“Fan theories” have become increasingly popular in recent years (now you know what they are). Like the related phenomenon of “creepypastas”, they’re exciting at first but soon fall into repetitive cliches: bad guy is secretly good, good guy is secretly bad, dumb guy is secretly a genius, up is secretly down, main character is secretly dying of cancer and hallucinating. There’s 10-15 basic fan theories and soon you’ll have seen them all.
However, the best fan theories are compelling enough to make people forget that they’re theories, and start talking about them as if they’re accepted canon.
In Star Wars, the Imperial stormtroopers miss a lot. They do more missing than Graham Lineham addressing a transgender man. Their accuracy has become such a joke that it’s given rise to terminology such as the Stormtrooper effect.
In 2015, a theory was proposed that stormtroopers are being ordered to miss, in order to keep Luke alive and fulfill Vader’s plans. It was posted on the Fan Theories subreddit, and the author never pretends it’s anything more than fanciful speculation. The theory quickly spread across the internet, however, and soon nobody was treating it as a theory. Soon, it became a generic “checkmate, atheists” rebuttal to the most casual mention of Stormtrooper accuracy. For example, this meme on imgur (with no less than THREE lines of text explaining the joke, holy shit dude) has the top-voted comment :
haven’t we established that the stormtroopers miss on purpose?
…No. We have not. There is zero textual evidence that they miss on purpose. There’s a theory that they do, and in light of the facts, the theory’s probably wrong.
1) Why fire guns at all if they want the heroes to live?
As any marksman is taught, you never, ever point a gun at something you don’t want to kill. It doesn’t matter if you try to miss. What if a stormtrooper kills Luke with a stray shot? Blast rifle bolts have an area effect (as seen in the Docking Bay 94 scene, where blasts take out large sections of concrete), so even a “miss” might kill Luke with shrapnel.
2) They miss when there’s no reason to.
We see Stormtroopers miss R2D2 and C3PO on the Tantive IV, miss Han Solo when he’s leaving Mos Eisley, miss Ewoks, etc.
3) It’s not true that they want everyone on the Millenium Falcon to escape.
Luke Skywalker needs to live because he’s capital-I Important. Leia needs to live because she knows the location of the Rebel base. They could have plausibly wanted Han Solo alive, as he was the pilot of the ship.
…But why miss when shooting at Chewbacca, a wookie of no tactical value?
4) there aren’t many positive examples of Stormtroopers hitting shots.
Here we see Stormtroopers storm the Tantive IV, and accomplish the feat of killing several guys in a narrow hallway with no cover. It looks like hard work.
Here’s the scene of the execution of the Jedi. Stormtroopers shoot them at point blank range. Not an amazing feat of marksmanship.
4) “These blast points… too accurate for Sand People. Only Imperial stormtroopers are so precise.”
Ben Skywalker’s quote re: a wrecked sandcrawler doesn’t necessarily imply that stormtroopers are good shots. He could mean “they knew where to aim, as opposed to Sand People who just blast away indiscriminately”. This is the risk of using dialog as evidence.
When consuming art, it’s possible to see things that aren’t there. Sometimes these mirages persist, are spread across time and culture, and the imaginary thing becomes part of the “official” tale. Nowhere in the nursery tale of Humpty Dumpty does it say that he’s an egg.
“Stormtroopers miss on purpose” was created as an imaginative “what if” theory. However, it now seems to be accepted as the gospel truth of what’s happening in Star Wars. Much of history is probably composed in a similar way.
This book (155 pages long, written in the biggest print I’ve ever seen in a book not for children or blind people) is about how everyone is conspiring against everyone about everything.
Of course, when you point at everything you’re really pointing at nothing. If the New World Order truly existed and included everyone from HW+GW Bush, Gorbachev, Kissinger, Mao, “Adolph Hitler” (sic), Stalin, Reagan, Osama bin Laden, along with all the world’s royal families and all the world’s billionaires, there would be no point in writing a book like this. The New World Order has won, they control everything, and a book detailing their crimes would never see print.
This is the odd thing about Alex Jones’ world: there’s no room in it for Alex Jones. The One World Government would never suffer a man like him to live. The book ends with a request to send him money. “The Republic is in great danger of being completely overthrown.” This rather prompts the incredulous response: “You just told me that every President since Eisenhower meets annually at Bohemian Grove to perform human sacrifice. What’s left to overthrow?”
But internal contradictions don’t matter to people like Jones. A 2012 scientific study found that conspiracy theorists will believe in differing conspiracies at once, even when they’re at odds with one another. For example, the more likely you are to answer “yes” to the statement “Princess Diana faked her own death”, the more likely you are to answer “yes” to the statement “Princess Diana was murdered.” I’ve noticed something similar. I’ve seen Holocaust denialists simultaneously argue that 1) Auschwitz had no crematoriums, and 2) the rate at which the camps could cremate bodies was insufficient to conduct the Holocaust. I’ve seen 9/11 truthers simultaneously argue that 1) the pilots were CIA patsies 2) no plane hit the Pentagon or the Towers.
