Wednesday, December 7, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: CITY (1952) by Clifford D. Simak

by Clifford D. Simak

Published  in novel form by Ace Books in 1952
City, Huddling Place, and Census published in 1944.
Paradise and Hobbies published in 1946.
Aesop published 1947.
Trouble With Ants published 1951.

"Where man would follow metal, the dogs will follow ghosts."

After World War II, in the imagination of Clifford D. Simak, reality took a strange turn. All the nations of the world decided to unite as one, and become the planet state of Earth. Its capital was Geneva. War was outlawed, the old  national borders were erased, and a new era began. United humanity re-purposed atomic power as an unlimited source of energy and ended scarcity and want, and devoted themselves to developing what we would call artificial intelligence of a very high order, and soon the world was filled with sapient robot companions and laborers. Humanity, across many generations, used mysterious techniques, no doubt involving genetic engineering, to teach dogs to speak, and soon this program of elevating animals to human levels of communication and cognition spread to all the mammalian creatures of the planet. Violence and the eating of meat are outlawed, and all the beasts of nature, whether predator or prey, come to live in peaceful fellowship.

Truly, paradise.

Well, not exactly. You see there are these mutants. The mutants are hyper-individualists who decided they didn't want to be part of the global nation state. Not so much because they had serious political objections, but more because they had developed such powerful facilities of cognition, and the hypnotically compelling inner lives to go along with such advanced capacities, that they ceased to care what society, any society, thought about them. The mutants weren't violent or warlike. They just stopped giving a damn about society's rules and expectations, and even its larger goals. Let the utopians, the robots, and those talking dogs deal with it. They'd rather not be bothered.

Hey, I guess it's not paradise.It's not without some conflict. No paradise without its discontents. But not too bad.

Yeah, that transition from the city to the wilderness. It's another quirk of Simak's future vision. Instead of crowded megalopolises, humanity decides to spread out, and partly it's fear related to cities being targets for bombs. For awhile there, no one knew how the last global war was going to play out, and so humanity began to abscond from the city, and--

Oh, but did I tell you about Juwain, the Martian philosopher? Yeah, there's Martians in this book, too. Well, there's the one Martian, in particular, Juwain, and his transcendent, fix-all philosophy, Juwainism, and it's kinda funny how that one played out . . . some people couldn't handle the transition from cities, you know? Some people just clung to the old ways, of an ever-expanding humanity, glittering skyscrapers, just stack humankind by the floor, up, up, and up. You'd think most humans, if they could accept towering apartment complexes, they could handle the vast interstellar gulfs. You'd think. Just a Jaunt to Mars to get the rest of Juwain's notes, or something like that. Some people prefer to stay home in a number of senses.

And heaven exists. It's on Jupiter. Now, you won't get there by praying, but you do have to engage in a kind of transubstantiation of the flesh to be able to handle it. Brave young astronauts must be subjected to a form of pantropy--modified to endure the harshness of the Jovian world, but maybe Heaven's not all it's cracked up to be . . .

And then there's the cobblies. Only the dogs and other animals can sense the cobblies, those intrepid movers of furniture, who refuse to manifest in any comprehensible form when photographed. So rare that humans stooped to hoaxing photos and embellishing stories about hauntings and possessions in order to convince themselves they weren't losing their minds. We elevated the dogs, but the dogs could've returned the favor, it would seem, in certain matters of perception. It's that human arrogance, my friend, we don't like the idea that the lifeforms we breed into existence could maybe surpass us somehow, some way.

I guess we gave a kind of pass to the robots. We made them as happy slaves, much like Asimov's early take on robots, but Simak's robotic protagonist, Jenkins, evolves and grows across the generations, and becomes thoroughly human, even downright elderly. Jenkins may remind some readers of Anne Rice's vampires, but without the blood-lust and aristocratic ennui. This loyal robot retainer is witness to generations of the family Webster, which is basically the family of humankind. The canine philosophers of many generations hence even come to call humans websters. That is: "websters" replaces "humans" in canine vocabulary. But about the robots. We create the robots in our image, make them happy in bondage, and, eventually, let them evolve their own way, towards a strange kind of robotic freedom. But even this is due to our human arrogance, you see. We like that human shape. We like it even more when it's shaped in invincible steel, a vision of our armored dreams of hegemony and horror. But Jenkins evolves past our human arrogance, I think, but we the humans set such an acceptable form in motion.

Which brings me to the ants, to critters with decidedly unacceptable forms. You gotta ask yourself: why doesn't humanity elevate the insects, the spiders, the scorpions, the cockroaches, the moths, the butterflies, the whales, the dolphins, the octopuses, the squid, the lobsters, the crabs, the snails, and all the other creepy-crawlies? 'Cause we're bigots, that's why. But bigots, in the long run, seldom have their way in Simak's visionary future history.

Simak's book, City, is full of wild and woolly speculations. It's an exercise in purest make believe. It's science fiction of a kind that doesn't seem to have too much currency anymore. It certainly isn't "hard" SF. You won't find any loving descriptions of heavy-duty megadeath future war equipment being used to wage high body count libertarian revolutions against nanny governments on the moon, or Mars or wherever. No striving intergalactic capitalists or armored mecha soldiers here. No paeans to the glory of dying like some kind of shiny, space-age Spartan in mortal combat with vicious catmen, or anything of the sort. Simak's book is unsettling in its mellowness. He puts most of the technological magic into the black box, as it were, and focuses on the story and the themes. The characters are there to help serve as guideposts in the overall evolution of humanity, and, later, the robots and animals, as one civilization supplants another one, and much is lost, good, bad, spectacular, bizarre, to the erosion of centuries, of millenniums. There's no World War III, thank the cobblies, just time, a worldaround sickness at the prospect of more nationalistic barbarism, a refusal to be hypnotized by the false-power spectacle of Cold Wars and nuclear arsenals, and the many Laws of Unintended Consequences.

Infinite Repeat Award: "Don't Try This At Home" Edition

Curtis Sliwa
Music by Rachmaninoff
Written and Directed by Curtis Sliwa
A Guardian Angels Production

Friday, December 2, 2011



Yumiko Hara
Eihi Shiina
Kentaro Kishi

Written/Character Designed/Edited/Directed by Yoshihiro Nishimura
Music by Koh Nakagawa
Action Director Isao Karasawa
Visual Effects Supervisor Tsuyoshi Kazuno
Stunt Coordinator Yoshio Miyaki
Costume Design by Minori Niizaki
Production Design by Nori Fukuda
Cinematography by Shu G. Momose
Produced by Yoshinori Chiba, Akifumi Sugihara, Ryo Uchiyama, Hiroyuki Yamada

Helldriver is the greatest video game movie never made. What do I mean by that? I'm not totally sure.

Helldriver isn't actually derived from any extant video game franchise. There is no Helldriver for PS3, X-Box, Wii, etc. But Helldriver the movie, which does exist, is a kind of collection of all the over-the-top splatter and sadistic kills that one would expect from one of the major splatter franchises, Resident Evil, House of the Dead, Mortal Kombat, all those games known for their nonstop mayhem and dismemberment, evisceration, and novel, many-tentacled mutations on the prowl for brains, guts, flesh, or just glorious self-destruction in one-to-one combat. There's even a touch of one of those car-crashing franchises. There are car-crashing franchises, right? Yeah, sure, why not? There are video games that involve driving cars real fast, maybe stealing the cars first, and then driving them real fast, something like that. And then there's the Fast and Furious series of movies, which are also strongly reminiscent of video games .  . . yeah, there's some of that in Helldriver, too, I think. It's the "driver" in Helldriver, if you will.

I should say none of this is prologue to a scathing or even particularly negative review of Helldriver. I enjoyed it's lust for pure, gruesome absurdist spectacle. It is exactly the movie it wants to be, and no one will ever take that away from it. It's got zombies, aliens, imagery and costumes right out of Japan's Imperial era,  some rather disturbing moments of zombie sexuality, a really fucked-up scene involving zombie sexual assault and torture, a tricked out Badass-mobile, sword fights, car fights (what Joe Bob Briggs would call "car fu"), self-assembling zombie monstrosities composed of various arms, legs, and torsos of the chopped-up undead . . . it's all here. There's nothing left out--it's even got a vaguely satirical streak, for people who insist on that kind of thing. And geysers of watery, Kool-Aid looking blood. "Hey, Dracula, don't drink the Kool-Aid!" Ah, ha, ha . . . don't know where that came from. There's no vampires in the movie, it just kind of came out of me . . . so, you know, this movie's got pretty much everything except vampires, but here's how you can fix that. Just obtain a copy of Helldriver and copies of whatever your favorite vampire movies happen to be, put 'em on your hard drive, and use digital editing software to splice together your very own underground, so-off-the-map-indie-it-positively-throbs UltraRemixed No Serial Numbers Allowed Bootleg Helldriver With Vampires version of the movie and you're good to go, my dawg, no sweat. I won't tell the Governor if you won't . . . I suppose my point is that this is a movie which exists as a series of very impressively staged spectacles. You could pretty much watch the scenes in any order and the impact would likely not be reduced nor would it be enhanced, although the wonderfully impossible ending scene that plays as the credits roll wouldn't really work at any other place in the narrative.

