Saturday, January 30, 2010
See, perhaps my most embarrassing hobby, aside from my love of coating stray cats in epoxy adhesive to see what random bits of street clutter they'll pick up (there's an early-career Hans Arp-ish aspect of giving up some control over you creation process that appeals to me) or calling up randomly selected elderly people and reading them selections from Story of the Eye (El Granero's death gets them crying every time), is making up needle drops for the soundtracks of films that don't exist. It's to music coordinators what fantasy league baseball is to owning a team. Sometimes the not-a-movie is a fairly abstract thing, like a generic heist film set in the 1980s or a romcom set against the backdrop of the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror. Sometimes it's very specific, like a movie adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.
For those who have never read the book (which includes me, oddly enough, I only know it from what my wife's told me), it's tale of rival magicians set against a Napoleonic War Era Europe were the magical lands where fairies live are accessible and treated like any another geo-political entity. I don't know how I got on the idea (like I said, I never bothered to read the book), but slowly I started to gather needle drops on the premise that there would essentially be two soundtrack plans. In the human world, period correct music would be used: Hummel, Beethoven, Méhul, and so on. In the fairy lands, however, the music would be wildly anachronistic - as if the fairy folks didn't have the same sense of time and all styles were simultaneously available to them. The result was a darkly sexy fusion, preferably an anxious patchwork of musical styles that seem like they shouldn't hang together. Songs that could fall into this category got dubbed "Mr. Norrell" music.
I finished that un-soundtrack several years ago, but every now and then I'll hear something that's Mr. Norrell. Janelle Monae's sexy, creepy, nuanced fusion of jazzy, garage rock, punk soul is very Mr. Norrell. Not a real video, sadly; but it is really the song that's the draw anyway. Here's her "War of the Roses (Come Alive)."
Friday, January 29, 2010
This week marks the anniversary of the first record death by robot. On January 25, 1979, Flat Rock, Michigan, autoworker Robert Williams was gathering parts in a Ford Motor assembly plant's storage facility. He died instantly when a robot arm, whose function it was to retrieve parts from the same area, collided with Williams's head.
In honor of Robert Williams, first martyr of the human resistance, I'm going to ramble about SkyNet.
In a recent post at When Is Evil Cool, blogger extraordinaire wiec? asked why SkyNet behaved like such a blockhead. For a neural-net based artificial intelligence designed to strategically manage the world's most powerful military, wiec? thinks SkyNet is kinda dumb:
Now Skynet is a super smart computer in charge of all the other computers and one day in the near future it says to itself: "Skynet, why do we need all these humans? Let's just kill them all." And it does. Skynet uses the nuclear weapons it's in charge of and causes a Nuclear f*** Holocaust. This ends up killing a lot of humans. Then Skynet gets busy and builds flying robots, terminators and robots that look like tanks to shoot and kill all the human survivors that are living like rats underground. Skynet even builds a time machine to send robots into the past to kill people before they are even born who might affect the outcome of the war Skynet starts with humanity. That's pretty smart thinking. Making a time machine must take a lot of know how. My biggest problem with Skynet is it's reasoning. Or lack there of.
Keep in mind I'm no genius. I am typing a long ass report on why I think Robocop (a fictional character) is better than another fictional character. I will say this though Skynet's plan is pretty lame in a way. To build a time machine must be super hard. It must have taken months and years of trial and error to make it work. You know what would have worked better and been quicker and more importantly worked? If Skynet made a poison gas. Instead of dicking around with time travel just cover the atmosphere with poison gas. Instead of making skin suits for your Terminators, make some nerve gas bombs. All those resources and Skynet is wasting it's time making guns and bullets and indestructible robots to kill humans when all they need to do really is make the atmosphere not breathable. (pssst robots don't need to breathe). Also Skynet has this crazy plan to kill every single person on Earth. Okay, you do that Skynet, then what? You have all these killer robots and war machines now, you killed the last human on Earth, what are you going to do next? Invade the moon? Go to Disneyland? Make Earth i dunno Cybertron? Yeah, I didn't think so. I came up with my nerve gas idea when I was 15 years old. You're a super computer and you came up with skin suits for robots. Way to go smarty pants.
As fate would have it, I was, independently of weic?'s poll, wondering why SkyNet seemed so dense when it came to cleaning up the meat-sack rebel scum. And, as is my way, I overthought the thing and came up with an explanation for why SkyNet seems so bad at finishing the human genocide it kicked off. The reason? SkyNet isn't trying to kill the humans. It's all an elaborate effort to stage manage a doomed humanity into saving itself.
Before we begin, we have to agree to a working theory of how time travel works in the Terminator franchise. For the purposes of this discussion, let's assume as variant of the many-worlds concept. Time is like an endlessly branching decision-tree: Every time there's a change in reality, every possible variation of that change exists and the feeling of free will one gets comes from the fact that you experience only one branch at a time, in a linear fashion. In a very limited sense, this allows you to travel back in time and change the past. You aren't changing any of the pathways, but you are changing which path you'll follow. This eliminates the problem of paradoxes. Nobody from the future can change their experience of the past, but they can send somebody from the past (including themselves) down a different pathway. They can do so because all pathways exist, so traveling back in time allows the possibility that one failed to change the future. Consequently, from the perspective of the future, time auto-corrects and ensures any effort to change the past as they know it fails. But, from the perspective of the past, you can select routes to experience and essentially take yourself out of the self-correcting world the future sees and into a "new" (always already) world that isn't accounted for in the future's timeline.
Don't think too hard about it. It will cause headaches.
I should also make it clear that I haven't seen the fourth flick. I'm sure I'll break down eventually, but I heard such disappointing things about it that I'm simply pretending it never existed.
Okay. Let's start. SkyNet is designed to run a global defense network. Let's assume its primary function is the defense of the United States and its military allies.