Most people are driven by a need to make sense of the world. Conspiracy theorists, however, are driven by intellectual narcissism: they alone know the truth, and everyone else is stupid. So they watch Youtube videos and scroll Twitter for sixteen hours a day, packing as many “truth bombs” into their heads as possible. The fact that many of these contradict each other doesn’t even register.
I found the book to be a slog. Jones has a wearisome, hectoring style – one suited to an opinionated radio host who’s used to steamrolling over guests and callers – and reading it made me feel sorry for whoever has to sit down with him for Thanksgiving dinner. You clearly couldn’t have a reasonable discussion with this guy about anything.
Sometimes the stream-of-consciousness style produces funny results. On page 15 Jones recounts the tale of Nero fiddling while Rome burned, but he gets it jumbled: he has Nero fiddling while setting fire to Rome (perhaps with a firebrand held between his toes?) Most of the time, though, it just makes the book even sloppier, and less grounded in fact. On page 101, he writes “For years, we warned people about FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). The federal documents have been around for decades and include round-up plans and concentration camps.” Such handwaving would be fine as an off-the-cuff remark on the radio. But in a book the reader feels justified in seeing excerpts from these supposed “federal documents”. Or sources. Or anything.
Descent Into Tyranny was written in 2002. I was curious to see how Jones’ political outlook evolved over time. I vaguely remember Infowars being a vaguely left-libertarianish outlet at the start, and the book certainly devotes time to conspiracies beloved of left-wingers, like IMF and the World Bank and Waco, Texas. It’s published by a small outlet called Progressive Press, whose other fine titles can be viewed here. (Sample excerpt: “The “Arab Spring” is revealed as part of the scheme to extend the Anglo-Zionist empire and its neo-liberal regime of plunder over the entire planet.”).
Jones was much less fond of “Vladymir Putin” (sic) in 2002. In the section entitled “Putin Uses Terror”, he reveals that Putin destroyed an apartment complex using explosive plastique, killing 350 people. Fifteen years later Jones would be on Twitter writing stuff like “Looking forward to Putin giving me the new hashtags to use against Hillary and the dems… “ In fairness, Putin’s killing of 350 people happened a long time ago. You have to let stuff slide eventually.
The book runs out of material by the end, and Jones pads it out with the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Communist Manifesto (which he thinks was written by“global banking cartels”.) All that’s missing is Huckleberry Finn and summer reading list experience would be complete.
Some people become JoJo fans naturally; I was forcibly converted. I was part of a movie-watching group and whenever we ran out of material our host would inflict JoJo marathons on us. I still recall his mounting panic when we didn’t share his enthusiasm (“…this gets really good around Stardust Crusaders, I promise!”)
It took me a long time to like JoJo, and even now I’m not a superfan. But I “get” what it’s about. Not in the sense of plot (a cursed mask, sibling rivalry, an ancient blood debt), but what it’s really about: the glory of the West. Or, less politely, weebishness in reverse.
Traditionally, weebs are white kids who are fascinated by Japan (or the Japan they see in anime) and assign various romantic ideals upon it. The stereotypical weeb is overweight, undersocialized, a disappointment to his parents, and a failure with women – he holds no love for the place of his birth. Japan represents a kind of Avalon to him, an isle across the waters where nerds and misfits are accepted.
Hirohiko Araki is an anti-weeb: a Japanese person who’s in love with Western culture. I guess the bamboo is always greener on the other side. Japanese authors are often attracted to a certain element of Western culture (Edogawa Rampo loved the Gothic movement, Yukio Mishima loved fascism, Haruki Murakami loves bohemians) but Hirohiko Araki’s tastes are exceptionally omnivorous. He loves everything about us.
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is about rockstars, pirates, highwaymen, knights, athletes, gangsters, gamblers, and rakes. Everyone’s an archetype of masculinity, cool beyond cool, a muscular, flamboyant ubermensch. JoJo takes Western machismo and exaggerates it to cartoonish, absurd levels.
It’s pretty gay at times. I don’t know whether JoJo’s homoeroticism was intended, but it’s striking that the manga has one female character, and she’s passive and pathetic, serving as a prize for the strutting male peacocks to fight over.
The love weebs have for Japan is often an intellectually shallow one, and they tend to get stuff wrong. Hirohiko Araki gets details about western culture wrong, too. For example, the villainous Dio resurrects a pair of medieval warriors, Brufold and Tarkus, to help kill Jonathan Joestar. We’re told that they’re knights who served Mary, Queen of Scots…but neither of them look like knights. Tarkus (left) is armored like a Roman Centurion. Brufold (wearing a horned helmet) is clearly modelled after a Viking warrior. These are not knights.
Or consider the family name, “Joestar”, which sounds jarringly wrong to the Western ear – people don’t have surnames like that. It reminds me of the infamous Fighting Baseball player roster, where a Japanese game programmer had to invent a bunch of American-sounding names and came up with “Sleve McDichael” and “Bobson Dugnutt”.
