Keeping up with the Jones. After an artistically creative and personally devastating period in LA (full-cream milk, red peppers, and cocaine are a balanced diet, right?), Bowie went into hiding in Europe. Low is meant to meant to suggest “keeping a low profile”. He failed. Keeping a low profile would necessitate a bad album, and Low is simply unforgettable.
They “There’s old wave, there’s new wave, and there’s David Bowie” In a record store, they might say “there’s David Bowie, then there’s Low”. Nomimally the first of the so-caled “Berlin Trilogy” (despite parts of it being recorded in France), Low doesn’t quite sound like anything else he’s done.
Side A has songs, bending punk rock, art rock, . Bowie has seldom written better songs, and Eno’s technical wizardry makes the music seem otherwordly. This is most noticeable on “Speed of Life”, which has varispeeded delay that sounds like strobing flashes of light hitting the Hubble telescope from a distant cosmic object.
The songwriting is sparse and free. Entire songs are threaded together with simple ingredients: a single hook, or rhythm, or texture, but are all the more impactful for it. Lead single “Sound and Vision” has no words until the halfway point, and they’re just minimalistic automatism. No references to the Kabbalah or homosexuality. Just Bowie looking at blue light through his window, waiting for ideas.
“Be My Wife” surprises with familiarity. It’s a little jarring to hear a conventional verse/chorus pop song. The harmonica-driven instrumental “A New Career in a New Town” spins away the remaining grooves much as “Speed of Life” began them: in adventurous fashion. Side A is an amazing achievement for Bowie, for Eno, and for rock.
It is also Low’s worst side.
Side B deeply, profoundly beautiful. People often refer to it as “the instrumental side”, which isn’t right, as only “Art Decade” is truly wordless. But they’re brilliant, unforgettable pieces of music, and showcases just what a genius Brian Eno was.
The dominant ambient piece is “Warszawa”, evoking a city of rust and memories, ancient fumes pouring from its skin. Futuristic Minimoog lines counterpoint church bells and religious chanting in an strange language from another world. It’s six minutes long: hermetic, cthonic, and almost impenetrable upon first listen. You have to peel it back like a palimpsest, and I’m still not sure I fully get it. David Bowie used to play this live. As a set opener, no less!
“Warszawa” was written by a four year old. Well, the first three notes, anyway. David needed to attend court to square away some matters from the Los Angeles fiasco, leaving Brian Eno to try and come up with something. Tony Visconti’s four year old son wandered into the studio, discovered the piano, and plonked out three notes – an A, a B, and a C. Suddenly inspired, Brian Eno dashed to the boy’s side and completed the melody. I don’t see Visconti’s son credited in the album booklet. The tyke should sue.
The album’s remaining pieces gently come down from this crescendo. “Art Decade” is chilly and still, its melodic ideas frozen like images under glass. “Weeping Wall” has very busy instrumentation, its elements sometimes clashing and other times working in harmony. “Subterraneans” is deep, slow, and forbidding. If the album was a day, this would be the deepest watch of the night.
There’s bonus tracks, too, if you get the right version of the album. “Some Are” seems like a marriage of the two halves of the album, while “All Saints” is extremely harsh – industrial ambient rock as corrosive as drain cleaner. Neither of them would obviously fit anywhere in Low, but they should be considered part of it all the same.
This is a 1983 Canadian post-apocalyptic science fiction fantasy musical adult* cyberpunk neo-noir animated furry i hope i die
The plot is incidental (and embarrassing); a pair of cartoon animals save the world through the power of rock. It’s based on a 1978 Nelvana TV special called The Devil and Daniel Mouse, but updated to be edgy and dark and far too serious. The songs are pretty thin, and guitars are wielded more often as weapons than as instruments.
But there are good moments, too. Some nice animation, and occasionally great character design. Unfortunately, it’s part of animation’s most onerous trend: Humans with Dog Noses. Who started this? Carl Banks? The Beagle Boys were obviously cartoony, but here we have straight-up humans with dog noses. It looks ridiculous, and undercuts the gritty premise.
