This book arrived bedecked in heraldry as The Next Harry Potter (every children’s book released 2000-2005 was officially The Next Harry Potter, just as every modern David Bowie album was “his best since Scary Monsters”). It doesn’t live up to that, and doesn’t want to: it’s something else entirely. It hardly feels like a book for children. The action is fast and kinetic, the writing is as taut as the wire-work in a Hong Kong action film, and the concept is pretty clever: a mixture of Lord Dunsany fairytales and Die Hard.
The plot sounds outright stupid in summary: like it was created by a desperate screenwriter in the 8th season of a show. “There’s a twelve year old supergenius called Artemis Fowl, and he’s also a criminal mastermind, and has a scary bodyguard who kicks ass like Bruce Lee, and he discover fairies exist…wait, don’t go! They’re high-tech fairies! They have gadgets and guns! He kidnaps one and holds it for ransom, but then the fairies stop time, and…yes, I DID past the office drug test. Stop asking!”
But the book is better than its synopsis, too. There’s storytelling ideas at work here that I haven’t ever seen attempted before or since (even in the book’s own sequels). Want another book like Artemis Fowl? Go to your local bookstore, find the fiction section, look up “Colfer” under the Cs, and purchase Artemis Fowl again. Now you’ve got two copies, and that’s the best you’re going to do. Sorry.
The plot is essentially a kidnap and ransom story, but Colfer’s masterstroke is in the details: particularly centering the story on its villain. Later books would turn Artemis into a good guy: they soon devolved into repetitive, uninteresting capers where Artemis and his fairy pals go gallivanting off to bust the Villain of the Week, and I got bored of them. In the first book, Artemis is genuinely sinister and unpleasant, and a great character. Hell for the company.
Here (as in many places), the book takes cues from Die Hard: that movie developed its villain to the point where he stole the show – you wanted to find out exactly how Hans Gruber would pull off this ridiculous heist, with all the odds stacked against him.
Colfer kicks it up a notch by pitting twelve year old Artemis against a supernatural police force who can do anything from make themselves invisible to removing memories. Of course, the fairy police are as bumbling and bureaucratic as Die Hard’s LAPD, sometimes almost comically incompetent. And they are bound by magical rules – if they enter a dwelling uninvited, the instantly lose their magical powers. And when you’re a guest in someone else’s house, you have to obey the host’s commands. This makes life interesting when the host decides you can’t leave.
The book becomes a fascinating conflict between an almost omniscient race of fairies…and a really smart, really evil kid. That adds to the rising drama: it’s genuinely unclear who will win at the end, and again we see the necessity of Artemis being a bad guy. Nobody would write a children’s book where the hero loses. But a villain…?
Artemis Fowl has flaws (some of which would metastazise like a cancer and kill the later books in the series), and often succeeds more on shock and awe tactics than amazing writing. Tip: read it very fast. That way you won’t have time to think about the finer details.
Details such as how the fairy cops are called the Lower Elements Police Recon, or LEPrecon (leprechaun!). That gets a laugh, but why do fairies use English words, when they’re explicitly described as having their own language? And how did “leprechaun” (a word dating back to the 17th century), come from “recon” (a military abbreviation of “reconaissance” that apparently dates back to the 1940s, if Ngram viewer is correct)?
Artemis apparently possesses magical powers of his own, such as when he uses a household magnet to unscrew a screw (magnetic torque can’t operate on a uniform substance such as a metal screw). This is also one of those books where a character translates a text in an ancient language, and it comes out in perfect rhyming English couplets. Sometimes Colfer just loses track of his own rules. A “bio bomb” is described, which explodes and turns living tissue into “a cloud of radioactive molecules”…but a group of characters journey into the fallout zone of one expecting to find bodies.
The Artemis Fowl books never gained the mass fame of the Harry Potter series. In my opinion, they’re collectively not as good. Harry Potter had an arc that continued from book to book, but Artemis Fowl didn’t even feel like it needed a sequel. The premise was fully explored, and afterwards there was nowhere left to go. The kid-friendly trappings held it back a bit: it feels like a story for grown-ups at its core, and it would have been improved by a bit more of an edge. Marketed wrong, promoted wrong, and developed wrongly by its own author, in isolation Artemis Fowl is an extremely good piece of work.
Action! Adventure! Uncomfortable ethnic stereotypes! The Story of Dr Dolittle has everything you want in an early 20th century children’s book.
This book (the first in a series) introduces John Dolittle, a scatterbrained doctor with the ability to talk to animals. The first few Dr Dolittle titles follow a predictable format: Dolittle goes adventuring, gets into trouble, animals rescue him in a funny or interesting way, all of this happens again about ten or fifteen times, and then the book ends. As Lofting grew in sophistication as a writer the books focused more on the animals themselves, with the human characters vanishing entirely for long periods.
There’s surprising philosophical acuity in the Dr Dolittle stories. Wittgenstein said “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him”, and Hugh Lofting goes on a long walk with this idea: humankind is cut off from the animal world by language, and it’s our fault. Animals are always talking, constantly sharing thoughts and ideas, and we refuse to listen because we think we’re above them. The Dolittle books get very didactic on this point, and the latter ones feel written by a temporally displaced PETA activist. Often they verge on expressing outright contempt for humanity.
We have a good guess as to where this antipathy comes from: the Flanders trenches.
