Thursday, June 30, 2011

Books: Stabbing her repeatedly with sharp, knife-like reproductive organs.

Ben H. Winters, author of the junior high punk rock detective YA book The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman and the more recent adult horror novel Bedbugs, has probably resigned himself to the fact that he's basically going to be remembered for his novelty mash-up Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies. Oft gifted and rarely read, PPZ was notable for the odd feeling of wasted effort that haunted it. The joke concept at the core of the book was so slim that it was expended the moment one saw the title, making whatever was between the covers pretty much superfluous. In fact, worse than superfluous: The humor of the concept depended on understanding that the proposed fusion would inevitably awkward and fruitless, so the subsequent effort to carry out the plan became somewhat embarrassing and tedious. It's like the old Monty Python gag about the Proust-summarizing contest in which contestants attempt to communicate a comprehensive and lively abridgment of À la recherche du temps perdu using semaphore. The whole joke's right there. The ha-ha's come from an awareness of how ill-suited the proposed combination of medium and content is. The value of semaphore is lost to the length of the task; the value of Proust's work is destroyed by semaphore's low resolution. If you actually had to then sit through several contestants flag-waving their way through all seven volumes of Proust's semi-autobiographical masterpiece, the joke would become murderously dull. The Pythons, comedy masters that they were, only stayed on the joke long enough for the absurdity sink in, and then moved on. PPZ shows no similar insight into the logic of comedy. The experience of actually reading Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies is an experience akin to sitting through a full Proust-summarizing semaphore contest.

Happily for this reader, Winters's new book isn't bridled with the grim task of rendering a clever joke into a humorless novel-length mess. A far more nimble creature, Bedbugs is a slice of retro-influenced middle class real-estate paranoia, in the manner of Amityville or Poltergeist, repackaged as a spook story about satanic bedbugs. I kid you not. Bedbugs from Hell, literally. Using bedbugs as your central nasty is a smart idea that, I'm certain, hundreds of other horror writers - especially in New York - are kicking themselves for having not come up with it earlier. Bedbugs are ready-made horror villains, true examples of just how truly repugnant Mother Nature can let herself get.

Did you know that female bedbugs have no sexual orifice? The male bedbugs swarm the female in mating, stabbing her repeatedly with sharp, knife-like reproductive organs. If she's lucky, one of these bayonet-penises breaks through her exoskeleton at the location of her reproductive organs and fertilizes her eggs. Often, however, in the mad scramble to procreate, the males stab the female anywhere they can reach, filling other organs with their sperm, sometimes to fatal effect. Yeah, I know. That's what I was trying to tell you. An author doesn't even have to make up that part. They're already freakish little nightmares.

For the purposes of a horror story, however, its another, less Rabelais-by-way-of-American Psycho trait that makes bedbugs so attractive as the focus of a horror story. Bedbugs can be strangely hyper-selective. Even if a couple share an infested bed, it isn't unusual for just one partner to be turned into a blood buffet for the bedbugs while the other partner sleeps soundly, untouched. In real life, this causes all sorts of strain and weirdness among the families that get infected. One partner starts getting phobic about the beds and couches, they can't sleep, they get paranoid and can be found searching the bed frames at weird hours of the night. The other can't do anything but sympathize and suppress ever growing frustration. It's your basic haunted house rising-action dynamic: primary victim keeps experiencing things; they're experiences are ignored; what slim evidence there is reinterpreted by others; and people try to be sympathetic, but they really think that the victim is simply losing their marbles.

That classic formula provides gives us the framework of the first half of Bedbugs. The Brooklyniest couple that ever juggled their creative impulses with the need for middle class security moves into a new brownstone duplex in the Brooklynest Brooklyn of all Brooklyns imaginable. (Winters's efforts to situate his narrative in post-collapse Cobble Hill are nearly manic - odd pile-ups of stereotypes, place names, and brand references - and never resolve whether they're meant as reportage or satire. I'm not sure this is the fault of Mr. Winters, himself a Bostonian. Any description of parental culture in modern Brooklyn necessarily straddles the line between reportage and satire.) Before you can say "orgy of bayonet-like bedbug penises," the book's lead, former legal industry drone turned housewife and painter, finds herself falling to a plague of bedbugs who, though they are leaving bites all over her skin, can't be seen. As the book progresses, the attacks get worse and worse, but there's never any sign of the bugs. Is she crazy? (Prolly not.) Or is she under siege by demonic, supernatural bedbugs? (Now we're talking!)

