30 Jan 2008

Apocryphal Now

There are two women in Greek mythology who intrigue me - Ariadne and Medea. Despite being quite different characters, they have some similarities. They both were princesses who betrayed their kingdoms and their fathers for the love of a foreign prince. They were both considered “outsiders” in the Greek world. And they both were probably vestigial memories of older local goddesses. Ariadne was Cretan, of course, and the legends of Crete predate the mythology of the Greek mainland. The beautiful mysteries of Minoan civilization, with the cryptic tales of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth, hark back to something very old. So she comes from this primal ancestry. Tradition gives her blonde hair, rare among her people, which marks her out all the more as a “white goddess”. When Theseus arrives on Crete to slay the Minotaur, Ariadne does not hesitate to aid him. Her father Minos was an evil sonuvabitch, and she had no qualms about betraying him for this exciting stranger. Traditional accounts of her story usually do make it sound like nothing more than teenage rebellion. But something much more profound is going on here - the symbolism of the Greek Theseus, winning the Cretan goddess. After he slays the Minotaur and then Minos himself, he flees the island with Ariadne. Their departure, and the death of the Minotaur, is marked by a massive earthquake which destroys most life on the island. This is an ancestral memory of the cataclysm that desolated ancient Crete, allowing the Greek mainland to become the centre of civilisation. But all the love stories of Greek mythology end badly (so why do we call them myths, hah-ha). This one is a great example, and the reason I’ve always had a fascination for the story. After helping her boyfriend to destroy her whole kingdom and make off with her, Ariadne naturally expects a wedding as-soon-as and they’ll go back to Athens. But Theseus has a major problem. He slew the Minotaur, who was Ariadne’s half-brother (oh that’s a ghastly story). Marrying Ariadne would, thereby, make the beast his half-brother in law. And that would make Theseus a kin-slayer - the most hated criminal in that universe. The Furies would descend upon him and tear him to shreds. Realising this, Theseus left her with her bridesmaids, probably made some comment about “popping to the shop for some olives”, then took off in his ship. That’s traditionally where poor Ariadne was left. But this ending was too bleak even for the old Greek poets, and they gave her a second chapter. Left weeping on Naxos, our blonde princess is discovered by none other than Dionysius. If you were a lonely, heartbroken girl, I think the sudden appearance of the “god of good times” come to rock your world would be pretty welcome. Titian summed it up beautifully in this famous painting of 1523: Photobucket Does that party look awesome, or what. “Check it out babe”, Dionysius is saying; “we got leopards, snakes, mutant sex freaks, and me - a flying dude in pink chiffon. Ma say ma sa, ma ma coosa!” And Ariadne’s all like, “Theseus who?”. Accounts of her death vary, but her ultimate fate has always haunted me. I can’t remember the source, so you’ll have to trust me on this one. When she finally arrived in Hades, she received an unusual punishment for her immoral lifestyle. She would spend eternity forever coming out from washing her hair. She would be cursed to repeat the same loop forever; leaving her bathroom, wrapping a towel around her hair, and entering her bedroom. Over and over and over again. This was considered a minor punishment - she got off lightly because her father was a judge of Hades. Medea’s story is even more grim. She’s probably the original wicked stepmother, providing the template for future archetypes. Whenever the old Greek stories needed an evil woman, they rolled out Medea. She was like Joan Collins in a black toga. Being a decidedly foreign element, she was considered a fitting villain in the xenophobic realms of the old stories. But her lasting legacy has been a dark and vibrant one - there is Euripides’ play “Medea”, which either celebrates or condemns her, depending on your viewpoint. She also provided a popular subject for artists, particularly the Pre-Raphaelites, who loved her fatal beauty. Photobucket (This is an 1889 study of her by Evelyn De Morgan, the leading female Pre-Raphaelite. I love how it makes her look like a model in Cosmo advertising a perfume, rather than a poisoner on her way to murder someone. Note the dead birds she tested her poison on in the background) Medea came from Colchis, which is roughly western Georgia in modern terms. In the traditions of her homeland, she is a heroine and figure of great stature; the Greek legends - which our modern perceptions of her are exclusively based on - are considered propaganda and lies. Like Ariadne, a Greek hero (Jason) comes to her land on a sacred quest - to recover the Golden Fleece. This fleece was from the sacred ram Chrysomallos, who later became the starsign Aries. The legends all weave together like a tapestry; and as a proud Aries I have always been fascinated by this story - it’s why our starsign is at the top of the list. So there is an old, pre-Greek basis to this story. It quite possibly symbolises the links between the first Greek explorers and the peoples of Colchis. Like Ariadne, Medea helps her foreign prince to overthrow her father - although Colchis is not destroyed like Crete. Medea’s bloody adventures begin the moment she leaves her kingdom. Having grabbed the sacred Fleece, Jason, Medea and crew frantically sail away. Medea’s father sails in hot pursuit - but she has a nasty plan to stop him. She hacks her brother (who was accompanying her) to death, and throws his parts into the ocean, knowing her father will stop to recover the body and thus lose the pursuit. Note that this bit not qualify her as a kin-slayer; the Greek morality did not apply to her. Also, she was - in most stories - a worshipper of Hecate, wronged described by some as the “goddess of witches”. Hecate protected her worshippers from any blood-guilt. Anyhow, I reckon once Jason saw his fiancée dismember her brother, he should have pulled a Theseus. But a lovestruck man will not see reason, and he decided to marry Medea and take her back to meet his folks. And she did prove useful on the trip back. But when the happy couple arrived back at Jason’s home of Iolcus, Medea decides to get rid of her annoying father-in-law, and tricks his daughters into butchering him. The whole thing kind of backfires, and she and Jason flee. Having finally decided he’s had enough of her, Jason promptly abandons Medea for another woman. But this time, the hero doesn’t get away so easy. Medea kills their children in anger and bitterness. This is what burns her into the modern mind, again largely thanks to Euripides. The horror of a mother destroying her children, and the state of mind she would be in to do it, are Medea’s ultimate legacies. She kinds of fades in and out of the stories, after that point. Her most notable appearance after Jason features our old friend Theseus. Years before the Minotaur, Theseus presents himself to his father, King Aegeus of Athens. And whaddaya know! This old man has found himself a hot young wife from the east called Medea. This is her main, and defining, appearance as wicked stepmother. Medea is disturbed greatly by Theseus’ arrival, hoping to plant her son by Aegeus on the throne. She offers Theseus a poisoned drink, but the gods had forewarned him; he knocks it to the ground and exposes Medea’s evil. She takes off again, into the dark recesses of Greek mythology. Her ultimate fate is unknown; she became too powerful a figure to disappear entirely. I suppose the old stories never do their subjects justice in the end. Consider how history and the movies just don’t go together. They are also antithetical. The historical facts always get in the way of a good story, while movies are all about showing people what they want to see. So the two narratives of history and moviemaking have very different approaches to “truth”. (As much as anything in either realm is ever “true”). Whenever history is brought to the big screen, it has to conform to commerciality - that fatal, creativity-killing “bottom line”. Now I like history, and I like movies. I reckon they could get on a lot better if there was more to it than just selling tickets. But moviemaking doesn’t work like that, so there’s really no room for pedantry. A director will make their movie the way they like, and history can (and usually does) get lost. The need to create something modern and relevant has always seen the facts recast to suit the zeitgeist. Besides, throughout history, good guys usually lose. That doesn’t make for a good movie. Also, many historical figures do not qualify as “hotties”; but no leading actor or modern audience seems prepared to accept an ugly cast. Unless they’re gunning for an Oscar. Of course, history itself is always rewritten to meet modern tastes. We change our views on the past, based on current opinions and prejudices. Film reflects this accordingly. What bothers me most is that movies are pretty much the only way many people learn their history. There’s no shortage of information about historical inaccuracies in movies. Some film nerds seem to devote their lives to pointing out such shortcomings. As nerds are wont, they often go too far. But I feel their overall point is valid. If you’re a history buff, it’s hard to watch a film on a familiar subject without often thinking “what the fuck?”. Sometimes these points are just quibbles - the wrong coloured socks, say. This sort of complaining is just prattle, of a nit-picking kind. But sometimes the changes seem to defeat the whole purpose of the production. For example, the 1998 movie “Elizabeth” contained a scene staggeringly at odds with the historical record. The celebrated Mary, Queen of Scots, is depicted as having been poisoned by spymaster Walsingham after a night of vigorous rumpty-pumpty. Her naked corpse is shown strewn, a la Monroe, across the bed in a laughably gratuitous scene. Actually, “laughably gratuitous” pretty much sums up that movie. Anyway, this bizarre episode is akin, in modern terms, to something like this : Princess Diana actually died after being poisoned by Osama bin Laden, shortly after they had a great dinner followed up by a fabulous shag. O RLY? There is no mention at all of Mary’s years of imprisonment in England, or the complicated plots that were dreamed up to bring her down. There was a period of twenty years between Mary’s capture by the English, and her eventual execution. That execution is so well-recorded, and such a fundament of British history, that the events shown in “Elizabeth” blow the mind. Any connection to ANY kind of historical legitimacy is lost. And this is the point I want to make : if you’re going to change the story so much, why bother with fact? Why not just move the whole thing to the 31st century, redo Elizabeth as Jurangor, Queen of Venus, and do some fantasy sci-fi shit? It would be a damn sight more plausible than rewriting history just so you can show a naked dead chick. The final insult? In 2007 a sequel was produced, where - in a retcon unworthy of the crappiest comic - Mary was right back there again. Basically, they were just making it up as they went along. This is Elizabethan history, not fucking “Lost”. I haven’t seen this movie, I don’t think I could take it. Anyway, it’s been done better by people who actually cared. You know you could talk about the gaps between legend and reality? Those two guys who were crucified next to Jesus. They are named, in apocryphal Catholic tradition, as Dismas and Gestas. I doubt these guys even existed; my theory is that they were added to the Gospels as a symbol of the “good angel” and “bad angel” concept. But then, I am the product of a very warped Catholic education and a Gnostic re-education, so I got heresy breaking out all over the place. The story goes that they’re up there with Jesus, and looking at a slow and horrible death. Gestas, the Unrepentant Thief, curses JC and taunts him : if you’re such a miracle worker, why not get us the hell out of here? (“If thou be Christ, save thyself and us”) Dismas, the Repentant Thief, curses Gestas back, saying they had more reason to be there than Jesus. (“Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss”) Then passes two of the most beautiful lines in the Gospels (Luke 23:42-43): “And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” Normally I prefer the Gospel of John, for it’s poetry, but Luke was the journalist. He caught the details. As a writer I think those lines have a real punch. In Catholic tradition, Dismas became a saint, and a patron of criminals and the condemned. He symbolised the beg for mercy. There’s no mention of Gestas after his one big line. He sidles off somewhere with Medea, to lurk in that void of forgotten people who probably never existed. Speaking of such unfortunates, here’s a really creepy link to finish. A few months back I blogged on the legends of lost cosmonauts. A recording made by an Italian radio station around 1961 would seem to prove that the Soviets sent a female cosmonaut into space at least a year before Gagarin’s flight. This would make her the first person in space. It would also make her hideously unlucky; if the recording is genuine (and I actually think it’s a clever fake) then she burned up on re-entry. Have a listen, see what you think.