The Dr Dolittle tales started out as letters, scribbled and sent home from the front. Lofting’s traumatic wartime experiences hang over the Dolittle tales like a flag’s shadow: never touching the story, but always present. The Great War was a bad one, the industrial revolution alchemizing the battlefield, and a generation of writers witnessed entrails slithering out of bullet and bayonet wounds, faces melting like wax before mustard gas, dreadful mobile hospitals where the crying never stopped and the ground stank for weeks after. Hugh Lofting was struck by the gallantry of horses and mules, and embarrassed at how little his fellow humans could do for them. In retribution he created John Dolittle, a physician capable of giving them the care they never received in real life.
Other writers for children – JRR Tolkien, AA Milne, CS Lewis – also served in the war, and were influenced in various ways. Tolkien rejected modernity altogether. Milne tried to wallpaper over reality with fantasy and whimsy (is it sweet or disturbing that he named his son “Christopher Robin”?). CS Lewis retreated into spiritual nihilism: nothing matters because the world shall soon dissolve like snow; the sun forbear to shine. Hugh Lofting became a misanthrope.
He believed that humanity was a mistake, that we do not deserve our place on the planet. As the Dr Dolittle books progress, they get blacker and angrier, increasingly given to polemics about humanity. I never finished Dr Dolittle and the Secret Lake, it was too depressing. Lofting’s disgust becomes a suffocating hand, strangling his own stories until they die.
But that’s many decades away. The Story of Dr Dolittle is delightful read, with only tiny shades of future despair.
As with the best children’s books, it makes one ask questions about its world. For example, when does the story take place? The opening passage says that it happened “when our grandfathers were little children”, and the parrot Polynesia (who claims to be either one hundred and eighty one or one hundred and eighty two years old) describes seeing King Charles II hiding behind an oak tree, an event that happened in 1651. This dates the book to no later than 1832, and makes aspects of it anachronistic – John Dolittle wouldn’t be able to vaccinate the monkeys, for example.
There’s clues that the book might be set even earlier – the doctor is menaced by Barbary pirates, who had been pacified for over fifteen years by that point. But that would throw still more story elements out of date: such as an Italian organ grinder with a monkey. The monkey in question later tells stories passed down by his ancestors about “…lizards, as long as a train, that wandered over the mountains in those times, nibbling from the tree-tops.” This was interesting. People in 1920 knew about dinosaurs, but apparently didn’t know they lived in a different period to primates.
The story’s…dated handling of race might discomfort the modern reader. John Dolittle ends up at the mercy of an African tribe, whose prince, Bumpo, wishes to become a white man. In return for freedom, the ever-resourceful John Dolittle uses medicine to bleach the prince’s face.
Well, make of that what you want. My two krugerrand: Bumpo’s desires are abnormal and are described as such in the story (one character calls it a “silly business”, and another thinks he looked better as a black man). And given that skin-lightening is now an industry worth tens of billions of dollars (with over 70% of Nigerians using some sort of skin-lightening product, according to WHO), it’s clearly not an idea that sprung wholesale out of Hugh Lofting’s evil, racist brain. Sometimes black people want to be white in real life.
The book’s imaginative, but sometimes I wish it went a little further. The episodic “adventure / problem / escape” format can get repetitive, and there’s fascinating possibilities left unexplored. Long chunks of the book involve the doctor trying to bring a rare beast back from Africa – a “pushmi-pullyu”, which has a head at each end of its body (think Catdog). The Doctor plans on exhibiting the animal as a sideshow, thus saving himself from financial ruin. Hello? You can talk to animals, idiot! There should be a thousand easier ways to earn money. Couldn’t an army of mice steal the crown jewels? Couldn’t paper wasps make molds of the locks to the Bank of England? Couldn’t sharks and whales patrol the sea floor, looking for salvage? If the Doctor used his head, he’d be running the British Commonwealth within twenty years.
But those things would be amoral. That’s the problem with John Dolittle: he’s too saintly. I wish he had a Moriarty: someone who shares his zoolinguistic powers but uses them for evil, not good.
The Dr Dolittle series enjoyed a good run, but it doesn’t seem to be remembered alongside Winnie the Pooh and Alice in Wonderland. Perhaps the racial elements make the books unsalvagable. Although in 1998 it was loosely adapted into a big budget Hollywood comedy starring Eddie Murphy. If you’re a fan of the latter, then let me finish this review in a way you’ll understand. “If you’re suffering symptoms of boredom, then this doctor has the prescription for you!!!”
Despite being heralded as the last of “the Berlin Trilogy”, the sequence of albums Bowie while in tax exile, it sounds nothing like Low or “Heroes”. Whereas those were singular canvasses full of sound, this is just a collection of songs – some from Bowie’s top shelf, some from the bottom, and one from the wastebasket beneath it.
There’s a odd disunity within Lodger, it’s if nobody was quite sure of what they were doing. Maybe they weren’t. It’s no secret that the creative partnership of David Bowie and Brian Eno was falling apart by this point: Eno’s “compose in 17/8 while standing on your head and gargling noodles” tricks were growing irritating, and weren’t producing usable material. One stunt involved the backing band switching instruments. Another involved Eno drawing eight random chords on a blackboard and then having the band play whatever one he pointed at. Entire days were wasted in this fashion, producing nothing but countless hours of garbage. After Lodger landed on the charts with a desultory thud, Bowie chose not to work with Eno for his next release.