Perfectly timed as summer reading, Bedbugs fuses easy humor with campy mommy-horror and the occasionally grotesque set piece. It's a bit slow to start. I imagine Winters meant this as an allusion to the deliberate pacing of '70s domestic horror, but Winters never really strives for the (mostly unmerited) gravitas of the previous works, so the result is something of a drag, as what is meant to be horror must coast on the goodwill the author builds up with his good-natured ribbing of Brooklyn. Overall, it's a likeable diversion and worth the pick-up for genre fans seeking lighter fare.

That said, publishers Quirk are doing nobody any favors with their slipshod editing of the work. I've been told that basic copyediting is no longer a function editorial house bother themselves with. The incredible number of typos and correctly-spelled but misplaced terms ("she folded the strolled") suggests this rumor is true. Setting that aside as a lost cause, editors still should have encouraged Winters to tighten up his game: his use of generic placeholder terms where precise vocabulary and description could easily be used - for example, at one point a character buys "a thing of sausage;" a package? a pound? a link? what? - regularly crosses the line from vernacular to simple laziness. Demand better, editors: that's your job. The authors will, eventually, thank you for it.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Movies: Enjoy, puny human!

It's hard to imagine the summer will give you better entertainment than Super 8. That's true whether you read that as a rousing endorsement or a statement of surrender.

In Super 8, J. J. Abrams has produced the perfect masscult artifact. Double J's alien-amok flick isn't just professional to the point that it's so slick it makes Astroglide look like P12 sandpaper; there's plenty of directors whose personal signatures embrace a smooth proficiency (see David Fincher). Nor is this a matter of Super 8's constant stream of allusions; whatever his faults, one can't say that Tarrantino's personal signature gets lost under his obsessive recycling. In fact, Super 8's perfection as a masscult object isn't strictly a matter of Abrams's direction. It also a matter of audience reception. The identifying characteristic of masscult production, if one is still allowed to evoke such such an elitist and ostentatiously divisive concept, is the way it turns both creator and audience a type, a member of some demographic, part of a mass. Further more, it contains its own interpretation: it does the work of thinking and feeling for you. What Super 8 does, and I intentionally personify the film because I believe, in this case, it clearly has an agency beyond Abrams' slender talents, is turn the life-work of a prior, superior artist into a formula and invite audiences to react not to the film in question, but to their collective memory of those prior, superior works. It's a quilt of stitched together shared experiences and we're not really responding to it as we are to those shared experiences. Super 8 isn't homage or pastiche; it's Pavlovian movie making.

I don't mean that as a criticism, necessarily. Sure, it causes some problems. Super 8's near-total reliance on the idea that audiences will respond automatically to certain visual patterns does get it in trouble. First, there's several odd plot points that only make sense if you assume you've dropped into a parallel dimension where Spielberg created the rules of logic. Though, honestly, nobody in any film acts "realistic." If they did, movies would be a tedious bore. The second, and by far more serious, drawback is Super 8's tendency to try to cash emotional checks it can't cover. Most notably, the film's E.T. Moment(TM) fully expects to slide by simply on the fact that audience members will recognize that it is the E.T. Moment(TM) and feel the according emotions. The result of this faith in a sort of response algebra is that Abrams includes several scenes that are emotionally inert, but the viewer knows, with a level of response-deadening remove, that this is the X-Scene that's supposed to feel Way-Y. See "the two males leads work out the romantic problem scene," "the two father's bury their differences scene," and "the cross-species mutual get-it scene" for examples of this dynamic in action. For the most part, however, the plan works exactly a it should.

It's hard to fault something for being so clearly the hyper-competent work of a skilled craftsman, following a clearly successful blueprint that's pretty much guaranteed to work. Often, we're told that a certain film requires a viewer "turn their brain off." While it's sad this is often used as a compliment, the directive to purposefully infantalize yourself before a supposed entertainment is usually well-intentioned. More often than not, anybody with slightly higher standards than a voluntarily auto-labotimized would find most genre dreck insulting in its brazen assumption of audience stupidity. Super 8 isn't really a shut-your-brains off sort of flick. It panders, but it does so on two levels. This is top notch pandering. Consequently, it isn't particularly fulfilling, but you don't feel dirty for having swallowed it. During the summer wave of blockbuster hopefuls, I don't think you can reasonably ask for more.

