This 1821 book introduces one of the most famous and well-loved heroes in fiction. It stars in Junky by William Seward Burroughs, Trainspotting by Irving Welsh, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson, and Requiem for a Dream by Hubert Selby, and countless others besides.
You’ll find our book’s hero in a green pod behind the amaranthine petals of a Papaver somniferum poppy plant. The resin inside the pod is called opium, and it contains the analgesic alkaloid known as morphine. When this alkaloid is ingested, injected, or snorted, it attaches itself to receptors in nerve cells, inhibiting neurotransmitter release, and giving you a pretty good weekend in Vegas.
Opioids have uses – try facing a root-canal without one – but they’re also dangerous. Take enough, and you forget to feel pain. Take too much, and you literally forget to breath.
“Among the remedies which has pleased the Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium” – Physician Thomas Sydenham (1624-89)
Opium was the cat’s pajamas in Romance-Era Britain. Everyone from Byron to Keats composed under the magistration of a pipe or a glass of laudanum. It was one of the only drugs they had that worked, and additionally, and it was fashionable: opium was seen (particularly by Romantic writers) as a gateway to a mystical oriental experience that only a cultured and wordly mind could appreciate.
But many opium users were clearly addicts. Confessions of an English Opium Eater is a rare bird: a Romantic account written by an ex-addict with the self awareness to know it.
It’s not packed with outrageous sin and depravity. Nor is full of incoherent drooling about the divine fractal oneness of the cosmos (etc etc). It’s a conventional narrative, and some of the most fascinating parts don’t involve drugs at all. You’ll learn a lot about how things were in England at the time, or at least I did.
The beginning section describes the author’s early life and matriculation, followed by his descent into poverty and homelessness that’s basically self-inflicted (he picks a fight with a bishop who he believes has insulted him, and loses his lodgings). He subsists at the margins of society, eating berries and earning money by writing love letters for illiterate young people. Apparently you could make a living doing that at one point.
De Quincey writes affectingly of the conditions affecting London’s lower classes, particularly orphans and prostitutes. A lot of the book could be viewed as proto-Dickensian. There’s a terrifying sense of atomization to this dark gaslit world that has no modern parallel – once De Quincey loses track of a person, he can usually never find them again. Friends just disappear, like they were never there. These people have no fixed address, no way of receiving mail, and sometimes not even a surname. But they’re loyal to each other – often De Quincey gets out of trouble with the police because a helpful urchen or streetwalker vouches on his behalf.
His fortunes improve at the intercession of some moneylending Jews, and while trying to establish a trade, he winds up on Oxford Street, buying opium to help the pain of a toothache (ironically, he becomes an addict perfectly legally, and only after he escapes the underground). He describes his first dose like this:
I took it—and in an hour—oh, heavens! what a revulsion! what an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of inner spirit! what an apocalypse of the world within me! That my pains had vanished was now a trifle in my eyes: this negative effect was swallowed up in the immensity of those positive effects which had opened before me—in the abyss of divine enjoyment thus suddenly revealed.
“Abyss of divine enjoyment” is both paradoxical and religious in tone. But drugs are paradoxes, combining the holy and the foul. They midwife beautiful literature, midwife insanity and necrotizing fasciitis. And the religious suggestions aren’t strange: religious ecstasy and drug trips look very similar to the outsider (and maybe to the insider, too).
Across the Atlantic, the Civil War was brewing, where countless tons of opium would be used to treat battlefield injuries. It would be called “God’s Own Medicine”. Later doctors would refer to opium’s primary alkaloid as morphine, after Morpheus, Ovid’s God of sleep and dreams. The last and most devastating of opium’s children is heroin, derived from hero, who were traditionally men with divine ancestry. Drugs are debased spirituality inside a dirty needle.
De Quincey’s tail leads us on in familiar directions. Higher dosages. Higher thrills. He takes 1,000 drops of laudanum a day! He reads Kant, and actually understands him! There’s some great writing about his drug-created hallucinations. These have potential to drag, but they’re kept brief enough that they don’t. If the first section is proto-Dickens, the second is proto-Timothy Leary.
But things start going bad. The dreams become extremely disturbing nightmares.
The waters now changed their character—from translucent lakes shining like mirrors they now became seas and oceans. And now came a tremendous change, which, unfolding itself slowly like a scroll through many months, promised an abiding torment; and in fact it never left me until the winding up of my case. Hitherto the human face had mixed often in my dreams, but not despotically nor with any special power of tormenting. But now that which I have called the tyranny of the human face began to unfold itself. Perhaps some part of my London life might be answerable for this. Be that as it may, now it was that upon the rocking waters of the ocean the human face began to appear; the sea appeared paved with innumerable faces upturned to the heavens—faces imploring, wrathful, despairing, surged upwards by thousands, by myriads, by generations, by centuries: my agitation was infinite; my mind tossed and surged with the ocean.
De Quincey might have actually killed a man in this period. While on an opium trip, a Malaysian gentleman knocks upon his door. Neither of them can talk to each other, but as a show of brotherhood, De Quincey hands him a large slab of opium.
I was struck with some little consternation when I saw him suddenly raise his hand to his mouth, and, to use the schoolboy phrase, bolt the whole, divided into three pieces, at one mouthful. The quantity was enough to kill three dragoons and their horses, and I felt some alarm for the poor creature; but what could be done? I had given him the opium in compassion for his solitary life, on recollecting that if he had travelled on foot from London it must be nearly three weeks since he could have exchanged a thought with any human being. I could not think of violating the laws of hospitality by having him seized and drenched with an emetic, and thus frightening him into a notion that we were going to sacrifice him to some English idol. No: there was clearly no help for it. He took his leave, and for some days I felt anxious, but as I never heard of any Malay being found dead, I became convinced that he was used to opium; and that I must have done him the service I designed by giving him one night of respite from the pains of wandering.
Was the Malaysian man really “used to opium”? Or was this a self-serving fiction to ease a guilty conscience? Whatever happened to the Malaysian man, he returns to haunt De Quincey’s nightmares, along with a host of other spectres.
The inevitable part where he hits rock-bottom is dealt with only briefly. That’s my main issue: the tale feels lopsided and front-heavy, giving too much weight to his lodging disputes while neglecting the story’s main thrust of addiction. In a later edition, he expands his experiences, but apparently the earlier version is the better one. More words doesn’t always equal more meaning, as any reader of Stephen King can tell you.
So, an interesting read, and an educational one, but perhaps not always a truthful one. I’ve always wondered how much of a drug experience comes from the user, instead of the drug. Thanks to the placebo effect, drugs can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Haven’t we all seen someone at a party drink one beer and suddenly start slurring his speech and groping girls’ asses? He’s not drunk. He just thinks he’s drunk. He’s granting himself permission to let go. The beer could have been tablewater – all it really did was act as an emotional go sign.
De Quincey didn’t know of the placebo effect, but he was aware that drug experiences are idiosyncratic toward the user.
If a man “whose talk is of oxen” should become an opium-eater, the probability is that (if he is not too dull to dream at all) he will dream about oxen; whereas, in the case before him, the reader will find that the Opium-eater boasteth himself to be a philosopher; and accordingly, that the phantasmagoria of his dreams (waking or sleeping, day-dreams or night-dreams) is suitable to one who in that character.
Roland Fisher famously described Aldous Huxley’s 1954 drug book The Doors of Perception as “99 percent Aldous Huxley and only one half gram mescaline”. The same might be true for De Quincey’s adventures, over a hundred years earlier. The fault, in the end, lies not in our doors, but in ourselves.
