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.
“Jack and the Beanstalk” is the American Psycho of fairy tales: the hero breaks into someone’s house, steals his possessions, and murders him when caught in the deed. Most retellings add an exculpatory backstory (the giant killed Jack’s father, or something), but the tale has enough malevolence to be an interesting choice for one of the Disney studio’s “fairy tale + mouse” adaptions.
Mickey and the Beanstalk was released with center billing in 1947’s Fun and Fancy Free, and re-cut for TV several times with different narrators, including Ludwig Von Drake, Shari Lewis, and Winnie the Pooh voice actor Samuel Holloway. The tale begins in Happy Valley, where “all the world is gay”. The gayness stems from a magical harp, which is stolen one fateful night, The crops fail and the river dries up, leaving three unfortunate peasants (Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy) facing starvation. There’s a funny gag involving Mickey Mouse slicing invisibly thin sandwiches from a single slice of bread.
Mickey foolishly trades their last cow for some magic beans, which grows into a huge beanstalk, reaching up into the clouds and a giant’s castle. The giant, incidentally, is one hell of a dude. You’d think merely being a giant would be enough, but he also possesses magical powers allowing him to fly or transform into anything. It’s like the Tommy Lee/Pam Anderson sex tape, where we discover that, in addition to being a millionaire rockstar, Tommy Lee also has a huge penis. Some guys get all the luck.
When a plan to trick the giant into turning into a fly and swatting him fails, Donald and Goofy are locked inside a snuff box. This leads to the film’s most nail-biting moment – Mickey stealing the key from the giant’s pocket while he sleeps. It’s unfortunately necessary to kill the giant at this point, which they achieve through a method that doesn’t make a lot of sense given what we know about the giant.
It’s well animated, well conceived, and has some laughs. If I had a complaint, it doesn’t find a use for Goofy. Disney’s “big three” are types: Mickey as the straight man, Donald is angry, spiteful, and insecure, and Goofy is the good-natured fool. The latter role is here filled by the giant, giving Goofy nothing to do (except a cute scene where he tries to rescue his hat from atop a giant-sized block of jelly).
There is (perhaps) a deeper level to this film than I initially realised.
In 1913, an aqueduct was built, diverting the Owens River to Los Angeles. This enabled La-La Land to grow to its current size, but it had a dark side: Owens Lake completely dried up, devastating Owens Valley and ruining the livelihood of many farmers. The man responsible for this was William Mulholland.
It might be a coincidence, but the name of the giant is “Big Willie”. I also note that Owens Lake is only a three hour drive from Burbank.
The last bastion for socially unacceptable behavior is when the perpetuator is an animal. They attack us, and destroy our property, and it’s hilarious. If they were capable of speech, perhaps we’d even allow them to make racist jokes and misgender trans people.
It’s not that they lack the intelligence to understand their actions, it’s that their systems of values are fundamentally unrelatable to ours. A human looks upon a carefully laid table and sees effort and organisation; a housecat sees fun shiny objects to bat and knock around. You get the sense that even if you could explain to a housecat what it’s doing, it wouldn’t care. Misbehaving animals are funny, but also disquietening: as though we’re getting a taste of what an alien invasion might be like.
Untitled Goose Game is an indie puzzle/adventure game where you play as a goose, wandering around one of those insufferably whimsical British towns that have names like Toddlefold or Nippleshire. You have a checklist of tasks to complete, which basically reduce to “annoy as many people as possible.”
You steal laundry, destroy gardens, ruin picnics, and honk at people, The game bears some resemblance to Pulse Entertainment’s notorious 1996 adventure game Bad Mojo, where you are a cockroach, and your objectives are to basically…be a cockroach. Here, as there, you are invited to reject your own species, and view them as the Other. Most humans (with the exception of two women who find the goose hilarious) are enemies, to be avoided or navigated around.
It will take you a couple of hours to beat. When the game is on the verge of overstaying its welcome, it ends.
The graphics are cell shaded or flat shaded (or whatever the fuck the trendy term for it is now), . Environments are clean, while retaining enough detail to have verisimilitude. The human models walk with a jerky, odd gait, but I believe this is intentional: from a goose’s perspective, humans are ridiculous. The music is dynamic, changing to reflect the in-game action, and the sound design is nicely detailed (the acoustics of the goose’s honks change when its beak is inside a glass bottle, for instance).
I grew weary of debates about games vs art a long time ago. Most of the games praised as “artistic” are in fact regurgitations of cinematic tropes. They only seem profound because you’re comparing them with Candy Crush. In a 2010 Cracked column, Robert Brockway praised the “artistry” of a scene in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare where you crawl around and die of radiation burns. Is this the groundbreaking artistry of videogaming? Cultural commentary about how war is hell?
Untitled Goose Game is a clearer statement of videogaming as an art form. It has no story, no “point”, and ludonarrative interaction drives the game. Even title seems more suggestive of a painting (where it’s common for work) than something from Hollywood.