But realism isn’t important in JoJo. Perhaps hyperrealism is, though: everything given a little push over the cliff (in the words of Nigel Tufnel). JoJo is the world of could-have-been truths that are exaggerated to compensate for the fact that they never existed.
Obviously a name like Dio Brando gives the game away – a stilted amalgamation of a heavy metal rockstar and a Hollywood actor. As is the character of Zeppeli, who is visually modelled upon Salvadore Dali. JoJo often surprises the reader with its degree of literacy and wit.
I enjoyed the start of Phantom Blood more than the end. The way Dio Brando whiplashes from gentlemanliness to psychotic brutality is hilarious and shocking, and puts the reader squarely in Jonathan’s corner. And the “down-to-earth” nature of the tale was pleasant: something gets lost when the hero is battling a sentient hairstyle.
The final few volumes sort of blur together. Jonathan faces a threat, learns a new power or ability to overcome it, faces an even bigger threat, learns a new power or ability, and so on. It’s like a treadmill that speeds up all the time – soon you’re tired and want to get off. It was probably more enjoyable in its original run, where the repetition is less obvious. Probably better as an anime, too, where colours and music help establish JoJo’s mojo. I’m curious to see where the Joestar family goes next: hopefully a Jonathan Joestar vs Sleve McDichael crossover.
The Argument, Grant Hart’s final solo album, was released in 2013, four years before his death.
Who is Grant Hart? If you know him at all, it’s probably as “the less famous guy from Hüsker Dü”. There are worse obituaries, but if you ask a group of children who they want to be when they grow up, few will say “the less famous guy from Hüsker Dü”. Not many will say “the more famous guy from Hüsker Dü” for that matter, either.
Hart deserved better than he got. Overshadowed both by Bob Mould’s pyroclastic distorted guitar chords and forceful personality, it was easy to see him as a lesser talent. But one day I took stock of my ten favorite Hüsker Dü songs, and about seven of them were written by Hart. From “The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill” to “She Floated Away” to his solo albums, he was a genuinely brilliant pop songwriter.
And he was weird. Bob Mould would never and could never have made The Argument.
It’s a 20-song adaptation of Milton’s Paradise Lost, based on a treatment by William S Burroughs. It sounds (and is) cheaply made, consisting of noisy guitars, synth loops, and found sounds apparently recorded around Hart’s house (such as a barking dog). Seldom has such ambition been realised through such humble material. Hart has created a tableaux of the Original Sin out of carpet fluff, dryer lint, and spilled breakfast cereal.
There’s not a trace of hardcore punk to be seen, and little alternative rock. It’s just Grant Hart’s stripped-back and heartfelt (Hartfelt?) songwriting, which always seemed to exist beyond influences. Sometimes the cheapness of the album works against it: “Morningstar”, for instance, features a loud programmed drum loop. It’s distracting, and all I can focus on. But far more often than not an entrancing mood appear. “Awake, Arise” is dire, and builds up like a thundercloud. It’s followed by “If We Have The Will”, a military march of painted toy soldiers written in 9/8 time. “Sin” goes heavy on the blues.
By the time “Letting Me Out”, “Is the Sky the Limit?”, and “So Far From Heaven” roll around, the album is (metaphorically) on fire. None of these songs contain a single dull or uninspired moment. “War in Heaven” is woven from agonizing jagging synths and samples. “Underneath the Apple Tree” is focused around lyrical storytelling – Grant Hart’s devil is far more avuncular and likeable than the Rolling Stones’ or Marilyn Manson’s. The six minute title track is boring and can be skipped. But the album ends on a high note, the energetic and frantic “Run For the Wilderness”.
One of Hart’s goals for the adaptation was to remove explicit references to religion – a blind listener might not even make the Paradise Lost connection. Lyrically, the story jumps around a bit and is kind of out of order. I think he might have taken inspiration from CS Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters – you think you’re reading the demonic missives in chronological sequence, but the celestial method of dating need not overlap with that of mundanity.
But mostly, Hart hasn’t recreated the world of Milton, or Burroughs, or even Moses, but has created a self-referential cosmos that’s entirely his own. Obsessive, detailed, and tuneful: The Argument could be a concept album about its creator’s mind. Grant Hart is gone, but will not be forgotten. Hüsker Dü. Do you recall?
A doorstop-sized work of historical fiction from 14th century China. At eight hundred pages, nearly a million words, and a thousand named characters, it has broken hardier men than you. Romance of the Three Kingdoms is one of those Mount Everest type books – can you possibly finish it?
It’s also the world’s first videogame. Explanation incoming.
Sometimes art has content that suggests it belongs to a different medium. For example, the first film directors had a background in theater, and the movies they produced are often stunningly derivative of stage plays.
Watch a film from the 1920s and you’ll see lengthy static shots, minimalist editing, flat and declamatory acting, etc. Only in the middle period of Hollywood’s golden age did the techniques and approaches of film qua film emerge. Early films didn’t leave the vaudeville behind: they’re well made, but…they’re not exactly movies.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms is like that, but instead of being a play disguised as a movie, it’s a videogame disguised as a book.