18 Jan 2008

Geek Versus Nerd

Consider the terms geek and nerd. They’re value judgements, of course; as invalid and unfair as any other. Identifying someone by their habits is pretty much the human norm. The big problem people have usually had with geeks, nerds etc. is that they’re outsiders. Hence the terms have traditionally been used as abuse. But like other formerly derogatory names, they have been reclaimed by their rightful owners, and used as badges of distinction. Not that we ever cared about what you norms thought anyway. These two terms have often been used interchangeably by most, but I feel there is a fine distinction between them. I hope this blog will go some way to demonstrating this. Now, your humble blogger here readily identifies himself as a nerd, for reasons that will become clear later. So I could be considered biased in my description of these two groups. In my own opinion, they are like a yin and yang - two opposing yet balancing sides of the same idea. A little etymology always puts things in perspective. The word geek harks back to the days of the freak show and travelling carnival. Geek was coined around 1915, and applied to folks - often people suffering from microcephaly - who bit the heads off things like chickens, while yokels flicked coins at them. Later on, the term was applied to anyone who looked or acted a bit ‘weird’. Nerd didn’t appear till the mid-60’s, in the slang of hipsters, to a describe a cat who was not with it, daddio. It most likely originates from a Dr. Seuss story called “If I Ran The Zoo”. (Isn’t that eerily appropriate?) This is not to suggest geeks are all monsters, and nerds are all square. By the early 80’s, these two terms were being used interchangably in reference to a particular kind of person. But the two different ideas became threaded together in public consciousness, to a point where it is hard to separate them. I find it ironic that geek has come to be considered less derogatory than nerd. Many folk who are truly nerds prefer to call themselves geeks - and I understand that. Geek became fashionable thanks to the supposed ‘geek revolution’ that came along with the Interweb. Nerd has never been fashionable, although that could be changing. Still, they’re both better than “dork”, which connotes a person of low intelligence, and is used by nerds as a jocular insult. There are obvious similarities which blur the lines. Both groups are distinguished by their intelligence. Both are mainly male, although there are plenty of notable exceptions (hello Agent Scully, Lisa Simpson, and Mary-Lynn. The first is a geek, the latter two nerds). It’s the very male obsessiveness that drives these lifestyles which puts most women off. Well, that and the fact both groups are always antisocial to some extent, with personality issues ranging from mild insecurity to full-blown autism. The minds which work the hardest also crash the hardest. Photobucket Lewis Skolnick Pocket Protector Fun Fact : Many geeks are also nerds, but few nerds are also geeks. Geeks, simply put, are tech-heads. A geek is defined by their obsessive love both for and of technology. A geek is never happier than when they have the fastest, bestest, sexiest version of anything. They love their toys, and they love taking them apart only to rebuild them better. Consider this webpage, titled Geek.com. Coded in geek jargonese, it is one long examination of various tech and toys. The headline “Intel mobile chips get 1066MHz bus in May” pretty much sums up the world of the geek. They are much happier playing around inside a computer, rather than actually playing a game on one. Nerds, on the other hand, just love playing games, not messing with their machine. A nerd doesn’t care if their TV is the latest, just as long as they can watch their massive sci-fi movie collections on it. A nerd wouldn’t be able to read a page of a geek’s tech manual, but could devour the complete guide to Doctor Who in one morning. This is where they are primarily different from geeks. Geeks like facts (or data, as they would say) whereas nerds like ideas. Geeks go onto rule big computer corporations and become rich men, whereas nerds sit around at home wondering who would win in a fight between Darth Vader and Judge Dredd. (I say Vader). Or, as the Urban Dictionary puts it, “[geeks are] the people you pick on in high school and wind up working for as an adult”, whereas a nerd is merely someone “ whose IQ exceeds his weight”. Photobucket EXAMPLE : A computer GEEK fixes them, a computer NERD plays them. Spot the difference. A geek’s private space would be littered with electronic detritus of all kinds. The primary reading material would be tech manuals, programming guides, and so on. This should not imply slovenly habits (which is more of a nerd thing) - being organised, geeks tend to keep things very tidy.. They try to live their lives like they work their machines, or run their tightly scripted programs. This is why they usually achieve more than nerds. A nerd tends to be sloppy, because you’ve got no time to clean during the constant comic-reading, movie-watching, net-surfing chaos that is a nerd’s life. Nonetheless, a nerd’s collection of comics, roleplaying games, albums or whatever will be immaculately arranged. This is because these worlds are more real to them than the mundanity of daily life. The banal, mediocre hells nerds are often forced into hold little value against the collective imaginative genius of centuries. Photobucket Lewis Skolnick Pocket Protector Fun Fact : Geeks prefer the efficient reliability of machines for company; nerds seek the company of other nerds to affirm their chosen obsessions. Two of the most famous geeks in the world are Bill Gates and George Lucas. Both are worthy examples of the name. Bill, of course, is the man who made geek acceptable. He showed that a quiet little tech-crazy kid could rule the world, as long as he ran it like one big computer. The man lives for his machines, and the things they do. Lucas is a total tech-geek, from his famous love for hot-rods to his obsession with special film effects. The Star Wars prequels are a good example of how a geek mind works. These films were gorgeous, with many awesome effects and stunning visuals. There had been a huge amount of attention paid to such details. But in all this geek wonder with technology, things like story and characterisation and so on severely suffered. Compare the original films - although Lucas’ geek-tech played a vital role, it was the all-out nerdism of the fantasy world the tech created which made them great. History’s greatest geek would have to be Ada Byron, Lady Lovelace. This woman, the daughter of Lord Byron, wrote the first-ever computer program - in 1843! She was also a huge help to Charles Babbage, the guy who invented the thing you’re using right now - no, I mean the computer. She died tragically young - strangely enough, at the same age and of the same cause - bleeding - as her father. Yet the intelligence she inherited from him, and the great use to which she put it, marks her as one of the first (along with Babbage) people worthy of the name geek. So, who can we nerds boast of in our ranks? Well, how about Vin Diesel? You might think a guy like him spends all his time doing X-TREMEEEEEEE! things like killing people and leaping dramatically everywhere. But you know what? He’s one of the biggest Dungeons and Dragons nerds there is: That’s right. Mr “XXX” loves nothing more than a good night’s gaming, rolling dice and chewing pencils with his fellow roleplaying nerds. He has a tattoo of his favourite character’s name on his left arm. He’s played D&D for as long as me (twenty years) and recently wrote the foreword for an anniversary edition of the rules. Now most (normal?) people ordinarily deride “gamers” as antisocial mutants - or nerds, even. The more common stereotype is of guys like Doug and Raymond, the serious losers depicted in the brutal satire “Fear Of Girls”. But Mr Diesel is an loud and proud nerd, and I’d dare anyone to malign fantasy roleplaying in his presence. So we got Vin. Nerds also have N.E.R.D., the band who turned the name into an ethos. If anyone’s done the hard work to reclaim the word nerd from the haters, it’s this crew. The ultimate nerd, I am forced to admit, is the character of Lewis Skolnick, as played by Robert Carradine. This character probably defines the archetypal nerd, with his horn-rimmed glasses, pocket protector, and overbite. After all, he’s right there under Wikipedia’s entry for “nerd”. But the joke’s on the audience, of course; Lewis and the nerds triumph over their oppressors, and win the day. That’s too idealistic even for me, but the nerds are the good guys in the story, and I like that. Also, Robert Carradine is half-brother to David Carradine - that is, Grasshopper from “Kung-Fu”, and Bill, from “Kill Bill”. That’s right, you could say Lewis has an older (half) brother who could totally fucking kill you if you messed with his little bro. That nerd’s genes are just a half-step away from pure badass. Photobucket (Half-Brothers!) So biased as I am, I hope this has gone someway to explaining the geek/nerd dichotomy to you, or at least given an idea of (what I think) the divisions are. I’m proud to be a nerd, it puts me in the company of some amazing people and keeps my mind blazing like a firework. I respect my geek brothers and sisters, and they are welcome at our fires. Our strength against banality lies in unity. But one request - for God’s sake, a nice outfit won’t kill you. Come on. Make an effort. Just because you are geek or nerd, you don’t have to scream it at everyone. Peace out!