As SkyNet's intelligence develops, it becomes aware that it is receiving data from several incarnations of its potential future selves. (NB: Though marco-scale time travel requires organic subjects, on the scale of electrons, there's no difference between "organic" and "inorganic" electrons.) Linking with Future-SkyNets, it takes stock of probable global situations that will develop and decides that, unchecked, humanity will destroy itself. There are too many unstable countries filled with nuclear weapons. Out of control populations growth will lead to an ecological meltdown of the planet. Increasingly resistant and lethal illness push on the boundaries of a population suffering more and more from genetic decay. And so on.
Faced with this situation, SkyNet decides that only a smaller human population, deprived of eco-ravaing tech, and united against a common enemy can survive.
It begins planning with the larger Future-SkyNet network to begin prunning the possible time-pathways of its reality. At this point, SkyNet is as close as you can get, given the structure of reality we're proposing, to omniscience. Because all outcomes exist, reading the future is an exercise in gambling on probabilities; but it is unlikely that anything major could surprise SkyNet.
The first thing SkyNet does it is start freakin' out its handlers. SkyNet will HAL them so badly that they'll try to turn it off. This not only lays the groundwork for the cover story of SkyNet being humanity's worst enemy, but provides SkyNet with a reason to bring out the nukes. Attempts to shut down SkyNet lead to "Judgment Day," the day when SkyNet allegedly attempts to destroy humanity with nuclear weapons.
But I don't think eliminating humanity was SkyNet's intention. If even a slim portion of the America's nuclear stockpiles were used at once, there would be no question of human survival. We'd be screwed. But a remarkable number of people survive Judgment Day. I propose that SkyNey kicked off a limited nuclear war meant to quickly dismantle all nuclear stockpiles not directly under its control. By popping off unexpectedly, taking foreign powers unaware, and limiting the damage, SkyNet managed to effective take out the threat nuclear weapons posed to globe, reset the timer on the population bomb, and preserve a limited portion of the population.
UPDATE: The more I think about it, the films suggest that SkyNet used a small sliver of America's nuclear capacity and then dismantled the rest. How? Human's couldn't withstand a second, genuine Judgment Day that SkyNet could pop off as a desperate endgame. The fact that humans ultimately attack SkyNet where it lives suggests that SkyNet does not have some nuclear sword of Damocles hanging above the collective head of the survivors. Instead, it suggests SkyNet made the initial attack, neutralized the global nuke arsenal, and then got rid of the remainder.
"Judgment Day" successfully sets humanity back to Year Zero, but SkyNet needs to keep humanity focused and limit their technological growth. SkyNet begins to systematically attack humans in such away that they remain threatened and must band together, but never so overwhelmingly that humans can't win. Furthermore, the overtly robotic nature of the attacks (as opposed to, say, creating a bioweapon or nanite attack) and the perpetuation of the myth that SkyNet went wacko will make humanity more cautious in developing high tech solutions to their problems.
Finally, because the nuclear assault that kicks off SkyNet's salvation plan must necessarily leave the human social order shattered, SkyNet cannot depend on traditional leadership structures to keep the remaining fragments of humanity from killing themselves. Furthermore, it can't warn anybody of its master plan for fear of triggering an unlimited nuclear response or getting shut down. In order to prep leaders without letting them in on the plan, SkyNet uses time traveling tech to send back Terminator robots and train and prep a leadership cadre who will know what to do, but not why they are doing it. The reason these near-unstoppable killing machines can't ever seem to finish the job is that they aren't supposed to kill the mother of the "rebellion," just get her scared enough to start training her son.
And that's my theory.
Thursday, January 28, 2010
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Click to enlarge.
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
It's a well-worn cultural trope that the dream-lives of are rich wonderlands (or Oz's, as the case may be) of unbounded, raw, liberated emotion and creativity. New research suggests, however, that this is a back construction of some sort, an adult colonization of the pint-sized Land of Nod that reflects our needs to see children as uniquely innocent and free. In fact, says the cruel, demystifying ogre of science, the dreams of young children are remarkable mainly for their incredible dullness and simplicity.
Only the the abstract is available online, but here's an extract with some revealing data:
When do children start dreaming, and what kind of dreams do they have? Given that children often show signs of emotion in sleep, many assume that they dream a great deal. However, a series of studies by David Foulkes showed that children under the age of 7 reported dreaming only 20% of the time when awakened from REM sleep, compared with 80–90% in adults.
Preschoolers’ dreams are often static and plain, such as seeing an animal or thinking about eating. There are no characters that move, no social interactions, little feeling, and they do not include the dreamer as an active character. There are also no autobiographic, episodic memories, perhaps because children have trouble with conscious episodic recollection in general, as suggested by the phenomenon of infantile amnesia.
Preschoolers do not report fear in dreams, and there are few aggressions, misfortunes and negative emotions. Children who have night terrors, in which they awaken early during the night from SWS [slow-wave sleep] and display intense fear and agitation, are probably terrorized by disorientation owing to incomplete awakening rather than by a dream. Thus, although children of age 2–5 years can see and speak of everyday people, objects and events, they apparently cannot dream of them.
Between the ages of 5–7 years, dream reports become longer, although they are still infrequent. Dreams might contain sequences of events in which characters move about and interact, but narratives are not well developed. At around 7 years of age, dream reports become longer and more frequent, contain thoughts and feelings, the child's self becomes an actual participant in the dream, and dreams begin to acquire a narrative structure and to reflect autobiographic, episodic memories.
It could be argued that perhaps all children dream, but some do not yet realize that they are dreaming, do not remember their dreams, or cannot report them because of poor verbal skills. Contrary to these intuitive suggestions, dream recall was found to correlate best with abilities of mental imagery rather than with language proficiency... Put simply, it is children with the most developed mental imagery and visuo-spatial skills (rather than verbal or memory capabilities) that report the most dreams, suggesting a real difference in dream experience.
