Cannibal Holocaust

- 12/10/17 Movies,Reviews

Cannibal Holocaust has many descriptors, but only one matters: filth. People watch it because it’s filth. Midway through, an anthropologist and his guide surreptitiously watch a native ritually rape and sacrifice an adulteress. “Enjoy the show,” his guide advises. The anthropologist throws up, but doesn’t stop watching.

Few films manage to capture such vileness and perversity. The jungle’s heat and humidity seems to press upon you through whatever piece of glass you watch it on. The camera lens itself appears infected, like a petri dish. The soundtrack mixes whimsical Italian pop, eerie tribal percussion, and experimental electronic music, becoming a bleeding and suppurating welt of sound.

The plot is secondary, or tertiary, or duodenary. An anthropologist is in the Amazon, searching for a film crew that went missing many months before. He discovers their tapes, brings them back to civilisation, and watches them. There isn’t much to this movie beyond a powerful impression of sickness. But it’s clever: because it knows to keeps the viewer at arm’s length. Other than one attempt at a moral point (“what if WE’RE the real cannibals?”), the violence happens very far from home, both literally and morally. You don’t feel threatened by the gore and bloodshed, or the fact that you’re enjoying it. It happens in a part of the world so strange that it feels like an alien planet, and everyone who dies is either a primitive native, or a white person who “deserves it” (the missing film crew are established as arrogant and dislikeable). That was Cannibal Holocaust’s “it factor”. Guiltless violence.

There was a “shock jock” radio duo called Opie and Anthony who were famous for their sex-based stunts (such as launching fireworks out of a female fan’s vagina, which sounds very boring over a radio show, but whatever.) At the peak of their infamy, they were interviewed by conservative talk show host Bill O’Reilly. They described their on-air hijinks, and he took them to task, calling them disgusting and degrading to women and so forth. Very well, they’d expected that. They gave him stock answers. Mumble, radio show, mumble, entertainment, mumble, First Amendment. Next question, please.

But O’Reilly wouldn’t let the topic go. He kept coming back to it, over and over, like a dog with a bone. The sex. The nastiness. He wanted to hear all about it. He wanted them to describe it. He wanted to register his shock and disgust, repeatedly. They had an epiphany: O’Reilly was exploiting sex in the exact same way they were. But because his audience was made of grandmas and geezers (median age of Fox News’ primetime audience: 68, according to Nielsen), he had to cloak his pruriance in moral disapproval. It was his way of getting filth on the air: he just had to make sure it was coming from someone other than him, with him wagging a disapproving finger.

Everyone loves perversion, but some of us are hypocrites about it. There’s a saying among prostitutes: he who points with one hand is masturbating with the other.

I won’t overstate Cannibal Holocaust’s cleverness. Of course, “awful things happening in foreign lands” is a common trope, even outside cinema. Octave Mirbeau’s The Torture Garden features long, almost slavering descriptions of the tortures supposedly carried out in Cathay, and George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels work at a similar level (Marquis de Sade, with typical ballsiness, set all of his atrocity porn within his own nation of France). In fact, Cannibal Holocaust’s portrayal of natives will discomfort modern viewers, even beyond any of the events of the film. You’re not supposed to make indiginous peoples look like savages, and monsters. They’re people!

Yes, they’re people. But at real life digging sites, all around the world, anthropologists find human bones in ominous proximity to camfires. Sometimes they’re roasted and split, the marrow sucked out. The events portrayed in the film have really happened, sometimes shockingly recently (the Fore people of Papua New Guinea were practicing cannibalism as late as the 1960s). The truth is, you don’t need to be a monster to eat another person. Even we would do it, if circumstances required. If we are only three missed meals away from anarchy, how far away is cannibalism? Four missed meals? Five? The day might come, and then we will see how much ironic distance Cannibal Holocaust has.

It’s shot well. It has a strong atmosphere. It has all the grace and subtlety of a flint axehead crunching through your parietal lobe. There are some good performances. It is a good movie, by many categories.

But it’s filth. Not just at the surface, but right the way through. After a wave of bannings, censored cuts of it were released, but they did no good. You can’t wash clean a pair of hands that are made of dirt.


A Clockwork Orange

- 04/09/17 Books,Reviews

A teenage delinquent is arrested for murder. To avoid a lengthy prison sentence, he submit himself to experimental medical treatment. It quashes all of his violent impulses, along with his ability to enjoy classical music: the thing that gave his life fulfillment and meaning. He emerges from prison a changed man, and perhaps not a man at all. Should the state be allowed to do this?

I think so. I also think Burgess stacks the deck against the state by not asking some obvious and important questions. Here’s one: “if not the Ludovico Technique, what should happen to Alex?”