Dog noses are the first of many questionable artistic choices. The supporting characters are drawn like funny animals, but the main characters are drawn realistically. They don’t seem to exist in the same world, and when we see them together, the contrast is all you can focus on.
My favorite part of the movie is everyone’s favorite part: the villain Mok. He steals the show with one of the most innovative character designs I’ve ever seen in an animated movie: a pastiche of Mick Jagger, Lou Reed, and Thin White Duke-era David Bowie. His face is an unimaginably complex manifold of vertices and angles, blending the feminine and masculine (and canine, but I’ve made my point), and the animators deserve kudos for keeping all of that ridiculousness on model. The movie suffers greatly whenever Mok’s not on screen, although there are fun computer-generated visuals and Debbie Harry does the best job she can.
Mok (“the only Ohmtown rocker to go gold, platinum, and plutonium in one day!”) is seeing his commercial success wane, and hatches a plan to summon a demon from hell so he can…I dunno. I seriously have no idea what he’s trying to do, but we never understood what David Bowie was trying to do either, so there you go.
He kidnaps the female singer from a shitty glam rock band, because only her voice can complete the satanic ritual. Her dislikeable male co-singer has to rescue her along with some bumbling comic relief characters, who are more like comic constipation. Mostly, the movie succeeds in making you groan and cringe, such as when we find out they’re playing at Carnage Hall in Nuke York.
Bootlegs credit the film to Ralph Bakshi, which is false, yet also true, because this sort of movie probably wouldn’t exist without him. The success of “Wizards” and “Fritz the Cat” ushered in a few brief years when studios gave a bit of rope to animated films that weren’t obviously for children.
The rope had apparently played out by 1983, and Rock & Rule feels tampered with. The Gibsonian cyberpunk atmosphere is leavened with moments of wacky slapstick that could have been spliced in from Goof Troop (they couldn’t, for chronological reasons, but the vibe is similar). In particular, Mok’s henchmen ride around on rollerskates, which might have been an effort to save money on animation. When your characters are on wheels, it doesn’t matter if they slide around on the frame.
If a studio meddled with Rock & Rule, this is understandable. The film is confused and hard to market, and I’m still not sure who it was for. But it didn’t make any money even with all the commercial compromises, so why did they even try? Go for broke on your crazy post apocalyptic rock musical furry whatever! I’m reminded of this exchange from Karate Kid: “I’d get killed if I go down there!” “Get killed anyway.”
* (“Adult” means two fully-clothed characters feeling each other up, implied drug use, a Satanic pentagram, some intense imagery, and one character calling another “dick nose”, which if true would still be an improvement over a dog nose.)
I don’t know if the third Quake is a better game than I and II, but it’s certainly less of a game. They cut away any story mode, focusing it a laser on its deathmatch experience. You run in circles, trying to kill enemies more times than they kill you. The sarcastic way people described Doom and Quake is now a literal reality.
The result is a first person shooter of incredible purity. Playing Quake III Arena is like breathing pure oxygen – liberating, and destructive to your health. As soon as a stage loads, your mind enters a trance state, and your body falls away. Only three things remain: a left hand on the WASD keys, a right hand clicking the mouse, and an eye orchestrating the violence. The circuit sparks and crackles, the connections fusing together, and when the match ends, it takes a few seconds for the hands-eye unity to remember it has a body.
The game was meant to be played with other people. It has a single player mode, but it’s not a good one and you sense the game is laughing at you for picking it. You play against “bots”, which aren’t smart but are difficult in an abusive fashion. Turning up the difficulty means they gain split-second reflexes and superhuman accuracy – they simply never miss with the railgun, which isn’t fun.
As with past Quake games, there’s a game-inside-the-game, and mastery of competitive online play requires exploiting oddities in the code like rocketjumping (surfing the blast of an exploding rocket), plasma climbing (scaling walls with blowback from the plasma cannon), circle-jumping (pirouetting to add massive velocity to your next jump), and more. The developers would probably spit out their Adderall-laced coffee if they saw what modern players do with Quake III.