More specifically, a strategy game. It reminds me of a six hour Age of Empires II game fought between skilled and stubborn adversaries amidst a mounting pile of energy drink cans. Battles without end. Thousands of men thrown into a woodchipper, often gaining nothing, or winning a victory that gets reversed minutes later. Numberless acts of heroism, which you see from God’s perspective and soon don’t even notice.
It’s about the fall of the Han dynasty and the three kingdoms (Wu, Wei and Shu) that ascended in the aftermath, trying to fill the power vacuum. They do this through a complex and Machiavellian mix of marriage, wizardry, and battles so bloody that it seems the population of medieval China gets slaughtered three times over.
The famous opening line “The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been” was not written by Luo Guanzhong, but was added centuries later. Nonetheless, it sums up his text: cyclical periods of destruction and renewal. Events are either meaningless or all-meaningful, depending on your perspective. There’s nods to “empty boat” style Taoist philosophy at times. The soil drinks blood. The soil then produces trees. The trees are used to make axes. The axes…
It’s hard to describe Romance without making it sound like the dullest book ever. It’s not. Nor is it the second dullest book. It’s actually interesting, once you crack the “code”.
The worst way to read it is like a traditional novel. Forget rising and falling action, dramatic climaxes, etc. Romance of the Three Kingdom’s intense moments come out of nowhere like monsoons, blow the lives of characters to pieces, and then end. Also, large parts are based on history, which is under no obligation to be satisfying to anyone. A better way is to view it like a growing plant: continually evolving in a way that’s no more and no less sensible than real history or the life of the reader.
And it’s thrilling. Despite the nihilism of the whole, you’ll still feel tense when Cao Cao fails in his plot to assassinate Dong Zhuo, and cheer at cunning method Zhou Yu uses to overcome an enemy fleet. Certain moments (such as the Battle at the Red Cliff) are as cinematic as Game of Thrones. And there are passages that would fascinate anyone with an interest in cultural anthropology and medical history. For example, the great hero Liu Bei’s reaction when he sees weapons inside his bridal apartment.
The bridegroom turned pale. Bridal apartments lined with weapons of war and waiting maids armed! But the housekeeper of the lady said, “Do not be frightened, O Honorable One! My lady has always had a taste for warlike things, and her maids have all been taught fencing as a pastime. That is all it is.”
“Not the sort of thing a wife should ever look at,” said Liu Bei. “It makes me feel cold, and you may have them removed for a time.”
Lady Sun laughed, saying, “Afraid of a few weapons after half a life time spent in slaughter!”
One wonders at what Luo Guanzhong is trying to depict here. Is Liu Bei suffering from what we today call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
The biggest challenging to climbing Mt Romance is the colossal cast of characters. To reach the end, you need to develop a sixth sense as to which characters are important to the plot and which ones will never be seen again. A lot of the characters have similar names. It can be hard to separate Zhang Fei from Zhang He. Maybe I’m a racist colonial paleface who thinks all Chinese names sound the same. But maybe not – Luo Guanzhong seems to be winking to the reader at times, such as in this (humorous?) scene where a woman vows to only marry a man with the same name as hers:
“Why did you trouble your sister-in-law to present wine to me, brother?” asked Zhao Yun.
“There is a reason,” said the host smiling. “I pray you let me tell you. My brother died three years ago and left her a widow. But this cannot be regarded as the end of the story. I have often advised her to marry again, but she said she would only do so if three conditions were satisfied in one man’s person. The suitor must be famous for literary grace and warlike exploits, secondly, handsome and highly esteemed and, thirdly, of the same name as our own. Now where in all the world was such a combination likely to be found? Yet here are you, brother, dignified, handsome, and prepossessing, a man whose name is known all over the wide world and of the desired name. You exactly fulfill my sister’s ambitions. If you do not find her too plain, I should like her to marry you and I will provide a dowry. What think you of such an alliance, such a bond of relationship?”
Romance of the Three Kingdoms might also be an early example of the Draco in Leather Pants phenomenon. The antagonist of the tale is clearly meant to be Cao Cao of the Wei kingdom, but he’s probably the strongest and most interesting character in the story, and a lot of people seem to view him in a positive light. Tumblr, of course, has an active community of Cao Cao stans.
But Romance isn’t a character study, it’s a videogame. The market seems to back this idea up. Usually classic works of literature attract a slew of movie adaptations, and maybe a single throwaway text adventure game made in 1984 by Infocom. But according to Wikipedia, Romance of the Three Kingdoms has been adapted to film eight times, to television twenty-four times, and as a game fifty seven (!) times. The book keeps rejecting its paper and clothing itself in binary. There might be three kingdoms, but ROTTK truly belongs in the realm of ones and zeros.
“I don’t like sand. It’s coarse, and rough, and irritating, and it gets everywhere,” – Albert Camus
Western horror relies on convention – Bram Stoker’s vampires, Shirley Jackson’s haunted houses, and Romero’s zombies. By contrast, Japanese horror more often relies on free-standing symbols and images – Kôji Suzuki’s rings of light, Junji Ito’s spirals, and Shinya Tsukamoto’s metal sculptures.