Should he receive life in prison? The electric chair? Or should he be allowed to resume his crime spree? Jumping out of a plane at 10,000 feet only seems like a bad idea until you notice the smoke spiraling from the engines, and Burgess cheats by not considering the even worse alternatives. Much is made of Alex’s lost ability to enjoy classical music (a metaphor for his humanity), but there are worse things. The woman he murdered is now incapable of enjoying music of any style.

A Clockwork Orange‘s theme is stated within the book itself: Alex is like an orange, once bursting with juice and sweetness, changed by the state into a piece of machinery. The natural, turned into the unnatural. But to what extent was Alex’s behavior ever natural? At the start, he and his gang drink “milk-plus” to fortify themselves for a night of carnage. The inference is that this is stimulant-laced milk. Alex chose to put a mind-altering substance into his body…just like he chose the Ludovico Technique. Why is the first an act of free choice, but the second isn’t? Beyond that, it opens the question as to whether “natural” is even a defensible word, or “free will” a tenable concept.

Oranges are a poor choice of metaphor, because they are clockwork to begin with. No wild oranges exist, and they were presumably bred from some other citrus fruit. That fruit was probably bad tasting, and perhaps inedible or toxic. Through a combination of genetic mutations, planned breeding programs, and hybridization, we have the modern orange. Many kinds, in fact! You can get a Valencia orange, which is sweet with a lot of juice. Or a blood orange, a tarter fruit with an attractive red color. None of this is natural. The orange was guided towards its present forms by mankind’s hand.

In the same way, Alex didn’t sprout from the forehead of Zeus – he was created and shaped by factors beyond his control. Alex’s “free will” is actually the genes of his mother and his father, the prenatal environment in his mother’s womb, and the society he was raised in. Some think that the increase in crime in the latter 20th century was fuelled (literally) by the presence of leaded gasoline in the soil. After gasoline became unleaded, crime rates dropped. Imagine if Alex’s sociopathy came from lead – a mistake by the government. The Ludovico Technique is an attempt to correct that mistake. Why confuse the mistake as Alex’s free will, and the correction as abhuman meddling?

As a novel, the book is very good. I wish it had only tried to be a novel. It moves quickly, except for the prison scenes in the middle part. The depravity is as nasty as it is exciting, and Burgess’s dystopian England is fleshed out just enough to seem realistic, leaving the attention on Alex (as he surely would have wanted.)

Most of Burgess’s other work are comic novels, and there’s lots of humor here: after Alex finally suffers some consequences for his actions, he writes “this is the real weepy and like tragic part of the story beginning.” That was a Good laugh. (Unfortunately, the book also contains a Bad Laugh: at the start, Alex is beating up a stewbum who suddenly launches into a melodramatic speech worthy of Hiawatha.) Burgess’s most brilliant concept here is nadsat, an argot based on Russian, schoolboy talk, and Cockney rhyming slang. It adds an alien, disaffected quality to Alex’s mind, as though we’re seeing the world through a Babelfish translation. It also might have been a tactical move on Burgess’s part. Harder to get outraged over in-out-in-out performed on a devotchka then rape performed on a woman.

Even so, the US version of the book didn’t escape a critical (and notorious) edit, the omission of the final chapter. Alex, having broken through the Ludovico Technique, nonetheless decides that ultra-violence isn’t for him. In other words, he grows up. This chapter was cut over Burgess’s objections by his US publisher, probably for marketing reasons. Readers are used to the storytelling convention of “fall, then rise, then fall”, or “rise, then fall, then rise”. The uncut version of A Clockwork Orange is more like “fall, then rise, then fall, then rise”. For decades, only the 20 chapter version was available in the US. In 1986, the full 21 chapter book was published for the first time.

The extra chapter completely transforms A Clockwork Orange, and I don’t know which version I prefer. The 21 chapter version is didactic, and feels like Burgess tying too neat a bow on the story. “Well, Alex grows up anyway, so that proves it was all for nothing.” At 20 chapters, A Clockwork Orange falls more into line with the film. And I strongly dislike the film.

Say what you will about Burgess, but he never tries to make Alex your pal. Never, ever, ever. He’s an evil kid, and you are supposed to dislike him. Stanley Kubrick almost seems to hero-worship Alex, even modifying his crimes so that they’re less awful (instead of raping a pair of ten year old girls, Film-Alex has consensual sex with two adult women). You can go over the film scene by scene, and note the shots Kubrick takes of Malcolm McDowell, making him look dashing, romantic, even darkly Messianic. You can also note the way he portrays Alex’s victims as bug-eyed goons and creeps. Burgess’s book seems to say “Alex is evil, but was it right for the state to alter his brain?” Kubrick’s film seems to say “hey, don’t harsh Alex’s flow, man.”