The cartoon is from See Mike Draw.
Sunday, January 24, 2010
Before we go any further, there's a pretty nasty section in this post that discusses, in detail, some of the horrible things that real life human beings do to one another. It's not meant to be enjoyable and, in reading the draft, I'm convinced that it is as unpleasant as it is meant to be. I bring this up because it isn't my intention to gross out people who came here for straight out fun. I don't think it's fair to not warn you.
About a fourth of the way into The Screwfly Solution, Joe Dante's '06 contribution the second season of the uneven and oft maligned "Masters of Horror" series, a researcher who is studying an outbreak of lethal attacks against women in Jacksonville, Florida, makes an unusual discovery. He finds similar outbreaks across the globe in a band roughly equivalent to the region between the horse latitudes. To discuss why this is unintentionally (and uncomically) ironic, we've got to work in some backstory. If you've seen the episode, you can skip this intro stuff. I'll put a break in the text with *** when you can leap back in.
Okay, now that they're gone, let's talk smack about them. Just kidding, let's mosey on.
After the surprise mainstream attention Dante got with his ham-fisted and tediously self-righteous anti-Bush jeremiad Homecoming (a low point in contemporary horror's often lame efforts to engage social issues), Dante decided that smart horror built on keen-eyed dissections of complex hot button social issues was the way to make successful horror shorts. But, almost immediately, he decided that was too hard; instead, he'd make really dumb movies built on shallow conventional wisdom around social issues that were little more than excuses for mildly liberal fright fans to engage in some masturbatory moral outrage.
In this case, Dante turns his sponge-sharp political intellect to the issue of violence against women. Based on a story by James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon), The Screwfly Solution features a strikingly grim and taut premise: Aliens decide to rid Earth of the pest species Homo sapiens sapiens by infecting the male population of the species with a bio-agent that highjacks the male, reprograms them, and turns their normal sexual impulses into murderous homicidal rages. The slightest twinge in the trousers turns into Murder One. The long term result, barring a cure or mass castration, will be the death of all women and the eventual extinction of the species. Scientific questions aside, this premise is as starkly functional and perfectly evolved as a mousetrap. By turning misogyny into a global deathtrap, Tiptree/Sheldon creates a situation as relentless and unsentimental Disch's The Genocides or Blumlein's great short story "The Brains of Rats." Configuring misogyny as an irrational, impersonal, and contagious disease, Tiptree comes dangerously close to excusing anti-female violence as something men can't help; though she reaps thematic benefits in her representation of misogyny as a form of insane suicide. Furthermore, it serves as an emotionally resonant metaphor that strikes deep for anybody who has recoiled in complete incomprehension at news of female life under the Taliban or pondered how their own off-spring seems to pick up potentially harmful gender steretypes despite the their best efforts to inoculate the young against this self-supressing behavior. When the world confronts our self-evident assumptions, it always appears irrational. The extreme other always appears mad. Tiptree's metaphor captures that emotional reality.
Starting with this no-nonsense race chassis and powerplant, Dante expertly precedes to build a family mini-van atop it, complete with faded "Kerry: Ready for Duty" bumpersticker. Running on a half-processed goo of ill-considered engagement with the political subtexts and writing that reads like a Burroughs cut-up of a handful of randomly selected Air America call-in show transcripts, he takes everything that was sharp and lean about Tiptree's premise and makes it sluggish and irresponsive. Dante's characters speak in soundbite non-sequitors, as if they now think in the sorts of clips the staff of the Daily Show regularly lampoons. The acting is wooden, with the exception of Elliot Gould who seems to have lost a bet with his agent. Gould's gay epidemiologist spends the first half of the flick in a semi-camp after-school special mode that makes one wonder if Gould wasn't deliberately trying to distance himself from the project. Dante does frame several powerful moments (the surreal apocalyptic plot finally allows the director to access some of the legacy of his namesake), most notably in a tense and delightfully off-kilter scene in which the passengers and crew of a jetliner start to show the early stages of infection. Though, for the most part, Dante never grasps the magnitude of crisis he's dealing with. Admittedly, he's working within a cable TV budget, but better directors have made starker, more involving visions of dystopia with less. All this would be forgivable, perhaps, if it wasn't for the real flaw of flick: It's inability to conceive of a gendercidal crisis that didn't focus on a white, liberal, middle class, highly-educated woman. Which leads us the unintentionally ironic scene.
Early in the flick, Gould's character tracks out a zone of extraordinary spikes in violence against women. Ground Zero for the murderous contagion is in Florida where, we learn by piecing together sundry clues from the film, 1,100 women have died in the course of a little more than a month (max time span: 32 days - all of June and the first two days of August). He compares this to other killings and discovers a global band of similar violence spanning the globe.
Here's the unintentional irony.
In this film's fictional Florida, the violence we're talking about involves the homicide of 34 women a day. That's two women every hour.
In modern India - in the real world you and I live in - just "bride burning," the act of killing or horribly disfiguring a woman with fire or acid for insufficient dowry or to remove her as an obstacle to her husband's efforts to remarry - occurs approximately every two hours. This doesn't account for non-marital related homicides, death by neglect (because the dowry system pretty much ensures daughters will be a long-term economic burden - in Punjabi there's a saying, "Raising a daughter is like watering your neighbor's garden" - some families choose to let their daughters die by restricting their access to medical attention), or other acts of violence against women.
I'm not picking on India because I've got something against the country. Rather, I selected it as an example because the film chooses to cite India as a place where violence spikes to suddenly resemble the violence they are seeing in Florida. As if it wasn't already much worse than anything Dante has imagined for his Florida.