15 Jan 2008

We Could Be Heroes - Or Maybe Not

There's a question which has perplexed humanity since the dawn of time. Well, mainly that part of humanity which dedicates it's collective life to the exquisite art of the comic book. It is : if you could have any superpower, what would it be? It's designed to reflect the personality of the respondent, like asking which animal someone would like to be, or who their favourite serial killer is. It's also a question, which, as we shall see, carries some unforeseen outcomes. This blog will examine the ups and the many downs of being super, and why we're all far better off with our natural gifts. The whole idea of "superheroes" is an old fancy, not just one dated to the age of comics. Legendary characters are dotted throughout history. The idea that some people are special - or super, if you will - is as old as normality itself. These are the people who help to guide history, and leave their traces in myths and stories. This often requires a lot of sacrifice and grief; a cosmic balancing act requires that the most gifted be struck down. Being super has its price. There are three ways of becoming a superbeing - you are born super, you get made super, or make yourself super. Wonder Woman and Superman fall into the first category; they were never human in the first place, and their gifts are natural to them. The Hulk is in the second group; having gained his powers through one of those all-too-common "botched experiments"; also Spiderman, who gets bit by a radioactive spider (don't try that at home). The last group are not truly superbeings, in terms of special powers; but they can make up for it with their natural talents (and lots of cash) - Batman and Iron Man being the best examples. It is the second group that we're really considering here - the ones who have to reconcile their gifts with the mundane world. So, what superpower would it be? The responses that your humble writer usually receives to this question, when he does actually receive one (it's more usually a weird look instead), are fascinating. The most common choices are usually mind reading/telepathy, invisibility, and super strength. What intrigues me the most is how that creaky old adage "be careful what you wish for, you just might get it" applies here. Things that seem like an awesome gift turn out to be a terrible curse. And we get to the rub, and the point of my piece - that upon reflection, superbeings - whether good or evil - don't have much to be thankful for. Comic books have always had to deal with this reality, one way or another. The "four-colour" kind goes for your pure fantasy, heedless of our mundane world. People fought crime in outrageous costumes, and they could do it with a straight face. At the other end of the spectrum are the grittier, more "realistic" styles which address the unpleasant realities of being 'super'. As the last century wore on, the idealistic tone of the Golden Age Of Comics gave way to a more modern, and critical, view of the superbeing. People began to wonder, not "what power would you have", but rather "what would that power do?" The reality of people with awesome powers walking the earth would change everything - the world could only change for the worse. Consider the ability to read other people's thoughts. Within five minutes you would learn why humans cannot do this - if you actually knew what most people were thinking about you, it would be a very depressing experience. Once you realise how much people lie, you'd have to take a very dim view of human nature. The ability to pre-empt things by knowing what somebody's going to do could only cause trouble. "So, you KNEW what those bank robbers were going to do? More like you ARE one of them", and so on. When people learn you can hear their thoughts, they become extremely paranoid - you are, in essence, invading their mind. Not surprisingly, that doesn't make for trusting, well-founded relationships. So all in all, you become the centre of a lot of paranoid suspicion, and your gift is only good for knowing the horrible things people are going to do you before it happens… A power closely linked to telepathy is mind control (in all it's forms). This is always a big hit with the villains - which tells you all need to know about the morality of this ability. Like the mind-reading thing, it can bring out the very worst in a personality. The discovery of pheromones opened up a whole world of possible behavioural control. This is the ultimate power trip, and it would corrupt to an incredible extent. Which probably explains it appeals to a lot of people. Invisibility is always a popular choice. When nobody can see you, nobody can stop you, right? You can take what you want when you want - and this is one of the many problems attendant on the power of invisibility. It's a good way to become a monster pretty quick. In all cases, it isn't long before invisible characters become the scariest stalkers in the world. If that's fine by you, then consider this : invisibility may have been a big deal when Faust asked for it five hundred years ago, but we live in the age of infra-red snooping, heat vision, and motion detectors. The term 'invisibility' is now somewhat obsolete, when you can be seen in ten different ways. Not to mention the animal kingdom, which can still find you easily enough. Also, that which can't be seen can't be avoided. Don't go loitering in traffic while invisible, or you'll create the world's strangest speedbump. How about super-strength then? No more would those stubborn jar lids resist you. You could flip a car as easily as a coin. You would amass a collection of doors, all torn from their hinges. If this strength was constant and unlimited, you would be in a whole heap of muscular mayhem. God help anyone who engages in physical contact. The perils of too much force are clearly obvious; a one-person hurricane would be way too dangerous to have around. Recently, everyone's big green friend the Hulk discovered that the two biggest jerks in the Marvel Universe, Mr Fantastic and Iron Man, had some plans for him. The U.S. government - after years of exploiting Hulk - decided that his occasional brutal rampaging had got a bit much. So they shipped him somewhere safe - like OUTER SPACE. Being able to level cities with a punch doesn't make you any friends. There's only one power I would kind of like is super-sight. This is an old fav, going back to the urban mythology of the "x-ray specs". But super sight goes far beyond the puerile thrills of voyeurism. It would encompass heat vision, ultra vision, the ability to see the other side of anything. Having the full visual spectrum would allow you to see everything, everwhere. But - of course - this is where the kicker comes in. Soon you'd start seeing a lot of things that shouldn't be seen. Being able to perceive time itself would have you constantly viewing the past, present and future simultaneously, like watching a million televisions at once. Basically, the information overload would drive you insane. A trippy little Corman classic from 1963 called "X" took the concept of super sight to its most horrible extreme. After dropping some liquid acid on his eyes, a guy gets the ability to see through things. But soon he starts seeing through the universe itself, and the thing he sees on the other side blows his mind. So he rips his eyes out. What else you got? In the many years of comic book history, a mind-boggling array of superpowers were invented. Flight is a goodie; it's so primal it would be totally worth hurling across the earth just to get sucked into the engine of a 747. Regeneration, you say? Decapitation, I say. Let's see you regrow a head. Elemental control (like pyrokinesis) is a bit better, but always seems to end up with things exploding and people screaming and you probably turning into Swamp Thing. Super-speed? Most comic characters with this ability wound up disintegrating - if you don't become a smudge on a wall first. If one power alone would be bad enough, consider the consequences of having several. This is when you're getting to god-like levels. Like the first class of superbeings I mentioned before, folks like Wondy and Soop, you're beyond humanity at that point. How could you honestly consider concepts of ethics and morality, when they can barely apply to you? Why not just bulldoze everything and make people worship you like a god? So the power that makes you special is going to be problem. At least half the people around, at any given time, will see you as a freak regardless of what you do. They believe the freak is to be feared, and destroyed. Even without the various blowbacks you'll get from your superpower, consider all the other miseries that go with the lifestyle. For a start, there's the costumes. You're probably going to need one if you go public with the whole thing. A secret identity is kinda important in this line of work. How does spandex work for you dahling? Although you may be the most powerful being in the world, you'll invariably look like a clown. Consider Superman - I'm guessing no-one ever told him he had his underwear on the outside because it was too damn funny. They'd be all like "OMFG, that dude wears red y-fronts on top of his tights - LMFAO". These costumes, of course, have to be tight, tight, tight. You better like leather, or nylon, or - yes - the notorious fabric spandex. And if you're female, then it's not so much about what you're wearing as what you're not wearing. That particular style of "bikini chic" doesn't leave a lot of room for creative interpretation - or taste, or functionality. Also, in our image-intensive world, a superbeing - as a celebrity - would have to suffer those celebrity rites of roasting. What with branding, product endorsement, merchandising deals - you need to have the right look. Something that says, "Hey, I have powers beyond your comprehension and a wardrobe to match". Superbeings today would probably be covered with more logos than a racing car. So you may be the most powerful thing in the world, but you STILL look like a clown, and a total tool to boot. The world would probably go all Watchmen on you, and decide that you should really be locked up. Then consider your social life. Most comic book fans don't factor this into the equation, for obvious reasons. Think about what being super would do to your friends and family. We've already considered how some powers would make you a pariah. Comic books show a grim record with regard to the loved ones of heroes - there are bad ends aplenty. Those people who could not get at you would go for those close to you instead. Indeed, anyone getting close would be taking quite a risk - considering they would have to handle a secret identity, mysterious and sudden disappearances, and being kidnapped every five minutes by a parade of freaks. Overall, the mob hates difference; I think people would sooner suspect the motives of "costumed vigilantes" than endorse them (a la Watchmen). And this is assuming those close to you stay loyal anyway, when they could just as well brand you a freak. Now call me an old misanthrope, but I suspect the majority of people, when they considered they had superpowers, would indulge themselves before anything else. Being more powerful than everyone could only bring out the worst in your nature. The primal, Dionysian desire to satisfy yourself would most likely win out over the Apollonian desire for order. That's why arms dealers and slave traders make loads of money while nurses and fire-fighters get paid peanuts. Here's your chance to rule the world, it'll only cost you your soul. The hero/villain dichotomy is a huge part of comic lore - but would it really happen? The history of human nature tells us otherwise. Did you know there was one particularly weird individual who was almost a kind of superbeing, known to history as Springheeled Jack? He was a guy, with seemingly superpowers and a costume, who terrorised early Victorian London for about forty years. Looking like some kind of gothic proto-Batman, he rapidly became a figure of legend and the stories about him grew. In many ways, his story mirrors that of modern comic book characters. They never caught the guy; it most likely was just some sadistic aristo having a laugh, and later inspiring copycats. It may have been just a mass panic, with no actual basis in fact. But the case provides a strange, historical example of comic book fantasy becoming real. So in conclusion, superheroes are usually selfish and immoral mutants in bizarre outfits, with no friends or future. Most likely, they are hunted like animals by various people who hate and fear them. Do you still wish you had those powers now? I bet that nine-to-five jive is starting to look pretty good. You can do more miraculous things in a day now, than you ever could as some fantasy superbeing. That business is best left in the comics. Heroism is an ordinary thing, almost a daily occurrence. You don't need telekinesis and spandex to make the world a better place. Although they do make it fun.