What the fuck happens in this movie, you ask? It goes something like this: in the near future, maybe the year 20XX, a strange alien life form crashes into Japan and unleashes a cloud of toxic ash which transforms all who are contaminated by it into flesh-eating zombies who sprout these weird, rubbery antlers out of their foreheads that are actually kind of kawaii at times, and fucking disgusting at other times, and, get this, are harvested by freelancers and sold to the yakuza to make highly addictive, snortable narcotics. But there's a problem with the zombie-antler derived narcotics: they can make your head explode. That's right, the antlers are composed of a volatile substance which can explode whenever the filmmakers want to make sure you're still paying attention. Guess which part of these undead fuckers you should target when it comes time to start shootin'?

The Japanese government responds to this outlandish crisis by erecting a giant wall and quarantining the antler-zombies behind the wall. The Prime Minister doesn't want to alienate voters who have zombified family members, and so he doesn't order any kind of extermination effort against the zombies. This is a rather intriguing aspect of Helldriver: the controversy over whether antler-zombies should be given human rights and due process, or just summarily executed. This is a controversial position to put it mildly, and elements within the Japanese government see the crisis as an opportunity to consolidate power and whittle away at pesky individual (uninfected human)liberties . . . ring any bells, citizens?

Zombie movie fans, ask yourself this question: would this issue even be considered if the alien lifeform had crashed into the United States? Or would the President just go straight to martial law, targeted assassinations, and extraordinary renditions? Oh, and why not go ahead and place the non-zombie populations under surveillance, and start eliminating social welfare programs, regulatory agencies, environmental protections, start revving up the foreclosure cycles, etc. And don't give me any of that bullshit about, "Well, gee, it depends on whether it's a Democrat or a Republican . . ." because we all know that wouldn't matter. Come on, film fans, pay heed to the words of George Carlin: "Take a chance. Tell the truth."

Who the fuck are the main characters in this movie, you ask? The Japanese Prime Minister? The zombies? No, no, not exactly. The characters in this movie are not the most interesting parts of it, in my opinion, although I did appreciate the lead performance by Yumiko Hara as Kika, the chief zombie-slayer, and Eihi Shiina as Rikka, the Alien Queen of the Antler-Zombies. Rikka's got a brother played by Kentaro Kishi, and the character is truly a sick fuck. It's something else . . . more I will not say.

I'll say this. Eihi Shiina is a beautiful and intense actor who gave a memorable performance as a bride-to-be in Takashi Miike's masterful Audition, and was also quite memorable as the taciturn, self-mutilating supercop Ruka in Tokyo Gore Police, which was an earlier effort from Helldriver director Yoshihiro Nishimura. As Rikka, Shiina is buried under some wildass makeup, prosthetics, and costuming that make her look like a boss from a Parasite Eve side story. Shiina gives herself over to the crazed, cartoonish evil of the part, but I missed the subtle intensity she brought to those earlier roles. Yeah, I know, my complaint is totally out of place, but there you have it. I would've liked a little more nuance in this character, but it is what it is.

Yeah, and here's another complaint. Helldriver is clearly the hard labor of a committed cast and crew, and it's quite effective on its own terms, and yet largely forgettable once consumed. I guess it's the perfect definition of entertainment. Director Yoshihiro Nishimura seems to specialize in this kind of gory-goofy type of film. Just hit up his filmography on Wiki or Imdb: Tokyo Gore Police, Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein, Mutant Girls Squad, and a score of special gore EFX credits going back to 1995. Nishimura knows his stuff. Tokyo Gore Police really left an impression on me. It was both absurdly funny and really fuckng icky, and it made an impression with it's shameless mutational perversities. Tokyo Gore Police was all about damaged, violent people seeking the edge of somatic experience and transformation packed into a fairly compelling mystery plot. Helldriver is just one damn thing after another. Helldriver's best scenes recall the most adventurous bits of Tokyo Gore Police without quite equaling it. Helldriver is not quite as visually accomplished, either, but it does create some impressive spectacle scenes. It lacks the grimy texture and doom-laden atmosphere of Tokyo Gore Police. The antler-zombies are good for a laugh, but they don't quite achieve the bizarro-pathos of the mutants and predators from Tokyo Gore Police.

Helldriver is pure sensation, featuring many scenes of impressively orchestrated carnage, and a delightfully off-kilter soundtrack. It's fun for what it is, but if you like Helldriver, I urge you to check out 2008's Tokyo Gore Police. It's in a similar style, but with more impact.

 Helldriver does do one thing that Tokyo Gore Police couldn't or wouldn't. It asks the question: "Can you build an aerodynamically feasible device out of the bodies of antler-zombies?"

For the answer, you'll just have to see for yourself . . .

Helldriver trailer:

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


It's Alive

John P. Ryan as Frank Davis
Sharon Farrell as Lenore Davis
Daniel Holzman as Chris Davis
William Wellman Jr. as Charley
James Dixon as Lt. Perkins
Shamus Locke as The Doctor
Andrew Duggan as The Professor
Guy Stockwell as Bob Clayton
Michael Ansara as The Captain
Robert Emhardt as The Executive

Cinematography by Fenton Hamilton
Editing by Peter Honess
Music by Bernard Herrmann
Written, Directed, and Produced by Larry Cohen

"There's only one thing wrong with the Davis Baby . . ."

We begin at the Davis household. Lenore Davis (Sharon Farrell) is going into labor pains. Hubby Frank (John P. Ryan) gathers her and his son, Chris (Daniel Holzman), into the family car, drops Chris off with a family friend, Charley (William Wellman Jr.), and it's off to the hospital. In these early scenes, we get to know the Davis family. The father is a bit of  a joker, doing funny voices, keeping up everyone's morale. Lenore is more serious, very much into the idea of becoming a mother. The son, Chris, is eager to have a younger sibling, not jealous at all, a nice kid.

Frank spends hours in the waiting room, chatting up the other expecting fathers. Some idle chat about a guy stirring his coffee with a pencil. Something about too much lead in the water supply. Doesn't he know that pencils are made with graphite, not actual lead?

All this is build-up for the revelation of horror: screams, and a delivery room full of mutilated corpses of doctors and nurses. Lenore is unharmed, but in shock. What the hell just happened? Did some maniacal slasher kill the medical staff, and kidnap the Davis baby? Not exactly . . .

Frank and Lenore Davis were expecting a child. What they get is a rubbery demon that tears out people's throats with its sharp fangs. The cops and the surviving medical staff quickly come to the conclusion that the Davis baby was born some kind of ultra-aggressive mutant. It's decided that it must be hunted down and destroyed with extreme prejudice. Frank Davis is eager to kill the thing, mutant, demon, whatever the fuck it is. He's already decided it's not really human, just some aberration that should have never came into the world.

Frank is also eager to get back to his job as a public relations agent at a major corporation. But his boss forces him to take a three week vacation. This is a pretense to eventually fire Frank, but Frank doesn't know that. Frank has become a liability to the company as a PR man. He's become known in the media as the father of the mutant.  Frank is hounded by reporters eager to get a statement from the father of the murderous monster baby.

Meanwhile, Lenore is losing her mind. She can't quite confront the reality of the situation. Frank and Lenore decide not to tell their son, Chris, what's going on, and they enlist Charley in this scheme by convincing him to not let their boy watch any news casts. But how long can this denial of reality go on? Chris is a smart kid, too, and he starts to suspect something is not right. Part of what It's Alive is all about is denying reality. There's a theme going on here that people try to deny whatever is unpleasant and will go to great lengths to cover it up.

 What exactly is the monster baby? Was Lenore impregnated with the Anti-Christ? Was God feeling randy enough to plant a Second Coming? Not exactly. This movie suggests that the monster baby was the result of birth control drugs that Lenore had been taking, and maybe other environmental and pharmaceutical factors. The movie further suggests that there's pressure being placed on the cops to hunt down and kill the mutant baby so that agents of Big Pharma can destroy the corpse and prevent a conclusive autopsy which would prove that unsafe meds caused the mutation. This conspiracy angle is just barely sketched into the movie. It's basically a couple of guys talking in a hallway. It's interesting, but not the strongest aspect of the film. I don't think it really matters what exactly created the monster baby. The idea is, "What if you're expecting a child, and instead you get a murderous monster?" The quasi-science fictional explanation is superfluous hand-waving.

The cops bumble around darkened buildings, some of them getting killed off by the mutant. For a mutant baby, it sure gets around, claiming victims here and there. The baby is never seen all that clearly or for long periods of time, but it's clearly a rubbery beast. In one memorable scene, the mutant kills a milkman in his truck. You just see the outside of the truck, hear the sounds of screams, bottles shattering, and then a flow of blood and milk mixed together coming out of the back door of the truck. I dunno, maybe it's symbolism . . .

Eventually, Frank decides that he has to kill the baby himself, which is good because none of the cops in this movie can shoot worth a damn.  At first, he tries to present this decision as doing the responsible thing, but on another level this is Frank fulfilling a selfish fantasy: of eliminating the unwanted mutant, of making the hated thing go away, denying the unpleasant reality. Frank's journey towards confronting the mutant, facing reality, is where this movie's true strength lies.

It's Alive is totally absurd, but it has some striking moments. John P. Ryan holds it all together as the father who is determined to kill the mutant baby. He brings a naturalness and intensity that is surprisingly understated. The best scenes involve him negotiating with his boss, the cops, the doctors, all of these scenes involve Ryan trying to convince himself, as much as he is trying to convince the other people, that he is ready to kill the mutant, that he feels no connection with his offspring whatsoever. And yet his voice and his face quiver with barely suppressed emotion. Why the strong feelings, if he has already committed himself to destroying the mutant? The movie provides a poignant and surprising climax.