Both approaches have strengths and weaknesses. Art rooted in convention is easier to understand: the audience automatically comprehends Slasher Movie #23532 in light of Slasher Movie #23531 (or the last one they remember). But it’s boring, and makes you a slave to the past: modern horror film is consequently a cesspool of spooky dolls and cars that won’t start and ghosts in mirrors and clanging ADR. By contrast, Japanese horror (at its best) achieves a monolithic starkness: I gave up looking for things like Suehiro Maruo’s Paranoia Star because I couldn’t find any.
The Woman in the Dunes is an eerie psychological novel about…sand.
An amateur entomologist is seeking a new kind of insect in rural Japan. He ends up trapped himself in a deep pit of sand. He has food and water and even female companionship (although she seems odd), but no way of escaping. This is not an accident. Someone just out of sight has planned this fate for him. He has a little shack that he spends hours each day sweeping sand out of (uselessly; the wind blows it straight back in). He can’t contact anyone from the outside world. They’ll declare him dead and maybe they’ll be right to. His horizons are made of sand.
The Woman in the Dunes might not be a horror novel, as I don’t think Kobo Abe was trying to frighten. Kafka’s a better comparison. Nonetheless, I’m now aware of “ammophobia” – fear of sand. More specifically: fear of sinking into sand, swallowing sand, having sand grains between your toes, and so on. Just as Uzumaki left me uncomfortably aware of spiral shapes, I put this book down and was plagued by thoughts of sand.
It’s creepy stuff. Silken, fluid, deadly. Viewed under a microscope, sand is beautiful, but it’s inhospitable to human life, and defiant of mankind’s attempts to control it. You can sculpt a castle of sand on the beach, but the next day, it will be gone. But won’t the house you live in be gone someday, too? All of mankind’s buildings, on a long enough timescale, will become sand.
This is sort of how Kobo Abe’s protagonist rationalises his fate. The outside world is just temporarily rearranged sand and dust, so there’s no reason to want to go back. Being trapped in a hole is probably a privilege; he gets to see the truth. Ozymandias’s kingdom wasn’t overtaken by sand, it was sand.
There’s a livestreamer called Dellor who plays Fortnite and other videogames. He has a PO box, and if you mail him a package he’ll open it on stream. Occasionally, he receives sand. I’m not sure if a single person is behind this, or if it’s a shared joke among his fans. He’ll rip open an envelope, and sand will spray across his apartment. He gets keyboards with sand packed in between the letters. Once someone sent him an airsoft pistol with sand stuffed into the barrel. This annoys him, because (as the narrator of The Woman in the Dunes could confirm) sand is extremely hard to remove. No matter how much you vaccuum a carpet, in six months you’ll walk over it barefoot and feel the bite of a silica tooth: a reminder of our fundamental lack of control.
Western horror can be likened to a vine, which can be followed back to its root no matter where it goes, and J-horror to a series of mushrooms, which sprout out of the ground with no visible connection to each other. Or perhaps particles of sand. The Woman in the Dunes exemplifies the J-horror approach, even if it might not be J-horror. It has one idea. One single idea. It could have been written even if no other book had ever been published. It does not want to be the first book in the series, or to answer questions raised by another book, or to get adapted into a movie.
The Woman in the Dunes doesn’t even want to be entertaining (and frequently, it isn’t). It exists to exist. No matter what momentary order we impose on sand, in the end, it has no purpose other than to be sand.
This movie isn’t good at all.
It’s barely even a movie: it’s like a long episode of Batman: The Animated Series feat. an occasional boob plus a soundtrack of angsty, edgy mallcore. Music was shit-awful in the year 2000, and if you need a reminder, the first Slipknot album is shorter by thirty minutes, so listen to that instead.
What connection does it share to the original Heavy Metal? The title.
Instead of being an anthology, it contains a single bad story based on a graphic novel by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman. The plot (narrated by someone who was definitely making dramatic hand gestures in the vocal booth), involves the Arakacians producing an elixir of immortality and a secret key lost in space and a villainous asteroid miner and a tertiary villain who’s a dinosaur and an xtreme grrl heroine and a second xtreme grrl heroine and a plucky comic relief character who later becomes a sidekick and is replaced by a different plucky comic relief and a plot MacGuffin and Guy DeBord and Roland Barthes and asdf
The film is overloaded with detail and characters, which is usually what happens when you shove a 170 page graphic novel into a VHS player while muttering “fit, damn you. Fit.” The screenplay couldn’t have more holes if it was made of swiss cheese. Where does Tyler get the weapons he uses for the raid on Eden? Why do none of those futuristic space-guns appear in the final showdown, which is fought with spears and swords? Why does becoming evil cause your hair to grow twenty inches?