Films have an annoying habit of colonising the books they’re based on. Now it’s hard to read A Clockwork Orange and not see Kubrick’s milk-plus bar, or Kubrick’s Durango ’95 speeding down the highway. The Ludovico Technique is now the Kubricko Technique. The film amplified the very parts of the story that Burgess had tried so hard to tamp down, and this may have been why he later disowned it. Once, he could have claimed ownership of A Clockwork Orange. But now, in the minds of millions, Burgess’s most famous work is…someone else’s!

On its own, the book is a great story. Very dark. Too bad Burgess also wanted it to be a gedankenexperiment, because it doesn’t have much gedank.


Impellitteri – Venom

- 14/08/17 Music,Reviews

The power of Christ Impels you! This album completely surprised me, as I’d always classed Impellitteri as one of the flock of 80s shred metal bands: long on guitar sonatas, short on songwriting ability or actual hooks. Venom proved to be one of the most powerful, focused, and concise albums of its year. The LD50 for this album is very low.

What to expect? Savagely fast and technical riffwork, which runs all up and down the neck while still remaining tight and groove-laden. Guitar solos that throw away any notion of “taste”, “musicality”, or “wearing pants” and just eviscerate the listener with almost unimaginably fast blurs of notes. Soaring vocals that bend and weave around the guitar lines. A bass and drum rhythm backdrop that crushes you hard enough to undergo atomic fusion.

With ten songs that are all around three minutes long, this is a shred metal album LARPing as a punk rock LP. There’s an immediateness and directness to the music that can’t really be compared to other shred metal. This is the anti-Yngwie. It doesn’t get right to the point – it starts at the point, from the moment the needle touches down. The songs fly by with alarming efficiency, verses and choruses and solos appearing and evaporating just at the point where they’ve got you intrigued.

Chris Impelliteri’s guitar sound is like the glass shards from a dirty window. Smooth, glassy, but also throat ripping, full of points seeking out the body’s softness. His tone is so thick and suffocating that he must have quadtracked the rhythm parts, despite the agility and tightness of all these songs.

And the tempo is very fast: the album strings so many uptempo songs together that the thirty-three minute runtime soon seems like a necessity, before the listener taps out. “Venom”, “Empire of Lies”, and “Nightmare” are progress at a gallop. “Face the Enemy” is perhaps the album’s slowest song, a Virgin Steele style uptempo rocker with a big chorus.

“Domino Theory” is a rolling thunderstorm of a track that might be my favourite from Impellitteri’s work here. “Jenovah” and “Rise” have hard-edged choruses with some surprising progressive sensibilities in their construction. The album closes with “Time Machine” and “Holding On”, which are equally ominous but perhaps more melodic. The European edition has a bonus track called “Rock Through the Night”, which is fine on its own, but takes the album to the point where there’s too much of the same and it starts to become a bore.

But Impellitteri astonished me with what they accomplished on this album. A shred metal album that you can listen to in one sitting, and still want more…wasn’t this always the endpoint for the genre?


Dean Koontz – Odd Hours

- 30/07/17 Books,Reviews

Some bad books are like buildings, collapsing safely in their own footprint. Cordon off the area, wear protective gear, and you’ll escape the obliteration unscathed.

But other bad books are like trees, falling sideways. They don’t just doom themselves, they also destroy other books that happen to be nearby.

Dean Koontz writes many bad books. If they’re standalone, I don’t have a problem, as they kill nothing but themselves. But this is the fourth book in the Odd Thomas series, and as the first Odd Thomas was very good I’m not impressed that he keeps cheapening it with afterthoughts.

The story is familiar by now. Odd can see ghosts, and he must resolve the lingering conflict that keeps them from moving on. The concept is derivative of Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, Stephen King’s generic “big secret in a small town” conceit, and Art Bell’s radio broadcasts, but back then, it was fun. It no longer is. If Odd Thomas was The Godfather and Forever Odd was the Godfather 3, then Odd Hours is squarely in The Godfather X: Electric Boogaloo territory. It has a terrible, meandering story, a cast of “colorful” characters with no purpose beyond chewing the scenery, and a bone-deep sense of pointlessness. Odd Thomas should resolve the lingering conflict that stops his own series from moving on. I think the author murdered it, midway through book two.

Odd now lives at a place with the alarming title of Magic Beach. He has dreams of a nuclear-red storm coming in with the tide. Some thugs try to kill him. He meets a woman who gets lots of character development until Dean Koontz literally seems to forget that she’s in the story. Is there an intelligent dog? You bet. Does the main character use a gun and is consumed with guilt and regret afterwards? See, these things write themselves!