The God, uneasy ’till he slept again,
Resolv’d at once to rid himself of pain;
And, tho’ against his custom, call’d aloud,
Exciting Morpheus from the sleepy crowd:
Morpheus, of all his numerous train, express’d
The shape of man, and imitated best;
The walk, the words, the gesture could supply,
The habit mimick, and the mein bely;
Plays well, but all his action is confin’d,
Extending not beyond our human kind.
Another, birds, and beasts, and dragons apes,
And dreadful images, and monster shapes:
This demon, Icelos, in Heav’n’s high hall
The Gods have nam’d; but men Phobetor call.
A third is Phantasus, whose actions roul
On meaner thoughts, and things devoid of soul;
Earth, fruits, and flow’rs he represents in dreams,
And solid rocks unmov’d, and running streams.
These three to kings, and chiefs their scenes display,
The rest before th’ ignoble commons play.
Of these the chosen Morpheus is dispatch’d;
Which done, the lazy monarch, over-watch’d,
Down from his propping elbow drops his head,
Dissolv’d in sleep, and shrinks within his bed.
The Metamorphosis, Book the Eleventh 11:891 Ovid
Apocalypse Culture is a 1987 survey of “fringe” culture. It’s not a book, it’s a pointing finger. “Hey, were you aware of this satanic cult? This serial killer? This illegal medical procedure?”
But we have the internet now, and the 2edgy4u info junkies in Parfrey’s target audience just answered “Yes, yes, and yes.” And even if you didn’t know these things, a print book isn’t a good way to learn about them. Books are good but also bad: you can’t drill deeper into an interesting topic by clicking a hyperlink, can’t look up the definition of an unfamiliar word, can’t view a comment challenging the author’s theory and positing a different one, etc. Dives into the tangled parts of the world are better done online, and publications like Apocalypse Culture (including Russ Kick’s Psychotropia, V Vale’s Re:Search, David Kerekes’ Killing for Culture, Jim Goad’s Gigantic Book of Sex, etc ad nauseam) are obsolete, no longer worth buying, reading, or writing.
Or, if you buy and read them, it won’t be for their original purpose. They’re interesting as historical documents: the late 80s and 90s are occupy a fuzzy position in society’s light cone: too recent to be historiographed like the 1960s, too old to be reliably archived by the internet. There’s a lot about the specific weltanschauung of 1995 (for example) that is largely forgotten except by the people who were there.
Millenium psychosis, for example. Kids often find it hard to believe that a lot of people thought the world was going to end in the year 2000. They were counting down the days until 1/1/2000, when computers would explode, the banking system would crash, and the human race would be dragged back to the Middle Ages. I had a friend ask me if I owned a pet, I said yes (a cat), and he advised me to emotionally prepare myself for the day I killed and cooked my pet for food. Twenty five winters ago.
A lot of this “not long…not long…” mentality is found in Apocalypse Culture, – more accurately, it saturates the text, like a layer of salt or spice. Every aberrant sex act and laceration is adduced to the fact that the end is coming, and we deserve it. JG Ballard describes the book as “terminal documents” for the 20th century. That sort of fits. The world didn’t end in 2000, but if it had, this book’s contents could be filed under Cause of Death.
In The Unrepentant Necrophile: we meet Karen Greenlee, “an American criminal who was convicted of stealing a hearse and having sex with the corpse it contained”. She explains the appeal of necrophilia (without success, it must be said), as well as the mechanics – for example, how does a woman perform a meaningful sex act with a corpse (answer: with a strong imagination). Necrophilia isn’t what it was in the 70s. Once, one of Karen’s signature moves was straddling a corpse and making it purge blood from its mouth into her own. In the age of HIV, it’s no longer safe to do this.
There’s a rare pre-arrest interview with Peter Sotos, who offers some typically sensitive thoughts on the gender issue (“Homos are a bit more attractive than women when they’re on top but disgusting when they’re on bottom. That sort of submissiveness stinks of femaleness.”)
Much of the book assumes you’re already ass-deep down one intellectual rabbit hole or another, and is inaccessible to newcomers. The Cosmic Pulse of Life is a discussion of psychoanalyst UFO researcher Wilhelm Reich’s work, and slings around terms like “orgone energy operation” and “kreiselwelle functions” without the slightest clue that the reader might need a guiding hand. The article gets silly at the end, with Reich zapping UFOs hovering over his lab with orgone-powered laser weapons. It might have been written as a joke.
There’s a bit of 1488, if you catch my meaning. Another reason books like Apocalypse Culture are out of vogue is that even fans of edgy media don’t really want to platform Nazis. Parfrey (who, under the Amok Press name, published a novel by Goebbels) didn’t give a fuck. One of the longest pieces in the book is his surprisingly well-read histography of eugenics, which he concludes is a good idea that should be practiced again. He paid the social price: a lot of contemporary discussion of (half-Jewish) Parfrey and his works consists of rebarbative arguments about whether he was a Nazi or not.
There are some unreadable things by Hakim Bey and Anton Szandor LaVey, who probably got in the book because of their names. Famous names are dangerous: they tend to open doors that should have stayed shut. The Invisible War ranks as the stupidest thing in the book. It reads like it was written by your 80 year old hippy aunt who just got into QAnon. I’m convinced Parfrey would have published the High Priest of Satan’s grocery list.
Maybe my favorite thing is Every Science is a Mutilated Octopus, by Charles Fort.
Every science is a mutilated octopus. If its tentacles were not clipped to stumps. it would feel its way into disturbing contacts. To a believer. the effect of the contemplation of a science is of being in the presence of the good, the true. and the beautiful. But what he is awed by is mutilation. To our crippled intellects. only the maimed is what we call understandable, because the unclipped ramifies into all other things. According to my aesthetics, what is meant by beautiful is symmetrical deformation.
This is bad writing but an interesting perspective, and one that’s withstood the years better than LaVey’s talk of subsonic earthquakes triggered by the government. Science is dangerous. Not as a side effect, but as a direct product. The more science we do, the more danger we expose ourselves to.
Think of the things we’ve gained since Fort died in 1932. Nuclear weapons, defoliants, Biopreparat. The future holds worse. A superintelligent AI with goals misaligned with humanity would conceivably eliminate us with the unthinking inevitability a land-grader crushing an anthill. Science must be mutilated if we’re to survive it. Science with its tentacles intact might be more than just an octopus. It might be Cthulhu.
Books take the wild flux of changing times and freeze a snapshot of it. A lot of the past looks strange now, but was compelling when you were in the midst of it, and Apocalypse Culture brings it all back. And perhaps tomorrow, these alien fears and obsessions might become relevant once again. The universe is the site of a neverending apocalypse, and we’re standing in the middle of it, wondering how everything can be exploding all the time without the sky ever going dark.
…He’s a mouse, see. Movies about animals are legally required to have a pun in the title, and An American Tail walked so that Dog With A Blog and Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked could run.
It’s one of the grim, high-concept films Don Bluth made after he left Disney due to concerns that they’d drifted from their mission of upsetting children. Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, and The Land Before Time are famed for their craftsmanship, but they’re tough sledding, darker than any Disney film except for The Black Cauldron. A lot of people remember these films as classics. A lot of them also remember being scared and covering their eyes.
Tail is a parable about antisemitism. Fievel Mousekewitz’s family lives in a mousehole underneath a shtel in 1880’s Russia, until Cossacks burn down the shtel, and a gang of cats destroy their home. The opening scene is kind of hilarious, with mice being chased around by fez wearing, black-mustached cats roughly the size of Shetland ponies. Their growls have been pitch-adjusted down into half-terrifying, half-comical gurgles. If the cats could breathe radioactive fire, this would be a kaiju film.