INFINITE REPEAT AWARD: "Unrepentant Welter of Symboljizzom" Edition


Lord of Illusions

Scott Bakula as Harry D'Amour
Kevin J. O'Connor as Philip Swann
Famke Janssen as Dorothea Swann
Joel Swetow as Valentin
Barry Del Sherman as Butterfield
Joseph Marder as Ray Miller
Joseph Latimore as Quaid/Fortune Teller
Daniel von Bargen as Nix

Cinematography by Rohn Schmidt
Original Music by Simon Boswell
Editing by Alan Baumgarten
Production Design by Steve Hardie
Art Direction by Mark Fisichella and Bruce Robert Hill
Costume Design by Luke Reichle
Written, Directed and Co-Produced by Clive Barker

NOTE: This review is based on the Director's Cut version of the film.

"I have so much power to give you. All you have to do . . . is beg."

Lord of Illusions is a blend of noirish paperback detective story and writer/director Clive Barker's very own brand of gruesomely sublime horror fantasy literature.

In the 1980s, Barker wrote a series of short story collections known as The Books of Blood wherein he created a highly literate yet stomach-churningly gruesome aesthetic of horror literature. Barker's stories aren't about silent slashers with faces hidden behind Halloween masks or athletic gear or radioactive mutants or aliens clawing their way out of your chest. Barker's horrors are tied to desire, to sex, and to the obsession with power and transformation. His villainous characters, especially, often seem obsessed with accumulating great power, with imposing their rigid wills upon reality.  There's also a strong influence of BDSM, most obviously in the novella The Hellbound Heart, and its gruesome movie adaptation, Hellraiser. Anyone who's seen Hellraiser is familiar with Pinhead, the body-piercing fanatic from another dimension, who is still to this day, for better and for worse, Barker's most enduring contribution to the pantheon of horror cinema's memorable monsters.  Barker's characters often seek oblivion in the pursuit of taboo pleasures. He further expanded the scope of his vision with novels like 1987's Weaveworld, which brought his style of extreme horror to an epic fantasy adventure saga of hidden worlds and magical beings.

Lord of Illusions is a brilliant synthesis of the gruesome side of Barker's horror with the literary aspect, creating a world where mundane reality and hidden worlds of magic co-exist, interpenetrating each other in ways subtle and spectacular.

Sometime in 1982, a death cult led by a man named Nix (Daniel von Bargen) was plotting its very own Helter-Skelter out in the Mojave Desert. But Nix has a one-up on Charlie Manson: real magic derived from occultic powers of destruction. Nix can levitate, summon a living entity of fire, and, most insidiously, get inside people's heads. A group of armed ex-cultists show up to put the kibosh on Nix and rescue a young girl held hostage within the cultists' hideout.

One of these ex-cultists is a man named Swann (Kevin J. O'Connor). Swann used to be Nix's most fervent disciple. Swann confronts Nix. During the confrontation, Nix puts his fingers into Swann's skull, and manipulates his mind. But Swann's allies manage to come to his rescue with a shotgun and some pistols. After a shootout, in which the cult leader is wounded, Swann uses a strange mask which he screws into Nix's face and skull to magically bind the dark magician and seal his evil away forever. The implication is that Swann used his magic talents to construct the bizarre mask, talents that Swann no doubt learned from Nix. Some might call this ingratitude, but sometimes one must do a little evil to do a lot of good.

Years Later: enter a New York private detective, Harry D'Amour, who battles villains mundane and occultic and is played with a mix of two-fisted competence and surprising compassion by Scott Bakula. D'Amour has a history of dealing with otherworldly powers, and his most recent case involved some sort of exorcism in Brooklyn. The details are vague, but the case, which involved a bloody-mawed albino demon possessing a child, has left D'Amour burned out on occultic cases. A plain clothes detective from central casting shows up at D'Amour's apartment to offer him a case and a chance to get out to the West Coast: a fraudster has skipped out of the Big Apple for California. D'Amour takes the case.

But anyone who's read a Raymond Chandler book knows that the first mystery is just a lead up to the second, and so it is with this case. D'Amour trails the fraudster to a fortune teller's office. D'Amour is coming up the stairs when the dude comes tear-assing back down the stairs. D'Amour senses something strange is going on, and so he draws his gun and charges into the palm reader's office. The palm reader, Quaid (Joseph Latimore), is there, but has been turned into a human pin cushion by a psychopathic torturer, Butterfield (Barry Del Sherman). Butterfield likes to stick people with blades crafted from surgical steel. D'Amour gets jumped by a neo-Nazi thug(Joseph Marder) with filed down teeth, and Butterfield makes his escape while the detective sends the skinhead on a pilgrimmage through the window to pay homage to the pavement three or so stories below. D'Amour tries to figure out what's going on with the palm reader, but the man is mortally wounded. He only has time to give D'Amour a palm reading and an ominous clue about the "coming of the Puritan" before he expires.

The cops show up, and since this is Movie Reality, they let D'Amour go after a few preliminary questions. Actually, that guy who D'Amour threw out the window? It seems he just got up and ran away, so I suppose the cops don't have any good reason to hold him for questioning. D'Amour intuits that some very strange shit is happening, and, soon enough,  after his name and picture are printed in the paper in connection with the torture-murder, he is contacted by a  fastidious man named Valentin (Joel Swetow) on behalf of Dorothea Swann (Famke Janssen). It seems that the dead fortune teller has a connection to Dorothea and her husband, Philip Swann (Kevin J. O'Connor), who is a David Copperfield-scale professional illusionist.

Dorothea meets D'Amour in a graveyard, and the private dick is immediately smitten with her beauty.(I imagine anyone driven to a graveyard under mysterious circumstances only to find themselves face-to-face with Famke Janssen would probably have the same response.) Dorothea wants to figure out why the fortune teller was murdered and what, if any, threat may be posed to her husband, the illusionist. Dorothea tells D'Amour that Philip has some connection to the slain palm reader, and she wants to know what that is.

D'Amour takes the case.

Lord of Illusions is a mystery, and I suspect that I am already giving too much away, so I'll try not to summarize the plot anymore. What I like about this movie is that it is a hybrid of several different genres, mystery, horror, and fantasy, and it mixes these elements with great skill. The mystery draws you in, the horror gives weight to the violence and death within the mystery, and the fantasy elements suggest a whole other plane of reality that is manipulating the mundane world for mysterious purposes of its own. It explores the concept of magic as something which is just beyond our everyday experience, but not impossible to attain. There is also the danger, in this world, that the evil forces that also use magic can sweep out of the shadows to destroy you mind, body, and soul. Magic is a power that can be used to liberate humans from their humdrum existences, or it can torture us with madness. It would also seem that those who use magic can develop a lust for power. The movie offers a pretty sophisticated take on how magic works and how it affects the hearts and minds of those who practice it. There's no escaping the consequences of magical actions for good and for evil.

I also like the cast of this movie. Scott Bakula does the action hero stuff well, but he also brings a sense of vulnerability to the part. There are a number of scenes, usually after brutal physical combat, where he is seen lying in bed with bottles of booze and painkillers nearby, recovering from his injuries. Arnold would just shrug off the pain, maybe even walk through a plate glass window just to relax. D'Amour's also a decent detective, and he knows that even when dealing with the occult it's still those mundane clues, that book of contacts in the drawer, that used cigar in the ashtray, the offhand comment that reveals the hidden depths of a person's motivation, that makes the case and saves the day. Bakula displays a fair amount of compassion, too. He seems credibly upset at the loss of life, which happens a number of times in this movie. Overall, Bakula makes for a smart, compassionate, two-fisted champion in the face of dark forces.

I believe this was one of Famke Janssen's first major roles in a movie. It's certainly the very first movie I ever saw her in when I was a teenager watching way too much cable television without parental supervision during the 1990s. Nowadays she is famous for playing Jean Gray in those X-Men movies. She's obviously a very beautiful woman, and that beauty is used skillfully in counterpoint to the essential fear and sadness at the heart of the character of Dorothea. Why is a woman this beautiful and wealthy this unhappy? What is she so afraid of? Janssen isn't afraid to bring a creeping fear bordering on paranoia into her performance. It makes you wonder what's going on inside her mind. What is she hiding? Why?

Daniel von Bargen is utterly unwholesome as cult leader Nix. He relishes fucking with people's minds. He luxuriates in his own corruption, gleefully tormenting a twelve year old girl with a vicious baboon on a chain, or sticking his fingers right through the flesh and bone of someone's skull--no doubt utilizing some long forgotten technique of torture learned from some forgotten tome. The role is a standout for Daniel von Bargen, who is usually cast as cops and other authority figures on account of his solid, fatherly presence. Here, he dresses in rags, makes doom-laden pronouncements, and embodies all sorts of malevolence physical and spiritual.

Kevin J. O'Connor plays Philip Swann as a man unable to enjoy his success in life. He is perennially distant from his beautiful wife, Dorothea, and cannot accept the acclaim lavished on him by his audiences. Is it because he feels guilt about building a fortune as an illusionist who uses real magic? Real magic that he learned from a man that he murdered? O'Connor doesn't so much play this kind of anhedonia as he does embody it. The way he piles himself in a chair, listlessly sucking on a Havana cigar, it's all routine, all just keeping up appearances. O'Connor's performance is strikingly natural for such a fanciful movie.