Which isn’t to say Lodger doesn’t have moments of greatness, which it does. But for the first time since Bowie landed in continental Europe, it has failures. Not lots of them, but they’re hard to ignore, particularly when one of them is up there with the most awful songs he ever wrote.
But let’s start with the best part: the three leading songs. “Fantastic Voyage” is a flamboyant, sashaying piece that reaches back to his Station to Station sound. Its lyrics connect mental illness and cold war paranoia. It’s a simple matter: we all have bad days (the Thin White Duke could attest to this), but national leaders have bad days, too…and they have the ability to destroy the world. This is the flaw in the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction – it relies on everyone in the world being rational and sane. What happens when nuclear weapons end up in the hands of a lunatic? The line “learning to live with someone’s depression” is darkly mocking. When the bombs start to fly, we might not need to learn.
“African Night Flight” is a paranoid freakout. It sounds a bit like a 33 RPM record of “Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)” played at 45 RPM by mistake. Panicky, compelling stuff. “Move On” takes chords from “All of the Dudes” (a potential megahit that Bowie foolishly gave away in 1974 to nearly-forgotten glam act Mott the Hoople), and reverses them, turning a pop song into fascinating avant garde pop. As with “Heroes”, the lyrics seem laid on with a trowel, as if he’s parodying what a typical songwriter would write.
“Yassassin” is four minutes of drizzling shit. I can’t find words for much I hate it. It’s like middle school, when your teacher decides you need a dose of capital-c Culture and you get dragged off to see a kabuki show or something. Fuck off. I don’t want culture. I don’t want to broaden my horizons. Throw this song in the bin.
Side two begins with the musically average and lyrically excellent “DJ”. Bowie is at his cruelest and most sardonic here, he’s an egocentric disk jockey who thinks he’s king of the dance floor (“I got believers!” he crows). But as with Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy, we soon realise there’s something very wrong with him. DJs tend to be a bit “off”: they’re all performance, all illusion; no matter how full or how sweaty the dance floor gets, other people wrote the songs they’re playing. The crowd is grinding to Lady Gaga and Beyonce, not the guy behind the stacks, but many DJs lose sight of that. It’s a trade that attracts delusional narcissists.
“DJ” paints a picture of a man dangerously lost to fantasy, the real world slipping past his fingers like a shiny black record. He’s “(at) home, lost my job”, but that’s okay. It’s “realism”. Getting fired builds street cred, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. He says “I’ve got a girl out there, I suppose”…why are the last two words there? A repeated line in the chorus is “can’t turn around, can’t turn around”. Why can’t he turn around? Perhaps if he does, he’ll see that he doesn’t have quite so many “believers” as he thought. Perhaps he has no believers at all. Maybe it’s all an illusion, and he’s just a pathetic failure with no job and no girlfriend, spinning discs to an audience of nobody in his apartment. The song ends with the word “believers” skipping on its final two syllables. “Leave us…leave us…leave us…”
“Look Back in Anger” is a good track, inspiring Oasis and rendering them irrelevent in three minutes and eight seconds. Soon after, Lodger starts running into engine problems again. “Boys Keep Swinging” is fun and bouncy, but doesn’t stay with you. Nudge-nudge, wink-wink gaybaiting in the age of Jerry Falwell and Save Our Children doesn’t seem shocking, just hack. Then we get the ham-fisted “Repetition”, an unpleasant song about a man punching his wife around.
Album closer “Red Money” is a decent reworked track from The Idiot, although it sounded better with Iggy Pop singing it. More to the point, it’s now the second piece of old rope on a ten track LP (third, once you realise that “Boys Keep Swinging” has the same chords as “Fantastic Voyage”). Remember how Low and “Heroes” needed to make weight with covers and cast-offs? Oh, wait. They didn’t.
One can be too hard on Lodger. It’s another strong album, with lots of classic Bowie moments. But it was promoted wrong by RCA Records, and continues to be promoted wrong by fans to this day. It is not of a company with the two albums before it. The real Berlin Trilogy (according to to Bowie-ologist Chris O’Leary) is The Idiot (an Iggy Pop album hijacked at gunpoint by Bowie, and if you disagree you’re deaf), Low, and “Heroes”, with Lodger being a couple of footnotes. I agree, except “Yassassin” is a turd smear.
“Heroes” doesn’t equal the height of Low, but it’s an incredible album in its own way. Bowie created astonishing work in Berlin, and “Heroes” carved his name even deeper in the wall.
The opening track is snaky and serpentine, with Bowie spelunking down to the lower end of his range (“…gone wrong” slides to C#2, one of his deepest studio notes). “Heroes”‘ songs fall into two categories: the ones that make sense on their own, the the ones that make sense as part of “Heroes”. This is one of the former.
By contrast, track 2, “Joe the Lion”, is the latter. I can’t listen to it without the rest of the album: it sounds agitated and broken and gives the listener no relief at the end. But it does provide effective contrast for the krautrock-infused nostalgia of the next track: it’s like driving over a broken road, which changes to smooth blacktop.
The title song is the obligatory classic, which has survived overplay through massive sonic depth. There’s much to discover inside “Heroes”, between Carlos Alomar’s fill-in lines and Brian Eno’s electronic squawks. The song’s like an infinitely unfolding sheet of paper, containing yet more scribbles inside each unfurled fold. The lyrics are broad, and on the page sound faintly mocking, although no trace of this comes through on the record.