The plot is insane and nonsensical. It doesn’t have logic, it has a series of events, all occurring without reference to one another.

The sheriff of Magic Beach is plotting a dastardly conspiracy – I don’t buy that a guy running a small-town cop shop would be capable of buying nuclear warheads, but your mileage may vary – and Odd Hours soon enters a familiar rhythm of the hero running away from bad guys and solving problems with author’s convenience. In this case, it doesn’t take too much convenience, because the (six or seven) villains are all bumbling idiots who could be thwarted by a childproof seal. Dean Koontz can’t figure out how to resolve the story, so he has them all shoot each other. Then the book ends.

Dean Koontz is still a good prose stylist, but he’s a heavy-handed good prose stylist. Every sentence aspires to be a lyrical utterance of lapidary beauty. Every page is crammed with wordplay, literary allusions, “clever” character names, and other pukesome shit. Dean, stop trying so hard. No, seriously, stop trying so hard. You are fish and chips. I don’t need fish and chips served on a fine Kensington tea set.

He also does that annoying thing where he writes something clever and then nudges you, to make sure you got it. Early in the book, a character is described as having “hair like wool-of-bat and tongue like fillet of fenny snake”. I’d hoped he’d leave it alone, but of course he has someone point out (for the reader’s benefit) that this is a Shakespeare reference. Thanks. Literary allusions should always be bashed through the reader’s skull with a Louisville slugger.

Koontz’s recycling is now obvious, and impossible to ignore. All the cliches make an appearance. The frequent references to classic Hollywood cinema. The angry old man rants about popular culture and modern music (you can immediately detect a bad egg in Dean Koontz’s novels, because they enjoy gangsta rap or heavy metal). At one point, he writes the character of Dick Halloran from The Shining into the story, except instead of a black man it’s a white woman and instead of “the shine” it’s “the twinge”. I hoped that he’d also borrow the axe murder scene from Kubrick’s film version, but no luck.


The Diary of Samuel Pepys

- 13/06/17 Books,Reviews

In 1660, an English functionary called Samuel Pepys began keeping a diary. This diary would eventually run for a million words, covering ten years of his life (and England’s history). He documents some of the most important events in history, along with things like his masturbation in church, his affairs with a variety of household maids, and the first performance of Romeo and Juliet (“it is a play of itself the worst that ever I heard in my life”). The diary has no longer just describes history, it has become history. It’s like the Great Pyramid: built to memorialize a great man and great times, and now great for its own sake. People will know of the Great Pyramid long after they have forgotten Khnum-Khufu.

A lot of the diary is spent documenting minutia of Pepys’s day to day life. The diary begins not long after the death of Oliver Cromwell, and the rearrangement of the state has landed Pepys with a new job (he notes at one point that when England suffers, he prospers). Soon we learn more about his personal life, which includes plays, wine, and endless marital strife (Elisabeth Pepys was often unhappy with him. Given his habit of seducing their housemaids, one feels empathy). Some of this is eternally fascinating, and some would have been mundane at the time but now provides a valuable glimpse of how an upper class Englishman lived his life in the days of the Rump.

Almost everything we know about the past is drawn from a stacked deck – conquerors writing of their greatest battles, artists painting their subjects in the full flower of youth and health. Time has an editorial process that winnows out mundane events, but you need the mundanity. A historical document without trivia is like an English sentence without conjunctions or articles – informative, but jarring, and you spend a lot of effort reconstructing the missing words. Pepys’s diary, even in its most boring pages, provides one of the clearest windows we have into Renaissance England. Most of the others are made of stained glass.

The diary’s most harrowing pages are the eyewitness descriptions of the Great Fire. Pepys’s prose is evocative and almost Blakean (“the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconys till they were, some of them burned, their wings, and fell down”), which is appropriate, because the fire was apocalyptic, a bowl of wrath spilled before the appointed time. And it was very typical of Pepys to notice the poor pigeons. Earlier parts of the diary are hard to read (particularly Pepys describing his careful renovations of his home) because you know what will happen soon.

But the diary leaves mysteries as well as answers. For example, was this really a window into Pepys’s private, unfiltered thoughts? Or did he intend for it to be read by the public?

We don’t really know. The diary was written in a nearly impenetrable shorthand, and was deciphered in the 19th century by a St John’s College undergraduate (he would later learn that his effort was needless, and the key to the cipher was in the college’s very library). Modern editions of the diary are very clean and readable, once the reader trains his brain out of imposing anachronisms on the text (“sack” means wine, and when Pepys refers to someone as “a black man” he means that their hair is black, not their skin.)

