2000 year later, is home to all manner of magic and mutants.

But don't take my word for it. Here's the intro:



Admittedly, the cosmic doom visited upon the Earth in that intro is far more epic than a zombie holocaust (that damn runaway planet apparently even stole all our clouds). But that's not really the distinction that sticks out in my mind. Rather, the world of Thundarr seems to have radically split from the pre-disaster world. The show did have one character who constantly pointed out the remnants of pre-collapse world: Princess Ariel's function in the show was to act as a exposition, explaining trains and soda pop and bowling and Cape Canaveral and whatever else might pop up to Thundarr as the plots demanded. (Oddly, the female figure who remains the sole link to Earth's past was a reoccurring motif in '80s cartoons: the mom in The Herculoids was a stranded Earth astronaut who attempted to teach her child about her native home as was Prince Adam's mom in He-Man.) What's interesting, however, is that Thundarr usually didn't give a rats ass. Insomuch as Ariel's book lernin' was useful for blowing up the evil wizard's war tanks or killing any given shoe's baddy, he cared. But there was never this sense that Thundarr or his Wookie-rip-off companion Ookla were ever all that interested in the pre-collapse world. The idea of re-establishing the previous order or even mourning its passing doesn't occur to them. They represent a radical break with the past. The heap has been swept away and replaced. These post-apoc works are the opposite of the Merry Looter flicks. We're going to dub them "Ookla, Ariel, We Ride," or OAWR, works.

As a kid, it was that kind of post-apoc I dug. In my juvenile mind, the post-end looked like Gamma World or Thunder Dome - and as soon as the fit hit the shan, we'd all start wearing football padding studded with metal spikes. There should be mutant animals and plants walking about. Sure, we can have a car or two. Maybe even a gun. But, honestly, what we really need is Year Zero weaponry and some black magic. Good times.

Now, however, I have to admit that Thundarr-style shenanigans now seem hopelessly dated. Case in point, though it is hopelessly unoriginal, Zombieland doesn't seem retro in anyway. The same can't be said of Doomsday, Neil Marshall's retro-tastic post-apoc flick which managed not only to get numerous football safety pad fashion plates in shot, but also managed to work in a bunch of Medieval knights in a castle because why the hell not?

Eighties vintage feel aside, I think there's something else behind my shift from digging surrealistic Thundarr cosmic doom to more Zombieland-style doom-mongering. I think part of it has to do with growing older. When you're a kid, you have no emotional investment in the system that supports you. All of it is confusing, illogical, and often profoundly unfair. OAWR films not only satisfy the fantasy that the adult world gets swept away, but the radical weirdness of the world levels everybody regardless of real-life experience. In contrast, as I've grown older and softer in the belly, I don't mind the idea that life as we'd know it would be swept away in a violent wave of mutilation - but I totally want a comfy bed when I'm not slaughtering undead or fighting cannibal bike gangs or what have you.

So that's what I'm proposing Zombieland doesn't feel as dated as the original Dawn of the Dead because the horror audience is aging and we are too into our apartments and children and cars and our increasingly valueless 401Ks to enjoy the fantasy of the world as we know it getting totally wiped off the face of the Earth. We just want the all the jerks dead so we no longer have to punch clock.



There is, notably, a third way for post-apoc tales. Most post-collapse worlds, be they Merry Looter tales or OAWR works, have a strong element of wish fulfillment in that they posit a simpler world. In Zombieland the characters discuss how great it is that parking is free and we're not plagued with Facebook status updates. The fantasy is that a disaster strips all the superficial crap away, leaving behind something purer and truer; see Walking Dead back cover copy. Few post-apoc works suggest that life will simply just get worse and worse and worse. Nothing is clarified, and if you started at the bottom of the heap, some armed warlord a-hole will most likely just stomp you down even more. Adam Rapp and George O'Connor's Ball Peen Hammer is one of the few post-apoc works that suggests that a post-collapse world would look like Somalia on its worst day. In Rapp and O'Conner's grim graphic novel, there's still a government, but it has grown brutal and sporadic in its presence. Dog packs run the street. A flesh-eating virus is rotting its way through population. There is no power or running water. There are conspiracies afoot; but, with no stable communication systems, nobody can be sure what is going on, or even if those involved in the conspiracy still know what's going on. Worse yet, there's a young generation of kids who feel this state of affair is normal. Honestly, the dark hard-edged weirdness of Ball Peen Hammer is probably the most genuine image of what humanity, without all the social props, would look like. But it is too relentless to pack a megaplex. We're more optimistic about the end of everything.