The displaced Mousekewitzes board a steamer bound for America, a place where (they have been told) there are no cats. Fievel unwisely ascends to the fore-deck during a storm, is blown overboard, and eventually washes ashore in a bottle. The rest of the film involves him looking for his family, along with some other complications.
Tail’s plotting is less surefooted than NIMH or Time. After the problem is established (“will Fievel be reunited with his family?”), a number of supporting characters are dumped into the story – a friendly pigeon, a streetwise Italian mouse, a sign-waving female mouse activist, a rich lady mouse, a back-slapping politician type, a helpful vegetarian cat, and so on – turning the film into an top-heavy mass of characters right when it needs to be sleek and streamlined. I remember being confused and uninvolved when I first saw it. It became a series of events. And the villain is so forgettable that I did exactly that – forgot the movie even had a villain.
And although the animation is clearly Bluth, the film looks dull next to his other films. Secret of NIMH sparkled and twinkled, as if the cel sheets were studded with jewels. The Land Before Time had the hot, ferocious glow of the old world. Tail is just plain colorless. Dark seas. Sewers. City streets blanketed in smog. Average out all the pixels in the film and you’d get a muddy green-gray.
But it’s heartfelt, for all that. And the final showdown is both exciting and clever in how it pays off IOUs incurred at the start of the movie.
Roger Ebert criticized the film for being about anti-Semitism, while not explaining this in a way that children can understanding.
One of the central curiosities of “An American Tail” is that it tells a specifically Jewish experience but does not attempt to inform its young viewers that the characters are Jewish or that the house burning was anti-Semitic. I suppose that would be a downer for the little tykes in the theater, but what do they think while watching the present version? That houses are likely to be burned down at random?
I understand his point, but children can hear the music without hearing the words. They might not know what a ghetto or a blood libel is, but they’ll have encountered playground bullies – people who pick on you because you look different, or talk weird – and can relate the plight of the Jews to that of the mice. We’re not meant to sense any difference between the cossacks and cats: they attack at the same time, like two heads of the same hydra. And the Mousekewitzes are clearly different in a way that transcends species. One of Fievel’s problems in America is that everyone think his name sounds silly, so he changes it to a more goyische Phil. This is matched by a shot of a human Jew likewise changing his name.
In short, a kind of messy but compelling picture. I’m not a believer that Don Bluth could do no wrong, but he was doing very little of it the 80s.
Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective came out the same year, with nearly the same concept (a society of mice running parallel to ours). An American Tail is a worthy example of an animated twin film, along with Aladdin and The Princess and the Cobbler in 1992-3, Antz and A Bug’s Life in 1998, The Road to El Dorado and The Emperor’s New Groove in 2000, Treasure Planet and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas in 2002/3, etc. How to explain this? Animated films typically take years to make, which prohibits quick imitations and knockoffs.
(I got Mandela effect’d. I distinctly remember that Fievel sees whales on the ship. On the rewatch I conducted for this review: nope, no whales. His father describes “fish as big as this boat”, and we hear mournful whalesong, and a later Don Bluth film (The Pebble and the Penguin) features whales, so maybe my brain made a lot of connections. Another example of how movies in memories are not real movies.)
Mick Norman (the pen name of Laurence James) wrote four Angels from Hell novels in the 1970s, and this 1994 collection from Creation rescues them from out-of-printness.
The rescue effort was worth it: they’re fast, brutal, addictive novels about biker gangs, set in a dystopian 1990s Britain. Petrocarbons are burned, laws are broken, women are deflowered. The novels are short and were clearly quickly written (why didn’t Creation fix the copy errors?), but they’re loaded with energy, heart, and humor, and have hardly aged at all. There are read-in-one-go books; this is practically a read-in-one-go series.
Disillusioned vet Gerald Vinson becomes a patched-in member of the Last Heroes chapter of the Hells Angels, where his intelligence, training, and leadership abilities soon see him in command of the charter. But when you ride a tiger you can’t ever get off, and Gerry is enmeshed in wars against rival chapters, switchblade-wielding football hooligans, crooked journalists, and a neo-fascistic British government that seeks to destroy the Angels (given the hundreds of homicides the Angels are involved in over the course of the series, one doesn’t feel too outraged).
The main character, of course, is almost the bikes themselves. They serve the same function as horses do in Westerns – partly a method of transport (you can go almost anywhere on a bike, and very quickly), and partly a symbol of masculinity. One surefire way to know shit’s about to go down in the books is that a biker has his “hog” sabotaged or destroyed.
The political incorrectness is high. Mick Norman doesn’t seem to like homosexuals: his villains are flamboyantly gay far more frequently than chance would predict. I also don’t believe there’s one female character who isn’t killed, raped, threatened with rape, beaten to a pulp, or some combination of the previous, aside from the old lady at the start of Guardian Angels, who merely has a man’s severed head flung through her car’s front windshield. There’s one British-African character that I can recall. He provides help to Gerry, and he and his family get burned to death by Gerry’s enemies for their trouble.
If I had a complaint, the books get smaller in scope as they progress, instead of bigger. The first one (Angels from Hell) is Gerry vs the government. The second (Angel Challenge) is Gerry vs a rival chapter. The third (Guardian Angels) is Gerry vs a couple of hoodlums. The fourth (Angels on my Mind) is Gerry vs a single psychotic cop, who (in a scenario reminiscent of Stephen King’s Misery, which it precedes by fifteen years) has illegally detained him and chained him in his basement, where his even more batshit psychologist wife seeks to “study” him.
They’re fine tales, but the first has an exhilarating sense of “us against the world” that is never quite recaptured, replaced instead by weary Ballardian nihilism.
The bikers = cowboys metaphor I posited above breaks down quickly. Cowboys in the paperback Westerns always had pro-social goals – saving towns from bandits and cattle rustlers is a noble deed. But none of Gerry’s men and women are good people. Their world has no use for good people. Nice guys don’t just finish last, they finish in body bags. But they also don’t have any long-term goals; everyone seems to be staring into the same black pit. Their battles and rides lead to more battles and rides. What’s the point? But then, what’s the point of a biker gang in real life? To have brothers? A brother that’s going to squeal on you at the first scent of a plea bargain?
How do you write a novel about a bad person and persuade the reader to care? Typically, by making the other characters even worse – gangster films traditionally pit “good” criminals (honorable men, bound by loyalty and brotherhood) against “bad” criminals (unprincipled lunatics). It’s sort of like making your worst-smelling clothes smell good by rubbing your nose in shit. Norman’s approach is different: he makes the “straights” equally bad, just in a different way. One of the books ends with an open-ended question: who is to blame for the Angels? They didn’t fall out of the sky. Our society made them. Our society will make more of them.
The best book is Angel’s Challenge, which features an absurd premise that at least gives the story some anchoring: two biker gangs agree to a scavenger hunt across London, with the losers being forced to disband and burn their colors. But in the third book, an existential loneliness sets in. The fascistic government is out of power. There’s nothing left to do, and Gerry’s bikers end up working as roadies for rock bands (echoes of the legendary Altamont Free Concert in 1969, where a Hells Angels security detail ended up fracturing skulls and stabbing people). They are empty men inside. It’s a miracle that they don’t shatter like eggshells when they crash.
They have their freedom, at least. Freedom to do what?
A 1993 platform game programmed for DOS by Apogee’s Jim Norwood, who went on to develop Shadow Warriors, Heroes of Might and Magic V, and that cherished classic Third Example Goes Here.