A lot of this is embarassing and frank. I suspect Pepys knew that he might be playing to crowd. The prose seems not just precise but laboured – the work of a man not just trying to get words down, but gets not getting the ideas down, but getting the ideas down right. But he certainly composed the diary in a variety of different moods, and there’s probably portions he would have edited or excised, had he reviewed it with a cooler head.

A politician (who was not Pepys) said that writing a diary lets you experience life three times. Once, in the living. Twice, in the writing. Thrice, in the reading afterwards. But sometimes diaries reach the outside world, which means the experience was lived thousands or millions of times, or a number that might approach infinity (depending on how long such books are read). Khnum-Khufu obtained immortality, but not the sort he was hoping for. Pepys captured that immortality even better, in written words of his own design. “Dear diary” usually precedes boredom and narcissism. But here, a diary becomes genuinely great literature.


The Burning Book

- 28/05/17 Books,Reviews

In the 1970s, there was a book called The Anarchist Cookbook. Hippies had many gods, and just as many bibles. This was the bible of the Church of the Broken Window.

The book isn’t much. It’s a “how to” guide for picking locks and phreaking phones and building shoebox bombs. Although never outright banned in America, it was printed in small quantities and was highly sought after in certain circles. Owning a copy made you the belle of the domestic terrorism ball.

Unfortunately, many of the recipes were a little “off”, plus the people who tried them generally didn’t know what they were doing. The book’s actual recipe was 1) dumbass kids try to make nitroglycerine 2) they blow off their own fingers or burn down the Podunk High gym hall 3) juvie prison sentences all around, plus the school goes into lockdown from now until the end of time. Over and over. There is quite possibly more authoritarianism in the world thanks to The Anarchist Cookbook than there would have been without it.

There were always conspiracy theories that the Cookbook was written by an “outsider”, someone trying to discredit anarchy or sabotage the movement from within. As of 2013 the copyright resided with a publisher just two blocks away from a National Security Agency depot in Arkansas, but that’s probably a poetic concidence. Regardless of his intentions, the book could be viewed as reverse-activism, advocating violence and accidentally making the world a safer and more secure place.

Or maybe the world would have become safer anyway – books usually don’t matter much. Writers are very excited by the prospect of book burning, the way Christians are excited by tales of Satanic cults running global governments, and it’s easy to see why. Life frequently stomps on us, seemingly for no reason at all, and it’s flattering to believe that we’re being stomped on because we’re important.

BBSs soon became popular, and the Cookbook obtained a fragmentary second life. Bits of it (literally) were streamed over 1200 baud modems, often interpolated with additions by someone calling himself “The Jolly Roger”. This person appeared to be barely literate, someone who learned English from the txt files in Doom wads, and his advice was even worse than the original’s.

“Break a ton of matchheads off. Then cut a SMALL hole in the tennis ball. Stuff all of the matchheads into the ball, until you can’t fit any more in. Then tape over it with duct tape. Make sure it is real nice and tight! Then, when you see a geek walking down the street, give it a good throw. He will have a blast!!” -Jolly Roger-

Consider putting a fuse in the tennis ball too, otherwise it won’t blow up and he’ll think you’re challenging him to tennis for two. Aerobic exercise is linked to positive health outcomes, and you won’t have killed him, you’ll have made him stronger.

Decades later, the author of The Anarchist Cookbook went public and disowned the book, thus inspiring perhaps even more people to seek it out and learn from its recipes. This page has now been viewed by hundreds of thousands of eyeballs. Do you doubt that at least one pair belong to a young, impressionable person who will actually try the recipes in the book? And that we’ll soon hear about him on the news, along with the twenty or thirty unfortunates who happened to be standing near his trailer at the time?

I don’t believe William Powell has ever made a decision that worked out the way he wanted it to. He should have gone to Vietnam, and watched the war effort crumble within a week. Or he should have advocated for cleaner streets, and watched as whole communities drowned in an apocalyptic tide of cigarette butts and plastic bags. There are hippie gods, and hippie bibles. William Powell, apparently, was the hippie Jonah.


Flesh Inferno – Simon Whitechapel

- 05/05/17 Books,Reviews

Jesus proclaimed himself the light of the world. Light obtained by burning heretics on pyres is probably not what he had in mind. Flesh Inferno is the third book in Creation’s Blood History series, and covers the Spanish Inquisition in general, Torquemada in particular, and religion in abstract. Although Whitechapel writes from a secular background (the very first sentence contains the words “I despise the Catholic church”), the book is evenhanded and fair. It’s not full of gruesome descriptions of torture, which might have been a miscalculation. The audience for the Blood History books probably wanted gruesome descriptions of torture.