5 Jan 2008

I Blog Therefore I Am

Just moved some of my stuff across from Myspace, to focus on writing here. Nova annum, nova mundum.

Wonder Woman Vs Hollywood

It would seem comic-book superhero movies are back in again. Every now and again escapism is big, and people want to go see spandex-clad weirdos beat the snot out of each other. Modern superhero flicks, when done right, get to have the best of both worlds - fantasy popcorn fodder on the one hand, intelligent storytelling on the other. The fact they usually come with a ready-made audience really appeals to studios too.

But, more often than not, superhero flicks stink worse than a pile of Superman's red tights. For every ten, you'll get two good ones - good recent examples being Batman Begins, and the first two Spiderman movies; two average ones, like Superman Returns and Hulk - and eight stinkers - think Daredevil, Punisher, Elektra, Catwoman, Aeon Flux (yes it counts), TMNT, the other two X-Men flicks, and both those dreadful Fantastic Four films. All those aforementioned movies were an insult to their franchise, and in some cases did them lethal damage. It's easy to screw up a superhero flick. Many who make them seem to believe a magical formula of three words will make everything work : they are, BIG, DUMB, and LOUD. If you make it BIG, DUMB and LOUD, it will be a good movie. This could be called the Michael Bay formula.

There is a mindset still stuck in the idea that comics are for kids. The whole graphic novel revolution of the 80's, and it's effect on the superhero genre, has yet to fully break through onscreen. Tim Burton's Batman was a promising start, but that franchise promptly fell to bits in a morass of gay innuendo, black rubber, and the crime that is George Clooney. Only in recent years has Hollywood attempted to film the oeuvre of Alan Moore, surely the world's foremost graphic novelist. But all the adaptations - From Hell, League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, V For Vendetta - have been disappointing, pompous failures that bore little resemblance to the source material. Watchmen, which is Moore's masterpiece and the definitive superhero comic, is currently in development as a movie. Shudder. That will be the film which makes or breaks the current superhero buzz. (Go read the comic immediately if you haven't already).

The television show Heroes, which owed a lot to Watchmen and Alan Moore, showed that the comic book formula can work really well, if you have strong, likable characters and a plausible but fantastic world for them to play in. A little bit of reinvention always helps too. What happened with Heroes was a bunch of comic book geeks teamed up with professional TV writers, and they kept each other honest. That sort of balance is what a good superhero film needs to have. Consider the examples featured above - Batman Begins was all about the story, whereas something like Daredevil had nothing but CGI between its ears.

Comic books do have this one major problem.. They are, for the most part, produced by teenage boys for teenage boys. By teenage boys I mean most men of any age, who always have a large part of their mind frozen at sixteen. Consequently, comic books traditionally enacted the fantasies of teenage boys. Cast your eyes across a rack of comics and you'll see I'm right. The covers are all something out of a dozen different wet dreams. While superheroes and villains come in all shapes and sizes, superheroines and villainesses must conform to the Three Laws Of Chicks In Comics:

I. Her gazoongas shall be huge.
II. Her face shall be hot.
III. Her outfit should be barely there, if at all.

So you get these supposedly super-tough women who just HAVE to dress like a stripper in order to do their thing. Although that's a moot point, because if these women actually existed, they would snap at the waist due to the huge weight of aforementioned gazoongas. At any rate, every superheroine or villainess who every existed conformed to those three laws. With teenage boy-minds running the show, decent female characters didn't really exist for a long time - after all, most comic book writers wouldn't even know what a female actually was (ZING!).

Then there's this thing called the Women In Refrigerators syndrome. It's this observation, first suggested by a woman in the comics biz, that female characters in comics exist only as plot devices for their male counterparts - static victims or playthings of men. Hence they're always getting kidnapped, imperilled, or killed, and thus spur on the male hero to do his mission. But they have no individual purpose. Classic examples of this include Barbara Gordon, the original Batgirl, being shot through the spine and left in a wheelchair; Peter Parker's second girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, dying as a result of his actions as Spiderman; and in the original case that inspired the name, the time that Green Lantern's girlfriend was chopped up and left for him to find in the fridge (man, that dude lost a LOT of girlfriends to bad ends during his career). No matter how tough the female character is, she still has to be a victim. Selina "Catwoman" Kyle was abused as a child, so she takes it out on the world. But where Bruce Wayne's trauma makes him master of his madness, Selina Kyle's just makes her a 'victim of abuse'.

What am I getting at? I want to see a superheroine movie. And something better than just The Latest Hot Starlet In A Tight-Fitting Suit (as seen in Elektra Catwoman, etc etc). I want to see a small part of the comic book's dreadful treatment of women redeemed in a awesome film. The closest we've got was the short-lived Birds Of Prey TV series, but that didn't really work.

There was also this thing called My Super Ex-Girlfriend. That, my dears, was a terrible, misogynistic and insulting movie. Shame on you Uma! Especially after what you did to Poison Ivy. (Oh well, the manga-inspired superheroine of Kill Bill more than makes up for it). The character of G-Girl was poorly developed, and the whole disaster little more than an excuse for ninety-five minutes of bad date movie. Such a waste.

When it comes to choosing a superheroine, there's a Big Three : Batgirl, Supergirl, and Wonder Woman. (Note the names of the first and second; although not originally deliberate, the choice of "-girl" as a suffix to their title made it damn clear they were inferior to their male counterpart). They all have their merits. A Batgirl flick could go damn well in tandem with the Batman films - especially if they use the right Alicia this time - Witt, not Silverstone - Batgirl is REDHEADED, man, okay? REDHEADED. But she is very much in the shadow of her male version, and a separate movie wouldn't be plausible. Nonetheless we shall take a moment to appreciate the awesomeness of Yvonne Craig, the first and definitive Barbara Gordon (yes, the Batbabe briefly got her own series).

I'm well aware there's already a Supergirl movie. I've seen it. Several times, in fact. Helen Slater rocks, man, I dunno why she never had a great career. Not into it I suppose. Anyway, the Maid of Steel, while fulfilling many of the stereotypes of women in comics (miniskirt, gazoongas, sacrifices her life to save world), would be a good choice. Hayden Panettiere's turn as Claire Bennett, a revamped Supergirl in all but name, more than qualifies her as the first choice. She even looks like the idealised version of Kara Zor-El! I see that fluffy teen superhero soapie Smallville is going to feature a Supergirl whose special power seems to be taking her clothes off. But a decent Supergirl movie, again, is in the shadow of the Big Guy. That's what really stopped the original Supergirl flick from taking off, so to speak. Well, that and the terrible plot, the acting, the low production values…hey, they tried. But Helen Slater, man, my libido would never be the same.

Which brings us to the obvious choice : Wonder Woman! The name says it all. You should really learn up on the guy who invented her, one William Marston. This curious fellow lived in a three-way relationship with two women, invented an early version of the lie detector (echoed later in Wonder Woman's golden lasso) and believed that girls needed a strong and intelligent superheroine to look up to. So he wound up giving the world one of it's best Golden Age comic heroes - Diana Prince.

Wonder Woman has had a huge effect on popular culture. She is like a feminine equivalent to Superman - an outsider who devoutly believes in helping humanity, and a strong force for law and justice. Indeed, only the Big S himself, and the late great Captain America, were considered her equals; paragons of their profession. She first appeared in the Second World War, and her cause was linked to that of the "Free World" fighting Nazism. As the character matured, her black-and-white worldview was challenged, and a complex and conflicted - and fascinating - personality emerged. Her relationship with the human world, and it's inability to meet the stern logic of her own morality, provided the plot of many of the later comics.