A game like this isn’t about content, but about balance. While Doom’s juice came from “yay, cool weapon” and “yay, cool map”, Quake III’s design requires an analytical approach: “are the weapons equally strong, or does one dominate? Are the maps laid out in a way that leads to fair gameplay, or can you just camp a spawn spot and fight off all comers?” Single player is about indulging orgiastic power fantasies, while multiplayer is about fair play and rules. It’s hard to get both right with the same game engine, and maybe it was for the best to ditch a story mode.
The graphics were great, almost to the point of undercutting the game’s minimalist ethos. This game reduced your Riva TNT to sludge, and that’s not watch. But the lighting, shadows, and all looked very good for the time, with the only competitor being Unreal Tournament.
Thomas Aquinas once said “I fear the man of a single book.” The idea is that you can be unstoppable by doing one thing very well, and Quake III Arena does indeed do one thing very well. “It’s just mindless violence!” – some developers tried to dignify their games away from that, but id Software was apparently taking notes for their next design document.
A cloud of iridescent energy moves across the galaxy, destroying all in its path. As it approaches Earth, a haggard-looking James Tiberius Kirk bullies Starfleet into giving him control of the Enterprise, so he can investigate and hopefully stop it. Incidentally, did James go through boot camp? Hard to imagine a guy called Tiberius doing push-ups and getting yelled at by R Lee Ermey. When you’re born with a name like that, they pretty much have to promote you straight to Captain.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture is great, if in a troubled way. It’s like a titan, ready to collapse under its own weight. The philosophical method called “structuralism” seeks to understand things through their relationship to other things (eg, a ship’s mast can only exist if there are sails and a hull, otherwise it’s just a wooden pole). Likewise, Star Trek: TMP can only be understood in the context of its own difficult creation.
Let’s start at the beginning. Once, there was a television show called Star Trek. It wasn’t popular, and it was soon cancelled. But we live in a crazy world with no brakes, and “unpopular + soon cancelled” is no barrier at all to eventually becoming the defining science fiction series of the silver screen.
How did this happen? The same way Velvet Underground became popular: they sold a few thousand copies, and all of those people started a band. Star Trek’s audience was tiny, but it was also full of scientists, grad students, civil rights activists, and who other people who wielded greatly outsized influence on the nation’s taste. This megaphone-wielding minority soon had the show firmly established in syndication, and a slow critical reappraisal of the show began. Star Trek was often campy, but never cynical or insulting. The writing was often broad, but was never boring. Gene Roddenberry was brilliant at directing attention away from the show’s weaknesses (its budget) and toward its strengths (screenwriting, and Shatner, Nimoy, and Kelley’s acting).
With voltage gathering for a continuation for the series, Paramount Pictures and Roddenberry began working on a pilot. It was a mess. Writers were commissioned, and then their scripts rejected. Actors were hired, and their parts written out. Sets were built, then stripped down. I’m stunned that Burbank’s air was declared safe to breathe after so much burnt cash.
Finally, just weeks before shooting was due to start, Close Encounters of the Third Kind hit the box office like a wrecking ball. Paramount panicked and issued a change of plans: the next version of Star Trek would be a motion picture, not a television show! There was not enough time. The production was thrown into chaos, with the planned pilot adapted a two hour movie, underpinned by a script that was rewritten as they went along.
The result is a odd movie, stretched and deformed. It’s a Star Trek television episode viewed through a funhouse mirror: you can recognise the shape, but it’s 50% wider than it needs to be. The opening sequence is thrilling: three Klingon ships are evaporated in an impressive visual effects sequence. Then we get an hour of “character develoment”, meaning James T Kirk butts heads against the Enterprise’s dull new captain, while the plot spins its wheels and goes nowhere. We also meet a female alien called Ilya, who talks and talks while setting records for uninspired character design. I’ll buy that a man with pointy ears might be an alien. Ilya’s literally just a woman with a shaven head. You can find plenty of aliens like her at the local slam poetry meet.