You play as a porn-mustachio’d spec forces operative called (I fear) Snake Logan, who has crash-landed in a mutant-infested city and has to etc.
Platform games usually belong to either the “jump around and collect stars” Mario school or the “shoot guns and blow shit up” Contra school. Bio Menace is unapologetically the latter: it’s among the most violent Apogee games, with monsters dying in explosions of blood and body parts. This clashes somewhat with the visual design of the monsters themselves, who look like Teletubbies.
Bio Menace feels older than it is. Slated for a 1991 release, it was delayed for two years due to engine modifications, and by 1993 it looked as dated as glam metal.
The graphics are 16-color EGA, and the backgrounds don’t parallax-scroll. At least it ran smoothly. I recall being able to play it on Windows XP, although I don’t think it works on any 64-bit operating system.
The game itself was a competent blend of “find the key to disable the laser forcefield” type puzzles, and hallways filled with angry monsters. It had a nice sense of place – the first level in particular is a realistic urban environment littered with bodies and wrecked cars. Completing levels means rescuing civilians. Reaching high places means finding a ladder or riding an elevator. Health powerups and keys are usually found in places that make logical sense, like lockers and cabinets.
In this sense, at least, Bio Menace anticipated the future. The arcades were going away. Gaming was ready to pupate into the next stage of its life: immersive experiences not unlike Hollywood movies. There’s even an effort made at storytelling. When you rescue a civilian, amazing dialog pops up on screen (“I’m gonna dust that little dweeb! He can’t do this and escape!”)…hey, at least it’s only the second worst-written videogame about a spec forces operative called Snake.
It exemplifies Apogee’s approach: funnel out cheap (and cheaply made) games under a “shareware” business model. You got to play the first 30% of the game for free, and since that 30% typically contained 80% of the game’s actual worthwhile content, this was a pretty good deal. But it did lend itself to disposable experiences, and games that were copy-pastes of some other popular title.
Bio Menace is a minor game, without the arthouse pretensions of Eric Chahi’s Out of this World or the rotoscoped professionalism of Jordan Mechner’s Prince of Persia. It probably made some money, and even if it didn’t, it surely wasn’t a big red stain on Apogee’s balance sheets. Bio Menace is like throwing ten cents down on a roulette spin. Is it worth playing now? No, unless you’re a fan of “ARE YOU A BAD ENOUGH DUDE TO RESCUE THE PRESIDENT?”-style vidya cringe.
“If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster.”
If you undercrank stock footage of a city it looks frantic, and if you put peaceful music over a natural landscape it looks calm. That’s Koyaanisqatsi: an emotionally moving but intellectually casuistic tale of a supposed clash between modern man and nature.
Director Godfrey Reggio seeks to show the world we live in, but he relies heavily, too heavily, on audiovisual effect, and the film ends up feeling artificial and manipulated, more like a staged ballet than a piece of honest documentation. I’m reminded of Luis Buñuel’s 1933 “documentary” of Spain’s remote Las Hurdes mountains, Land Without Bread. The theme – this is a harsh land, where life is cheap – is sold by a powerful shot of a goat climbing a steep cliff and slipping and tumbling to its death. When you learn that the scene was staged (the goat was shot with a rifle) you feel a little cheated.
Godfrey Reggio’s film isn’t deceptive in the same way, but why contrast bustling cities with the Grand Canyon? Is this a logical or obvious comparison? Why not compare a city with a raging ocean? The Antarctic Circumpolar Current carries a million times as many tonnes of water through the Drake Passage than Times Square does cars. There is peacefulness in civilization, and instability in nature.
“Koyaanisqatsi” is a Hopi word, defined (according to Wikipedia) as “life of moral corruption and turmoil” or “life out of balance”. The film ends with Hopi prophecies portending our doom. The film’s reverence toward primitive man is of a piece with most environmentalist scare programming on TV: white people are bad, capitalism is bad, technology and industry are bad. Instead, we should take a moment to learn from beautiful primitive people, who have so much to teach us. It’s strange that most of the people promulgating this regressive message are politically left wing, – nostalgia for the 1950s makes you a conservative dinosaur, but nostalgia for 10000 BC makes you an enlightened child of the earth-spirit?
I don’t argue that modern society is perfect, just that our greedy hyper-capitalist “life out of balance” has brought us good things, too: medicine, global communications, global transport, and the ability to make and distribute a film such as Koyaanisqatsi. We’ve created problems (climate change), but we now also have the tools to fix them. By contrast, primitive people are largely helpless against desertification, disease, ecological collapse, and so on. Any romance one feels towards pre-technological civilization probably lasts until your first toothache.
While I dislike Koyaanisqatsi‘s theme, I like almost everything else about it. It’s an extremely clever folding of sound over image (and vice versa), demonstrating how one can enhance and illuminate the other.
The visuals are powerful. Clouds slide in reflection across glass skyscrapers, time-lapsed so that they ripple and pulsate like gaseous alien creatures. Endless streams of traffic flow down streets, accelerated into rivers of pure light. Koyaanisqatsi was a microbudget production and contains a lot of stock footage, but the way this footage is cut together is always clever and interesting.
Popular culture was influenced by Reggio’s style. The “sped-up urban footage” motif endemic to 90s music videos started here, for example. Near the end of the movie there’s an extended sequence where the camera tracks a person in the street…until they look up, notice they’re being filmed, and we cut to another person. To be honest, I’m not sure what the point is, but it’s a striking trick, and I’ve seen it imitated since.
Philip Glass’s music is the equivalent of a pointillistic painting, thousands of self-referential cycles of dying notes that seem to melt inside the ear like icicles. The soundtrack is complex yet paradoxically simple. Brian Eno’s pioneering ambient music in the 1970s attempted to reward any level of listener attention (whether you’re focusing intently or listening with half an ear, the music should be enjoyable), and Glass’s work achieves this with even more beauty and concision.
The film was released and the world kept turning. Reggio tried to reignite the fire of Koyaanisqatsi twice, with 1988’s Powaqqatsi (which was about third world exploitation), and Naqoyqatsi (which was about futurism and accelerationism).
The later films had bigger budgets but smaller impacts: they were like bombs landing on a target already blown to rubble. The trouble with making sequels to an experimental film is that, by definition, you’re no longer experimenting: you’re adding to a tradition. And even though Naqoyqatsi (in particular) tried to differentiate itself by amping up the digital editing to ridiculous and obnoxious levels, the Koyaanisqatsi approach had soaked into popular culture, and no longer seemed new or interesting. Hard to be impressed by time-lapse footage when you can change the channel and see the same stuff in Nike ads and Madonna music videos.
Koyaanisqatsi is an awkward beast. Its strongest element is its craft…the craft that subtly works against it at every turn, because it adds distance between the viewer and the reality it portrays. This is one of those films that might be better if it was less competently made, because then we might the truth, instead of an endless farrago of editing tricks.
In this 1933 novel, a young woman called Doris gets laid. Too bad that’s only half the sentence, and the second half is “off from work”.
Wearing a stolen fur coat, she journeys to Berlin, intending to make it big as a Glanz – a film star.
“I want to become a star. I want to be at the top. With a white car and bubble bath that smells of perfume, and everything just like in Paris. And people have a great deal of respect for me because I’m glamorous.”
Her plans fail, and she ends up increasingly far from the high life, working as a maid, a pickpocket, and eventually a “girlfriend experience” (to use a modern euphemism). She’s following her dreams, but they’re leading her backwards: like a riptide where swimming harder means drowning faster. All she has is the fur coat, reminding her of the possibility of dreams. But the coat doesn’t belong to her. It’s someone else’s.