Joel Swetow plays Valentin, who is Philip Swann's stage manager in a number of senses. Swetow plays him as a fastidious man, bordering on the obsessive-compulsive. He is equally devoted to Dorothea and Philip, but he is another character who seemingly has something to hide. He is instantly put off by D'Amour's slovenliness and trades some amusing one liners with him during their scenes together. Swetow is one of those actors I don't think I've ever seen in another movie aside from this one. I looked him up on IMDB and I was pleased to find he was still working. He's got a demo reel on his IMDB page, and it looks like he's been cast in a lot of supporting parts: villains with accents, a supernatural being in a black trenchcoat, and even one of Randy Weaver's neighbors in a made-for-TV movie about the Ruby Ridge standoff.

My favorite performance is by Barry Del Sherman as the sadistic Butterfield. Del Sherman is another actor I could not remember from any other movie, but, upon looking at his IMDB profile I discovered he'd actually played small roles in a handful of movies I had seen before, such as Suicide Kings, Alien Nation, American Beauty, and There Will Be Blood. Del Sherman plays Butterfield as simultaneously detached from most human emotion yet with a penetrating intellectual concentration on his goal. He isn't a torturer just because he's a sadist, but because he believes it's the only way to reveal truth. And what is his goal? I can't reveal that, but I can tell you that he is very much a detective, a kind of diabolical foil to D'Amour. Sherman has a very intriguing moment late in the movie where someone asks him about his bag of tools, and he provides a surprisingly understated yet substantial answer. He isn't the usual cackling cinematic sadist, but comes across as an intensely intellectual, disciplined, yet totally ruthless man, who has been on a long journey, and done a lot of dark things. Watching this movie again, I wondered if Butterfield had ever in his journeys spent time hanging out with John Yoo, David Addington, or Dick Cheney, maybe spent some time as a consultant to a Neoconservative think tank . . . the imagination does wander . . .

Lord of Illusions has effective special effects, using a mixture of practical mechanical effects, makeup, and some ambitious, if not wholly effective, CG. The CG elements consist of a strange figure made of geometrically folding and unfolding  . . . sheets of paper? Paper cranes? And then the figure turns into a kind of flying fish, I think, but the whole thing doesn't quite come off, but I think I get the overall idea. A strange presence invades a house, and the people there have to contend with it . . . see the movie itself for the full story. The best special effects are in the opening and climatic scenes of the film wherein the magical forces in play are allowed to clash in full force. The climax, wherein the evil force behind everything is unleashed is spectacular. It's an orgy of madness, a battle to the finish, and a confrontation with the past all in one.

There's another quality to this movie that I like that's a little harder to pin down. It's a very writerly movie. Cliver Barker is not just a filmmaker but a novelist, short story author, and a playwright for the stage, as well as a visual artist. You can see some of his drawings and designs in some scenes. But with Lord of Illusions, Barker elevates the usual characterizations one finds in horror cinema with something that he no doubt learned as a novelist writing long form narratives: a sense of history, a sense of emotional complexity, moral ambiguity, and the way people change, or don't, over stretches of time. None of these are the usual values one expects or even demands from horror flicks. I think most people, certainly most people I know, go to horror movies for the snuff movie aspect: they want to see people geeked in novel ways. A machete to the head. A scythe up the ass. Coils of intestines on a meat hook. A chainsaw to the genitals. Barker himself is no stranger to outrageous gore, as anyone who has read his horror short stories, The Books of Blood, or seen the first two Hellraiser movies could tell you, but I appreciated the fact that he decided to go for something deeper, and more ambitious with this film. The characters in Lord of Illusions don't just exist to be hacked to death by some lumbering boogeyman. They seem to have existences beyond the cruel exigencies of the horror film, and each one's suffering and potential death counts for quite a bit. Even the villainous characters evoke a certain amount of empathy, and failing that, fascination. We want to see even the evil ones live just to find out what novel horrors they will bring into the world.

Horror movies nowadays consist mostly of remakes of played-out slasher film franchises, the kinda bullshit you think audiences would've consigned to the straight-to-DVD market at the turn of the millennium. But Freddy and Jason and that endless stream of Saw sequels keep on coming. The Saw series in particular is about the purest form of the geek show in American horror cinema that I can think of, almost majestic in its single-minded desire to derive entertainment from the sounds and images of human beings getting tortured to death.

My point is that Barker proved himself to be a much too intelligent filmmaker for standard horror fare with Lord of Illusions. Which is why he hasn't directed another film since. It hasn't helped that all three of Barker's major directorial efforts, Hellraiser, Night Breed, and Lord of Illusions, have met with resistance from production executives, and varying degrees of censorship from the MPAA. Hellraiser is probably the one movie of the three which was able to reach audiences with an R rating and be relatively uncompromised, yet it is also arguably the most simplistic of the three. Night Breed was butchered by clueless executives who wanted more of a pure monster movie, but is still a fascinating piece of work, very ahead of its time. Lord of Illusions was released theatrically in a compromised cut, but is now widely available in a Director's Cut on DVD. Maybe Barker is just sick of dealing with the endless compromises inherent within the Hollywood machine. As a writer and a painter he can create without mindless interference and the inevitable evisceration of substance which follows the ordeals of test screenings and focus groups and other art-by-committee atrocities. Still, it would be nice if Barker got back in the saddle for one more directorial effort. It'd be all the better if it was something of the flavor of Lord of Illusions, another supernaturally themed mystery-thriller, maybe another outing with Harry D'Amour, a little older, a little wiser, a little more scarred. One can hope.

Friday, October 21, 2011



Charlie Chaplin
Paulette Goddard

Written, Directed, Produced, Original Music Composed by Charlie Chaplin
Cinematography by Ira H. Morgan and Roland Totheroh 
Editing by Charlie Chaplin and Willard Nico
Production Design by Charles D. Hall
Art Direction by J. Russell Spencer

The Chaplin is a Tramp! And this Tramp starts out with a pretty good job in the midst of the Great Depression: tightening bolts on incomprehensible bits of machine parts as they race by on a manic conveyor belt. Chaplin's boss dictates to the workers via an Orwellian telescreen, and his one dictate seems to be "Faster! Faster!" And so the workers on the line pick up the pace. Chaplin has to tighten two bolts at a time, so he's armed with a wrench in each fist. He takes to his work with crazed intensity, even if he does get a bit flaky and start applying the wrenches to the buttons on people's coats and dresses and even the occasional pair of nipples. Chaplin ends up losing his mind because he can't keep pace with the work, and the boss conducts a bizarre experiment on him involving a feeding machine that looks like it was designed by Survival Research Laboratories. Does Chaplin show up with a fully automatic assault rifle and start killing at will? Does he go on strike? No! He dances! He spurts people in the face with an oil can! He takes a ride through the gears of the grand industrial machinery! He makes all kinds of merry! He is happy as can be! And to be this kind of happy in the heart of the industrial beast one must clearly be insane. Later for that cushy factory job.

Chaplin finds himself out of work and on the streets. While strolling along with his inimitable walk he gets caught up between striking workers and strikebreaking pig cops. The cops drag Chaplin off to prison for being a communist agitator, and it looks like his spirits are sure to be crushed. But he ends up consuming large quantities of cocaine by accident and he becomes supercharged with energy. With this burst of energy he battles an armed gang trying to bust out of lock-up, and the Tramp becomes a savior of the prison warden. They even give him a pardon and, what's most important, a letter of reference so he can get a job.

Meanwhile, the lovely Paulette Goddard finds herself barefoot in the streets after her father is gunned down during a labor skirmish. Rather than become a ward of the state, she decides to strike out on her own, and try to skip and prance and charm her way into a job and a new life. She crosses paths with the Tramp when she nearly gets caught stealing a loaf of bread. Chaplin tries to take the rap, and thereby end up in jail again where he was actually having a grand old time, and penitentiary sure beat hell outta the madness of working the factory line . . .

What does it take to survive in a world of brutal, dehumanizing labor, state repression of labor strikes, and all pervasive poverty and starvation? You gotta get tough. You gotta get organized. You gotta have solidarity with your fellow workers. You gotta stand up to the pigs and the oppressors. Or you can just get goofy. Chaplin gets goofy.

But I'm not sure the Tramp ever made a choice, exactly. He's just that kind of guy, you know? All he wants is to cruise through life, not take on too many obligations, eat well, and maybe find a nice girl to spend time with. Make time to roller skate, sing, and dance. If he ends up as a labor agitator, a rebel, a thief, and a gangbuster those are just side effects of his good time, you know what I'm saying? What kind of victory would it be, anyways, to win some bogus concessions from management, and still be tied down to that goddamn factory line? Better to cut loose of such attachments, and cruise through reality as if it all was just one big Saturday afternoon stroll.

Modern Times is a delightful fantasy, a liberating blast of gentle anarchy. Yes, real life is a lot uglier, and much more insane. But the central idea, as I take it, is that a person can find freedom and dignity in the midst of grim circumstances through play, and through this play you can negate the systems of command and control, oppression and obedience, that the bogus, arbitrary, unthinking authorities of the world are obsessively trying to perpetrate upon humanity.