Functional harmonists describe music as a journey made of chords. When you listen to the tonic chord containing the key signature, you’re at home (in the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” this chord underlines “in the town…”). The subdominant chord is like leaving home to go on a journey (“…where I was born…”), the dominant chord is like arriving at your destination (“…lived a man…”) and then you might go home again back to the tonic (“…who sailed to sea.”).
Maybe my ear is bad, but little of “Heroes” makes sense when analysed in this fashion. There’s nothing that sounds like home, or a journey, or a destination. Notes swirl like squid ink, sometimes coagulating into chords, more often becoming pure texture. Even interesting. The album’s explorative nature is irresistable, even when it leaves the listener behind.
“V-2 Schneider” opens with air-tattered wailing, reminiscent of London during the blitz. The V-2s (German “Vergeltungswaffe”, “Retribution Weapon”) were long-range ballistic missiles, fired across the English channel at London, where they killed an average of two limeys per missile. The other side of the story was the 12,000 forced laborers who died in the production of the missiles. As with many purported Nazi superweapons, the V-2 was far more lethal to its builders than its targets. “Schneider” is “Florian Schneider-Esleben”, one of the founders of Kraftwerk: Bowie finally removed the letter c from his covert krautrock borrowings, making them overt.
“Sense of Doubt” is very dark, featuring a piano microphoned so that every note cleaves space with the power of an axe. A glittering synth line is introduced, as black as polished anthracite. I assumed this was Brian Eno’s work, but the song credits only Bowie. Much of the Berlin trilogy’s instrumental work was creating through procedural experimentation – the composer(s) drawing a card with instructions on it (“Use an unacceptable color”) and trying to attach a song to that scaffold. This isn’t unlike the process used by the Oulipo group to write books – although the Oulipists have yet to produce their Berlin Trilogy.
Traces of life stir in the shadow of this track. “Neukoln” is Bowie going “hey, remember when I used to play the saxophone?” and pairing it with yet more brutalist sonic architecture. His expressiveness seems like a plant weaving through cracked concrete.
The pattern of songs/ambience was used before in Low, which is part of why I prefer it. Even at its best, “Heroes” is retracing his own path, not forging a new one. The only difference is the final track, “The Secret Life of Arabia”, which is actually a song again. Maybe there is a journey to “Heroes”, but instead of in the chords, it’s in the songs. But there’s no sense of home when you follow those twinkling stars, just oddness and neurotic experiments. Or has home changed while you were away?
Keeping up with the Jones. After an artistically creative and personally devastating period in LA (full-cream milk, red peppers, and cocaine are a balanced diet, right?), Bowie went into hiding in Europe. Low is meant to meant to suggest “keeping a low profile”. He failed. Keeping a low profile would necessitate a bad album, and Low is simply unforgettable.
They “There’s old wave, there’s new wave, and there’s David Bowie” In a record store, they might say “there’s David Bowie, then there’s Low”. Nomimally the first of the so-caled “Berlin Trilogy” (despite parts of it being recorded in France), Low doesn’t quite sound like anything else he’s done.
Side A has songs, bending punk rock, art rock, . Bowie has seldom written better songs, and Eno’s technical wizardry makes the music seem otherwordly. This is most noticeable on “Speed of Life”, which has varispeeded delay that sounds like strobing flashes of light hitting the Hubble telescope from a distant cosmic object.
The songwriting is sparse and free. Entire songs are threaded together with simple ingredients: a single hook, or rhythm, or texture, but are all the more impactful for it. Lead single “Sound and Vision” has no words until the halfway point, and they’re just minimalistic automatism. No references to the Kabbalah or homosexuality. Just Bowie looking at blue light through his window, waiting for ideas.
“Be My Wife” surprises with familiarity, jarring you with a conventional verse/chorus pop song. Bowie was so good at being fake that there’s often a creepy, uncomfortable sense that he’s dropping the mask and momentarily sharing real feelings, knowing that nobody would ever know. The harmonica-driven instrumental “A New Career in a New Town” spins away the remaining grooves much as “Speed of Life” began them: in adventurous fashion.
Side A is an amazing achievement for Bowie, for Eno, and for rock. It is also Low’s worst side.
Side B deeply, profoundly well-realised, a haunting exploration of sound. It’s ambient music made jagged and broken, like a priceless Qianlong Vase smashed on the floor, allowing the viewer to find whatever beauty they may in the fragments.
People often refer to it as “the instrumental side”, which isn’t right, as only “Art Decade” lacks lyrics and vocals. But they’re brilliant, unforgettable pieces of music, and showcases just how much atmosphere Brian Eno could evoke with tape loops and a one-finger melody.
The dominant ambient piece is “Warszawa”, evoking a city of rust and memories, ancient fumes pouring from its skin. Futuristic Minimoog lines counterpoint church bells and religious chanting in a strange, brutal language from another world. It’s six minutes long: hermetic, cthonic, and almost impenetrable upon first listen. You have to peel it back like a palimpsest, and I’m still not sure I fully get it. David Bowie used to play this live. As a set opener, no less.