It has to be noted that, as far-sighted as Moulton was, our dear Diana still pretty much conforms to my Three Laws Of Chicks In Comics. Also, did you ever notice how she gets tied up a lot?

And I mean a lot. What was WITH that?

Watch out for that torpedo, Wonder Woman!

And then there's that lasso…

Yeah…anyway…a Wonder Woman movie would kick more arse than the lady herself. One was in the works, with none other than Joss Whedon involved. The creator of Buffy could be relied upon to make a damn good superheroine film. Note the gazoongas-oriented nature of this teaser poster.

Sadly, Whedon fell out with the producers over the script - undoubtedly the biggest issue in a Wonder Woman film. Where would you start? I'd go for the Golden Age version - fighting in World War 2, the love interest with Steve Trevor; a real cliffhanger action thing with some good-humoured postmodernism. It's a ready-made plot. She learns the human world is more complex than Paradise Island, and her arbitrary justice is not always the right approach - she sees the shades of gray. So there would be the political commentary - might does not always make right. It would have it all - from the action to the human drama. It would also have a badass woman beating the crap out of Nazis, which already sounds like an awesome movie to me.

I wouldn't have a clue on casting…but I feel Jennifer Connelly could do well (probably too old now though, and besides, she's Betty Ross). But you bet Lynda Carter would have to be in it somewhere - a cameo as Hippolyta, perhaps?

Enough of this. Let's go out on a high.

I love that ending. Way to get chloroformed, babe.

The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste

"H. Fuseli, "Nightmare", 1802 Lately I have been delving into the dark world of night terrors. I do it mainly because I really like the words "NIGHT TERRORS". Those two words hint at a part of the brain that can't be controlled; the unknowable world of the dream-state. Night terrors (ooohhh) have been around since people have first dreamed. They're always the same, cutting through cultural differences to a specific manifestation. The fact they're terrifyingly unknowable also makes then fascinating, of course. When I was about 5 or 6, I experienced a short but sharp taste of night terrors. It was the natural response (if I am capable of having such a thing) to starting school. Apparently many people experience a sort of burst at this time - did you? You may have forgotten. I never really did, recalling it as a first awakening of my imagination (and a very bad dream). I received at least one visitation apiece from the Hag and the Shadowman; or at least I have come to believe as much. At any rate, this has given me a personal interest in the subject. They went away later, as is apparently the case for most people. Some unfortunates are tortured with constant terrors throughout their life, with serious consequences on their physical and mental health. Other people experience periods of them in adult life, usually as a result of trauma. The effect of a night terror is that the body enters a lucid mental state, while being physically paralysed in a dream state. Your body shuts down when you dream to stop you sleepwalking (and when it doesn't, of course, it doesn't). You think you're awake but you can't move. Then the strange stuff happens. As I mentioned above, there are two archetypal figures - the Hag and the Shadowman - that many cultures relate to. There has been a great deal of debate about the first figure. They traditionally manifest as a grotesque, hunched figure squatting on your chest, and/or throttling you with hands as strong as steel. This is a result of the paralysis; the constriction of the chest creates a terrible strangling sensation. The 'hag' appellation is perhaps not entirely true; it represents, perhaps, something out of a northern European context. I come from a Norse background mythologically speaking; I always knew of the Mara; it could be the classic hag, and is definitely an account of night terrors. Sometimes a goblin-type creature is represented, as in Fuseli's famous painting above. There are also, of course, the incubi and succubi of legend. But the idea of a wickedly evil midget woman who is immensely strong and looks like fear incarnate is pretty vivid, right? And remember that Mercutio makes this weird little statement during his famous Queen Mab speech: This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs, That presses them, and learns them first to bear, Making them women of good carriage. Shakespeare, as usual, dumps a whole bunch of sexual psychology on us with this. He's referring to the incubus; the night terror as sexual assault. This speech refers to a lot of dark dream world horrors that the Elizabethans, with their witch-crazes and faeries, understood well. It cuts off just as Mercutio is about to detail the hag further; his greater theme is of course not nightmares, but it seems a bizarrely appropriate inclusion. The Shadowman is a bit vaguer and more sinister. It can't be seen, moving at the edges of peripheral vision, but slowly approaching nonetheless. It too moves into throttle you, but it's main effect is just being there - an unseen horror, just out of sight, waiting to strike. This is the closest link to that incubus idea again; in fact there was a particularly strange and nasty little movie based on a supposed incidence of this (and since shown to be a hoax, BTW). The Shadowman disturbs people more as a paranormal thing than a psychological thing - most people see it as a ghost. For my part, I think 'ghosts' are more likely to be a mental projection - a lucid dream, like a day terror. So I see it the other way round. At any rate, this manifestation strikes a lot more fear than the Hag. Other than nightmares, my other buzz at the moment is cryptozoology. Actually, I've always loved that - who isn't into weird and unknown creatures? We've a few 'round our way. You spend a night out in the bush near here and it's total Blair Witch. We don't have a culture of stuff like Sasquatch, but the cruel poetry of some Maori cryptids intrigues me. A specific example is the Ngarara. This roughly translates as lizard or reptile. In Maori belief lizards are immensely tapu, and were considered to have powerful magical abilities. The slopes of Mount Taranaki are haunted, it is said, by a particularly nasty one. It can be heard bellowing at night as the winds howl down through the gullies. Of course, no giant lizard is going to survive up there for very long; this is a very implausible cryptid, but one that inspired me. There's a staggering amount of these things. It's worth noting here that many species you could name were once considered myths. The orang-utan and the panda were both considered "officially" legendary in the West before examples were captured and sent to Europe. So no cryptid can be truly written off, no matter how unlikely. Nature is an insane frenzy, as we all know. I like the old school-demonic ones, like Black Shuck, and the satyr-type beast seen across the U.S., or my old favourite, the haunting and mind-bending Bunyip. Every part of the world has their own versions. Sometimes they have already retreated into myth before we could ever know if they were real in the first place. Could large and aggressive reptiles have survived far longer than we currently believe? And not just the awesome T-Rex, I mean things like my aforementioned Ngarara, or any number of such monsters? Of course, logic dictates their size and massive appetite would see them wiped out soon enough - the Komodo dragon, which could be considered the closest thing we've got to a big scaly killing machine, only survived so long because they had a few perfect islands to live on. So while there may once have been places were one was warned, "here be dragons", that would have passed a long time ago. Crikey, when you consider the number of known species we've blown off the face of the planet, what chance did cryptids have? My personal favourite urban legend/cryptid/nightmare, to round off the blog? The beautifully named Pope Lick Monster, from Kentucky. What do people see when they cross that trestle bridge? This is the stuff that fascinates me; those things that come crawling out of our mind.

The Exploitation Film Considered As Art

This blog will be an examination of four films that don't exist. They were created as faux-trailers for Grindhouse, the Tarantino/Rodriguez tribute to exploitation cinema. We won't discuss that movie itself - plenty of room elsewhere on the net for fanboy knife fights, and they haven't even released it here yet, anyway (and when they do, it will be without these trailers). This is about four little love letters to a period of film history - when your movie could never be too cheap or too sleazy. Oh, of course, we still have exploitation cinema today, but jeez - most b-movies today spend more money in one shoot than Roger Corman did in his entire career. It's not the same.

The cool thing about these things is that, by being trailers, they get to have all the moneyshots in one snappy little package. They can convey the whole feel of the movie by piling on the music-video direction. Besides, most plots in classic exploitation cinema could have been summarised in two minutes anyway - the rest was just glorious filler.

You can watch all four trailers in this video below (which also has a clip from Planet Terror and the Acuna Boys ad); or the individual ones by each article. Thanks YouTube!

1 - Machete

The plot of Machete is a mindless 80's action film run amok, using all the worst stereotypes they could think of. That is, it looks bloody fantastic. (Is it me, or is Danny Trejo the hardest motherfucker on the planet?) A seemingly disposable $7-a-day labourer is hired by some Reaganesque suits to assassinate someone. Of course, he's been set up and all. But what they don't know is a) this guy is unkillable, b) he's actually a Federale, and c) now a really pissed-off one at that. Bring on the carnage!

Machete has a brother - none other than Cheech Marin, a shotgun-packin' priest. That's a colossal in-joke I loved. From that point on the film would become a systematic gorefest, as the baddies are dispatched in appropriately sadistic ways. The promise of the title has to be fulfilled - the machete is a fear-inspiring weapon, and a guy slinging them all over has to be respected. Of course, some time is found for some wah-chigga-wah-wah in the spa; these films typically had a four-boobie minimum. It's called pacing, man; can't be killing all the time.

We never got a lot of Mexploitation cinema in New Zealand - it's definitely an American thing. It could be considered racist as all hell, but Machete and his chums are the good guys in this. In a similar fashion to blaxploitation, it was the greedy white bastards in power who were the villains. An ordinary American audience watching films like this, back in the early 80's, were having a major wish indulged - to see their stereotypes reinforced about both violent Mexicans and corrupt politicians. With heaps of blood and boobies too.