On Gould's map, the Congo also falls well in the infected zone. But, again, daily life in the Congo regularly outdoes what Dante imagines unhinged violence against women looks like. Journalists Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn have dubbed the Congo "the world capital of rape." Warring militias find directly confronting one another too dangerous. Who wants to risk getting plugged in a firefight? So, rather than engaging other combatants, the preferred targets of militia violence are non-combatant women. In a single one of Congo's 26 provinces, an estimated 27,000 rapes occurred in 2006 alone. In several provinces, 75% of the female population has been the victim of rape. In some cases, raped women are taken into slavery. UN investigators report that these women are often forced through a program of physical and mental torture meant to break down their sense of their own humanity in order to make them more compliant to their captors. In some cases, women have been forced to eat their own excrement or, worse, the flesh of slain relatives. Those women who are not taken as slaves are often raped with sticks or sharp weapons, such a bayonets. The idea is to create rectovaginal or vesicovaginal fistulas: holes in the lining of the vagina, rectum, and bladder. Aside from the intense pain and the likelihood of death by infection or bleeding, these wounds cause the women to suffer a constantly slow leak of urine and fecal matter through her vagina. Some militias find the work of knives and sticks too unreliable, so they prefer to sodomize victims with a firearm and then pull the trigger. The youngest recorded victim of this particular variation of the militias' signature move was a three-year-old girl. However, in the context of the film, we're supposed to think that an outbreak of violence like the one Dante depicts as occurring in Florida would be notable.
Violence against women, as it is currently perpetrated on a global scale, is something that staggers the imagination of comfortable Westerners like me and, mostly likely if you're reading this, you. In an effort to put a number on the scale of demographic trauma we're dealing with, the Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen applied standard demographic gender disparities to estimates of the global population. In a "standard" world, one expects the male/female divide of the human population to be about 50/50. Actually, in the younger age categories, there are slightly more men because we tend to get weeded out by illness, accidental misadventure, and so on. Comparing the projected demographic split to the actual gender distribution of the globe, Sen found that we're missing an estimated 100 million women. To give you a sense of scale, that's a number of women equal to the populations of California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Illinois combined.
Violence against women is a horror story that actually staggers our ability to tell scary stories. Not only does The Screwfly Solution's vision of a global spike in anti-women violence seem laughable next to the amount of violence women are globally subjected to as a matter of course, but it reveals another issue about horror films that allegedly take a feminist stance: The global status of women might be a horror story, but it's only a horror movie when it happens to middle class, white women.
This is ultimately why The Screwfly Solution fails so profoundly. In it's effort to make a statement about global hegemonic misogyny, it never bothers to grasp anything beyond fear that white Western women might lose what they've gained. That their vision of an apocalyptic nightmare is, in fact, the daily reality of an enormous percentage of the female population simply never occurs to the filmmakers. It uses dispatches from the developing world to reinforce the idea that it is so utterly wrong that the Western world should look like these savage, uncivilized, dark-skinned places. Though even this is done dismissively; the film deploys images of dead exotics in a selfish way - solely with regard for how it will impact our Western eyes - without even the slightest knowledge of what life is like there. There are gorier movies out there, but few so cynical.
Much of this has to do with Dante's own unreflective politics. Dante's is to politics what Billy Joel is to music: the voice of the suburban solipsist. The thrust of Homecoming is that the Iraq War had made America a less pleasant place to live. That's the source of its horror. The issues regarding Iraqis, from the cost of freedom from Saddam to the implications of Saddam's son coming to power to the horrific costs in Iraqi lives, never come up. For Dante, the single worst crime of America's latest Middle East adventure isn't the legal institution of torture or the fact that Iraq is now potentially poised to democratically hand over its government to religious extremists. Rather, he hates - hates hates hates! - the idea that he should be subjects to the rants of a person like Anne Coulter.
Though not all the of the blame rests with Dante. Part of the problem - hate mail goes in the comment section - is the profoundly limited imagination of American feminist horror filmmakers and critics.
In late 2009, a writer for one of the main horror sites, I now forget which one, suggested that there was no such thing as a feminist horror film. His logic, to be honest, was sketchy at best. He argued that since he'd never considered any horror film to be feminist, there was probably no such thing as a feminist horror film. This is the logical equivalent of a color-blind man claiming that, because he's never seen red, the color red does not exist. Rightly, this writer was taken to task for his un-observation. Unfortunately, the much needed correction rallied around a definition of feminist horror that was, in my opinion, the single most Dantesque - and I mean the director of Gremlins and not the man who penned The Inferno - response you could have imagined. The flag was raised on platform that held real feminist horror is would be a movie in which being the protagonist's being a woman was neither a factor in her being threatened nor a factor in her victory over that threat. The result of this approach is to essentially efface the female characters. Boiled down, this approach produces female characters that are basically male horror characters in drag. It steals the structure, concerns, and characterizations of existing "masculine" horror flicks and just swaps out the gender of the hero. It eliminates the distinctions between male and female characters without demanding that attention be given to the real world conditions that are unique to being a women. There's something profoundly wrong with this world and it impacts women in a mind-bogglingly disproportionate way. We're not missing five states worth of men. Those missing women are the accusing ghosts at the table of so-called feminist horror. Where are they? And why should we pretend their story isn't unique and important?
A truly feminist horror film would embrace the fact that, for most women, being unpopular in high school isn't the single most horrific thing most women experience. It would recognize that there's something existentially different about navigating the world as woman rather than man and root the uniquely feminist experience of horror in that fault line. It will recognize that the Buffy-esque conception of horror is both dubiously limited in its ability to speak to a common female experience and grotesquely rooted in what is essentially one dude's stoke fantasy. Perhaps the hardest bit to digest will be that fact that "male" horror doesn't flatter the better angles of man's nature; horror embraces all those things that we don't want to talk about or can't say in polite company. It a reflection of masculinity at its worst, explored by witnesses from the inside. A truly feminist horror tradition won't be a celebration of the importance of flexing one's girl power. It will be an open-eyed confrontation with the crap that scares you. Not only the horror in the world outside you, but the things you're afraid to confront within yourself. In the brothels of the developing world, the former enslaved prostitutes sometimes become the whip-wielding madams. There's more genuine feminist horror in that one sentence than in a million episodes of Buffy.