Action girl #1 is played by Julia Strain. She has boobs. She beats the shit out of people who look at her boobs. What more characterisation do you need? Tyler himself looks like Ruber from 1998’s dose of box office strychnine Quest for Camelot, and exemplifies the problem I have with almost all “crazy” cartoon villains (such as Batman’s Joker): he turns sane and calculating whenever the plot requires him to be. The result is a mechanical artifice of a film where you can feel the interference of the writer on every frame. Why do characters do anything in Heavy Metal 2000? Because Kevin Eastman wanted them to do it.
“Calculating” applies to the film in general. There’s none of the sense of liberty and freedom of the original – it’s a steely-eyed gambler, looking to pull out a cheap score.
Look no further than the film’s SHOCKING ADULT CONTENT…which isn’t integrated in any way to the story! 95% of the film is a bland Saturday morning cartoon, then we get a pointless splash of violence and nudity, then the movie becomes a Saturday morning cartoon again. This is obviously intentional: they set up the movie so they could quickly chop all objectionable content and get a PG-13 rating. The quislings.
The animation is TV quality. Suffice to say that 90s cartoons looked as shitty as 90s music sounded: Heavy Metal 2000 is dark, lacks contrast, and has the palette of an Excedrin headache. Enjoy your browns, grays, and khaki greens. This is like playing Quake, right down to the underwhelming final boss.
This underscores the biggest offense Heavy Metal 2000 commits: it isn’t fun. Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi once said something (aside from “I thought she was 18, your honor”) that I find profound: animation’s strength is that it creates visuals that would be impossible with live action. If you animate visuals that are even more drab and bland than real life, you’re ignoring the possibilities of the medium. Heavy Metal 2000 doesn’t just ignore the possibilities, it hoists the black flag and directly repudiate them. What an ugly fucking film.
Heavy Metal was only barely successful. Heavy Metal 2000 went direct-to-video, and should have gone direct-to-landfill. It killed off attempts to bring Metal Hurlant to life for nearly another 20 years, before an anthology called Love, Death & Robots appeared on Netflix. I haven’t seen it and probably won’t: it’ll likely be a pandering joke full of references to Twitter and trans issues, with a villain called “Tonaald D’rump” or some shit. Heavy Metal is a nostalgic look at the past. As such, it’s best left in the past. The world did not and still does not need another Heavy Metal.
Drop a stone in a pond. Ripples will spread out. Cultural events are similar, but sometimes the ripples occur before the stone falls. Facebook, iPhones, and The Lord of the Rings are stones. Myspace, Blackberries, and The Hobbit are ripples. Although important in their own right, they had the misfortune to occur before a similar (but much bigger) thing, and have been swallowed by it within the public mind.
Cassette tapes (and the culture surrounding them) were ripples: the stone would would fall twenty years later. They were ugly plastic rectangles containing about ninety meters of magnetic tape. Music recorded on them usually sounded hissy and noisy (this itself became an aesthetic), but the tapes were so cheap that it was now possible for the average child to copy music. People would tape songs off the radio (complete with hacky DJ voices and commercials), as well as make illegal bootlegs of live bands. This led to a full-blown kulturkampf between tapers and record labels in the 1980s, culminating in the BPI’s often-parodied “Home Taping Is Killing Music” slogan.
While some labels fought cassette tapes, others embraced them. C81 (a compilation cassette released by NME at the start of the tape boom) is an example of the latter, containing twenty-four tracks of British and American “indie” music circa 1981. I’m sure that all the bands involved were branded as sellouts until their dying day.
The tracklisting is as schizophrenic and scattered as any fourteen year old’s mixtape: legends like Pere Ubu and Scritti Politti exist alongside bizarre “art” projects like Furious Pig that apparently did nothing notable except appear on C81. It’s both ethnically and musically diverse, with selections of funk, ska, reggae, dub and so on. Also, whoever put this together clearly wanted to fuck Lora Logic, because she’s on here twice.
As with many compilations, it sprays and it prays. “You won’t like everything, but you’ll probably like something.” I enjoyed the apocalyptic mini-epic “The Seven Thousand Names of Wah!”, the histrionic but understated “Shouting Out Loud”, the Scritti Politti song, and “Parallel Lines”, which is a thesis on everything punk should be: taught, fraught, and small.
But the best piece of music C81 has to offer is Cabaret Voltaire’s “Raising the Count”, which initiates the listener into a kind of electronic Satanic ritual: a black mass powered by 200 watts. The song is as destructively repetitive as a pneumatic drill rammed through your basilar membrane. You will either turn it off in confusion, or get sucked into a hypnogogic state. Cabaret Voltaire had existed for most of a decade by the time C81 came out, and would continue to release music for about twelve more years (although I find their later techno/house music to be less interesting than their early experimental work).
So, good music, and good capture of a particular moment in British musical history. C81 is now most easily acquired in digital form, which was the next evolutionary stage of tape culture. Cassette tapes were ripples, and digital piracy was the stone, doing everything cassettes had done (including killing the music business) about two orders of magnitude more successfully. The record industry profiting off tape trading seems gruesomely poetic in retrospect. It’s as though Louis XVI, before the French Revolution, had invested royal money in guillotines.