The film’s strengths, ironically enough, are its visuals: something that was never a strong point with the original show. Douglas Trumbull and a young John Dykstra slather the frame with luminous rainbow hues (Trumbull previously worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the film owes a lot visually to that one, including a “smash cut from rainbow fluorescence to stark white” moment that matches 2001’s Star Gate sequence). The more practical effects are beefed up as well. A tiny Burbank sound stage is make to look like an absolutely massive cargo bay thanks to forced perspective (those tiny figures in the background? Children.). I think this is the first time we’ve seen a Star Trek space battle where both ships are composited into the same frame (as opposed to a shot/reverse shot of the Enterprise firing and another ship blowing up.)
The story is a bit perfunctory, and the imagery seems to transcend the characters until they’re reduced to spectators, gaping at the wonders of the cosmos. Maybe that’s the attitude Star Trek always tried to evoke. More likely, it’s a disguise for the fact that this was supposed to be a TV pilot, and they just plain didn’t have enough story.
I once saw a film called American Movie, about a pair of young indie filmmakers. One of them has a memorable monologue: “There’s no excuses, Paul. No one has ever, ever paid admission to see an excuse. No one has ever faced a black screen that says: ‘Well, if we had these set of circumstances, we would’ve shot this scene… so please forgive us and use your imagination.’ I’ve been to the movies hundreds of times. That’s never occurred.”
He should have seen Star Trek: TMP. It has excuses. Many of the visual effects (although stunning) don’t serve a purpose beyond “we don’t have any actual story to put here, enjoy these flashing abstract colors”. Big chunks of the film are a laser light show in space, intercut with shots of the crew looking awed. For a while, you share their awe. But then it feels like it’s time for something to happen.
Calling a movie “The Motion Picture” sounds either presumptuous of horribly underconfident: you’re either suggesting that it will be the definitive one, or the only one. In the case of ST:TMP, I can’t even call it A Motion Picture, as it’s been recut and re-released many times. The film is now legion, I’m not sure if the original version is exists today in a purchasable form. Although it’s a different sort of Star Trek, I enjoyed it a lot.
(It’s worth noting that Orson Welles voiced the cinematic trailers for this movie. One year later, he’d be voicing Manowar songs, and commercials for frozen peas.)
The Book of Genesis is a 224-page graphic novel by noted cartoonist Robert Crumb, based on the book of the same name by noted deity God. It’s literally the full text of Genesis, painstakingly hand-lettered in (and around) cramped panels of Crumbian imagery. It’s all here: the famous stories, the less famous stories, and even the “Jokshan begat Dedan, who begat Ashirum, who begat…” parts. Not a verse has been cut, no matter how boring or inappropriate for the comic medium.
Nothing like this has been done before, and hopefully nothing like this will be done again.
While reading The Book of Genesis, I kept asking myself: what’s the point? What am I supposed to get out of this? Crumb spent four years working on a product with no entertainment value at all. Maybe he feels pride in being the first person to adapt Genesis unabridged as a comic book, just as the first astronaut to land on Pluto will feel pride, despite it being a dull lump of rock.
So why doesn’t it work? Biblical-themed comics tend to either be didactic, cloying efforts by believers (Jack Chick’s tracts being the most famous example) or angry reactionary polemics by atheists (see Jesus and Mo and a thousand other webcomics). I assumed Crumb – who has perfected body duplication technology so that he can be a fly in every jar of ointment – would be in the second group, and that the Book of Genesis would be full of gleeful blasphemy.
Instead, it’s exactly what I’ve described: a comic version of Genesis. Not a single other adjective applies – perhaps not even “good” or “bad”. This is a huge problem: the stories of Genesis are so familiar and famous that artists have stripped them to their bones. If you’re attempting to tell (and sell) the tale of Noah’s Ark or Jacob and Esau once again, you damned well need a second adjective!
Despite doing the art, Crumb leaves no trace of himself in the book. Does he like the stories he’s writing down, letter by letter for fifty straight months? Does he hate them? What emotions do they inspire? Is he realizing any spiritual truths? Or is he growing even more sure of his decision (at age sixteen) to become an atheist? I have no clue. I’m not Crumb’s biggest fan but I understand why he’s liked: he has a style, and it’s a compelling one (nobody else could have written Fritz the Cat, for example). But he approaches this project with all the verve of a manga letterer making a thousand yen a page. There’s no creative elan to be seen here.