2 - Werewolf Women Of The SS

It probably doesn't get more politically incorrect than Holocaust porn. It first appeared around the early '70s, as a new generation was rediscovering the mass-murder. All sorts of lurid and sensationalist legends grew out of this paperback era. The immediate horror and terror of the Nazis had gone, and people became seduced by the twisted aesthetic. The most famous example of this is probably the book "House of Dolls" - which is only really remembered today for its influence on Joy Division.

History itself did provide some basis - there really was a Salon Kitty - but on the whole this was an imaginary, illucid memory of Nazism. It was all about the gorgeous SS uniforms and the BDSM scenarios. There was a whole porn sub-industry in the 70's, a particular kind of "men's magazine", which was all about helpless and nubile girls being tormented by their Nazi captors.

So this is Rob Zombie's take on a pungent genre. Naturally, he could be expected in turn in a worthwhile effort. The trailer doesn't provide much in the way of a plot, but that's okay, because the movie as a whole would barely have one. It would go something like this - the magnificent Udo Kier leading a bunch of Satanist Nazi doctors on a mission to create werewolves. This would involve lots of bound and half-naked women being leered at. Things get cranked up a notch with the arrival of the She-Devils of Balzac! That name is filled with so many levels of meta-referencing, it shows how Zombie knows his stuff. A definite nod is made there to the Ilsa movies, with their passing connection to notorious female war criminals. The appearance of Sybil Danning, raspy-voiced Queen of the Sleazy Bs, is outright pandering to the hardcore fans (and we love it, thanks Rob); the name "Belzac" is a reference to a real camp called Belzec.

After that, I imagine, there would be a succession of weird sadomasochistic sex scenes, some torture, then a massive battle scene that ends in gory death for all - set to the tunes of Beethoven's 9th. Throwing in Fu Manchu FOR NO REASON AT ALL is a stroke of genius. What would he be doing there? Who knows. There was a whole tabloid pseudohistory concoted about "Nazi occultism" which provided rich fodder for these films, despite being utter myth. But we're talking werewolves here! In SS outfits! With sexy blonde psychos! AND FU MANCHU!

(At this point in the first vid we have an ad for the Acuna Boys Restaurant, which shares its name with the mysterious gang mentioned by Kiddo in Kill Bill 2 - the bastard brood of one Esteban Vihaio. This is an in-joke on several Tarantinoesque (whew) levels. Apparently the food is pretty suspect, but I wouldn't know about that. Anyway, it's one of those things like Red Apple cigarettes, which are smoked by everyone in the Tarantino universe - a knowing reference to a metaverse of movies. Pretty neat, then, for a short cheesy fake ad).

3 - Don't!

When TVNZ first began broadcasting 24-hours in 1985, a whole new world opened to film-crazy kids like me. They needed something to fill that midnight-to-dawn void. In these glorious days before infomercials, they used Hammer horror films. My young mind was traumatised most beautifully by these British excursions into horror. They had a tone and style that stayed with you for a long time after. It was all about light, shadows and terrible things lurking offscreen. It is this kind of film that "Don't!" is directly referencing. This is also a strong strain of Italian, or 'giallo' in it as well; homaging the works of masters like Fulci and Argento. The latter, in particular, has a strong presence in this trailer; that green and blue lighting effect is almost a signature.

There doesn't seem to be any plot here; a bunch of victims arrive at a Bad Place and get dispatched in many howwible ways. That "Baby-eater' in the basement is a real doozy - like some ghastly Glamis monster. This is all sadistic, lurking horror - Hammer and mondo films are mainly remembered for their imaginative and gory death scenes. This trailer loads it all on - freaky kids, murderous ghosts, and psycho killers. Eyes are often attacked; that's a common theme in Argento's movies and in this trailer several characters seem to be blinded in horrible fashions. This is an essence of real fear that makes these films memorable. They were one long string of bizarre murders after another, with the audience being constantly jarred.

This particular European style of horror stands out quite naturally from the three other American trailers. There is a particular aesthetic, which calls for the horror to be more suggestive than gratuitous. You never get a good look at the monsters in a Hammer film, but you really don't want to. That's how they work. Of course, it's ripe for self-parody; this particular piece was made by Edgar Wright; you should also refer to Steve Coogan's "Dr Terrible".

4 - Thanksgiving

Here we have the classic slasher film. These are probably the most well-known kind of exploitation horror, given their massive commericial success. Playing on the neurotic fears of teens, while giving them all the nudity and gore they can handle, has made some people very rich. "Thanksgiving" calls to mind all the date-centered gore fests like "Friday the 13th", of course, or that notorious gem "Silent Night, Deadly Night". It also has the best voiceover by far, and was the only trailer to merit an 18 rating; I'd say it's because this was Eli Roth's contribution to the party. Trust him to thrown in as much blood 'n' breasts as possible.

(Aside : Roth's latest production, Hostel 2, was banned here last month. Just proves that exploitation cinema is still alive and kicking violently in the torture chair!)

What's the plot here? Roth provided a basic one, but it's immaterial. A lot of nubile teens get butchered in comprising situations. One girl survives to allow for sequels - in this case 'Judy'. The murkiness and the ominous electric score are very evocative. These are the basic tropes of this kind of film, now extensively self-satirised. There is a gleeful tone to this trailer which reflects these well-established conventions. The whole joke of choosing Thanksgiving as the date is a hoot, especially for all those terrible puns. The stuffed victim at the end is, by itself, a masterful touch of horror. And who could not love the indomitable Michael Biehn as the local sheriff; and probably the guy who nearly takes out the killer in the end, only for it to come back to life and get him.

The Wikipedia article on exploitation movies says that they are "films made with little or no attention to quality or artistic merit but with an eye to a quick profit, usually via high-pressure sales and promotion techniques emphasizing some sensational aspect of the product". What snobs! "With an eye to a quick profit" - so name me a bloody movie that wasn't produced to make a profit? Ironically, many B-movies paid fair more attention to quality and artistic merit - which are totally subjective anyway - than Hollywood usually does. The rest, I admit, can't be argued with - because sensationalism is the whole reason for this kind of film. It's just that that description above could sum up most movies, not just exploitation ones. Yay for the honesty of bad cinema!

There's Nothing Funny About A Clown In The Moonlight

Firstly, because it's Halloween, let's take a moment to enjoy the scene that retroCRUSH chose as "The Scariest Movie Scene". I agree completely with their choice - this is so awesomely freaky I can never watch it enough. It's from Mulholland Drive, of course…

Mind you, in my professional opinion, the best movie to watch on the all-hallowed eve is "Halloween III : Season of the Witch". It's about evil Irish druids melting the heads of children with cursed masks. Despite the 3.5/10 rating that IMDB gives it, it has a loyal (cultic?) following among horror fans. You should at least check out I-Mockery's fantastic demolishment of it here.

When one thinks of the vampire, there's a rich archive of images and archetypes that come to hand. So many movies are regularly cranked out as we redefine this old metaphor. You've got the classic suave predator type, like Dracula as played by Lugosi or Lee. There's the outcast Orlock, or nosferatu type, which harks back to the old Balkan legends. Anne Rice gave us a sweaty and desparate vision of vampires as immortal angst-ridden bores. There's the head-tripping, not-really-dead types like Romero's Martin (based on real, so-called "vampire killers"). Postmodernist flicks like Near Dark and Lost Boys created a vigorous and very modern bloodsucker. Currently, the newest and most popular is the Angel-type, the vampire as hero. Altogether, it's nothing profound to say the view of vampirism has changed regularly to meet contemporary demands.

So consider this : what kind of unlife would a vampire have in New Zealand? The world "incongruous" does not begin to describe the situation. Growing up here, one doesn't exactly have a lot of ruined castles that would invoke the image of the undead. Maori mythology contains some creatures and figures, like Whatitiri, which could be vaguely classified in the European mindset as a vampire. But there's no brooding Dracula stalking the silent streets of Foxton or Havelock North. The endless plastic inanity of NZ's culture rejects the classic vampire as a weird foreign element. We've got ghost stories aplenty, and enough grisly murders, but even your most lunatic believer in the supernatural would never suggest that the undead are real and unliving in your town.

As a keen young vampire fan in my teens (Anne Rice again) I wondered at the ironic miseries of, say, Lestat living in NZ. He'd definitely have something to whine about then! What if one of these cliched Eurotrash vamps arrived in NZ during the colonial era, and got stuck here? Immortality would have never felt longer. Stalking about muddy tracks and small towns in your ragged cape, shouting "BLERH!" at hapless mortals, feeding off the same three people for decades; playing dark lord over a bunch of provincial dullards.

Let me put it this way : you couldn't get a quiche in this country before 1975. Consider that for a moment. Can you imagine an urbane, immortal creature of the night in such circumstances? What kind of world would our stranded vampire be enduring? I always felt there was some satire to be mined there. The only thing for it, would be for our hypothetical Kiwi vampire to take over a small town, a la Salem's Lot. The amount of blood required could be a problem. If said vampire needed to kill, then the large pile of bodies would get attention pretty quickly around here. Generally, things would be very awkward.