“Warszawa” was written by a four year old. Well, the first three notes, anyway. David needed to attend court to square away some matters from the Los Angeles fiasco, leaving Brian Eno to try and come up with something. Tony Visconti’s four year old son wandered into the studio, discovered the piano, and plonked out three notes – an A, a B, and a C. Suddenly inspired, Brian Eno dashed to the boy’s side and completed the melody. I don’t see Visconti’s son credited in the album booklet. The tyke should sue.
The album’s remaining pieces gently come down from this crescendo. “Art Decade” is chilly and still, its melodic ideas frozen like images under glass. “Weeping Wall” has very busy instrumentation, its elements sometimes clashing and other times working in harmony. “Subterraneans” is deep, slow, and forbidding. If the album was a day, this would be the deepest watch of the night.
There’s bonus tracks, too, if you get the right version of the album. “Some Are” seems like a marriage of the two halves of the album, while “All Saints” is extremely harsh – industrial ambient rock as corrosive as drain cleaner. I’ve heard rumors that “All Saints” was recorded a long time after Low, and indeed, it sounds very different in its production approach. You get a remixed version of “Sound and Vision”, which belongs in a bin.
You’ve heard about this, or will: James Gunn was dismissed from the production of Guardians of the Galaxy 3.
First, condolences. I don’t often talk about this, but I was fired from a multi-million dollar movie production too. To get technical, I was “fired” in the sense of never being hired for one, but still, the wound is fresh.
What led to his firing? Some tweets, years old. Some are innocent, their context snipped away by sélecteur Mike Cernovich (a far right figure who apparently wanted Gunn fired). A couple were clearly jokes.
This scandal has provoked opinions, most of them bad. So far, nearly everything I’ve read about the firing of James Gunn is united in missing the mark.
“Why joke about that sort of stuff?” Why not joke about it? People joke about all manner of things. “It’s offensive!” Thank you, @JudenGrinderPepe1488, for being the voice of moral guidance we sorely need. “It trivializes pedophilia!” No, it doesn’t, dumbshit. It’s transgressive humor, which means it relies on shock and outrage. If pedophilia is trivial, the joke does not work.
I realise that many people don’t find Gunn’s humor funny, and don’t comprehend how anyone could. Let me attempt an explanation: when you joke about pedophilia, the goal is not to get a laugh but to provoke a shocked “ew!” response in your audience, which is isomorphic to humor in the minds of some people. In the same way, people eat chili peppers, not because capsaicinoids taste great, but because the burning sensation on your tongue is pleasurable. Maybe you don’t find it funny. This is because you’re trying to read a language without the necessary vocabulary. I think jazz is unlistenable, but this isn’t jazz’s fault: I’ve been trained to process music in certain ways that, unfortunately, have welded my brain shut to Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. Your sense of humor was shaped by things, too, and when you judge something as unfunny, it judges you back.
You should still understand that firing people for jokes is wrong. After all, someday a person with power won’t understand one of your jokes.
But there’s an even more annoying sentiment being expressed, mostly from the political left. They are attempting to finesse some sort of culture war story where where unprincipled right wing conservatives are getting leftists fired in bad faith, something that would never happen in reverese because only the left has standards and decency and honor and (heavy breathing commences).
This narrative collapses under five minutes of investigation, but that isn’t the point. Cernovich did not fire Gunn. He does not own Disney, is not on their board of directors, and has no power over them whatsoever.
Disney fired Gunn.
Twitter’s remedy is “don’t pay attention to trolls like Cernovich”, which isn’t a solution at all. Bad faith actors are everywhere, and someone else will pull the same stunt tomorrow. Playing whack a mole with individuals is a waste of time in an ecosystem this vast: and Gunn-esque firings will continue to happen until we think systemically.
This requires a sidetrack into another topic: computer viruses.
In my lifetime, I have seen an interesting shift in who we blame for viruses on the internet.
In the 90s, we blamed the creator of the virus. When your computer got infected, you felt personally slighted, as if hax0rkid69 did the equivalent of leaving a bag of flaming shit on your front porch.
In the 00s, a shift happened, and we blamed the user. It was grandma’s fault for not recognizing that the .jpg had a hidden .exe at the end of it. Partly it was the fact that the era of personal “you got pwned by hax0rkid69!” attacks were over. Viruses relatively bland and anonymous, as if they’d achieved sentience and were programming themselves, and most had goals of marketing or theft rather than blind destruction. Mostly, it was learned helplessness. There were so many that trying to drop the hammer on individual virus creators was futile. The only way to stop them was for grandma to learn how to use her damned computer.
But in the 2010s, another shift happened. Nobody blames virus creators, or grandma. Just as we accept that viruses exist and will never go away, we also accept that incompetent users exist and will never go away. If your defense model relies on everyone exhibiting pluperfect competence, you have failed as a security engineer.
Now, we blame the system.
Scott Alexander recently commented that Apple’s MacOS contains an autocorrect that works on medical terms (such as changing “duloxetine” to “fluoxetine”). Apple fans arrived to point out that this can be very easily switched off…and the backlash was amazing, and inspiring. It’s not the responsibility of several million end users to navigate around Apple’s potentially life-threatening incompetence. The responsibility rests with the creators of the system. What makes more sense, solving a problem in O(n) or O(1) time?