Keun writes a character who is stupid and smart at the same time: given to psychological monologues worthy of a tenured psychiatrist while completely unaware of how and when she’s being manipulated by others – men, institutions, and society. Being an actor is hard. You need to be focused, hard-working, very, very lucky, and at the end of the day you either have “it” or you don’t. Before coronavirus hit, Hollywood and West LA were stacked tens of thousands deep with aspiring actors, bussing tables and mowing lawns and firing out headshots like despairing messages in bottles. They won’t all succeed. Supply outstrips demand a hundredfold. “Why does New York have lots of garbage and Los Angeles have lots of actors? Because New York got to pick first.”
The Artificial Silk Girl is a kind of Grecian tragedy – a narrative that moves on towards an inevitable unhappy conclusion, while having a bitchy, funny air that makes it readable ninety years later. It’s seldom depressing or sad: Doris has a bulldog’s tenacity, and never gets kicked down for long. This, ironically, makes her into her own worst enemy: a more realistic girl would have gone home long ago.
The period setting is as much a character in the book as any of the people. Germany’s Weimar years (1918 to 1933) are often viewed as a kind of modern-day Flood parable: an orgy of decadence preceding disaster. There’s hints of political events unfolding, but Doris is blind to them: she’s trying to hustle rich men and get film roles.
She herself is apolitical, but the author wasn’t. When the NSDAP came to power, books The Artificial Silk Girl became unacceptable, and were burned on massive bonfires. Irmgard Keun (living dangerously, one thinks) actually attempted to sue the Gestapo for loss of income.
But Das Kunstseidene Mädchen is most successful not as a political or feminist polemic, but a cautionary tale of the dangers of following a dream. Sometimes ideas are just bad, and it’s almost better for them to fail immediately than to continue on: just as it’s better for a jet plane engine to break down on the runway than at an altitude of 5,000 feet.
Doris’s momentary successes seem almost cruel, because they perpetuate a fantasy. Just when she’s at the end of everything, a ray of light appears…just enough so that she keeps chasing her dream, and remains impoverished, starving, and wearing stolen clothes.
And now we speak of a defining trend in 20th century literature, the Animal Book.
They’re earnest and naturalistic accounts of an animal’s life, usually set in rural England. You can’t push a pendulum without having it swing back the other way, and the industrial revolution (and World War I) provoked a renewed interest in pastoralism, naturalism, traditionalism, and so forth.
Animals were seen as the noblest savages: unspoiled by civilization. Books about them flooded the market, even as the animals inspiring them became fewer, and were driven to the edge of extinction. It’s as if the books were absorbing the souls of animals falling slain on fen and veldt and savannah. Was this the Victorian English version of mind uploading? “The African elephant is dead, but we have preserved its immortal essence in Babar.”
Nearly everyone tried their hand at at an Animal Book, but you couldn’t use the same animal as another famous author, and soon the good ones were taken. Wolves? White Fang. Horses? Black Beauty. Deer? Bambi. Dogs? The Call of the Wild. Tigers? The Jungle Book (not as a POV character). Sheep? Who wants to read a book about sheep? The Decennary Brits got greedy, burned through all the good animals in a few short years, Peak Animal occurred, and now authors are left with options like An Earwig’s Life and Odyssey of the Tardigrade. The future looks bleak.
Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson is in the middle of the pack of Animal Books. It’s not brilliant, but it’s readable, and frequently moving in its evocation of the English countryside. It’s probably the best book you can write about an otter.
The story is simple and not very consequential. Tarka is born in Devonshire, learns to swim, feed, and clean himself, makes some friends, goes on adventures, and battles repeatedly with the hound Deadlock, who has a Terminator-esque fixation upon him.
Tarka dies at the end. Don’t feel bad: he lived a very full life. Animal Book authors were never afraid of downer endings: it’s the circle of life, and so forth. Many of them were almost indecently eager for you to know that the animal dies: this novel’s full title is Tarka the Otter: His Joyful Water-Life and Death in the Country of the Two Rivers.
What will stay with you is the descriptions, which immerse you in sights, scents, and sounds.
Time flowed with the sunlight of the still green place. The summer drakeflies, whose wings were as the most delicate transparent leaves, hatched from their cases on the water and danced over the shadowed surface. Scarlet and blue and emerald dragonflies caught them with rustle and click of bright whirring wings. It was peaceful for the otters in the back-water, ring-rippled with the rises of fish, a waving mirror of trees and the sky, of grey doves among green ash-sprays, of voles nibbling sweet roots on the banks. The moorhen paddling with her first brood croaked from under an arch of streamside hawthorn, where the sun-shafts slanting into the pool lit the old year’s leafdust drifting like smoke underwater. The otter heard every wild sound as she lay unsleeping, thinking of her lost one. The cubs breathed softly, but sometimes their nostrils worked and their legs moved, as though they were running.
The countryside is pretty, but also deadly. The giant otters of South America are apex predators, but European otters such as Tarka are not, and there are a lot of things in Devonshire trying to eat him.
I’ve often felt that the success of Animal Books rely on fear: convincing human readers to be scared of things an animal is scared of. A slithering movement at the water’s edge. An unexpected shadow darkening the sun. Tarka handles this better than most. There’s a vivid scene where otters have to cross a brightly-lit field like soldiers storming an enemy position, hugging shade, because the sunlight will catch on their glossy coats and turn them into a flashing light for predators. Richard Adams’ rabbits have a thousand enemies, but Henry Williamson’s otters have a couple hundred of their own.
By the way, “drakefly” is an archaic term for “mayfly”. The book is written using old and odd words, and my copy includes a dictionary. “Appledrane” is a wasp that has burrowed into an apple. “Oolypuggers” means bulrushes (I’m a bit skeptical that this is a real world – Google has no record of anyone using that word outside of Tarka).“Aerymouse” is a common British bat, and frankly, I rather like that word. Why did we stop calling bats aerymouses?
Also, why Animal Books? This reverence to nature has sinister undertones today, because it reminds of certain parts of fascism (organic state, blood and soil, etc). Tarka the Otter is one of many books that seems to be disappearing from public memory. After I read Henry Williamson’s Wikipedia page (“He had a ‘well-known belief that Hitler was essentially a good man who wanted only to build a new and better Germany.'”) it occurred to me that it’s deliberately being forgotten, and with a quickness.
“My name is Aeon Flux. I’m here on a mission to assassinate Trevor Goodchild.”
Fans of “unusual” animated cartoons are often recommended Aeon Flux, which might be like recommending that a fan of chili peppers shove a flamethrower into his mouth. The show is dynamite in your brain, confusing, provocative, unclear, and ultimately highly rewarding.
Even Aeon Flux seems ill at ease with what it is. The first two seasons (1991-1992) are silent 2-5 minute works of expressionism, depicting a woman dying over and over. The third (1995) is a thirty-minute show where the characters “talk” (often without saying much).
It owes debts to German expressionism, Ralph Bakshi, and highbrow anime like Suehiro Maruo. It’s exaggerated to a degree that makes it difficult to successfully parody. In 2005, the fan Livejournal Monican Spies posted a “leaked” Aeon Flux movie script from SomethingAwful, causing confusion about whether it was real or not.
It’s a work of violence and tension: like a screw overtightened until it starts to strip its threads. All the men and women seem on the verge of either murdering or fucking each other. There are fetishistic fixations on body parts (feet, teeth, tongues, ears), and even the violence is amped up into a fetish, with heroes gunning down armies of enemies like a video game with the infinite ammo cheat enabled. The art is Slender Man-disturbing: everyone’s limbs seem stretched out twice as long as they need to be, and sexual acts are distressing, like watching the autophagous mating of two praying mantises.