Really, just about the only folks I could see getting upset at Super 8 are genre-fans who have some irrational fetish for the material Super 8 so ruthlessly mines. To folks who make their name confusing nostalgia for quality, Super 8 must seem like a classier, younger, better put together lot lizard suddenly appeared on their stretch of the truck stop. Worse, in fact: it must be like somebody who actually trawls the truck stop looking for love watching her favorite trucker invite a clearly mercenary whore into his sleeper. Super 8 makes it clear that the art we enjoyed in our youth got most of its impact from the fact that we were young when we saw it. And, more importantly, there's no art or expertise in mining it for gems. It can be done mechanically, for a quick buck. Since you shill to the same demo, everybody already thinks the same things about all the same movies. It's a product of the aging process, not the development of taste. If you're the kind of viewer that believes a film can violate the "spirit" of, say, the late 1970s to early 1980s, then Super 8 is too honest a money-making venture for you and you should stay home and rub another one out to the weird "how'd she end up topless in a PG-13 movie scene" of your Sheena: Queen of the Jungle bootleg Betamax tape. Otherwise, you'll probably enjoy it. In fact, you almost have no choice about it.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Television: House of 1,000 Unisex Solid Paprika Rib Vest Sweaters.

If you're anything like me, when you think "high-quality, color-fast detergent that will handle tough stains without damaging my ," you think Rob Zombie. Here's Mr. Zombie's Woolite commercial. Enjoy!

Here's the link, so that you can enjoy the full-screen image.

Does anybody know why Blogger no longer fits any standard video in it's copy column?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Movies: Nick Fury, Magica de Spell, Godzilla, the guy from Die Hard, Evel Knievel, and Dracula.

The subtitle of Resident Evil: Afterlife comes dangerously to being a frank admission on the part of Paul W. S. Anderson. It's as if he was too honest to not telegraph the fact that the series, which was creatively bankrupt after the first 20 minutes of the first flick nearly ten years ago, had entered into a zombie stage. Though without the terrible menace the Z word implies. There's absolutely nothing dangerous about this lazy jumble of stolen visual references and tired plot points. No, the RE franchise is a zombie the way a zombie bank is a zombie: It's a decaying institution whose prior profitability was mistaken for fitness, a delusion that keeps number crunching bureaucrats ordering code blues every couple of years.

A plot summary gives this film too much credit. It shows continuity insomuch as there are some reoccurring characters, notably our superpowered heroine Alice. It should be said, however, that it lacks continuity insomuch as the first 10 to 15 minutes of the flick work diligently to ensure that almost nothing of significance from the previous films comes into play in this one. The army of super Alices? They all go ka-boom. Alice Prime's superpowers? She loses them to some injection of pseudo-science. (Though, as far as I can tell, the superpowers were understood to be something built into her as she was an artificial being, and not some enhanced human. Whatever. The phrase "as far as I can tell" reveals I've already spent more time sweating the details of this flick than the screenwriter did.)

(Wait. Hold on.)

(Okay. I had to check. IMDB says, yes, despite all evidence to the contrary, this film did have a screenwriter. It was auteur, Mr. Anderson himself. He's truly the Orson Welles of utterly shitty video game adaptation zombie schlock crap franchises.)

Instead of a plot summary, the best way to understand this film is to think of it as a near film made out of clips from other flicks. Matrix, Blade 2, the Dawn of the Dead remake, the most recent I Am Legend, Aliens . . . the list goes on and on. And this isn't an homage, or a a confluence of subtexts, a genre-centric blazon[1], or any other fancy-pants term one might have picked up from that freshman intro to film studies course. Instead, it's like somebody signed of on a huge budget for Paulie A's big ass game of backyard war. For those unfamiliar with backyard war because you were never a young boy, the game's pretty simple. Everybody announces who they are. For example: "I'm Robocop" or "I'm King Arthur" or "I'm Wolverine." Then you fight. You might ask, "So, under what circumstances, exactly, would Nick Fury, Magica de Spell, Godzilla, the guy from Die Hard, Evel Knievel, and Dracula all be fighting?" To which Paulie A. would answer, "Don't queer the magic, dude. It's money. Let them fight."

(As an aside, John McClane, Evel Knievel, and Nick Fury surprisingly teamed-up with Drac and saved the day. I know, WTF? But it happened. I was there.)

Sadly, Anderson's willingness to just throw anything into the blender is matched by a palate that hasn't stretched past the most obvious selections of horror-nerd culture from the past decade or so. He's like a dude cutting lose in his own basement man-cave. Sure, he's breaking all kinds of feet-on-the-furniture rules, but what is it really getting us.

Honestly, of all the broken metaphors I've offered up tonight, that's the closest I'll get. This flick is the equivalent of watching Paul W. S. Anderson recline on his couch and tuck his hand snuggly, comfortably, Bundyishly, into his slacks. If that's your thing, right on, mang.