There's a nice little moment where the cops are trying to get Chaplin to heel, and he just keeps on walking, politely refusing their demands. No Molotov cocktails, no lawsuits, just as if to say, "No thank you. You may keep your authoritarian bullshit for yourself. I'll not be needing it." Of course, Chaplin does it without the superfluous words.

What more can I say? Chaplin was a brilliant physical comedian, filmmaker, musician, actor, he did it all. Paulette Goddard is quite beautiful, and cunning. Unlike Chaplin, she has seen death up close, and so she applies her willpower to the art of survival. She is a perfect compliment to Chaplin's unconscious agent of anarchy. There's a reason why people who draw up lists of the greatest movies ever put Modern Times on the list. It helps that it's imminently watchable and hilarious. The set designs are mind-boggling and fun. The comic timing is as hectic and athletic as a Jackie Chan martial arts comedy.

What a team-up that would've been! Chaplin and Chan!

Better that it remains an idle fantasy, and not some CG grotesquerie.

The Eating Machine:

Saturday, October 15, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: The Ruined Map by Kobo Abe (1969)

The Ruined Map
by Kobo Abe

Translated by E. Dale Saunders
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1969
Originally published in Japanese 1967

A nameless private investigator takes on the case of a missing husband, a Mr. Nemuro. He goes to a small town somewhere in Japan, and tries to figure out where Mr. Nemuro went. It doesn't help that the man disappeared six months ago, and that it's taken so long for the wife and the wife's brother to hire a detective. The P.I. narrates his tale in the first person, and the names of the town and several pertinent organizations have been purposely redacted from his first person narrative. His investigation takes on an abstract quality. One gets the sense that this mystery and the people involved could exist in any small town or city.

The P.I. has a kind of knack for seeing things in minute detail. At times, he seems to focus obsessively on details of rooms and streets and people's attire to the point that he misses the big picture. Early on, he narrowly avoids running down a child in the street. Later, he meets with his estranged wife and he seems to have a rather distorted sense of why they had to part ways. Like in many marital conflicts, each blames the other for the separation, and the P.I. is tinged with jealousy that borders on the absurd. One moment he's specualting about her cheating on him, and the next he idly fantasises about her having a lesbian tryst with her young female employee in her dressmaking shop. Every statement, each exchange, every last change of mood and odd utterance is analyzed for hidden meanings and secret threats. The P.I. was suited for his profession, and doomed to failure in marriage.

Or maybe the P.I.'s hyperawareness is his weakness as an investigator as well. Each person he interrogates, he takes on a slightly different persona the better to draw out pertinent information. His theory is he must be a kind of blank slate, an actor, willing to take on the persona which best gets his given subject talking about what he needs to know. Brilliant . . . but there's always the risk that these ideal personas merely push his subjects to tell him what he wants to hear, and not the truth. Also, his suspicious nature may prevent him from believeing the truth of statements which contain vital clues.

The Ruined Map plays with the tantalizing ambiguities inherent in human communications, especially when people are trying to hide their feelings and obscure the truth. The novel is set up like a hard-boiled mystery to give people plenty of reasons to equivocate and deceive one another about hidden motives and illicit schemes, but by the end of it I was left with the impression that Abe is suggesting that all human interactions are, on some level, profoundly uncertain. We can never really know what goes on in someone else's head. How do we know if someone is lying to us? And don't we all tell little white lies now and again? Deception, at some level, is absolutely necessary for normal human interactions to proceed apace. Radical honesty would tear us apart. But what happens if our lives are entirely made up of little white lies? Couldn't the case be made that one little white lie after another adds up to a big ol' pile of deception? That might very well be the case. And there might be absolutely nothing we can do about it.

And where does that leave the P.I. in terms of identity? If he has commited himself to being a kind of protean Everyman, altering his identity to suit whatever case and whoever he is dealing with at any given moment, then who is he? Is identity something essential and unchanging? In Abe's novel, this is not the case. Identity is something you can put on, take off, and fine tune in endless variations. At least, that's how the P.I. approaches things. That's another part of the guy's particular talent it would seem.

But what happens if you lose track of yourself? Sure, the P.I.'s a pro, that wouldn't happen . . . but what if?

The Ruined Map draws you in with a genre mystery set up, but then goes on, by gradual degrees, to take you into truly bizarre territory. I found it to be surprisingly unsettling, although it is hardly sensationlistic or gruesome in any extreme sense. But it wore on my psyche, screwing with my genre expecations, and then dragging me into a wholly unexpected fictional zone. I admired it, but it was also somewhat unpleasant, and a bit infuriating. I've read a number of other Abe novels in English, and have found most of them to be much too abstracted and absurdist for my taste, although I did enjoy The Box Man and Inter Ice Age 4. I think I was hoping, as I read it, that this book would be closer to Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, but instead it was thorougly Kobo Abe. Well, the man's name was on the spine. I have only myself to blame.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


Pigs and Battleships

Hiroyuki Nagato as Kinta
Jitsuko Yoshimura as Haruko
Sanae Nakahara as Hiromi
Tetsuro Tamba as Tetsu
Kin Sugai as Hiromi's Mother
Eijiro Tono as Kinta's Father

Directed by Shohei Imamura
Produced by Kano Otsuka
Written by Hisashi Yamanouchi
Cinematography by Shinsaku Himeda
Lighting by Yasuo Iwaki
Sound by Fumio Hashimoto
Music by Toshiro Mayuzumi
Art Direction by Kimihiko Nakamura

Pigs and Battleships is all about average people trying to survive and maybe even thrive in a port city in Japan sometime not long after the end of World War II. It's mostly about low end gangsters and their marginally more legit friends, lovers, and relations and how they navigate an economy heavily dependent on vice and the military presence of a foreign power. Everyone seems teetering on the edge of criminality, or maybe just insanity. Some dream big, and kid themselves that they'll have spacious homes like the foreign big spenders with their houses on hilltops, or maybe like the U.S. gangsters they see in newsreels.

Postwar Japan: the port city of Yokosuka. Big U.S. military presence. Lots of American sailors on the prowl, neon lights, prostitutes, and no air conditioning. Everybody is busting their ass to move up in the world, rebuild the nation, and, for the ladies, maybe even bag an American husband. But guys and gals alike all want some piece of that American dream. As one of the con men in this movie takes note, all the Japanese youth of the day are enamored with American gangsters and the Beat Generation, despite his best efforts to spread the gospel of Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson.

But if you can't be an American, you may as well profit off 'em. A young, wannabe yakuza named Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato) touts for a cathouse run out of the back of a tiny restaurant. With playful zest, he backslaps and browbeats the horny sailors into the cramped, smoky, improvised brothel space filled with bunk beds and young women. Kinta's girlfriend Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura) works with her mother (Kin Sugai) and older sister, Hiromi (Sanae Nakahara), in the restaurant part of the operation, and occasionally gets a big pay day when she goes on dates with Americans. Haruko hasn't slept with any of these guys, yet, as she feels loyalty towards Kinta, but the pressure to do so is intense. Haruko's mom and Hiromi both want her to put out to increase the family's revenue. Haruko isn't necessarily put off by the idea of prostitution, but she's in love with Kinta, and she's beginning to grow tired of having other people tell her what to do. She sees herself as eventually saving up enough money to move herself and Kinta to Kawasaki, where the young couple could get jobs in one of the new factories being built there.

 But Kinta feels loyalty to his yakuza comrades. In particular, he is loyal to his direct boss, Tetsu (Tetsuro Tamba), who happens to be dating Haruko's sister, Hiromi. Tetsu is probably the most high strung yakuza in cinema history. He is constantly concerned for his health, and has a medievalist's approach to medicine. Tetsu monitors the color and volume of the bile he coughs up every morning. Tetsu and Kinta and other members of their gang decide to move away from narcotics trafficking, and to focus on a scheme to sell pork to the American military base. To that end they decide to focus their business on pig farming and prostitution, with supplementary forays into protection racketeering. But these dimwitted yakuza find their ambitions complicated by the machinations of other criminals and distrust and divisiveness within their own ranks.

Kinta is not the top dawg in his gang, and he is certainly not the brightest, but he is the most sincere. He throws himself into whatever the gang wants him to do with surpassing zeal. Other gang members take note of this, and see a way to exploit him. Kinta goes along with a scheme to take the rap for a murder charge for someone higher up in the criminal hierarchy on the promise that once he's done his stretch on the inside he will have greater status as a yakuza. Kinta is clearly a fool, and yet I found his sincerity believable. Kinta has a conception in his mind of what the gang is that has little to do with the stark reality. Kinta is loyal to this conception, this fantasy, and that makes him a dreamer. It's hard not to like a dreamer, you know? I found myself wondering what the gang would've been able to accomplish if Kinta had been put in charge instead of the depressive hypochondriac Tetsu.

The central conflict within the movie exists between the lovers Kinta and Haruko. It is not so much a moral conflict, as in virtue versus vice, as it is a kind of existential conflict between agency and dependency. Both Kinta and Haruko are pragmatists to some degree. They both believe in doing whatever is necessary to survive and get ahead in life, but they have conflicting visions of how to achieve these ends. Kinta believes in his gang, and their enterprises: pig farming, racketeering, pimping. Haruko believes in herself, and in her ability to make her own  way in the world. Haruko wants to escape being dependent on the presence of the American military, and the oppressive family which would deny her the chance to strike out on her own. They're both pragmatists, but they're both dreamers as well.