Aeon Flux‘s mood is that of frustrating uncertainty. You feel like you’re just on the verge of understanding it, if only you knew one more fact. All of this probably makes Aeon Flux sound pretentious and obtuse, but it isn’t.
Honestly, it’s one of the few TV shows that makes any amount of sense.
Small Plot of Land
“For truly barren is profane education, which is always in labor but never gives birth. For what fruit worthy of such pangs does philosophy show for being so long in labor?” – Gregory of Nyssa
Aeon Flux is the vision of a particular man, Peter Chung, who conceived it (at least partially) as a reaction against unhealthy trends in mainstream TV.
Basically, Chung believes that most TV shows (and many other things besides) are dead. Not in the sense that they’re badly written, unimaginative, or the soulless products of corporations, duuuude (as if those are barriers to art); rather, he thinks they have a very specific cancer in their core.
Consider a basic question: what’s a story? A linear series of fictional events? No, that’s what a story looks like. What a story is (or should be) is a bridge: a way for an artist to connect to you and share his ideas.
This distinction is important. Yes, Catcher in the Rye has a story (Holden Caulfield flunks out of school, fights with a friend, and so on), but this is supposed to encode particular themes: adolescence, a search for authenticity, and so on. That’s the only reason the story exists. The plot is arbitrary: Holden Caulfield could be an Pueblo Indian boy living in 1700. The theme is the important part, not the specific details.
An overemphasis on narrative is deadly, smothering artistry instead of nurturing it. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a well-told story as much as the next person (I assume Chung does too), but you can’t care too much about them, or think that they exist just for their own sake.
A good story contains the shadow of the author; a bad story – even if it’s well-written – is a meaningless pile of details.
This, in Chung’s opinion, is the reason so many TV shows feel boring and inert. They’re bridges built to nowhere. They have literally nothing inside them except story. They’re a firehose of narrative and narrative and still more narrative, characters doing things and then more things and then still more things until the network cancels the show. As time passes, the fictional universe becomes more convoluted, but no more meaningful. It’s a dying star, expanding and sucking mass until it collapses under its own weight.
Our culture is littered with dead stars: endlessly-detailed fictional worlds that say absolutely nothing. As of 24/12/20, the Marvel wiki hosts 261,582 tedious pages, documenting Steve Ditko arcs from 1965 and timeless characters such as Deathcry [“With the invasion of Earth’s dimension by the entity called the Chaos King, Deathcry (along with other deceased Avengers Captain Marvel, Doctor Druid, the Vision, Yellowjacket, and the original Swordsman), returned from the dead. When Mar-Vell was killed again by the Grim Reaper, Deathcry inherited his cosmic awareness and became an enhanced version of herself as Lifecry.”] What’s the point? Was there ever a point? It’s all trees and no forest.
“I’ve started a few shows out of curiosity […] I get about 4 or 5 episodes in, and there’s always this maddening awareness that: 1. the plot is being dragged out as long as possible, and 2. the storytellers are only using the imaginative, speculative premise as some exotic backdrop to what amounts to soap opera. The provocative implications of the story’s premise are starved. Of course, they’re giving audiences what they want, because the truth is that most viewers aren’t looking to have their thoughts provoked or their minds expanded.” – Peter Chung, 2015, ILXOR
The disease doesn’t create itself. This thundering pointlessness is what the public wants. The average person consumes fiction on a shallow level, they can’t do thematic analysis, and the details are all they see and all they care about. They watch Twin Peaks and ask “who killed Laura Palmer?” They watch Inception and ask “does the spinning top fall at the end?” They’re obsessed with assembling the narrative details of a story like it’s a puzzle to be solved. They hate ambiguity, hate unresolved issues, hate not being told things. They want the plot to contain certain fixed details (if it’s a Young Adult book, it had better star a plucky, likable protagonist.) And most bewilderingly, they think that excessive narrative detail is in and of itself valuable.
I still remember being assured by a CRPG fan that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is an amazing work of art because it has over 1100 unique characters, or something. I haven’t played that game, but who gives a shit? Those characters are all arbitrary and made up. They have no external existence. A Markov chain could have generated them. Even people who should know better fall into this trap. “Tolkien invented his own language!” Is that the important thing about Lord of the Rings? That it’s a Berlitz language course? What’s the story really about?
Aeon Flux is a catharsis from the tyranny of narrative. It dials back the story to barely perceptible levels, and asks you to look behind it.
It’s a work of dystopian science fiction work that takes place in the year [doesn’t matter], featuring an athletic infiltrix whose name is the same as the show’s. She is an agent from the anarchist nation of Monica, and must infiltrate the totalitarian Bregna (for reasons that are unclear and subject to change), which is under the command of the Doctor Trevor Goodchilde.
Someone probably runs an Aeon Flux wiki that charts events blow-by-blow or whatever. Don’t bother reading it: that is the wrong way to analyse Aeon Flux. The sparse, contradictory plot details (such as a heroine you know nothing about, and who ends up dead a dozen times) exist just to collapse on the screen, allowing themes content to emerge. Aeon Flux is like one of those fish that has very thin skin, so you can see the glistening bones and organs inside.
The Inside View
“A concept is a brick. It can be used to build a courthouse of reason. Or it can be thrown through the window.” – Gilles Geleuze
Aeon Flux, fundamentally, is not hard to understand. Its ideas are unusually explicit and clear.
It’s about symbiosis: all ideas actually exist as part of an interconnected system: even the ones that seem to negate each other. Put more simply: the front wheel of a car needs a back wheel, and you need your enemy.
Aeon Flux represents extreme liberty, and Trevor extreme order. They’re ostensibly in conflict, but it’s an act. They’re as reliant on each other as men in a three-legged race.
Without rebels like Aeon, Trevor would have no way to justify his totalitarian measures. She’s the bogeyman, the Big Bad, the Eternal Jew, the Eastasia-with-whom-we-have-always-been-at-war, the Osama bin Laden that means you’re not allowed to bring scissors on a plane twenty years later. People like her are the fuel that keeps his engine of oppression running.
And he feels for himself the allure of freedom (even as he intellectually dismisses and publically denounces it). He’s a hypocrite. He supports global surveillance…but not for himself. He has a private area where he can be alone and unwatched. And of course, his totalitarianism is a manifestation of his own will. It’s very well to decide that nobody should have rights. If that decision was made for him, would he happily accept it? Or would he rebel, and become like Aeon? He loves power, and does what he must in order to keep it. He has no true allegiance to any ideology, and the exact shape of the world is of no concern to him: the important part is that he’s the one shaping it.
Likewise, Aeon is meaningless without Trevor. Her identity is Trevor-I-am-not, and like many rebels seeking to tear down the system, she has no plans for how to replace it. There’s a romance to fighting the evil; there’s no romance to being the evil. Johnny Rotten might raise a middle finger to society, but he’d never want to run society: he’d fuck it all up, and fail, and be remembered by history as a failure, and someone else would be a cool punk rocker. And there are good things in Trevor’s totalitarian state. It’s interesting how it’s always anarchist Monica invading totalitarian Bregna. Almost as if, despite its oppressiveness, Bregna is the one that has built something valuable…
And like him, she’s insincere. She repeatedly has Trevor at her mercy but doesn’t kill him. Without Trevor the game ends. She’d become like those Twitter leftists who has ejected anyone politically different from their social circle and spends their days fighting with other Twitter leftists about whether “latinx” is a colonialist slur, or whatever. Her identity is in the fight, she doesn’t know how to do anything else. She’s a human delete key: eradicating meaning without putting a single word of it back in, and she abhors the blank page an anarchy represents.