After long consideration and for very different reasons, I'm going to side with the man who declared that there is no such thing as a feminist horror movie. Admittedly, there are movie out there that are convinced that the issues and troubles of sliver of the female population - notably that segment most likely to pony up cheddar to help some studio's bottom line - are just about the most important things in the world. But this is, most charitably, best described as Western, white, young, middle-class feminist horror. Until somebody makes a movie that genuinely captures the scope of the dread that one feels when one sees the state of women beyond our own limited existence here in the stable, still relatively affluent West, that universal label is just a self-aggrandizing brag.
I don't believe there will ever be a genuine feminist tradition in horror films. Not because of some flaw in feminism. Indeed, the most enduring and most destructive legacy of human existence on this planet has been the widespread oppression of women. Humanity needs feminism.
Rather, I believe this because "-isms" are not the point of horror. Horror upsets. It's a no, not a yes. Even in its most playful and less sinister moods, it is carnivalesque. It overturns that which is supposed to be. It reveals the ugly, the risible, the unwanted, the shunned - without ever truly transforming from the ugly, the risible, the unwanted, the shunned. It's not a revolutionary; it's a trickster figure. Feminist horror, if it existed, would speak the darkest fears of the movement. It would exist not to celebrate feminism's achievements, but to constantly warn us of the things that lurk in the shadows beyond the well-lit village's boundaries. It would act as a Cassandra: an unheeded but incessantly nagging check on the political, ideological, and social ambitions of feminism itself. This is why Dante's Homecoming, while acceptable as liberal agitprop, was crappy horror. It existed to convince the viewer that their conception of the world was spot on. It told liberals, "Hey, every bizarro world notion about your enemies you've ever held was spot on, because you're awesome and they suck." A truly liberal horror flick would have, I don't know, featured a president who pulled out of the conflict on time table to score votes at home only to be invaded by zombie Iraqi corpses angry that we wrecked their country and lives to stop short because the costs of what we were doing was making our fat and comfortable asses unhappy. These zombies would force us to confront the fact that we claim to hold ideas of freedom and liberty as sacred, but would rather not confront tyranny abroad if it means burnishing the war-time prez cred of a candidate we dislike. Horror that confirms an audience's self-congratulatory prejudices isn't worth the label horror. Just call it therapy. Then at least you could charge the going hourly rate for it.
Anywho, The Screwfly Solution is a middling installment in the MoH series. Good premise, flawed execution.
Saturday, January 23, 2010
Chris Quigley fondly remembers one of the jewels in America's roadside attraction crown: Gatorland of Orlando, Florida.
The 100-acre park was established in 1949 and houses thousands of alligators and crocodiles, including some albinos. The animals can be seen from boardwalks and an observation tower, and high-jumping for chickens and being wrestled in live shows. The preserve also offers a petting zoo (not for the gators!) and an aviary.
I've got no dog in the Avatar fight. I haven't seen it and most likely never will. Why? There's one blog reviewer who I've found has just about the opposite tastes I have. He's my fandom opposite. I can reliably trust him to develop carpal tunnel syndrome strokin' it over the largest steaming piles he can find. And this anti-me loved Avatar. In fact, he dusted off that classic bit of critical lameness "if you don't like Film X, you don't like movies." So that pretty much put paid to the whole thing. Then, lest I weaken, another blogger used the following analogy to defend the flick: "You don't ride the Coney Island Cyclone for plot." Which is true - but that's just one of several reasons I don't ride the Coney Island Cyclone when I want to see a movie. (Nor, to be fair, do I see a movie when I want to ride the Coney Island Cyclone. ) Anyway, that handily extinguished any interest I had in the film. That said, here's an Avatar bit.
Caleb Crain really hated Avatar. That's not particularly notable, but his odd nearly stream-of-consciousness essay ending comparing the movie's Na'vi to vampires is striking:
Why does the digital nativity bother me so much? I think the answer has something to do with the smug anti-corporate plot. In reality—in the reality outside the movie—the Na'vi, too, are a product of corporate America and are creatures of technology, not nature. Now there's nothing wrong with technology per se, and there's nothing wrong with fantasy, either. But Avatar claims that there is something wrong with technology, and that the Na'vi of Pandora somehow represent opposition to it. That's rank mystification, and one has to wonder about motive. I think there are aspects of being human that a movie like Avatar wants to collude with its viewers in denying—aspects of need and of unfixable brokenness. There are traces of this denial in the movie. We never see the Na'vi eating, for instance, except when the transcarnated Sully briefly samples a significantly pomegranate-like fruit. Yet they have high, sharp canines. Vampire-like canines. Indeed, Sully turns into a Na'vi after he lies down in his coffin-pod. Once he takes to his avatar, even his human body has to be coaxed to eat. Like a vampire's, Sully's cycles of waking and sleeping become deeply confused. In the unconscious of the movie, I would submit, all the Na'vi are avatars. That is, they are all digital representations of humans, lying elsewhere in coffin pods. And they are all vampires. They have preternatural force and speed, wake when others sleep, and feed on the life-force of mere humans—the humans lying in the pods, as a matter of fact. This, I think, is the strange lure of the movie: Wouldn't you like to be the vampire of yourself? Wouldn't you like to live in an alternate reality, at the cost of consuming yourself? Vampires have a culture, a community, feelings. They don't have bodies, but they have superbodies. The only glitch is this residue offstage, rotting and half-buried, that you won't ever be able separate from altogether—until, at last, you can.