Visually, Kinta and Haruko are often shown within Imamura's glorious black and white widescreen compositions as being enveloped by the various gritty, lived-in environments of Yokosuka, and also being crowded by the other characters, family, yakuza, and sailors. Kinta, especially, is often marginalized within the framing, appearing in the background while foreground characters discuss plans and schemes which Kinta has no choice but to follow along with or help execute as a loyal flunky.

Now and again, Kinta and Haruko have scenes together, and the two seem to dominate the scenery, sometimes towering over the camera, almost as though their passion for each other and their crazy dreams of future prosperity threaten to elevate them out of the gritty, quirky realism of Imamura's movie and into the realm of Hollywood melodrama. But even these scenes are off kilter, and often have resolutions which undercut the romance. Haruko drags Kinta away from his yakuza buddies to a hilltop and exhorts him to ditch the gang and make a new, legitimate life, but Kinta resists. Passionate words are exchanged, and the young lovers are framed against beautiful landscapes. But at the end, Kinta goes running down the hill, stumbles, and falls on his ass. Kinta picks himself up, though, keeps on running, and you gotta admire the kid's moxie.

Imamura's movie is highly eclectic, mixing in elements of yakuza gangster movies, farce, romance, realism, and satire, but he manages to make it all hang together with a dynamic sense of editing and pacing. In another director's hands this same material would've been grim and plodding, but Imamura transforms it into a kind of adventure but without toning down the grit and grime.There are quite a few rapid turns of plot and motivation as well, and it may require a couple of viewings to keep track of what all happens. The tone is frequently comical, and yet many serious, disturbing things transpire. It all builds to a crazed, slightly surreal climax wherein the pent-up rage and frustration of various characters finds release. Indeed, the ending seems to be somewhat influenced by what all these characters picked up watching American gangster movies, almost as though conflicting inner visions of what they were all aspiring to become in life were unleashed and began to trample each other . . .

Pigs and Battleships Trailer:

INFINITE REPEAT AWARD: "When you hear the Boss, it's time to go to work" Edition


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: EXTRA LIVES by Tom Bissell (2010)

Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter
by Tom Bissell

Published by Pantheon Books in 2010

"As incomprehensible as it may seem, I have some how spent more than two hundred hours playing Oblivion. I know this because the game keeps a running tally of the total time one has spent with it. I can think of only one personal activity I would be less eager to see audited in this way, and it, too, is a single-player experience."
                                           --Tom Bissell

Tom Bissell is a video game junkie. No question. He is also a very smart and articulate writer, and, like William Burroughs with heroin, he writes about his addiction, his master, with obsessive zeal and even offers up some brilliant critical insights into video gaming as addiction, as a multi-billion dollar industry, as an art form just now being broadly recognized as such, and as a path to self-destruction. His book Extra Lives is an entertaining and disturbing mixture of memoir and journalism. He combines descriptions of his experiences playing video games with interviews with some of the most successful game designers currently working to create an intriguing dialectic between a subjective confessional narrative and a critical consciousness aimed at picking the minds of video game designers and theorists, and exploring what it is that we seek when we play video games.

What is it that we seek when playing video games? For Bissell, it would seem that his title says it all: more lives, more life, we want to crawl into some other identity, usually one that is heavily armed, and essentially immortal and indestructible. Sure, you get killed all the time in games, but then you just go back to your last save point. Video game death is almost never permanent.

But Bissell is also looking for quality stories and characterizations, and he makes the case that video games are in a kind of renaissance in terms of games' capacities for deep stories, open-ended game play, and sophisticated characterizations. Video games are now capable of visual spectacle above and beyond what's possible at the cinema, that earlier, cruder form of virtual reality. Moreover, video games allow you to take control of the action. The player is totally in control.

Except when those arbitrary cut scenes kick in, and then you have no choice but to follow the plan laid out by the game designers. Bissell asserts that this tension between freedom of play and the coercive demands of an overarching narrative that intrudes on the illusion of freedom and empowerment one experiences while gaming is one of the key hurdles video games must overcome in order to achieve . . . but Bissell doesn't resolve the tension. He merely illustrates it.

But if one stops to consider what he's suggesting, he's basically calling for video games to be able to offer completely free-form, endlessly variable experiences. The ultimate merger between the demands of narrative in the literary sense, and what Bissell refers to as ludonarrative, which could be characterized as the the story which grows naturally out of the act of play, would basically be an extra, or second, life. It's a paradox. It's a mindfuck.

Think about it. Gaming is absorbing because it is an escape. And the more detailed and graphically and aurally impressive games become, the more we want to play them. But if a game were to totally replicate the free form experience of being alive, it would include massive amounts of minutiae which might destroy the gaming experience, to make it so demanding that it would cease to be fun. Even if the game was a fantasy experience including magical powers and heroic deeds it would be work to keep up with it. And then you would go looking for some other form of escape . . . to escape your escape . . .you 'd need not just a second life, but extra lives.

It makes me think of the Konami code: up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, START.

How many lives does the obsessive gamer require?

And talk about a warped sense of entitlement. It's not enough that our high tech civilization gives us such advanced amusements, but now we expect them to substantially or even completely replace our meatspace lives. But maybe there's something to this. If we all just stayed home and became absorbed into virtual existences, maybe we'd be less inclined to drive fossil fuel powered vehicles and engage in real world wars of adventure and folly. Of course, the electricity expenditure would go up, but where are people driving to, anyways? There are no jobs to go to. Most people are overweight, out of shape, and disinterested in meeting face to face.  Now, everyone works from home as the ultimate hi-score warrior, conjuring up second and third and fourth lives from the digital void. Game on!

Bissell's logic is that of the junkie chasing the ultimate high. The junkie who has come up against the outer limits of his accumulated chemical resistances. Bissell doesn't hide the fact that being hooked on video games has come at a high personal cost: a damaged work ethic and seriously strained, perhaps even broken, human relationships. Bissell is to be commended for being up front about this aspect of gaming addiction. He isn't exactly apologetic, but he does acknowledge the rather steep downside of his devotions.

This downside is illustrated by his adventures playing Grand Theft Auto IV while coked out of his mind with a buddy. They made a point of playing GTAIV while coked-up. Sometimes the Scarface poster isn't enough.

Bissell comes across as a guy who is seeking unusual, obsessive, and dangerous experiences. He was in the Peace Corps for a stretch until he dropped out, he's worked as an embedded reporter in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has burned through relationships with women at a rapid clip, and he has also Hoovered large quantities of cocaine with a friend while fanatically playing Grand Theft Auto IV. His consciousness seems to be divided between the here and now and some sort of idealized zone of continuous peak experiences. As a reader, I was captivated by his engaging, intellectually substantive, and humorous writing style, but I also wondered what it must be like to be friends with this guy. I would imagine his friends and family worry about him and his well-being. I hope he gets a handle on his appetites. It would be a shame to lose such a talented writer.


I've talked mostly about the personal side of Extra Lives. But the book isn't all druggie confessional narrative. Bissell went out and interviewed a some of the people who were instrumental in creating games such as Mass Effect, Far Cry 2, Braid, and Fable 2. These are all excellent pieces of reportage and analysis, and the most I can say is read them for yourself. They are most enlightening.

But something about this book really got to me.

 Tom Bissell  writes the single best obsessively detailed description of the experience of playing the original Resident Evil  for PS1 that I have ever read. It is also the only obsessively detailed description of the experience of playing the original Resident Evil that I have ever read, but sometimes you just grok a winner when you're in the presence of one, you know? Bissell breaks down that epochal game's technique: its deliberate pacing, the Mystery Science Theater quality voice acting, the camera angles which obscure as much as they reveal and create anxiety and make you wonder from which direction the enemy will strike, the sinister ambiance of the scoring and soundscaping, and then he goes one better: he creates a brilliant interpretation of why the controls for the very first Resident Evil game kinda sucked. In Bissell's view, the clunky controls augment the terror, the anxiety, the suspense, and function in a way antithetical to the first person shooter games which were then, and still are, all the rage.

In an FPS, you want responsiveness, you want to be able to mow down the enemy, reload instantly, and move quickly to avoid being surrounded or cornered, but in Resident Evil the player character can't just shoot from the hip. You gotta press the button to draw your weapon, then you gotta press buttons to position your character to aim at the enemy, and there's no goddamn cross-hair! There's no on-screen targeting icon to indicate whether you're actually locked on to the zombie or hunter or giant spider or undead attack dog--all you can do is hope you're pointing in the right direction and fire at will. In an FPS, the design of the controls facilitates fluidity and fast paced play. In Resident Evil, you are forced to be deliberate with every step you take, each hallway you choose to explore, every shot fired because you're unlikely to survive too many full-on encounters with the enemy, and the supplies of ammunition are severely limited.

And then there's the typewriters and those ink ribbons. In order to save the game, you gotta find an ink ribbon, and then you gotta get to a room with a typewriter. Every time you save, you use up an ink ribbon. The supplies of ink ribbons are not unlimited, so saving your game becomes as much a part of your strategy as how you use your ammunition, whether you choose to fight every monster you come across, or beat a strategic retreat.