Sadly, there might not have been as much of it as we thought. Although the cover blurb states that “nearly some 9,000 perished in [autos-da-fe] – and nearly 100,000 in the dungeons – during Torquemada’s reign alone” the actual book states that Torquemada was probably responsible for only around 2,000 direct executions. But isn’t that still a lot? Maybe. It’s also the number of homicides reported in the United States of America every two weeks during the crack epidemic. Museums often feature recreations of elaborate and diabolical torture equipment supposedly used by the Inquisition, but most of them seem to be artifacts from the Victorian period. If you were tortured by the Inquisition, it would probably be with something cheap and easy to hand. Nothing the Inquisition did was unique to the Inquisition, and a secular version might be even better at it: the Inquisition’s hand was forced, because it had the nominal goal of saving souls. A nonreligious Inquisition would be free to explore sadism for its own sake.

The historical parts were a bit boring. The parts I liked were the speculation and theories. Whitechapel’s really good at coming up with interesting connections, and cross-breeding ideas from unrelated fields. The reciting of Psalms during torture is contrasted with Pavlovian conditioning. The smell of roasting human flesh (evocative of pork) is suggested as a possible inspiration for a Spanish anti-Semitic slur “marrano” (filthy pig). I didn’t like the editorial decision to have every translated passage matched with its untranslated Spanish, regardless of length or relevance. On page 75 there’s a block of uninterrupted Spanish that spans across four straight pages. There’s simply no need for this, and it comes across as a strategy to push the book’s page count as high as possible.

Comparisons between the Inquisition and Nazism are inevitable and obvious, but Whitechapel gets something out of it: the similarities between the Spanish concept of limpieza de sangre (“cleanliness of blood”) and the Nazi concept of Blutschande (“blood defilement”). This is something I’ve always wondered – why has Christianity, a faith with overt universalist literature (Romans 5:1, among many others) so often associated with ethnic concerns of blood? Is this a universal impulse that finds its way into all human affairs? Or is there something in the religion itself that enables this thinking? We never get near the answer in this book, but maybe nobody ever has.

History is an Ouija board, and when you imagine the past, you are also (at least in part, sometimes in whole) imagining the present. Facts are facts, but our interpretation of them changes with the weather. Joan of Arc was a nationalist figure until that went out of fashion, an ecclesiastical figure until that went out of fashion, and now exists as a cross between a Disney princess and a “grrl power” feminist icon. Christopher Columbus has been an explorer, a pioneer, a symbol of Italian pride, and is now a disreputable villain. Soon he’ll be alchemized into something else. Time’s crucible spares nobody except the obscure and forgotten, and when we are dead our descendents will imagine inaccurate things about us.

In particular, there’s often a bias to depict the past as more violent, lurid, and gruesome than it actually was. Maybe this is to exculpate our current society – a failing civilisation can appear successful by rewriting history to be worse. Or maybe it comes from a need to create interesting stories. Romantic 19th century woodcuts of the Barbary wars depict dramatic swordfights on crowded decks, gunsmoke swirling around scimitars and turbans. The actual diaries of the soldiers involved in these battles recall lots of boredom and pipe smoking, with occasional pauses to fire a cannon. The past doesn’t complain when we revise it. Nobody’s ever been sued for libel by a historical figure. But one can’t escape the impression that historians are like those Jewish POWs who swallowed the family jewelry so it wouldn’t be discovered. Yeah, there’s a pearl in there somewhere. Are you ready to go searching through shit to find it?

The book is out of print now, and used copies might be hard to find. If you’re looking for a history book, there are surely better options available, but Flesh Inferno asks a number of interesting questions about the past, and finds an angle that probably would have been impossible within the confines of straight history. It’s difficult to study a pile of ashes and discern the causes and reasons, but it’s a worthy task, and perhaps a necessary one. Someday, the fires might burn again.


The Shining

- 03/05/17 Movies,Reviews

Stanley Kubrick was a consummate perfectionist. Actress Shelly Duvall remembers the shooting of The Shining as 200 days of fake crying and swinging a bat, over and over, sometimes for dozens or hundreds of takes. There’s a Hollywood joke about how directors get lazier as the day goes on. “At 7:00am, you’re shooting Citizen Kane. At 7:00pm, you’re shooting Plan 9 From Outer Space.” Stanley Kubrick wanted Citizen Kane at 7:00am, Citizen Kane at 7:00pm, and if he could wrangle it, Citizen Kane at all the hours in between.