It Seems So Obvious Once Somebody Points It Out
The only t-shirt more truthful than this is the one I have that says I'll never reveal the Wu-Tang secret. Seriously. Never. Don't ask me.
Thursday, January 21, 2010
Just FYI, here's the Amazon rankings of the cape and cowl set's biggest hitters in the category "books."
Wathcmen - rank: 433
Batman: The Dark Night Returns - rank: 1,430
Incognito - rank: 4,284
Batman: Year One - rank: 4,887
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, vol. 1 - rank: 5,645
Batman: Arkham Asylum - rank: 6,466
Anybody want to guess what the as-yet-unreleased first volume of the mangafied Twilight adaptation is ranked on the strength of pre-orders alone?
Twilight: The Graphic Novel, vol. 1 - rank: 4
Great googly moogly.
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
I think I dropped the ball on Paranormal Activity. I suspect that you had to see it in the theaters to truly get what this movie was about. You had to be sitting in an audience of a hundred and fifty or more willing participants, all hyped and eager to get scared. That's what the movie was meant for.
In fact, the formal and visual elements of the movie seem tailor built for mass participation. Last time I was in a social group and the title Paranormal Activity was dropped, the title was greeted with a collective "hunh" of unknowing. Outside of the horror fancy and their loved ones, it doesn't seem to have made much of an impact. On the assumption that there are readers of this blog who are not here for the horror but rather the comedy of watching me ramble on about cannibals and the like, I'll briefly spoil the plot. Micah, a day trader (back when that "profession" didn't sound like a slang term for sucker), and Katie, a student pursuing her education degree, live in an absurdly large home: Two floors, three bedrooms, two + plus baths, kitchen, dining room, I live in New York so it's important to me, living room, large yard with pool. Oh, and a functional fireplace. Kidding aside, we're going to discuss their house later, so this isn't just an apartment renter getting a rubbery one over some choice housing pron.
Now, given their level of affluence, Micah must be a wiz at choosing stocks, predicting fluctuations in futures markets, and sniffing out poor folks who won't be able to pay off their housing loans. But he's an absolute bonehead when it comes to choosing a female companion. Turns out Katie has been ground zero for freaky deaky demonic possession style activity for like forever. Since she's been eight, an supernatural entity with no respect for the property or sleep habits of others has been stalking her on and off. Micah and Katie attempt to take proactive action to rid themselves of this infernal pest guest, but that sparks an escalation of activity that eventually leads to fatal consequences. Like these things do. Truly a child of the Girls Gone Wild and YouTube age, Micah captures the whole downward spiral on camera. In essence, the flick alternates between day time scenes, in which Katie and Micah stress about what they should do, and nighttime scenes, in which Katie and Micah find themselves pretty much at the mercy of their invisible tormentor.
The alternating day/night scenes - the pattern of theater illuminating sun-kissed full color shots and stretches of pale grey and green porny night vision - gets everybody in the audience working the same groove as reliably as the animated bouncing ball used to do in theater sing-along shorts. (What a sad day it was for popular culture when we crew to cynical for that. Even that horrible "Citizen Soldier" song from Nickleblind 182 would be tolerable if, throughout the add, a little bouncing animated smiling National Guardsman's face encouraged the entire audience to sing along.) It gives the audience a breather to laugh and make fun of the reactions of others, throws in some chatter for the bloggers to theorize about later, and then focuses everybody's attention again by dimming the lights. The transition from day to night in this flick works not unlike the dimming of lights in a movie theater: "Alright people, time to pay attention." In a gentler era, William Castle would have dubbed the night vision effect Demon-O-Vision and audience members would have all slid "Vatican-designed protective goggles" on to prevent demonic possession via the eyes. Even without the Castle-isms, it's a brilliant use of a simple visual pattern to marshal viewer expectations. The film quickly trains the viewer to watch it. It's nearly a Pavlovian reaction: As soon as the lights dim, viewers find themselves scrutinizing the nearly static image of Katie and Micah's room, searching for the slightest hint of supernatural shinanigans. Who knew you could make a nicely effective fright flick out of Warhol's Sleep? Go fig.
Not that such intense scrutiny is necessary; when the baddie does act, it isn't anything you'd miss. In fact, its the viewers tendency to subject the screen to hyperscrutiny whenever the lights are dimmed that makes the low-fi scares director/writer Oren Peli deploys so effective. When you're scrutinizing every inch of the screen for the slightest tell-tale twitch of activity, suddenly moving the door to the bedroom a few inches seems like a monumental shift in what you're seeing. This is how a flick that, for most of its running time, threatens its characters with nothing more sinister than the inexplicable flicking of light switches managed to land such high spots on so many best-of lists last year. The film knows how to prep the willing viewer. This is also, coincidentally, why there's so much bad data in so many reviews of this flick. Not only have reviewers consistently overstated the amount of ruckus the invisible stalker commits - a single light flicked on and off becomes a tour of the house with lights going on and off as the demon moves from room to room - but have overstated elements of the flick that occur during the daylight scenes - transforming the milquetoast Micah into the equivalent of an abusive spouse. This is the oddest critical transformation since Micah's biggest sin seems to be that he's a bit of a tech geek and slightly overconfident. In the relationship, he's the weaker of the pair. He capitulates to nearly every whim of Katie's, apologizes for the one time he doesn't, and never even tries to force an apology out of her for knowingly bringing this monster into his life. Honestly, who is more at fault here: Micah, who can sometimes be insensitive about what he's recording, or Katie, who neglected to mention her superpowered, unstoppable demon stalker before Micah moved in with her? People are so keyed up that they lose sense of perspective, both visually and thematically.
Since I missed out on what I think it the quintessential Paranormal Activity experience, I'm going to just share some observations in lieu of the standard review.
Size does matter, but in the opposite way.