I decided to watch the 1981 animated film Heavy Metal because of its reputation.
Like Vegemite and the blonde German chanteuse on the first Velvet Underground album, Heavy Metal doesn’t have an especially good or a bad reputation; it merely has one. It grossed $20.1 million on a $9.3 million budget, enough to be considered a mild hit but not enough for a sequel. It has 6.7/10 on IMDB and a 60% Rotten Tomatoes score (critics’ consensus: “sexist, juvenile, and dated”).
It’s based upon the Heavy Metal comics anthology, which in turn is derived upon Métal Hurlant, the legendarily explicit French outfit home to everyone from Paolo Eleuteri Serpieri to Moebius; the film adapts stories from the comics, which vary from erotica to science fiction to horror. The art style changes from segment to segment, ranging from itchy “realistic” rotoscoped footage to stuff that could be a Saturday morning cartoon.
I watched it once. It made an impression. I watched it again. I decided I really liked it.
Halfway through my third rewatch, I thought this is my favorite movie of all time.
Heavy Metal is spellbinding yet rationally hard to defend. I like it more than any movie I’ve ever seen, but what intellectual case can be made for it? It’s embarrassing. There’s actually a story about a dweeb who visits a fantasy world, gains huge muscles, and has sex with hot babes. The art is sometimes excellent but more often workmanlike. The “groovy, man” tone of the writing hasn’t aged well. If “auteurness” is important to you, this lacks the personality of a Bakshi film or the polish of a Don Bluth. I have no idea who the individual directors are, or what they did before or sense. So what does it have that makes it special?
It has heart. Sincerity. It throws itself before the mercy of the court and receives a pardon. Heavy Metal elicits the nostalgia-drenched emotions of a beloved childhood film that I haven’t seen in twenty years, but I first saw it ten months ago. How’s that possible? How can you be Pavlov’s dog and salivate before you hear the bell?
“Soft Landing” is a stop-motion music video depicting a Corvette falling from orbit and landing in a field.
“Grimaldi” provides the framing device: a glowing green orb called the Loc-Nar (“the sum of all evils”) hypnotizes a young girl and shows her visions of the devastation it has wrought across time and space. These visions form the remainder of the film’s shorts. I hate it when words seem like anagrams but aren’t, and “Loc-Nar” is such a word.
“Harry Canyon” is the hard-luck tale of a New York cab driver in 2031 (ten years away!), driving aliens and vaporising mugs. He gets tangled up with a pretty young moll who’s on the run from the local goon squad (representative line: “Here I was, stuck with this beautiful girl. I knew she was gonna be nothin’ but trouble”). Might be mistaken as a parody of noir crime, but Heavy Metal is too earnest to parody anything.
“Den” is an adolescent nerd power fantasy. Describing the plot in detail would cause me to break out in pimples and start expressing strong opinions about D&D 5th Ed, so I’ll just say that it’s charming and pleasant, with a wonderful final shot. Den has the voice (but not the physique) of John Candy.
“Captain Sternn”‘s eponymous hero is in a jam. He’s on trial for 12 counts of murder, 22 counts of robbery, 37 counts of rape, et cetera. He thinks he has a plan to get off the hook (no, it doesn’t involve getting a job in the TRUMP ADMINISTRATION, ha ha), but as usual the Loc-Nar appears and ruins everything. Entertaining but lightweight, “Captain Stern” is the only segment that could have been cut without dramatically worsening the film. But it’s cute.
“B-17”, by contrast, is horrific. The pilot of a WWII bomber is flying home after a sortie, only to notice that everyone on his plane has died. Or have they? Gruesome and unredeeming, it’s similar to the Aldapuerta short story “Ikarus”, as well as the Twilight Zone episode “Terror at 20,000 Feet”. Great art, and a sense of doom as thick as squid ink.
“So Beautiful & So Dangerous” is about a babelicious fox/foxelicious babe who gets abducted by aliens and decides she’s into anal probes. I haven’t read the original comic but there’s clearly piles of story being left on the cutting room floor – we never learn what’s causing the mutations, for example. You have to leave room for tits and drug references, and this has plenty of both.
“Taarna” is an epic that closes off the film and resolves the story of the Loc-Nar. A peaceful people are on the verge of being slaughtered, and the warrior maiden Taarna rides to save them. It’s a heavily compressed version of a Moebius story, with continuity errors appearing at a rate of about two a minute (random example: how does Taarna get her sword back after escaping the pit?), but its flaws are obliterated by its grand, epic heft. The short evokes nigh-apocalyptic size: seeing this on a big screen must have been something. There’s some gorgeous panoramic shots of landscapes where every grain of sand seems to be animated – were computers involved? The final few minutes are a masterclass in color: bloody battles against an incarnadine sky, sickly green as the Loc-Nar makes its final stand, and a final shot of black splashed with faint colour: hope still exists, but you have to reach for it, into the stars.