Bissell describes all of this brilliantly, capturing the mindset one evolves to survive in such a dire gaming scenario, and how such games frustrate and addict those who play them in equal measure. As I read Bissell's description, I thought back to when I first got a PS1 and how one of the first games I got was Resident Evil. Most of my Christmas vacation was spent plugged into that sinister mansion. Hours passed like seconds. I played from three in the afternoon until seven in the morning, woke up at five p.m., played 'til seven or eight in the a.m., and I went a week without seeing any sunlight. In Florida. And Resident Evil wasn't all fun. It made me want to pull my fingernails out, just to try and jack myself back into real life with some overwhelmingly agonizing act of self-torture. It made me scream and swear and invent new uses for the words fuck, shit, goddamnit, and mother long before I had ever read a David Mamet play or watched an Angry Video Game Nerd video. It fucked with my patience and my sleep cycles, and it also hooked me like few other things. Playing Resident Evil gave me some idea of what it was like to be a junkie.

INFINITE REPEAT AWARD: "Cue 1990s Nostalgia Wave" Edition

Thursday, September 22, 2011


Tetsuo the Bullet Man

Eric Bossick as Anthony
Akiko Mono as Yuriko
Yuko Nakamura as Mitsue
Stephen Sarrazin as Ride
Shinya Tsukamoto as The Guy

Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto
Written by Shinya Tsukamoto and Hisakatsu Kuroki
Music by Chu Ishikawa
Cinematography by Satoshi Hayashi, Takayuki Shida, and Shinya Tsukamoto
Edited by Yuji Ambe and Shinya Tsukamoto
Production Design by Shinya Tsukamoto
Costume Design by Mari Sakurai
Produced by Shinichi Kawahara, Masayuki Tanishima, and Shinya Tsukamoto

A Kaijyu Theatre Production

"You don't want me inside you. You don't know what I'll do."

Anthony (Eric Bossick) has nightmares about a boy with a vibrating face of molten slag. His wife Yuriko (Akiko Mono) has the same nightmares. She's willing to talk about it, but Anthony keeps it inside. Anthony keeps a lot inside.

Like his resentment at how his father, Ride (Stephen Sarrazin) a retired bio-tech researcher, insists on conducting monthly blood tests on Anthony and Tom, Anthony's son. Ride claims he wants to make sure that Anthony and Tom aren't developing leukemia or other diseases. Anthony has tried to convince Ride that they can get those kinds of tests with their regular health care provider, but Ride insists. Ride's wife, Mitsue (Yuko Nakamura), died from some sort of inherited illness. Ride seems to believe that only he can keep his son and grandson healthy from the ravages of inherited disease.

Anthony is walking back from his father's place to his apartment with his son while talking on the phone with Yuriko when an economy car comes zooming down a tunnel. Anthony tells Tom to get out of the road, to stand against the wall. The car comes to a halt a few feet from Anthony. The driver is in shadow. There's something menacing about this vehicle. A father's worst fears are realized when the car backs up at high speed and runs Tom down. Anthony runs after the car, helpless to stop this new nightmare unfolding in waking life, and sees something both horrific and strange: a little arm is reaching out from underneath the front end of the car, fingers grasping the grill of the murderous economy car. The arm is seemingly mutilated, but maybe it's just transformed . . . into the same awful consistency of the molten slag face of the child Anthony and Yuriko both saw in their nightmares. A new vision of horror: steaming blood pours from beneath the car. But the blood looks more like liquid metal . . .

Anthony feels something exploding inside himself. He flips out, his body twitching and vibrating, going into a kind of dance. The crashing music seems to signal the loosing of some strange, awful power, and a new Tetsuo is born!

Much as in Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, the man of metal in Tetsuo the Bullet Man is also born of rage at the murderous loss of his son. This homicidal act also echos the act of vehicular assault which created the Metal Fetishist in the original Tetsuo the Iron Man. Does filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto have a fear of being run over by a car? Maybe so. I recall reading somewhere that Tsukamoto rides a bicycle, and so maybe he feels some anxiety at being run down by some monstrous machine (bicycles also figure prominently in Tsukamoto's films Bullet Ballet and Nightmare Detective). There's also the tragedy of a parent losing a child. This seems to be a concern which has grown out of Tsukamoto's real world development from a single  auteur filmmaker to an auteur filmmaker with a wife and children who keeps one foot in the world of advertising and for-hire filmmaking. Tsukamoto's movies always seem to reflect his personal obsessions and concerns even when they are works of pure fantasy. Indeed, Tsukamoto's fantasies are never just that. Fantastic powers and mutations come at the potential loss of one's sanity, bodily integrity, and the peril of mass destruction.

This peril of mass destruction is something Tsukamoto seems to have an ambivalent relationship with in the Tetsuo movies. Tetsuo the Iron Man seemed to embrace the annihilation of the old world, as embodied by the city of Tokyo, as something to be celebrated. A lone metal fetishist pursues a milquetoast salaryman with the intention of inspiring uncontrolled mutation and ultimate creative destruction. It also had a sexual element: the unleashing of destructive powers was seemingly some sort of atomic orgasm combined with infectious psychic mutations of the libido. Tetsuo II: Body Hammer involved a whole cult of metal fetishists organized with the purpose of tormenting a salaryman into remembering his secret past. Tetsuo II also addressed the destruction of Tokyo as a necessity, perhaps to make the world safe for parents and offspring. It was to be an end to all wars of mutation, as it were, since it was the city of Tokyo itself, born out of cutthroat capitalism and high technology, that required men of flesh to become men of metal to keep up the pace of production.

In all of these Tetsuo movies, the mutations are triggered by a figure known as The Guy, or Yatsu. (I'm guessing Yatsu must mean 'guy' or 'person.') The Guy, or "That Guy!" as Anthony refers to him at one point, is always played by Shinya Tsukamoto, perhaps as an on-camera manifestation of his behind the lens role as director and mastermind of the on screen carnage. Tsukamoto seems to be saying that each of these movies is a kind of experiment where the author/director is tormenting some poor protagonist to provoke a radical evolutionary response, to become a monster, and always for sinister purposes. The Guy's motives are tied to his resentment of the modern edifice of Tokyo, and perhaps reflect Tsukamoto's dark side as an artist.

Tsukamoto in real life is both an artist with a taste for the dark side and a hardworking family man. These movies seem to be explorations of these sometimes conflicting roles. The provocative artist side of him desires to transform reality, to defeat crass consumerism, and blow minds to bits. The family man side of him has bills to pay, responsibilities to shoulder, and people to love and protect. It's almost like two different personae reside within the same man. One has a serious resentment towards the structures and strictures of 21st century capitalist society, and the other depends on them. Tsukamoto uses these movies to play out these conflicts, and to show the price paid no matter where we fall on the destruction/dependence spectrum.

The Bullet Man is also a creature responding to the pain and cruelty of the world, the world as played by Tokyo. In this movie, the Bullet Man is besieged by grief, a wife who is angry that he let their son die, and the heavily armed contractors of a sinister corporation. Powerful interests want to make this Bullet Man go away, but this new Tetsuo won't go down without a fight. As Anthony's mutation progresses, he becomes a roaring, slag encrusted war machine, bristling with cannons, and enraged by his inability to control his transformations.

Interestingly, and perhaps inspired by American comic book superheroes, the Bullet Man tries his best not to kill people, only to wound and disable them. This creates some dark comedy when the Bullet Man battles the Blackwater-style contractors. Instead of executing them outright, he just settles for blowing off their arms and legs to calm them down. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen.

The Guy, once again incarnated by Tsukamoto, is the driver of the murderous economy car. He knows what Anthony is hiding inside, and wants to bring it out into the open. The Guy tortures Anthony with menacing phone calls and emails. It's a tribute to Tsuakmoto's skill as a director that he is able to conjure menace from economy cars, cell phones, and emails. Part of it is how he directs the movie to put the audience into Anthony's disturbed mental state, but a large portion of the movie's intensity comes from Chu Ishikawa's epic score and sound design. This is a movie which constantly rumbles with ambient menace, and impacts with furious percussion. I can't adequately describe it, it's just something you have to experience. Crank up the volume on this one.

The Guy, who in this movie is presented as some sort of corporate saboteur, has something special in mind for the Bullet Man, something unexpectedly grand and ambitious. It's not the unbridled sexual anarchy of Tetsuo the Iron Man, nor is it solely the revelation of dark secrets from the past, as in Tetsuo II: Body Hammer. It has partially to do with unveiling the past and something else which I won't reveal. But I would say it's rather a clever twist on the surreal logic of the Tetsuo movies. It makes me wonder what Tsukamoto has in mind for Tetsuo 4, and, yes, I do hope he makes a fourth one.

First time leading man Eric Bossick gets put through his paces on this one. I gather from his IMDB profile that he has done voice overs  and motion capture for video games such as Silent Hill 4, and that he has had  roles on Japanese television dramas. There's also a great picture on his IMDB page of Bossick, Tsukamoto, and Robert De Niro together at the Tribeca Film Festival. Bossick is no replacement for Tomorrwo Taguchi  who so memorably embodied the previous two men of metal, and I don't think he's meant to be. Bossick brings more of a fragile, wounded dimension to the Bullet Man. But he is also quite convincingly crazed and fearsome, and a helluva sport to be buried under the elaborate molting slag make-up and costuming prostheses.