Ironically, this obsessive approach actually made his films less perfect, as it increased the odds of a continuity error between shots. Kubrick’s films are a target the size of a barn door for the forces of entropy, and indeed, the final cut of the Shining has a lot of goofs. Furniture mysteriously moves between shots. Danny’s sandwich has different bite marks.

I think Kubrick must have been aware of this, because The Shining also contains extremely big and easily fixed mistakes, ones that a perfectionist surely would have noticed. At the start of the film, the caretaker who murders his family is named Charles Grady. But when Jack Torrance meets the caretaker (or his ghost), he introduces himself as Delbert Grady. The climax of the movie involves a chase through a hedge maze, but, but in the opening aerial shots (where we see the entire Overlook Hotel) there is no hedge maze on the estate.

These blunders are so big and showy that they seem like intentional blunders. They’re so clearly part of the movie that one attaches thematic significance to them (Jack’s perception is unreliable, the hotel is not as it seems, etc), and maybe Kubrick was hoping we’d also attach thematic significance to the smaller ones, too. After all, a mistake is only a mistake when you admit it. Everyone knows that when you mess up performing a martial art kata, you don’t hastily correct. You make it look like you meant to do that.

If this was Kubrick’s strategy, it worked. Mssage boards are full of thematic analysis of the different bite marks in the sandwich, and so forth. Nobody will believe that he was actually capable of making a mistake.

Stephen King famously didn’t like this adaptation. Kubrick probably couldn’t have adapted any of his works to his satisfaction, except maybe for Christine, which is about a car. Kubrick’s movies are very cold, and although sometimes full of human energy, they usually don’t have a human heart. Jack hacking through a bathroom door is scary the way a wind-up machine doing the same thing is scary. King’s novel invites us deep into Jack’s psyche, while Kubrick’s movie turns him into another scary thing in a house full of scary things.

Were these intentional stylistic touches? Or where they deficiencies in Kubrick’s storytelling abilities? Because of Kubrick’s tactics, I’m not sure. At a high level, it’s difficult to tell a feature from a bug.

I feel the same way about the changes to the story’s lead. In the book, Jack Torrance is a nice guy with a monkey on his back. In the film, he’s a terrifying alien almost from the beginning. His suit doesn’t fit. He pounds the keys on a typewriter as if it’s a boxing match. When his new employer asks if his wife is comfortable staying at a hotel with such a gruesome history, he replies with something like “she’s a confirmed ghost story and horror film addict!”, hitting a jarring combination of weird and socially awkward. Every time he smiles, it’s an uncertain smile, as if the reptile inside is worried about tearing the human skinsuit.

Almost all of the film still holds up. It cuts out most of King’s self-indulgent touches (the living hedge maze animals, the jar of wasps), leaving a story that’s very slow while never dragging. You feel the passage of time, and the alienation from the outside world.

I think he damaged Shelly Duvall’s sanity, though. The woman just isn’t right.


Helloween – Pink Bubbles Go Ape

- 22/04/17 Music,Reviews

What happened here?

Helloween’s fourth album is stupid and bad, and it’s stupid and bad in a way that bands are normally immune to. Pink Bubbles Go Ape would have made sense coming from a solo artist. All artists have THAT period, where they snort a rail of coke laced with rat droppings and make a concept album about socks disappearing inside the lint dryer. But how the fuck did five members all agree to sign off on this inanity?

To recap, Helloween were on an incredible hot streak through 1985-89. Walls of Jericho and both of the Keeper albums (notice that I make no mention of a third) wrote the book on Teutonic power metal. After touring with Exodus and Anthrax, and getting airplay on Headbanger’s Ball, they finally seemed on the verge of a big break.

Then principle songwriter Kai Hansen left the band. His final composition on a Helloween disc, “I Want Out”, was apparently less a catchy tune than a dire prognostic. Immediately, the band went into a tailspin, with drummer Ingo Swichtenberg’s schizophrenia becoming worse and vocalist Michael Kiske now harboring delusions of reinventing the band as a pop group.

Three years later, we got this, and the band’s chances at becoming a mainstream metal act ended in a fit of pure absurdity. It’s one thing to shoot yourself in the head. Helloween managed to shoot itself with one of those joke store pistols with a spring-loaded *BANG* flag.

The album is either hard rock music that isn’t very good, or comedic lyrics that aren’t very funny, and usually both at the same time. Almost none of it sounds like power metal. “Kids of the Century” makes an effort at rocking hard, before confessing partway through “yeah, I got nothin'”. “Number One” is a Weikath song from the early 80s. It’s no mystery why it never appeared on a past Helloween, but why it’s on this one is mystery aplenty. “Goin’ Home” and “Heavy Metal Hamsters” are like special-needs glam rock, if such a thing existed. I’m imagining huge teased 80s hair, hidden beneath a SPED helmet.