They’re both attracted to the ideals of the other, and this sublimates (if that’s the word) as physical lust. They hate that they love each other, can’t escape the umbilical cord. Figure needs ground. Ying needs yang.
Another point the show repeatedly makes: nobody is the main character.
Humans have the misfortune of being born with movie cameras in our head (literally: an Arriflex lens is designed to mimic the way our eyes perceive light). We live in a visual world that puts us at the center: if life is a movie, nobody thinks they’re an extra, or part of the second unit. Aeon Flux sometimes toys with the idea. What if you ultimately weren’t important?
The show repeatedly establishes Aeon Flux as a Campbellian hero…and undercuts it in a cruel, laughing way. Usually by killing her, suddenly and for a stupid reason.
In the first episode, she seems the verge of accomplishing her goal…and then dies because she stepped on a tack. The Monican intelligence agency obliterates all evidence of her body, and she isn’t mourned or remembered. Actually, that’s not quite right: in the final shot we see a guy in a store, perusing a sleazy foot fetish magazine depicting Aeon. That’s her legacy. Porn.
This iconoclasm of personal heroism is seen even more starkly in “War”, which runs for five minutes and contains fodder for a dozen doctoral theses. It depicts a battle between Breen and Monican forces under an oppressive red sun. Aeon is leading the charge. She’s a one-woman army, massacring scores of enemies with ludicrous ease. She never misses, and her guns never run out of ammunition. If you saw a Quake player doing what she does, you’d call her an aimhacker, you’d try to have her banned from the server. This feels like a parody of action movies: Aeon’s the hero, invincible, cloaked in Plot Armor.
And then it falls apart. Aeon’s is overpowered and disarmed by a single Breen soldier. He has her pinned on the ground, between gunsights, preparing to shoot. But then her gaze flickers over his shoulder. A friendly Monican agent is sneaking up behind him! Hurrah!
…but the Breen soldier shoots her, and then effortlessly kills her would-be rescuer, too. After this jarring anticlimax, the episode continues on in a bizarre direction. The camera changes sides, and we follow the nameless Breen soldier through the battle. He does the same thing Aeon did: except he’s slaughtering dozens of Monican soldiers. The exact same heroic beats and notes are used, the same filmmaking tricks that Peter Chung used to valorize Aeon are now to valorize a nameless Breen grunt (example: how he’s shot from an downwards angle, silhouetted dramatically against sky like a monolith)…it doesn’t seem to matter that he’s fighting on the wrong side.
We’re struck by the sense that the Breen soldier is undoing all of Aeon’s progress. And that he’s no less of a hero than she was. This is pointed commentary: it’s not just your side that gets to have heroes. There are heroes who hate everything you stand for, heroes who want to napalm your children.
But it goes on. The seemingly invincible Breen soldier meets his end: a Monican agent kills him. The camera changes allegiances again: following the Monikan agent, who slaughters endless numbers of et cetera (this time the parody is hilariously thick – the guy using a medieval sword, and the Breen soldiers can’t defeat him even though they have guns. It’s not even trying to be believable), until he meets a Breen woman, who…
The “War” episode ends with a characteristically picture-containing-a-thousand-dreams shot: the camera focuses on a punctured pipe, which is slowly leaking oil into a tiny puddle on the ground. Do we learn the fate of the final set of characters? Do we even find out who won the battle? Nope. Fuck you. Here’s a puddle on the ground. The camera has no friend. It recognizes no main character. The Universe doesn’t have an “eye” – and if it did, you’d be of no particular interest to it. It would be as likely to stare at a worm than it would be to follow your adventures.
…These were examples of what you get from Aeon Flux. I’m not claiming they’re profound themes, or original to Aeon Flux, or even that Aeon Flux always presents them in a skillful way. Sometimes things get a bit too drippy for my preference. In episode one, we get shots of crying women and children standing over the bodies of the soldiers Aeon killed (geddit? They had lives too!) which feels manipulative and unsubtle – although the shot of hapless Breen janitors staring at an ocean of blood with mops in their hand was funny.
Nevertheless, they’re themes. Ideas. Amid a sea of monster-of-the-week or verbal diarrhea, Aeon Flux is actually saying something. The glass teat learned to speak.
The Hot Equations
“Television knows no night. It is perpetual day. TV embodies our fear of the dark, of night, of the other side of things.” – Jean Baudrillard
Chung got the show made by lying.
“Initially they had a hard time understanding what Æon Flux was and what I was trying to do and why it belonged on Liquid Television. So I kind of had to pitch Æon Flux as a parody of action shows or action movies because everything on LiquidTV was a parody of something.” – Peter Chung, FormerPeople, 2014
Aeon Flux, aside from a few moments, is not a satire of anything. But this is how an auteur survives in Hollywood – you tell the suits what they want to hear, cash your checks, and then make whatever you were going to make anyway. Chung lucked out. Aeon Flux tested well, and MTV decided to keep rolling the dice with him.
He’s clearly a virtuoso: and his talent is immediately visible on the screen. It’s not a slow-burn type of show, it instantly grabs you with its visuals and sound design. The colors chosen, the way the action flows, the music, Aeon Flux is craftsmanship at a very high level.
And it encapsulates what I like about hand-drawn animation, the tension of imagination and constraint. In theory, you can draw anything you like, but it’s expensive and slow. TV runs at 24 frames per second, so an animator will potentially need twenty four unique pieces of art for every single second of run time. Most animation cheats by stretching one picture across multiple frames – it’s common to hear about animating “on the twos” (every 2nd frame has a new picture, like Disney movie), or “on the threes” (every 3rd frame has a new drawing, which is mostly reserved for anime and low-budget programming).
Despite these cost-saving measures, a lot of art has to be produced, even for a five minute work. You can’t not know what you’re doing. Every second of animation is blood squeezed from stone.
This puts the director on the ropes, forcing him to make sacrifices and tough decisions about what’s important to the vision. The sky is limitless, but your rocket ship only has a small amount of fuel. Where will you go?
This is why works of animation tend to be tightly scripted and edited: the action nailed in place by keyframes as precise as rivets on a battleship. This doesn’t mean they’re good, but at least you avoid the sort of aimless gonzo “just film whatever” bloat common to live action TV. Aeon Flux gleams with craftsmanship, but it’s all precisely directed and focused.
Which isn’t to say that Chung doesn’t splash out effort wherever he can. Sometimes he deliberately take the hard road. For instant, hand-drawing every single eyelash on a face. I’d never seen that on a TV show before. Aeon Flux has a visual style that’s entirely it’s own.
And although Chung attended Cal-Arts, members his team didn’t always have the “usual” animation CV. Background artist Tom McClure, for example, trained as an architect, and seems to draw on this to create baroque environments that are nonetheless sensible and physics based. You can feel his otherworldly structures creak and thrum as they disperse force from the wind. Even the pilot episode (which McClure didn’t work on) features astounding detail. It’s typical for animation to blow its wad on the focal foreground elements (characters, and so forth), with backgrounds becoming a barely-present outline. But in the first episode we see Aeon Flux is breaking into an industrial complex of some kind, and although it’s clearly complicated, you can sense everything architecturally connect and make sense. Aeon Flux’s world is an arbitrary and confusing and self-contradictory one, but it’s also as perfect as an ice crystal.