This is an evolution of thought that should be applied to bad-faith actors getting their political opponents fired. Blaming Cernovich is bass-ackwards – the equivalent of getting mad at a script kiddie who infected your computer. Blaming Gunn is equally counterproductive. He would still have his job if he hadn’t sent those tweets, but he couldn’t have known those tweets would cost him his job when he sent them, just as grandma can’t reasonably be expected to check her emails for .exe attachments. Additionally, “those tweets were unacceptable but James Gunn deserves a second chance!” is a subcategory of “blaming Gunn”.
The only people handling this correctly are the ones blaming the big mouse.
Gunn had the misfortune to work in a system that is both increasingly risk averse and sensitive to PR scandals. This isn’t unreasonable: PR scandals are one of the few things a big corporation cannot control. Fortunately, there’s a ready solution: make it so that firing people for Twitter jokes leads to an even bigger PR scandal. That’s a risk companies need to be even more averse to.
This is a 1983 Canadian post-apocalyptic science fiction fantasy musical adult* cyberpunk neo-noir animated furry i hope i die
The plot is incidental (and embarrassing); cartoon mice save the world through the power of rock. It’s based on a 1978 Nelvana TV special called The Devil and Daniel Mouse, but updated to be edgy and dark and very, very serious. The songs are pretty thin, and guitars are wielded more often as weapons than as instruments.
But there are good moments, too. Some nice animation, and occasionally great character design. I say “occasionally” because it partakes in animation’s most onerous trend: Humans with Dog Noses. Who started the HWDN craze? Carl Banks? The Beagle Boys were obviously cartoony, but here we have straight-up humans with dog noses. It looks ridiculous, and immediately deep-sixes the edgy, dark, serious premise.
Dog noses are the first of many questionable artistic choices. The supporting characters are drawn like funny animals, but the lead characters are drawn realistically. They don’t seem to exist in the same world, and when whenever a lead and a support stands together the sharp disjunct between the two styles is all you can focus on.
My favorite part of the movie is everyone’s favorite part: the villain Mok. He steals the show with one of the most innovative character designs I’ve ever seen in an animated movie: a pastiche of Mick Jagger, Lou Reed, and Thin White Duke-era David Bowie. His face is an unimaginably complex manifold of vertices and angles, blending the feminine and masculine (and canine, but I’ve made my point), and the animators deserve kudos for keeping his ridiculousness on model. The movie suffers greatly whenever Mok’s not on screen, although there are fun computer-generated visuals and Debbie Harry does the best job she can.
The story in brief and in full: Mok (“the only Ohmtown rocker to go gold, platinum, and plutonium in one day!”) is seeing his commercial success wane, and hatches a plan to summon a demon from hell so he can…I dunno. I seriously have no idea what he’s trying to do, but we never understood what David Bowie was trying to do in real life, so there you go.
He kidnaps the female singer from a shitty glam rock band, because only her voice can complete the satanic ritual. Her dislikeable male co-singer has to rescue her along with some bumbling comic relief characters, who are more like comic constipation. Mostly, the movie succeeds in making you groan and cringe, such as when we find out they’re playing at Carnage Hall in Nuke York.
Bootlegs credit the film to Ralph Bakshi, which is false, yet also true, because this sort of movie probably wouldn’t exist without him. The success of Wizards and Fritz the Cat ushered in a few brief years when studios gave a bit of rope to animated films that weren’t obviously for children.
The rope had apparently played out by 1983, and Rock & Rule feels tampered with. The Gibsonian cyberpunk atmosphere is leavened with moments of wacky slapstick that could have been spliced in from Goof Troop (they couldn’t, for chronological reasons, but the vibe is similar). In particular, Mok’s henchmen ride around on rollerskates, which might have been an effort to save money on animation. When your characters are on wheels, it doesn’t matter if they slide around on the frame.
If a studio meddled with Rock & Rule, this is understandable. The film is confused and hard to market, and I’m still not sure who it was for. But it didn’t make any money even with all the commercial compromises, so why did they even try? Go for broke on your crazy post apocalyptic rock musical furry whatever! I’m reminded of this exchange from Karate Kid:
“I’d get killed if I go down there!”
“Get killed anyway.”
* (“Adult” means two fully-clothed characters feeling each other up, implied drug use, a Satanic pentagram, some intense imagery, and one character calling another “dick nose”, which if true would still be an improvement over dog noses.)
I don’t know if the third Quake is a better game than I and II, but it’s certainly less of a game. They cut away any story mode, focusing it a laser on its deathmatch experience. You run in circles, trying to kill enemies more times than they kill you. The sarcastic way people described Doom and Quake is now a literal reality.
The result is a first person shooter of incredible purity. Playing Quake III Arena is like breathing pure oxygen – liberating, and destructive to your health. As soon as a stage loads, your mind enters a trance state, and your body falls away. Only three things remain: a left hand on the WASD keys, a right hand clicking the mouse, and an eye orchestrating the violence. The circuit sparks and crackles, the connections fusing together, and when the match ends, it takes a few seconds for the hands-eye unity to remember it has a body.
The game was meant to be played with other people. It has a single player mode, but it’s not a good one and you sense the game is laughing at you for picking it. You play against “bots”, which aren’t smart but are difficult in an abusive fashion. Turning up the difficulty means they gain split-second reflexes and superhuman accuracy – they simply never miss with the railgun, which isn’t fun.