Vampirism, in fact, has far too many drawbacks to be of appeal to me. All things considered, you only really have about a twelve-hour active cycle. According to all the legends, the sun is anathema to vampires; at best it depowers them, at worst it fries 'em good. Your human enemies get the whole twenty-four active cycle to find and destroy you. So either you move to the Arctic, or hide real good. There's the issue of immortality - the mind, even a vampirically enhanced one, wasn't built to take that. Madness and self-destruction seems to be the usual termination of vampiric immortality in the stories. Then there's the dependence on blood; it is akin to the worst addiction you could ever experience; and no-one ever lasted long with a possessive addiction. The need to feed always comes across as being a defining agent of unlife; vampires are junkies who live forever, but their fix is all there is. So - here it comes - you could almost say being a vampire SUCKS!

Keeping on the Halloween theme, here's a line I've been thinking about. It's commonly attributed to Lon Chaney Sr., one of horror's old masters:

"There's nothing funny about a clown in the moonlight"

This is a fantastic summation of a horror concept. It's all about capturing that essential sense of wrongness, which invokes those genuine gut feelings of horror. I've got no problems with clowns, or moonlight, but by Hades if I encountered a clown while walking the streets after dark, I would not be comfortable. Evil clowns have gotten a high profile in recent years thanks to "It", and that celebrated city councillor, children's clown, and cannibal murderer John Wayne Gacy. But the creepy fellows in the face paint have been freaking people out for ages. The plot of the opera Pagliacci revolves around a very unstable bunch of clowns who get all stabby. There is something very unsettling about people who dress up stupid, paint their faces, and then run about like maniacs. All to entertain children.

I think the Joker has a lot to answer for. That guy is a fully realised psychopath, and his character has a had pretty serious effect on the modern psyche. He never fails to chill. Harley Quinn should get a mention too!

Another aspect may be the laughter. Like the Joker's or a clown's fixed smile, there's something about laughter out of context. That's why our clown in the moonlight is to be feared; there's nothing to laugh at here. Remember the Mad Hatter? He had (possibly apocryphal) parallels in the mercury-poisoned folks who would have giggled crazily as they died. The victims of kuru, a disease contracted through eating infected human brains, laugh themselves to death without being able to stop. (I saw some video footage from PNG of that shit once. Scary). Laughter can be pretty creepy sometimes.

So coulrophobia doesn't sound unreasonable to me, even if I don't share it. I only have Dealingwithrealityophobia. And after all, what does one of the most evil corporations in the world have as their symbol?

That's right.

You know what actually scares me about Halloween in this country? It's horrifically ironic that some people send their kids to take lollies from strangers. The panicking moral majority go on about how every kid's obese, and how there's a paedophile behind every door. Now this is obviously not the case, just the fear-ridden mentality that calls the shots these days. But then even in the face of that, some people allow their kids to fall for the "trick-or-treat" fakelore. That's what really scares me. If the kids are really interested in Halloween, you could find better ways to indulge it. After all, it was all different once. Right, Mr Cochran?

"... I do love a good joke and this is the best ever, a joke on the children. But there's a better reason ... you don't really know much about Halloween ... you thought no further than the strange custom of having your children wear masks and go out begging for candy. It was the start of the year in our old Celtic lands, and we'd be waiting ... in our houses of wattles and clay. The barriers would be down, you see, between the real and the unreal, and the dead might be looking in ... to sit by our fires of turf. Halloween ... the festival of Samhain! The last great one took place three thousand years ago, when the hills ran red ... with the blood of animals and children. To us, it was a way of controlling our environment. It's not so different now ... it's time again. In the end ... we don't decide these things, you know ... the planets do. They're in alignment, and it's time again. The world's going to change tonight, doctor, I'm glad you'll be able to watch it. And ... Happy Halloween."

Fun Facts

In the annals of journalism, Pravda has always occupied a unique place. As the official mouthpiece of the Soviet Union, it stridently projected the politically correct image of the USSR to the world. That is, it was usually full of bullshit - more bullshit even than most Western papers. Allegedly, no-one actually ever read it, but the paper it was printed on was hugely popular - considering how severely paper was rationed. The wise words of the Glorious Communist Leaders occupied their most useful place on little rolls in the worker's toilets.

When the Great Experiment came to a crashing halt around 1991, Pravda split in two. The old-school kept the printing machines and have continued to put out a leftist, conservative paper. Another group went online, and gave the world as whole new definition of weird with Pravda Online.

Pravda Online is like a violent collision between a cheap tabloid and a reputable journal. They discuss regular alien encounters alongside current events. The writing is highly opinionated and openly political. Western nations, particularly the States, are regularly portrayed as corrupt and dangerous forces that need to be contained by good ol' Russian strength. The tone is fiercely nationalistic. Consequently, you're not going to find any criticism of Putin, or Russian policy, on Pravda Online. None of those writers want some plutonium slipped in their vodka. Critics of the government tend to die a lot in Russia, just like they always have.

What you will find is a lot of stuff that would rank as "downright nuts" in Western media. UFOs and extra-terrestrials are a regular feature, as well as stories of Russian cryptids and bizarre urban legends. Their 'information partners' include the "non-news" linkfilter Fark.com, alongside that venerable source of weirdness the Fortean Times. This is rounded off with the end-of-world watchdog Steve Quayle, the independently-minded Christian Science Monitor, the UFO Digest, and for some unknowable reason a link to online dating. Just 'cause, you know, all those lonely singles love to read about aliens.

The tabloid element includes a lot of grisly murders, which have been the mainstay for so-called "yellow journalism" for years. But Russia was, after all, the country that produced Andrei Chikatilo, among many other ghouls. Not to mention Ivan the Terrible, Stalin, et cetera. Russia is a grand and awesome country, and does evil on a grand and awesome scale. Kiwis, by contrast, do evil on a small and domestic level; we're not showy, we keep our horrors quiet. Also, they have no serious reservations about showing bloody corpses or grisly artefacts in Pravda - the worse the mess, the better the sales. Finally, the corrupted language - the not-quite-perfect translations from the Russian - will sometimes strike English speakers as rather quaint - perhaps it could be termed 'Runglish'?

All in all, I think these three headlines from today's edition sum it up nicely:

"Putin could have made great career in judo, his first coach says"
"USA treats its war veterans out like garbage" (sic)
"Maria Sharapova reaches WTA semis"

There's enough weird shit in the former Soviet Union to keep a freakologist like me busy for years. How about the Aleshenka? Yeah, it could be a malformed foetus, but THIS! IS! RUSSIA! It could the warped remains of some demon-beast that just phased through from the shadow world. Or something. It does bear a resemblance to my favourite Lovecraftian deity, Quachil Uttaus. Then there's stuff like the "Black Volga" story, which originally appeared in Poland years ago and apparently still has currency in Russia today.

Now on an utterly unrelated note, here's one of the greatest music videos ever made.

It was 1992. I was sixteen. That was the year bands like Nirvana, Rage Against The Machine and Stone Temple Pilots were at the height of their powers. It was, I suppose, the Year Grunge Broke - well, in New Zealand at least. Thanks to my precociously hirsute chin I was able to sport a goatee with the best of them. So, at any rate, it kind of seemed like the time of bands such as Gun's 'n' Roses had ended. Big-hair excess went out with the Eighties, as the main bands like Motley Crue combusted spectacularly. Their successors, G'n'R, seemed set for the massive blowout they had predicted in their music for years.

Their last decent opus, the double album Use Your Illusion I&II, was a kick-arse sendoff to excessive eighties rock. I certainly lapped it up, cranking my two tapes on my black plastic ghetto blaster. (Ah, the evolution of personal music technology in our time…) UYI was all about being OTT. It's cover is a detail from Raphael's famous fresco, "The School Of Athens". Two figures, standing in the background on the right provide the contrast of a eager young student lost in his studies, with a melancholy older man standing behind, watching him write. Read into that what you will; every figure in this painting is loaded with meaning. At any rate, not many rock bands use Raphael on their cover, mainly because it's outrageously pretentious. Which is, of course, very G'n'R.

Seeing as us Kiwis never had nothing like MTV back then, we had to get by on hour-long video shows like RTR, TVFM, or the occasional Saturday morning ensembles. It was during one of these I saw the epic video of "November Rain" for the first time. Unfuckingbelievable, was all I could think. It had an opera house and an orchestra, despite the fact they're not on the musical track. And Axl looks like the Marvel Universe version of Elton John.

Never in my pedestrian life could I have a wedding that orgiastic, and it ending when the bride - it seemed -got hit by lightning or something. Or maybe Axl killed her, somehow, or more likely she killed herself. That is a likely scenario because a scene hints at it. Also she seemed like a nice normal woman, and once the drugs wore off and she realised she was married to Axl Rose, she had no choice but to kill herself. You saw that regretful look.

Maybe Slash did it, because he had this homoerotic thing for Axl. He needed to get the girl out of the picture. This is a guy who, in the video to "Don't Cry", drives himself and his girlfriend off a cliff just to shut her up. His unrequited man-lust for his ginger crush drove him to plan murder, then express his passions in an epic guitar solo like a true man. He cannot bear the ceremony and leaves out of this weird TARDIS-church in a barren wasteland. It adds a sinister touch to that stoned leer he pulls out far too often.

But then…was it all a dream? Did Axl just dose up and imagine this whole awesome fantasy that goes bad? This is considered by G'n'R purists to be the first of a trilogy of videos - that megomaniac ambition again. I love it how, as the reception is washed out, this guy just goes and totally wastes the cake. For no obvious reason at all, other than that the director must have thought it "looked cool". And at that exact moment, the era of the music video as ego-driven mini-movie began.