Untitled Goose Game is now in the inevitable backlash stage of its hype cycle, but it’s perfectly good at being what it is, even if it’s something that’s confusing and meaningless to a lot of people. It has an unusual premise, and it’s even a little philosophical. When William Wallace was arrested and charged with treason, he retorted. “I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject.” Animals are not our subjects. They exist outside our world.
The supposed eighteenth chapter to Joan Lindsay’s Picnic At Hanging Rock, revealing what happened to the three missing women.
“Supposed” because the internet is rife with conspiracy theories that Joan Lindsay didn’t write it, that it’s a hoax, et cetera.
I’m not convinced. The number of parties necessary to orchestrate such a fraud (Lindsay’s estate, editor, publisher, and so on) would be huge, and the prose definitely reads like Lindsay’s (note, for example, the frequent usage of “little” in its diminutive/feminine sense.)
Until someone presents evidence otherwise, I take Secret at face value: as the unpublished work of Joan Lindsay.
It’s understandable that people want to decanonize The Secret of Hanging Rock. Everyone who reads it reacts the same way: with disappointment. I don’t know of a single person who thinks it improves the book. It’s a few pages long, and much of its text was retrofitted into chapter 3 of Hanging Rock. In short, the girls disappeared into a rift in time. There are some allusions to quantum cosmology, as well as Aboriginal “dreamtime” and therianism. That’s it.
It’s a stupid ending. Maybe any ending would be stupid. Hanging Rock was like a crossword puzzle in a newspaper: fun until you solve it: then it becomes a fish-wrapper.
Secret was so threadbare and underwhelming that I started pondering other things: such as the ethics of publishing a dead writer’s unfinished work. Nirvana fans are familiar with this game: every few years someone finds a shoebox of tapes and we’re subjected to yet another posthumous Kurt Cobain “album” of unfinished material that he definitely wouldn’t have wanted the public to hear.
Is it right to do this? Release all of a famous artist’s outtakes once they’re too dead to complain?
I can see the opposite argument; authors don’t have unlimited fiat to declare that nobody read their work, particularly for something of public and literary importance (like Picnic at Hanging Rock). If someone wrote the cure for cancer on a piece of paper and commanded the world to never read it, we probably shouldn’t honor that request, either.
At the end, Hanging Rock was about time, and how time blurs reality. Reading the book is a maddening experience: you know that whatever happened to the girls, it’s knowledge out of your reach. Knowing what happens yanks the story back down to earth, and destroys its appeal. Hanging Rock left you like Aesop’s fox, snapping at grapes that are just out of reach. Secret cuts down the tree and lets you gorge on grapes until you’re become violently sick. Enjoy your stomach-ache.
For over eleven years, Reality wore a title it was never meant to bear: that of Last David Bowie Album.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Bowie had every intention of continuing recording and touring. But in 2004 (near the end of the grueling 112-date Reality World Tour) he collapsed on stage in Germany, evidently from a heart attack. The beautiful statue that had worn countless layers of paint had suffered an interior crack.
There were no more tours, no more albums. For over ten years, Reality was the end. It never felt like one: it was a small, transitory album, trivial at times, and lacked an identity. It wasn’t a grand, towering tombstone, with HERE LIES DAVID BOWIE etched in stone.
Maybe its battlefield promotion helped it, giving threadbare songs like “She’ll Drive the Big Car” and “Looking for Water” more attention than they deserved. But after The Next Day came out in 2013, Reality fell into its correct place. It’s in the lower half of Bowie’s albums, which is no demerit. It’s also in the lower half of Bowie’s post-70s work, which probably is.
It has good songs, as they all do. “Pablo Picasso” takes the Modern Lovers’ one-chord pony on new and surprising adventures. “The Loneliest Guy” is very unsettling, like a taut and humming spiderweb of Mike Garson’s reverb-soaked piano and Gerry Leonard’s vibrato-drenched guitar. Bowie seems to be drawing from Scott Walker’s approach to songwriting here, turning the soundscape into a huge blank space that crashes sea-shell-like with the sound of its own emptiness.
“Fall Dog Bombs the Moon” is like the last Tin Machine song, very dry and underproduced. The lyrics are both cryptic and heavy-handed, clearly exculpatory of George Bush while not really naming him. I sort of like it.
“Try Some, Buy Some” was originally produced by Phil Spector, and sounds like Regina Spektor. I’ve only listened to it once or twice – a little of this stuff goes a long way.
“Reality” is noisy and quickly becomes unwelcome: it’s like a jam session that nobody has the courage to end. But closing track “Bring Me the Disco King” is another album highlight. It’s another powerful minimalistic song, consisting of Bowie’s voice, Garson’s jazz-influenced piano playing, and Matt Chamberlain’s drum loops. The result is enchanting: it has some of the same magic that “Lady Grinning Soul” had, all those years ago. But then Garson starts vamping all sorts of neo-tonal stuff over the outro (as if trying to recapture “Aladdin Sane”), and a lot of the magic leaves.
And then Reality ends. It was supposed to be yet another stone in a road with no clear end or destination: the road of life. The trouble with such a road is that it can just stop at any moment, without warning, and you have to accept that the final moment has come. For a while, Bowie fans had to accept that this album was his Abbey Road. But eleven years later, a new stone appeared.