Though, be honest, you know you played far cooler games of backyard war, and it didn't cost ya' nothing.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Movies: I'll give you my Axe Body Spray(TM) when you pry it from my cold, dead hands!

The obvious reference point for Jake West's 2009 lad-inflected zomcom actioner Doghouse is Edgar Wright's 2004 Shaun of the Dead. The loglines are similar enough: Underachieving male lead with relationship problems sorts his life out during a zombie outbreak. The chief distinction between the flicks lies in just what you mean when you declare your life sorted.

The titular hero of Wright's work has a familiar character arc: for all the yucks and guts, Shaun's recognizable from a million dramas and comedies as "the man who needs to grow up." He's got to make peace with a father figure while simultaneously making a definitive break from influence of his parents. He's got to assume the mantle of responsibility and he's got to secure his relationship with the woman in his life. For all Wright's visual and verbal inventiveness, Shaun's journey to adulthood is pretty standard stuff. That only sounds like criticism until you've seen Doghouse.

If you throw a frisbee so that the disk is released with an upward tilt, the frisbee will gain altitude as it flies. At some point, it'll stall out in its ascent and begin a steep drop. Eventually, whatever combo of drag and lift, wind and spin is working on it will give it enough power to right itself and fly back toward the original point of take off. Sooner or later, the disk runs out of power, but if you've tossed it right, you'll be able to catch it without moving. I'm not sure what you'd call the figure traced by the flight of the frisbee. It isn't an arc, because of the looping return. A loop would suggest a more rounded figure. For purposes of the post, we're going to call this shape - an oddly curvy triangle that looks like a child's rendering of a wind-filled sail - the Frisbee Aerial Return Triangle, or FART.

The male characters in Doghouse don't follow arcs so much as they FART their way through the flick. They start out as a set of variably boisterous losers all on the lam from a collection of stereotype women (I think it is fair to say that even the gay member of our stag party has a partner who is, gender aside, essentially a needy, nagging shrew). Their metaphoric/social conflict becomes a violent, deadly one when the boys find themselves stranded in a town where all the ladies have been transformed into zombie-like homicidal monsters - while, luckily, retaining their stereotypical identities: the hair-dresser, the witch, the barmaid, the fat cow wife, etc. The boys reach the peak of their development when they decide to embrace their arrested development and start fighting back against the legion of female archetypes arrayed against them. We learn the valuable lesson that the point of men is that we're irresponsible, not terribly bright, emotionally limited creatures - and we should be proud of it. Finally, we basically end up with everybody back where they started, except for the few lads who were killed along the way.

The "war of the sexes" is a theme that's rarely employed with any sincerity. More often than not, the "war" is an ambush and a slaughter. Few people have picked up pen, paint, or camera intending to document the tensions between men and women with anything like objectivity or impartiality. It is the theme of choice for those with an axe to grind. So it is here. As far as we can tell, the gents that populate this flick are kind of douchebags. With the exception of the sad sack leader of the pack, they are stalled out examples of modern man-boys. It's far too easy to imagine that, yeah, were I a chick, I'd have had it with this JLA of modern male lameness too. West, however, plays the film out like this band of bros is a ragtag Dirty Dozen on a mad near-suicide mission in the battle for gender freedom.

I should point out too, this isn't me stretching for some political subtext here. West made the liberation of Maxim readers everywhere his central motif. When a character tells his fellow bros to grab golf clubs and bash everything "in a dress," its clear that subtext is the whole text here.

Not that I'm personally upset by the absurdly whatever-the-male-equivalent-of-hysterical-is representation of women. It's unclear to me how offensive the movie would be to a female viewer. On one hand, it is clearly giant middle-finger to anything that doesn't have a penis dangling between its legs. On the other hand, I could easily imagine a woman assuming this was some oddly rigorous exercise in satire by an artist so committed to his joke that he never revealed the slightest crack in his character. The latter position, though, she would most take only because the idea that the director was serious would be too pathetic to believe.

If Doghouse were extremely funny, scary, or exciting, then perhaps it could be forgiven for the dumbness of its central conceit. If there's anything the history of genre entertainments teaches us, it's that audiences will forgive a work almost anything provided it keeps manically mashing our pleasure buttons with both fists. Any time you see somebody stop to think critically, you know something's broken down. But Doghouse never achieves that escape velocity. Enamored with its own minimalist take on gender politics, it yammers when it should run, complains when it should scream, and rants when it should joke.

Take away lesson: Be offensive if you like; but for God's sake, don't be tedious.