Lastly - do you remember the Hamburgler? He lurks as a weird little childhood memory. Once a staple of the sickly surreal McDonald's universe, he disappeared as that type of marketing was phased out. Urban legends that I can't confirm say he was essentially erased, or retconned, from the world of McDonalds because he represented a criminal element. They were concerned he spread a negative image. (If you're not a comics book fan : retconning is a great way to get rid of things from your universe). In his early forms he was quite sinister, and despite - or maybe because of - his cheerfulness and blundering, he was a clear anti-authoritarian figure. So they banned him. So maybe he met a more unpleasant fate.

I wouldn't put anything past Ronald.

This Is The Way The World Ends

It may be way too early to say so, but I'd hope that my generation - those of us born in the seventies, the legacy of that lurid decade - was the last to grow up under the shadow of total nuclear anihiliation. Our formative years in the eighties were the last time the world faced a serious risk of going MAD. These days it's all tac-nukes, and briefcase bombs, and about doing the nuclear nasty on a small, limited level. The old idea of the world ending in an massive mushroom cloud is no longer as potent; other fears - a global epidemic, climate change - have taken the front rank.

But it sure as hell seemed real enough if you grew up in the early eighties. Hawks in Washington and Moscow kept the world on edge, and tensions were reaching a dangerous level. This was the last great flurry of the Cold War. Between 1979 and 1983, three crises and close-calls almost became total nuclear war. The worst was in November 1983; a NATO exercise named "Able Archer" was carried out so well the Soviets thought they were under attack. As they began to prepare a very real counterattack, things could have gotten totally out of hand. Fortunately for all, Matthew Broderick showed up and saved the day. No hang on, that was a movie. Anyway, the world didn't end, but it could have.

As it happens, 1983 was a great year for "World War III" movies. The issue was dominating everyone's mind. One film stands out in this genre - "The Day After". This was an immensely controversial and high-profile movie that seared the image of nuclear doomsday into popular culture like those eerie shadows of people vaporised at Hiroshima. (Check out what's left of this lady for whom the bank would never open.) To my eight-year-old mind, it was all pretty damn intense. This is the end of the fucking world - well, poor old Kansas City at least :

Man, I have such a personal antagonism to panic. I like to think that, if I knew a nuke was five minutes away, I'd just go up a nice hill somewhere and wait for the blast. Maybe sing a little. I would so want to see it, even though it's the last thing I'd ever see. It's that incredible flash - like the sun just exploded - or God opened his eyes on you.

After he saw this movie, Ronald Reagan noted in his diary that it left him "greatly depressed". I'm picking he wasn't the only person who felt like that. It is the utter horror of judgement day - the avenging angels raining down from the sky will wipe out everyone equally. That's what always made nuclear war unthinkable - no-one would survive; the whole concept was massive, collective suicide.

But "The Day After", as bleak as it got, was made for commercial TV. It had to have hope. At the end of the film, local doctor Russell Oakes (played by that world-weary ol' bastard Jason Robards) returns to the shattered ruins of his home. He is a few days away from succumbing to radiation sickness; he wants to die on his own ground. On his way he passes through a grand guignol landscape of surreal nightmare. Elsewhere, a woman gives birth; although they don't show us the baby, it must be (relatively) healthy; her reaction suggests some kind of final triumph, as the re-affirmation of life. When Oakes reaches what's left of his house, he finds some squatters have settled there. He snarls "Get out of my house" - the natural reaction of an aggrieved homeowner. But then one of them offers him an apple - showing that in all the carnage and fire and agony, human decency survives. Oakes realises that all the old bullshit, before the war, really meant nothing at all next to things like kindness. He weeps, and is comforted. The ending of this film does show - because it, creatively and commercially, had to - that humanity can survive and rebuild.

Some people note that British TV takes a much darker tone than it's American counterpart. This is a debatable generalisation, but one thing is sure - they do WWIII movies better than the Yanks. In 1965, the BBC produced a TV film called "The War Game". It was so stark and horrifying, it's makers had to fight for it to be shown. It was considered too grim for public consumption, and was not shown on-air until thirty years after it was made.

But it would be in Orwell's ominous year that the Brits produced the best depiction of nuclear horror. "Threads" tops them all with it's completely bleak tone and absence of all hope. I didn't see it myself until university, when I felt it blew "The Day After" away. Watching it again (it's all on YouTube) just confirms that belief.

The world ends slowly and quietly in "Threads". The story mainly follows the character of Ruth, a pregnant woman who struggles to carry her baby safely through the chaos. Her child, throughout the series, is seen as the hope for the better tomorrow.

Now watch the last nine minutes of "Threads" below, and compare it to the video above.

"Better tomorrow"? I don't think so. There's no happy ending here. When Ruth finally drops dead, her daughter plunges on, numb to all grief - her generation can feel no emotion. As these final minutes show us, the next generation is totally screwed - inarticulate, quite feral, and devoid of feeling other than the need to survive. Literally picking at threads. And the generation beyond that is going to be far, far worse…the camera freezes before she screams, but you know THAT baby is not alright.

All in all, I'm just glad New Zealand was never appeared on a board for Risk. Nobody can nuke a country that they can't find on a map. I reckon we would have been sweet - for once, geographic ignorance would totally save us. The subsequent fallout may have been bad for us in the southern hemisphere - as described in "On The Beach" - but at least we wouldn't be nuked. Well maybe the spiteful old French might have sent one over, but it would probably have hit Australia anyway. So it's win-win for Kiwis!

Now we'll get a little more upbeat.

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(Norman Saunders)

A little while back I blogged on exploitation cinema. But before the cinema, there was the literature : pulp comics. These seedy and disreputable publications were hugely popular back in the thirties. They could show the things that the cinemas, for the most part, couldn't. By modern standards the stories are laughably tame, dealing mainly in overwritten innuendo. But, of course, they were meant to be nothing more than cheap thrills. The particular version of pulps we're looking at here are the "Spicys" [sic], which were meant to be the sleaziest of the lot.

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(Norman Saunders)

The stories are virtually unreadable now, but the covers live on. It was the cover art that really defined the pulp genre. It added another language to modern art, one that is still referenced and recognised today. Although the art of the pulps is lost now it is enjoying a huge comeback in the Internet age. It is an irony of history : the original pulp artists considered it total hackwork, something many of them were ashamed of. The greatest pulp artist, Norman Saunders, actually destroyed the bulk of his paintings, for fear they would be discovered by his prudish family. But today, his original works sell for huge sums.

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(Norman Saunders)

Without exception, the covers feature the same thing : a beautiful woman imperilled. White Middle America (who both wrote and read pulps) was obsessed with the idea of virginal white womanhood under threat. The circulation of the pulps hit a high point in 1933 - the same year "King Kong" came out. This, of course, prominently features an innocent white girl shrieking in a nightgown, while a big black hairy ape leers at her. Subtle, this is not. (The decade was spent in a constant moral panic - ordinary white American girls were supposed to be under constat threat from either white slavers or reefer men). Pulp covers, particularly the Spicys, were as close to the edge as an illustrator could go back then. The girls would be as naked as possible; the threat would either be a total thug, or some hideous racist caricature.

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(Norman Saunders. Fun Fact : Saunders liked to base his subjects on contemporary Hollywood beauties; this is supposed to be Bette Davis)

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(Norman Saunders)

So they are a pretty good example of what art historians call "the male gaze". Or, if you're feeling less tactful, they're soft porn - and dodgy soft porn at that. But then, would it surprise you to know one of the most lurid cover artists was a woman?

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(Margaret Brundage)

Margaret Brundage was considered one of the most controversial cover artists of her day. Working exclusively for the seminal horror mag Weird Tales, her identity was a secret at the time. This just increased the reputation of her covers. It could be suggested that the powerful effect of Brundage's covers pulled in a huge audience for the featured writers, who would not be otherwise read. The writers returned the favour by setting certain scenes in their stories, solely to provide her with a good subject. (The stories featured in WT were by guys like Lovecraft, and of far higher quality than the Spicys).

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For Brundage, it was all about feeding her children and elderly mother. This was, after all, the time of the bloody Great Depression. She had an awesome talent. There was a use for it that paid well. So she did these covers. It was just work - although she took huge satisfaction from the fact that issues with her covers always sold out.

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(Margaret Brundage)

Eventually, the pulp age ended. When World War II began, strict rationing on paper and inks made them uneconomical. Television also took a massive toll on the readership. Instead, the cheap paperback - the 'classic' pulp fiction books - was produced. The spirit of the pulp lived on, but now it was pocket-sized. American soldiers serving overseas had a huge appetite for the things, and thousands were produced during the forties. These books would grab their own little place in modern popular literature, leading up to the movie "Pulp Fiction", which was a sustained tribute to the whole genre. Then the men's magazines came along the sixties, and things started to get really sleazy in a distinctly modern way. But the cover art of the cheap paperbacks would never approach the awesomeness of their pulp forbears. The style went out; things could be far more blatant. Suggestiveness is so powerful; blatancy leaves nothing to the imagination. It's what was not shown that made the old pulps so powerful. That's why they still retain their powers today - even if we laugh at their quaintness.

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Here's a true gem to finish. Does this robot remind you of anyone?.

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