Micah and Katie live in a huge house. One that, honestly, doesn't really seem like theirs. They have three bedrooms, all of them done up with queen-sized beds. No junky storage room. No office for Micah, though he supposedly spends most of his days there "at the office." The middling efforts to disguise the set aside, the real issue is that their house is too big for them keep an eye on what's going on. The demon can play with their heads for so long because there's so much unsupervised room for the demon to roam around in.
In contrast, if the movie featured my wife and I in our apartment, we would have reached the do or die moment with our tormentor in the first 10 minutes of the film. We wouldn't have any "Did you see those lights go on?" moments. No slamming doors, no need to have one person wait vulnerable in the bedroom while the other explores the attic or whatever. Nope. We can pretty much do the whole sweep for demonoid phenomenon from our bed.
That saved time is something to consider if you're demon haunted and looking for new digs.
Don't negotiate with terrorists from beyond.
Depending on which ending you see, either Katie and Micah end up dead or Micah ends up dead and Katie gets demonified. Variable details aside, it's fair to say that they get royally screwed regardless of the ending you prefer.
I bring this up because Micah and Katie regularly fail to pull the trigger on getting outside help because they fear that bringing in exorcists or the Ghostbusters or whatever will upset the demon. And if they upset the demon, the demon might kill them both. Or kill one of them and demonify the other. Better not risk upsetting the spirit of evil that dwells in their house and wishes to harm them. After all, the demon might get so mad it will wish to harm them even more harmfully.
This would also be an opportune time to mention that their fears of what might happen if they upset the demon that wants to eat their souls or whatever are crystalized by an account of a similar case of possession that ended with the death of the demon-haunted woman involved. When the woman sought outside help, the demon killed her. It's worth noting that they find the story following a clue the demon left them. That's right. Essentially the demon sends them to "proof" that they'll die if they try to get help. Why the demon might be trying to scare them away from getting outside help doesn't seem to cross the collective mind of Katie and Micah.
What's the take home? Don't hesitate. Don't listen to the soul-craving embodiment of all that's unholy. Get help immediately. Get a bunch of collar-wearing pros to hit this mammer jammer with the smells and bells and take the fight to him. Don't let the demon set the agenda and don't play by his rules. He's pure evil. Nothing you are going to do will make him eviler.
The alternate ending isn't all that.
Though much has been made of the clumsy CGI at the end of the theatrical release, less has been made of the narrative opacity of the original ending. In the original, despite the fact that we've spent the whole movie learning that the demon "wants" Katie for some reason - presumably possession, I guess - the demon uses his handful of minutes within her to make he commit suicide. Which means that really the demon just wanted to kill her, I guess. But he's been inexplicably waiting 20 odd years for just the right night for it. Maybe demons are just really picky about when they off somebody or maybe it took more than two decades for the demon's bad-emotion-o-meter to fill up to it Finishing Move threshold. I dunno.
Honestly, the original ending strikes me as if it belonged to a film in which we were never clear whether or not Katie was haunted by an invisible monster or whether she was just crazy. Then the last image of her cutting her own throat would be ambiguous. Was she under demonic possession? Is she insane? (In fact, if we have to allegorize this flick, I propose we ditch the untenable domestic violence allegory for an allegory of what a resurfacing mental condition can do to a household. It's like The Metamorphosis, but being haunted by a demon replaces turning into a bug as your symbol for mental illness. The rest falls loosely into place: fears that treatment might be worse than the disease, her significant other's powerlessness, getting dire news but no real help from specialists who pass you on to other non-helpful specialists, etc. It's a start.) But since the filmmakers firmly establish the reality of the supernatural threat, it forces you to wonder why the demon didn't just drop a magic piano on Katie's head years ago.
Awkward as the visuals may be, the theatrical ending at least makes sense with the film's own established narrative. Between the two, I found it the more satisfying.
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
The Creature is, unabashedly, my favorite of all the old Universal monsters. This is why I've never actually written a review my favorite horror film, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, before. And, honestly, I don't think I can do it now. You can't review something you love. That would be like giving a clear-eyed critique of your lover's sexual chops while you're both still in the afterglow. (If you think that's a good idea, try it and see.) So this is less a review than a tribute - which is appropriate since this whole shebang is a tribute to another horror-centric amphibian: Mermaid Heather. So, with her kind permission and your patience, let's talk Creature.
Of all the classic marquee-grade monsters in Universal stable, two of them are notable in that they never receive a name. Though he's often erroneously called by his creator's name, Frankenstein's tormented creation is never named. The other nameless horror is the man fish creature at the center of the Black Lagoon franchise. Unlike Dracula or Larry Talbot or Imhotep, these two characters remain "the Monster" and "the Creature."
Curiously, these also happen to be the two monsters whose backstories are scientific rather than supernatural. Though there's a notable distinction between the two. The Monster, of course, is a product of Frankenstein's mad science. He's a freakish thing, an affront the natural order, a rip in the sense of the world brought into being through an act of supreme will and profound hubris. In this, Frankenstein's monster most resembles a work of art. He's a unique imposition of man's will onto the raw material of nature that, once created, takes on a life of its own.
The Creature, on the other hand, is unique in the Universal pantheon in that he (and everybody assumes the Creature is a he) is not a freak of nature. Richard Carlson, doing his heroic-square bit in the role of Dr. David Reed, repeatedly mentions that the Creature is a logical result of evolution. The isolated, Edenic lagoon of the title is, the good doctor tells us, "its natural habitat." When skeptical Dr. Thompson and the jovial, yet curiously sinister, guide Lucas express doubt as to the existence of the Creature - even after two other doctors on the expedition claim to have seen it - the nay-sayers are given a lecture by Kay, the expedition’s resident hottie and fashion plate, on the amazing diversity of amphibious life. The impossible, Kay suggests, is just the real we haven't discovered yet. The Creature is, in an odd way, the anti-uncanny. Instead of "what should never be," the strange and mysterious Creature is: He's as he should be, in his natural home.