The Bullet Man is also a triumph of make-up and practical effects. To watch it go through it's different transformations is quite impressive. As the Bullet Man molts and mutates, his wife Yuriko has the opportunity to show tenderness towards this monster, evoking some version of Beauty and the Beast. The scene of Yuriko pulling the molted chunks of slab from Anthony's head is unexpectedly moving. And The Bullet Man's final form suggests a wholly new and terrifying frontier for the Tetsuo franchise . . . but you'll just have to see for yourself.

It should be noted that this film is mostly in English, with only a few lines of dialogue in Japanese. This was done, I guess, to try and increase its commercial viability in the United States and other English speaking markets. The effect is uneven. All of the Japanese cast members are clearly speaking their lines based on phonetic memorization, and the effect is rather artificial. Bossick has no problem with the English, and Tsukamoto's scenes with English dialogue are played for perverse humorous effect, and that compensates somewhat for the lack of fluency, but the overall impact is less than perfect. But it does give the movie a strange sound and feel. The dialogue itself is not bad, actually, and shows a good deal of finesse, it's just the delivery is off, and I feel that it puts the obviously talented Japanese cast members at a bit of a disadvantage. But Tsukamoto makes a skilled go of it.

It comes off better than what was attempted in 2007's Sukiyaki Western Django, which was a mash-up of Spaghetti Westerns and samurai movies directed by Takashi Miike. In that movie, all of the dialogue was recorded in phonetically memorized English, and it was all thoroughly ludicrous. The movie featured a hugely talented cast, and some memorably orchestrated carnage, but the dialogue was almost incomprehensible and undercut the whole endeavor. I had to watch it with English subtitles. Tetsuo the Bullet Man deploys it's dialogue much more effectively. Even if you don't catch every last word, the flow of the story, and the emotions of the characters are all pretty easy to follow.

Tetsuo the Bullet Man is a worthy entry in Tsukamoto's surrealistic ongoing saga of rage, mutation, and creative destruction, played out against Tokyo, that high-tech edifice of civilization. Watching it reminded me of a line of dialogue from an earlier Tsukamoto film, Bullet Ballet, where one of the characters referred to Tokyo as a dream. The character, a drug dealing gangster and junkie, seemed to suggest that the mainstream society of civilization and laws was an illusion, and that it was the underground, outlaw existence which was real. Of course, one must consider the source of this bit of druggie philosophy, but the Tetsuo movies seem to be concerned with a similar inquiry:

Is civilization the dream, the fantasy? Is ultimate reality the mutant of rage inside the human heart? Does it take a radical act of creative destruction to unleash reality? Or can we choose our reality, be it civilization or unbridled chaos and war?

Tetsuo the Bullet Man trailer:

Interview with Shinya Tsukamoto by Raffi Asdourian:

Monday, September 19, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: SMARTBOMB by Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby (2005)

SMARTBOMB: The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution
by Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby
Published 2005 and 2006 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Smartbomb is an efficient mixture of original reporting and research on the state of video games as both an industry and a cultural phenomenon circa 2005-2006 when the book was originally published.

Authors Chaplin and Ruby are focused on how the video gaming phenomenon has evolved in the United States, starting with how accessible computing grew out of  the hacker crew at MIT's legendary Building 20 in the early 1960s, and going on to give in-depth profiles of designers such as Gears of War creator Clifford "CliffyB" Bleszinski, the guru of all things Sim Will Wright,  id Software's John Romero and John Carmack, and Atari's Nolan Bushnell; but they also go in-depth with Shigeru Miyamoto, the resident genius at Nintendo.

Miyamoto's creations, Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Mario 64 insured Nintendo's dominance over console gaming in the 1980s and 1990s, and allowed them to stay relevant to American gaming into the first decade of the 21st century. The book's later chapters deal with the ominous convergence of gaming and the military-industrial complex's ambitions to more efficiently model "full spectrum dominance" and to better indoctrinate young soldiers with high end first person shooter games. Smartbomb closes with Microsoft's $500 million gala launch of the X-Box, which would go on to become the first console gaming system from an American developer to offer a serious challenge to the hegemony Sony, Sega, and Nintendo had enjoyed over the US and global console gaming markets throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

My favorite chapter was the chapter about Will Wright, founder of Maxis and all things Sim. Wright is portrayed as a kind of plain-speaking oracle: at conventions various aspiring game designers pitch him their gaming ideas, and Wright usually shoots them down. On his downtime, Wright participates in the Stupid Fun Club: an underground robot battling circuit. DIY robot builders meet in a seemingly abandoned warehouse to orchestrate rock'em sock 'em gladiatorial spectacles. He has also taught himself to fly planes, and obsessively collects junked out tech from the Soviet space program as a hobby.

This chapter also recounts a meeting between Wright and Philip Rosedale, the creator of Second Life, over sushi with Rosedale picking up the tab. Rosedale and Wright are both in the business of trying to enhance gaming's capacity to colonize the consciousness of players by offering up complex multi-variable simulations. SimCity puts the player in charge of a complex evolving city. The player is a kind of super-mayor, who must anticipate the needs of the Sim people inhabiting the SimCity. The player must zone property for commerical, residential, and industrial zones, and then respond to the Sims' complaints about pollution, crime, jobs, and other factors. Occasionally, an earthquake or a giant radioactive lizard trashes things, and then the player must respond to the crisis with relief and reconstruction. Rosedale's Second Life is not so much a game as it is . . . well, a Second Life. In Second Life the goal isn't to beat scores of enemies or field an army, or even to play a godlike role lording over a complex simulation. It can be anything you want. The Second Life citizen can meticulously reconstruct prosaic reality, or they can transform themselves into a half-dragon bike punk with a mean tattoo. Men can become women, women can become men. Or you can forge your own bold new gender identity. Or you can re-fight famous battles of World War II. Or you can don the robes of the KKK and burn a cross. Or you can simulate all manner of sex acts.

 Rosedale and Wright rap about "possibility spaces" and how the games aren't so much meant to be goals in and of themselves, but are rather an opportunity to do science.  Specifically, Wright asserts that models and simulations are the new way to conduct science as opposed to experiments. Wright says, "Simulation is quickly replacing experimentation as the central test of a new theory." Wright's talent for constructing simulation programs has gotten him lucrative projects for hospitals, Chevron, and the Pentagon. Wright seems to have few moral or ethical qualms about his work being used for potentially lethal applications, such as designing autonomous vehicles for land based cruise missiles. In fact, he explicitly states that he is more bothered by the lost opportunity from failing to realize an application of a given technology, rather than the attendant moral hazards that come with creating something and implementing it.

Will Wright was seemingly born to be a game designer. He comes off as comfortable in the role of genius game creator. He all but says he prefers to interface with reality via simulation. After all, if you're the simulation designer, you get to decide what's important and what's not. Experiments are messy, and must be rigorously repeated and the results scrutinized and cross-referenced. Dead ends are legion. A sim designer can create his or her own world and come up with wholly new rules and realities. Will Wright has rather joyously carved out his own place in the industry.

But many people in the world of gaming have struggled with being passionate about their profession. They create successful product, and yet they do not wish to be perceived as geeks or shut-ins. Chaplin and Ruby explore these tangled desires with the character of CliffyB the lead designer of Epic Games and the creator of the Unreal FPS franchise. CliffyB would later go on to create the smash hit Gears of War, but Smartbomb covers his pre-Gears of War days. Chaplin and Ruby use CliffyB's ascent to illustrate the rise of the gaming industry overall: from the disreputable basements of skeptical moms and dads to the heights of celebrity, wealth, and worldwide cultural cachet. CliffyB started out as a hobbyist and evolved into a captain of the industry. Along the way, he shed his geek-grunge threads for a personal trainer and bling chic couture, strategically engaging with the pan-optic media culture of the early 21st century. CliffyB has his private doubts, in Chaplin and Ruby's telling, and heavy is the head that wears the crown. In some ways, CliffyB's transformation resonates with the alternate persona existences of those gamers who devote themselves to MMORPGs and Second Life. CliffyB has to step into his persona as a rock star game designer, and then steps out of it in private. Maybe it's more LARPing than MMORPing, but it's intriguing how the global success of gaming has necessitated sundry forms of gamesmanship and image management on the part of the industry leaders.

Chaplin and Ruby also touch on the phenomenon of Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games through a riveting account of the launch of Star Wars Galaxies. Anticipation builds as the authors trace the technical trials and tribulations of the developers working out the bugs in the system prior to launch, and the outsize expectations of legions of Star Wars fans who have signed up for beta subscriptions and can't wait to dive into their new personae. In lesser hands, such an account could be muddled, tedious with technical detail, and of no obvious interest to non-specialist readers. But Chaplin and Ruby keep the high-tech business grounded in human emotions, ambitions, and expectations, and they illustrate the dramatic stakes for all involved. The gamers can't wait to escape meatspace, and the developers can't wait to see if their elaborate scenarios are a hit.

Once an MMORPG is launched, the troubles have just begun. Even if it is massively popular from its first launch, all sorts of bugs and kinks can only be worked out, sometimes painfully, via the gamers' contact with the game. The life of an MMORPG as both a cultural and business entity is one of constant adpatation, mutation, evolution, and transformation.

Smartbomb is five or so years behind the times, but it's a great place to start if one wants to pick up on the dominant currents of video gaming as both an industry and a culture. It's written with keen perception into the business, human drama, and cultural aspects of this multi-billion dollar industry. A solid volume for any library on the history of video games.