In a final surrealistic touch, the only songs that sound like old Helloween (“Somebody’s Crying” and “The Chance”) were penned by new guitarist Roland Grapow. Both of these songs are great, particularly the second one, which has lots of soaring guitar harmonies and a dog-whistle high note from Kiske. Grapow was a thirty year old car mechanic, drafted to fill the gap left by Hansen’s department, and “The Chance” reflects the optimism at such a stroke of luck. Unfortunately, Helloween was and is a dysfunctional band (even without Kiske), and in ten years he’d probably relate more to “I Want Out.”

“Mankind” wastes a great Queensryche atmosphere with a goofy chorus, and the final ballad “Your Turn” is saccharine gloop. It’s nearly as bad as “A Tale That Wasn’t Right”. Put this in your car’s fuel tank and your ride would never work again.

What’s the French expression? Folie à deux? A bunch of people suddenly going mad (or ape, as the case may be?) It basically put a spoke in the band’s wheel, and set off events that would leave most of Helloween’s lineup getting fired or dead. It’s a tragedy, masked as a comedy.


I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

- 07/04/17 Games,Reviews

Released in 1995, just as the adventure game genre was falling off a cliff, I Have No Mouth Et Cetera captures the industry in its final burn-it-to-the-ground moments, where everyone was flailing around and trying to find something that would attract their audience back from Myst. A lot of risky experiments date to this period, including this one, an adaptation of a Harlan Ellison short story.

The story is much the same. Fuelled by Cold War hysteria, the human race has engineered its own coffin. A godlike supercomputer called AM controls the earth, and for its amusement it keeps alive the last five humans for more than a century, torturing them in all sorts of physical and psychological ways. But at last it has grown bored, and will engage its captives in a final game: they must survive a scenario constructed from their own minds, and their own repressed traumas.

Gorrister, a suicidal loner who resents women. Ellen, who relives a violent rape whenever she sees the color yellow. Benny, a hapless pawn who has been altered to look like a gorilla. Ted, a paranoid lunatic who is “so twitchy he could make poison ivy nervous.” Nimdok, a Nazi scientist who assisted Dr Mengele in the Holocaust.

Using a point and click interface you explore each of these characters’ minds. Whether you can “win” is unclear, even at the end. AM has complete control over all of these characters, and there’s no reason for what it tells them about their backstories to be completely accurate.

At its best, IHNMAIMS is a fascinating and memorable experience, and it’s often at its best. It takes away most of the comical aspects of Ellison’s story (like the “AM gave us canned food but no can opener” gag), and adds a ton of psychological depth. The story was about five interchangable nobodies surviving a maniac computer. The game centers its focus on the characters, and explores their pain. Rather than a telescope looking outwards, it’s an MRI looking inwards.

Unfortunately, there’s a reason the adventure game genre died, and IHNMAIMS doesn’t break the trend too much.

It’s full of pixel hunts, full of “puzzles” that amount to blind guesses, and the lack of direction means that you cannot solve the game in any logical way. The game conjurs a dreamlike atmosphere, which helps the narrative but poisons the gameplay. A large part of IHNMAIMS consists of wandering around in a daze, clicking on stuff.

One particular point grates: you have to cross a bridge, but it requires a passcode that only Nimdok knows (meaning that there’s an 80% chance you’ll select a character that has no way of getting through that particular point). There’s no way to figure out the passcode, and no way to get past that point. You’ve either made the correct choice previously in the game, or you haven’t. Thanks, guys. Throw a shovelfull of rotting haddock on my desk while you’re at it, to really make my day.

The interface is unintuitive. There’s ample opportunities to “strand” yourself, with no way forward and no way back (and you won’t know this in advance, so your save is now probably useless), and the puzzles are usually completely unclear as to whether you’ve solved them or not. That’s my criticism of IHNMAIMS writ small: there’s never any goddamn feedback when you do something. Are you going the right way? The wrong way? Oh, questions, questions!

Grognards spit upon “The 7th Guest” as not being a true adventure game, but in a way, it got something right. The puzzles were self contained, and had rules that you could follow. You’d beat one, and move on to the next one. Sometimes those puzzles were hard, but you could always understand them. You weren’t wandering around trying to guess what the developers wanted you to do!

So you have a fascinating layer of content, but it’s stuck inside a frequently clunky and frustrating adventure game. Unfortunately, stories improve games far more than games improve stories, and IHNMAIMS is exhibit A in the prosecution’s case.


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