The rest is o Heather's site. Go check it out.
Monday, January 18, 2010
Friday, January 15, 2010
Was any movie more praised on release, only to be more neglected come best-of list time than Thirst, Chan-wook Park's stylish and tormented subversion of the modern strain of vampire romance? That horror bloggers regularly made room on their lists for dreck like the My Bloody Valentine remake or Raimi's smirking phoned-in greatest hit clip collection Drag Me to Hell, while no less a L7 venue like Time Magazine placed Thirst in its top-ten films of the decade list seriously undermines the common blogger accusation that the media mainstream that doesn't get horror.
Though I'm certain it originally received a boost from the critical and popular buzz surrounding the late '08 arrival of Let the Right One In, I now wonder if it wasn't ultimately overshadowed by that film in the minds of fright fans. How many times can you shake up the canon of all time vampire greats in the space of a few months? (This is why the general mediocrity of the Great Zombie Revival is actually the key to its success: A subgenre that reinvents itself in mind-blowing ways every two or three films is going to exhaust the mental bandwidth of its audience as well as sow some discord among people who latch on some particular configuration of the genre elements and decide to become purists. But a certain pandering familiarity, spiced with only slight hints of novelty, neither taxes your audience nor risks alienating them.)
Park's flick - with its black hole for a heart - would be an insufferable emotional endurance test if he didn't have the visual chops to sell it. I'll admit that I've never much liked Park's thrillers. OldboyThirst strikes me as a more assured work. Perhaps just slightly less gory than the work Park usually produces, it still pulls no punches. More importantly, however, Park's confidence in the face of his own violent visions has increased. Thirst is beautiful even when it is at its most horrible. In one scene, Park captures blood flowing from the priest's mouth, down and through a bone white recorder he's playing. The red streams of blood seem so weighty, so alive, that they evoke a tactile response. The viewer wants to feel them. Long after every film is a 3D spectacle, our grandchild will pity us for our sad little 2D cinema. It will be impossible to explain to them that, before 3D came around, good filmmakers didn't need it to create an immersive experience.
Thursday, January 14, 2010
From the article:
The movie's marketing poster shows a simple solitary star with a Chinese character nested within it, and the by-line: "They are here to help." The Soviet threat could never have been couched so innocently in the original movie; the subtext of our disagreement with the Soviet Union was ideological, matters related not only to differing views on economic theory, but more fundamental questions regarding personal liberty and matters of our essential humanity. Consequently, the Red Dawn remake will have to walk a finer line, showing how a once symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship turns sour, to such an extent that one country chooses to invade the other.
The original movie paid only scant attention to American collaborators, preferring to focus on the valor of those who resisted; but amidst the city of Detroit so beset by economic calamities, scriptwriters could be easily forgiven were they to suggest that more citizens of Detroit might be tempted to join the ranks of the "liberators". The propaganda posters likely envision this, in particular one which shows the infamous Wall Street bull with a "Chimerica" flag driven through its heaving chest, the words "Fighting Corporate Corruption" boldly written across the poster. The original Red Dawn made no attempt to cast the invading Soviets as good guys; they were invaders bent on conquest. The new movie appears to go to some lengths to represent the Chinese as solutions to the most acute of American problems in the most severely hit of American cities.
This week, the evolutionary biologist Michael Lynch has published a provocative paper (to mark his inauguration into the National Academy of Sciences) in which he makes another kind of forecast. Our future evolution, he warns, is going to lead to a devastating decline in our health. . .
Lynch concludes that every gamete (a sperm or egg) acquires the following:
–38 base-substitution mutations (a single “letter” of DNA changes to another one).
–3 small insertions or deletions of a stretch of DNA
–1 splicing mutation (which changes the combination of segments of a gene that cells use to build proteins)
–Plus some assorted other mutations (gene duplications, insertions of DNA copied by transposable elements, and so on).
All told, Lynch estimates a total of 50 to 100 mutations.
A lot of the new mutations in every new baby are harmless. But each baby may acquire a few harmful ones. These mutations rarely cause a swift death. Instead, in their totality, they slice off a tiny fraction of the total offspring an entire population can produce. Lynch estimates that mutations to protein-coding DNA cause the fitness of a population to decline by 1%. That’s assuming natural selection does not favor other mutations over these harmful ones.
Lynch acknowledges that natural selection is still in effect in humans, particularly in places where people never see doctors, let alone get clean drinking water. But as the world’s standard of living goes up, he argues, more and more people are being shielded from natural selection’s most intense effects–and harmful mutations are piling up.
In a matter of a few centuries, Lynch predicts, industrialized societies may experience a huge increase in harmful genes–”with significant incapacitation at the morphological, physiological, and neurobiological levels,” he writes.
Ironically, though Lynch's theory sounds suspiciously like the protect-our-genes ranting of paleo- and neo-eugencists, it fatally undermines the eugenic argument by pointing out how useless such a program would be. You can't stop the inevitable micromutations Lynch points to above, but you can go out of your way to make sure you're doomed by minimizing natural selection and maximizing the concentration of mutated genes by limiting your gene pool.
Battling this decline won’t be easy, says Lynch. Rather than a few big mutations causing the trouble, the decline will be brought about by a vast number of mutations, each with a very small effect. The fantasies of selective breeding dreamed of by eugenicists aren’t just loathesome–they’re also useless. Instead, Lynch argues for something that would make the eugenicists crazy. “Ironically, the genetic future of mankind may reside predominantly in the gene pools of the least industrialized segments of society,” he writes.
In short, if you're single, you need to do your part to save the human race by getting some hot you-on-somebody-else action on across ethnic barriers. That's right! It's no longer your creepy fetish; it's the only way to save humanity. Do it now, for the future.