As with past Quake games, there’s a game-inside-the-game, and mastery of competitive online play requires exploiting oddities in the code like rocketjumping (surfing the blast of an exploding rocket), plasma climbing (scaling walls with blowback from the plasma cannon), circle-jumping (pirouetting to add massive velocity to your next jump), and more. The developers would probably spit out their Adderall-laced coffee if they saw what modern players do with Quake III.
A game like this isn’t about content, but about balance. While Doom’s juice came from “yay, cool weapon” and “yay, cool map”, Quake III’s design requires an analytical approach: “are the weapons equally strong, or does one dominate? Are the maps laid out in a way that leads to fair gameplay, or can you just camp a spawn spot and fight off all comers?” Single player is about indulging orgiastic power fantasies, while multiplayer is about fair play and rules. It’s hard to get both right with the same game engine, and maybe it was for the best to ditch a story mode.
The graphics were great, almost to the point of undercutting the game’s minimalist ethos. This game reduced your Riva TNT to sludge, and that’s not watch. But the lighting, shadows, and all looked very good for the time, with the only competitor being Unreal Tournament.
Thomas Aquinas once said “I fear the man of a single book.” The idea is that you can be unstoppable by doing one thing very well, and Quake III Arena does indeed do one thing very well. “It’s just mindless violence!” – some developers tried to dignify their games away from that, but id Software was apparently taking notes for their next design document.
A cloud of iridescent energy moves across the galaxy, destroying all in its path. As it approaches Earth, a haggard-looking James Tiberius Kirk bullies Starfleet into giving him control of the Enterprise, so he can investigate and hopefully stop it. Incidentally, did James go through boot camp? Hard to imagine a guy called Tiberius doing push-ups and getting yelled at by R Lee Ermey. When you’re born with a name like that, they pretty much have to promote you straight to Captain.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture is great, if in a troubled way. It’s like a titan, ready to collapse under its own weight. The philosophical method called “structuralism” seeks to understand things through their relationship to other things (eg, a ship’s mast can only exist if there are sails and a hull, otherwise it’s just a wooden pole). Likewise, Star Trek: TMP can only be understood in the context of its own difficult creation.
Let’s start at the beginning. Once, there was a television show called Star Trek. It wasn’t popular, and it was soon cancelled. But we live in a crazy world with no brakes, and “unpopular + soon cancelled” is no barrier at all to eventually becoming the defining science fiction series of the silver screen.
How did this happen? The same way Velvet Underground became popular: they sold a few thousand copies, and all of those people started a band. Star Trek’s audience was tiny, but it was also full of scientists, grad students, civil rights activists, and who other people who wielded greatly outsized influence on the nation’s taste. This megaphone-wielding minority soon had the show firmly established in syndication, and a slow critical reappraisal of the show began. Star Trek was often campy, but never cynical or insulting. The writing was often broad, but was never boring. Gene Roddenberry was brilliant at directing attention away from the show’s weaknesses (its budget) and toward its strengths (screenwriting, and Shatner, Nimoy, and Kelley’s acting).
With voltage gathering for a continuation for the series, Paramount Pictures and Roddenberry began working on a pilot. It was a mess. Writers were commissioned, and then their scripts rejected. Actors were hired, and their parts written out. Sets were built, then stripped down. I’m stunned that Burbank’s air was declared safe to breathe after so much burnt cash.
Finally, just weeks before shooting was due to start, Close Encounters of the Third Kind hit the box office like a wrecking ball. Paramount panicked and issued a change of plans: the next version of Star Trek would be a motion picture, not a television show! There was not enough time. The production was thrown into chaos, with the planned pilot adapted a two hour movie, underpinned by a script that was rewritten as they went along.
The result is a odd movie, stretched and deformed. It’s a Star Trek television episode viewed through a funhouse mirror: you can recognise the shape, but it’s 50% wider than it needs to be. The opening sequence is thrilling: three Klingon ships are evaporated in an impressive visual effects sequence. Then we get an hour of “character develoment”, meaning James T Kirk butts heads against the Enterprise’s dull new captain, while the plot spins its wheels and goes nowhere. We also meet a female alien called Ilya, who talks and talks while setting records for uninspired character design. I’ll buy that a man with pointy ears might be an alien. Ilya’s literally just a woman with a shaven head. You can find plenty of aliens like her at the local slam poetry meet.
The film’s strengths, ironically enough, are its visuals: something that was never a strong point with the original show. Douglas Trumbull and a young John Dykstra slather the frame with luminous rainbow hues (Trumbull previously worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the film owes a lot visually to that one, including a “smash cut from rainbow fluorescence to stark white” moment that matches 2001’s Star Gate sequence). The more practical effects are beefed up as well. A tiny Burbank sound stage is make to look like an absolutely massive cargo bay thanks to forced perspective (those tiny figures in the background? Children.). I think this is the first time we’ve seen a Star Trek space battle where both ships are composited into the same frame (as opposed to a shot/reverse shot of the Enterprise firing and another ship blowing up.)
The story is a bit perfunctory, and the imagery seems to transcend the characters until they’re reduced to spectators, gaping at the wonders of the cosmos. Maybe that’s the attitude Star Trek always tried to evoke. More likely, it’s a disguise for the fact that this was supposed to be a TV pilot, and they just plain didn’t have enough story.