Describing anything in Heavy Metal is a waste of time: all I can do is describe my reaction to it, which is beyond positive. Heavy Metal stands alone. It needs every concession ever made, and gets them. I don’t care if it objectively sucks, I don’t care if you think the comics were better: this is the best movie ever made by human hands.
This HBO documentary has so many creepy moments that it’s difficult for any to stand out. Here’s one that did.
Imagine that your kid brother is living a real-life fairytale: he’s best buddies with with the world’s biggest music star. He hangs out at the guy’s cool-ass mansion, eats ice cream and plays videogames with him, and hears secrets that Vanity Fair would die for.
It sounds unbelievable, a fantasy concocted by the biggest bullshitter on the playground (“I’m going steady with Miss America! No, you can’t meet her, she goes to another school!”) but this is actually happening, in real life. It’s enough to make you believe in magic.
Years later, you turn on the TV. A child exactly like your younger brother is accusing the pop star of abusing him.
Wouldn’t your brain…implode? Shatter from the cognitive rewrites it has to do? The fairytale is instantly gone. All of those years of happiness now have a sinister new context. Was this what was happening to your younger brother? Those holidays and funpark rides and sleepovers…was this the price? Why didn’t you spot it? Are you stupid, a rube?
That’s the situation the brother of Wade Robson (one of the two subjects of the documentary, with James Safechuck being the other) found himself in 1993. It’s emblematic of how the Michael Jackson story has ended: too good to be true. I’ve heard alcohol described as a way of robbing happiness from tomorrow. Michael Jackson was cultural alcohol: the past was fun; but now the hangover has arrived. To be fair, Michael Jackson may have stolen happiness from some people’s present, too.
I grew up in the 90s, when he seemed terrifying: a raceless, genderless skeleton with bleached skin and a face crafted from paper mache. I laughed when people called him a “sex symbol”. For whom? Department store mannequins?
If I’d grown up in the 80s, I might have had different memories: an impossibly talented vocal acrobat who (along with Quincy Jones) created the 80s as they are now remembered.
But even then there was something “off” about him, something indefinably wrong. In 1984 Michael Jackson won eight Grammy awards for Thriller, which had sold thirty-four million copies in twenty months. He was accompanied to the awards ceremony by Brooke Shields, one of the most desirable women on the planet, but he spent the entire evening ignoring her in favor of twelve-year-old Emmanuel Lewis, who sat on his lap.
Things deteriorated after Jones left his life. As the nineties rolled around, he had a reputation as a talented but eccentric and even faintly sinister man – Howard Hughes with a surgically reconstructed nose. The tabloids aggressively hounded him, and this became a narrative upheld by fans to this day: poor Michael Jackson, harassed by the media. Can’t they all just leave him alone? But if one half of Leaving Neverland is true, the media didn’t harass him nearly enough.
It’s a documentary about false and true narratives: it doesn’t hide (for example) the fact that Safechuck and Robson testified that Michael Jackson never touched them during the Jim Chandler trial in 1993. However, it puts this in proper context – they were kids who had been Michael’s favorite. They wanted to be his favorite again. They wanted his approval, his love, and when Michael coached them on what to say in court, they said it.
The documentary runs for four hours. There’s a lot of biographical detail on two people you’ve probably never heard of unless you’re a hardcore Jacko defender with his entire legal saga pinned on the wall with red tape (in which case, your opinions about Safechuck and Robson are probably negative). At first homespun folksy stories of S&R’s childhoods seem pointless, but they quickly prove their worth: Jackson is such a massive figure that it’s easy for everyone in his orbit to seem like a 2D cutouts, as inhuman as the dancing zombies in “Thriller”. The director wanted to make the accusers seem like people you know.
If so, it worked. I believe them. They seem credible. Misremembering a date or a location is typical when twenty five years have passed, and so is feeling affection for one’s molester. There’s detailed descriptions of sex acts, which gives the documentary a compulsive rubbernecking-the-car-crash aspect. Tip: if you don’t want to hear stuff like “In Paris, he introduced me to masturbation”, maybe watch Regular Show instead. Even more unsettling is the desperate manipulation Michael tried towards the end to stop his entire house of cards collapsing.
The bottom line? Michael Jackson was probably a pedophile. His defenders were wrong. Their webpages and blog posts and Facebook groups (“TOP 10 PROVEN SAFECHUCK LIES!!! #MJINNOCENT”) are barricades built to defend a man who only exists inside their imagination.
Where does this leave Michael Jackson in the year 2020? Is he “cancelled”? Is that even possible? There’s a psychological term called “splitting” – an inability to view people as having both good and bad sides. Michael’s strongest defenders clearly love his music, and certain aspects of his personality (philanthropy, generosity, etc) inspired them. Claims that he molested children represent a threat to that image of Michael, which is why they argue themselves into logical pretzels defending him.
It doesn’t have to be that way. You can still enjoy Michael’s music (and be inspired by the positive sides to his character) without retreating into solipsistic delusion. Start with the man in the mirror. Michael Jackson caused people to become better – it was what he loved to do – and we become better when we embrace the truth. Watch Finding Neverland and let him change you one final time.