The sound design is another strong point. Drew Neumann’s music is particularly felt in seasons 1 and 2, almost substituting for the missing dialog. It’s full of stabs and swirls and Orchestral motifs – arty and baroque stuff that matches, twists, and subverts the action like a riptide around the ankle of a swimmer. The Aeon Flux theme is essentially the Indiana Jones theme moved to Phrygian and 7/4 time. It sounds almost heroic but warped, like the melody has been worked over with a flamethrower and melted out of shape.
Even the names of the characters are chosen with care, and advance particular themes. The show’s an Freudian paradise.
Bregna sounds like regnant, but the addition of the letter B makes it an ugly word: slimy and unpleasant in connotation. It sounds like pregnant, smegma, phlegma, magma. It also sounds like impregnable, which would be ironic, because it isn’t. Set in opposite is the rogue state of Monica. Hegemonic? A broken part of a whole? It’s possible. I think it’s more likely a derivation from the Gnostic concept of the monad (monas), the highest level of God.
Aeon, in Gnosticism, is an emanation of God, a specific particle of the Monad. Flux indicates change, shift, perhaps corruption. These holy emanations come in male and female pairs called a syzygy: it seems that Aeon Flux and Peter might be such a union.
And consider Peter Goodchilde’s own surname. It’s ghoulishly nice. Isn’t there the whiff of something ironic and sinister in good child? It’s the sort of thing a defensive mother would say. Please officer, my son would never do a thing like that. He’s a good boy.
“The rulers wanted to deceive man, since they saw that he had a kinship with those that are truly good. They took the name of those that are good and gave it to those that are not good, so that through the names they might deceive him and bind them.” – Gospel of Philip
Aeon Flux was a classic case of “nobody heard the song, but those who did started a band on the same day”.
It punched above its weight, influencing a lot of things and a lot of people. You might not have seen Aeon Flux, but you’ve probably seen something from Aeon Flux: its visual style is aped in the Matrix and Blade movies, and in the aggressive, anatomy-defying fetishism of Rob Liefeld’s 90s comics. In May 2020, Elon Musk made the questionable decision to name his newborn son after the character.
It anticipates Tomb Raider and Resident Evil. One of barriers Chung faced from studios and audiences is that nobody had seen a heroine like Aeon Flux before. Now, everyone’s seen a heroine like Aeon Flux before – the most striking imitator being (again) the Matrix. Trinity is a cold Aeon Flux, hiding her fly-trapping eyelashes behind wraparound shades.
It inspired comic books and manga. It was made into a movie starring Charlize Theron, which I haven’t watched.
More than anything, it anticipated videogames that wouldn’t be made for another 5 years. This is the big mystery to me. I can’t find anyone from id Software or Valve claiming that they were inspired by Aeon Flux. Yet the action scenes are Wolfenstein 3D before Wolfenstein 3D, and the stealth parts suggest Thief and Half Life. The indoor environments just scream “mid-90s shooter”, polygons slotting together with Jengalike perfection, illuminated by raytraced lightmaps.
The only thing Aeon Flux has yet to inspire is a continuation of itself.
From time to time, I hear rumblings of an Aeon Flux revival. It’s debatable whether this will happen, or whether it needs to happen, or whether Chung will be involved.
Chung’s own mindset has moved on past Aeon Flux. It’s a concept he created in 1991, and it has some undeniably juvenile aspects – Aeon Flux’s sleazy T&A bondage outfit doesn’t seem connected with anything the show’s trying to say, other than to give it a salacious hook. As revealed in 2005, Chung had originally intended Aeon Flux to die – her first death was to be her final death – but as the show continued, he realized she had to come back.
Aeon Flux represents his vision, but only in a confined and compromised form, made to appease censors and bean-counters. If he’d had perfect freedom, it might have been very different. There’s nothing wrong with that. Everything on TV exists under those conditions. But nor is the show a work of holy scripture, or a sublime work of pure auteurism.
Here’s an interview where the interviewer asks him about a certain quote…but Chung no longer remembers it. It’s been too many years, too much water under the bridge. He now speaks about Aeon Flux with the measured care of a man talking in a second language.
“Trying to redo Aeon Flux now, over ten years since the last time I worked on it, I realized that my own interests are very different. My own take on the character is very different from what it was originally. I almost get the feeling that trying to adapt the character to the ideas and themes that interest me now would require reinventing the character altogether and at that point why do Aeon Flux? Why not just create something else? So that’s really the direction I want to go in.
One of the things that I’m working on now is an adaptation of Cyborg 009, which is a Japanese comic book character and an animation series from the ’60s, which I grew up with. Japanese animation is very popular all over the world, so a lot of it is being adapted into animated features.” – Peter Chung, 2008, AWN
Chung still clearly likes Aeon Flux, still enjoys talking about it and thinking about it. But it’s no longer his, exactly. He’s moved on.
A successful continuation of Aeon Flux would have to continue the show’s spirit, not its literal events. It might not even necessarily contain Aeon Flux and Peter Goodchilde. That risks turning the show into a formula and a franchise: Aeon cavorting around in leather bondage gear, shooting some people, someone mumbles some confusing Gnosticism, tune in next week. And that’s another variant of the trap Chung tried to avoid. It’s not necessary for things to run on for ever. Sometimes finishing points are necessary. A straight line, if followed forever, will inevitably lead straight over a cliff or into the sea.
What happens next? What needs to happen next? Nothing, really. The past is set, and Aeon Flux still stands: a numinous monument to contradictions, flaws, internal collapse, spirituality, mundanity, and change.
Judged on its own, it reaches great heights. Compared with the rest of TV (both in its day and ours), it splits the heavens. The world is full of literary smokestacks, jetting thick black clouds of pure narrative, clouds that are endlessly complex in their hills and valleys and yet are still a black petrocarbon mass that chokes anyone who breathes it. Aeon Flux is a reminders that behind the smog there lies the sky. It is cold, it is strange, it is huger than huge, and if you have the will you can spread your wings and fall endlessly into it.
Doom didn’t receive a proper retail release for a long time. For years, the “correct” way to get the game was still to log on to ftp.uwp.edu and spend all night downloading it on your 14.4k modem. This wedded the game to early internet culture: the idea of buying Doom in a store seems fundamentally wrong, like viewing a Pre-Raphaelite work of art on an iPhone.
Regardless, mission packs of varying quality and legality soon appeared on shelves. Many included a DOOM.EXE executable, and as such were a handy way to get the game if you weren’t on Al Gore’s information superhighway.
1997’s Depths of Doom was one of the last. It contains the original games (Doom + Thy Flesh Consumed + Doom II), plus DWANGO, plus Windows executables (playing at 640×480 was cool back in the day, although obsolete in an era of GZDoom). It also has Master Levels, a 21-level set that are generally superior to the originals in quality (aside from the shit joke level with fifty Cyberdemons shooting at you).
The second disc contains Maximum Doom, which was ~1800 fan-made levels downloaded from the internet. “Shovelware” is the term for this, I think. There’s no quality control: some levels crash, almost all suck, some are actually for different games like Heretic and Hexen, and some are graphical and audio mods containing content from the Simpsons or Monty Python, meaning the entire release is probably illegal.
But I still enjoy playing Doom wads. They’re historical documents from the pre-Google (<1995) internet…or the at least the part of it frequented by teenage boys. You see their fascinations spread out like a mandala: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Beavis and Butthead, porn stars who are now old enough to be grandmothers. If there’s a soundtrack, it’s probably a midi of Metallica or Pantera.
Some of them invite you into their lives in small but touching ways: designing levels based on their house or their mall or their school (that last one didn’t age well). I’m fascinated by how many of these uploaders include text files telling you how to contact them…including their real names, and phone numbers, and street addresses.
Was the internet less nasty in 1993? Or were kids stupider?