I once saw a film called American Movie, about a pair of young indie filmmakers. One of them has a memorable monologue: “There’s no excuses, Paul. No one has ever, ever paid admission to see an excuse. No one has ever faced a black screen that says: ‘Well, if we had these set of circumstances, we would’ve shot this scene… so please forgive us and use your imagination.’ I’ve been to the movies hundreds of times. That’s never occurred.”
He should have seen Star Trek: TMP. It has excuses. Many of the visual effects (although stunning) don’t serve a purpose beyond “we don’t have any actual story to put here, enjoy these flashing abstract colors”. Big chunks of the film are a laser light show in space, intercut with shots of the crew looking awed. For a while, you share their awe. But then it feels like it’s time for something to happen.
Calling a movie “The Motion Picture” sounds either presumptuous of horribly underconfident: you’re either suggesting that it will be the definitive one, or the only one. In the case of ST:TMP, I can’t even call it A Motion Picture, as it’s been recut and re-released many times. The film is now legion, I’m not sure if the original version is exists today in a purchasable form. Although it’s a different sort of Star Trek, I enjoyed it a lot.
(It’s worth noting that Orson Welles voiced the cinematic trailers for this movie. One year later, he’d be voicing Manowar songs, and commercials for frozen peas.)
The Book of Genesis is a 224-page graphic novel by noted cartoonist Robert Crumb, based on the book of the same name by noted deity God. It’s literally the full text of Genesis, painstakingly hand-lettered in (and around) cramped panels of Crumbian imagery. It’s all here: the famous stories, the less famous stories, and even the “Jokshan begat Dedan, who begat Ashirum, who begat…” parts. Not a verse has been cut, no matter how boring or inappropriate for the comic medium.
Nothing like this has been done before, and hopefully nothing like this will be done again.
While reading The Book of Genesis, I kept asking myself: what’s the point? What am I supposed to get out of this? Crumb spent four years working on a product with no entertainment value at all. Maybe he feels pride in being the first person to adapt Genesis unabridged as a comic book, just as the first astronaut to land on Pluto will feel pride, despite it being a dull lump of rock.
So why doesn’t it work? Biblical-themed comics tend to either be didactic, cloying efforts by believers (Jack Chick’s tracts being the most famous example) or angry reactionary polemics by atheists (see Jesus and Mo and a thousand other webcomics). I assumed Crumb – who has perfected body duplication technology so that he can be a fly in every jar of ointment – would be in the second group, and that the Book of Genesis would be full of gleeful blasphemy.
Instead, it’s exactly what I’ve described: a comic version of Genesis. Not a single other adjective applies – perhaps not even “good” or “bad”. This is a huge problem: the stories of Genesis are so familiar and famous that artists have stripped them to their bones. If you’re attempting to tell (and sell) the tale of Noah’s Ark or Jacob and Esau once again, you damned well need a second adjective!
Despite doing the art, Crumb leaves no trace of himself in the book. Does he like the stories he’s writing down, letter by letter for fifty straight months? Does he hate them? What emotions do they inspire? Is he realizing any spiritual truths? Or is he growing even more sure of his decision (at age sixteen) to become an atheist? I have no clue. I’m not Crumb’s biggest fan but I understand why he’s liked: he has a style, and it’s a compelling one (nobody else could have written Fritz the Cat, for example). But he approaches this project with all the verve of a manga letterer making a thousand yen a page. There’s no creative elan to be seen here.
His imagery is trite, cribbed from Michelangelo, Ignatius of Loyola, and Cecil B DeMille. God has white hair and a beard. He creates the earth like a wizard casting a spell in a Saturday morning cartoon. The Garden of Eden looks like Bambi. The Ark is a large floating shoebox. There are some unintentionally funny parts. During the genealogies, he needs to come up with a visual element, so he just draws headshots of what these dozens of people might have looked like. It looks like the fighter select screen in an SNK fighting game.
Crumb’s form constantly works to undercut him. The Bible’s stories are big and epic, and they would have benefited from double-page spreads, not tiny panels. Again, there’s unintentional laughter. During the flood, we see drowned people and animals, floating face-up in the boiling sea. It would have been a striking piece of art, except it’s too small. They look like toys bobbing in a child’s bathtub.
If I could guess at Crumb’s purpose, it was to provide a comic that contains no exegesis or interpretation whatsoever. The mere act of editing a work, by definition, changes it, so by leaving everything in, he was free from the charge of distorting the Bible. However, Genesis is quite a long book, and cramming it into a comic makes it virtually unreadable. So much text crowds the page that it induces claustrophobia. Combined with Crumb’s signature art style (itchy, hairy, and uncomfortable) and you have one of the most unpleasant experiences I’ve had so far in a graphic novel.
Occasionally, he takes a few small liberties. Potiphar’s wife is depicted as a harridan, not remotely beautiful. The city of Sodom is obviously (and anachronistically) Babylonian, with Ishtar Gate inspired architecture. The passages at the end where Crumb discusses some of the stories are quite interesting, but again he keeps his feelings close to his chest. And that’s something nobody wants to see from Crumb.
The Book of Genesis is a little like a sculpture of the Brooklyn Bridge made of toothpicks, more interesting for its existence than its function. “For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass away from the law, till all things be accomplished” (Mt. 5:17-18). Well, it’s been accomplished. And now I will move ahead to never thinking about it again.