His imagery is trite, cribbed from Michelangelo, Ignatius of Loyola, and Cecil B DeMille. God has white hair and a beard. He creates the earth like a wizard casting a spell in a Saturday morning cartoon. The Garden of Eden looks like Bambi. The Ark is a large floating shoebox. There are some unintentionally funny parts. During the genealogies, he needs to come up with a visual element, so he just draws headshots of what these dozens of people might have looked like. It looks like the fighter select screen in an SNK fighting game.
Crumb’s form constantly works to undercut him. The Bible’s stories are big and epic, and they would have benefited from double-page spreads, not tiny panels. Again, there’s unintentional laughter. During the flood, we see drowned people and animals, floating face-up in the boiling sea. It would have been a striking piece of art, except it’s too small. They look like toys bobbing in a child’s bathtub.
If I could guess at Crumb’s purpose, it was to provide a comic that contains no exegesis or interpretation whatsoever. The mere act of editing a work, by definition, changes it, so by leaving everything in, he was free from the charge of distorting the Bible. However, Genesis is quite a long book, and cramming it into a comic makes it virtually unreadable. So much text crowds the page that it induces claustrophobia. Combined with Crumb’s signature art style (itchy, hairy, and uncomfortable) and you have one of the most unpleasant experiences I’ve had so far in a graphic novel.
Occasionally, he takes a few small liberties. Potiphar’s wife is depicted as a harridan, not remotely beautiful. The city of Sodom is obviously (and anachronistically) Babylonian, with Ishtar Gate inspired architecture. The passages at the end where Crumb discusses some of the stories are quite interesting, but again he keeps his feelings close to his chest. And that’s something nobody wants to see from Crumb.
The Book of Genesis is a little like a sculpture of the Brooklyn Bridge made of toothpicks, more interesting for its existence than its function. “For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass away from the law, till all things be accomplished” (Mt. 5:17-18). Well, it’s been accomplished. And now I will move ahead to never thinking about it again.
An investor once gave advice to a man invested in a speculative bubble. “Enjoy the party, but dance near the door.” If you own bitcoin, litecoin, or ethereum, Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain will make you want to dance near the fire escape. Author David Gerard argues (successfully, I think) against virtually every technology derived from blockchains.
His view can be summarised as “blockchains fail at solving nonexistent problems.” They are speculative and sexy, making them flypaper for con artists, but that’s not the point – even good-faith implementations don’t work.
No major company utilises blockchain-based technology at scale. Ten years after the Satoshi Nakamoto paper, and after five years of loud media hype, cryptocurrency has few visible uses except as an asset (and perhaps it’s already time to remove “except as an asset” from that sentence). In light of this, dramatic fiascoes like the Mt Gox collapse seem more like irrelevant sideshows, distracting from the pervasive pointlessness of the technology. The problem isn’t “suppose your money is stolen.” It’s “suppose it isn’t. Then what?”
The book covers fifteen years of cryptocurrency, from the cypherpunks to the Satoshi whitepaper to the rapidly deflating bubble. It mixes tales of hilarious Wolf of Wall Street-style misadventures with serious analysis of the mathematical and economic weaknesses of blockchains. Bitcoin was supposed to be decentralised. In practice, it is chokepointed by a handful of big exchanges, subjecting their users to increasingly onerous KYC requirements. Bitcoin was supposed to limited to 21 million coins. In practice, any keyboard equipped with Ctrl, C, and V keys can fork the coin, defeating the purpose. Bitcoin’s tamper-proof ledger is frequently cited as a strength, but there are times when you want to tamper with the ledger. Transactions might be made by mistake, for example. The difficulty and risk of bitcoin has all but deep-sixed its small economy of legitimate users, leaving a small number of defiant “HODLers”, convinced that wide adoption is around the corner and things will be better tomorrow.
Gerard also discusses blockchain-based “smart contracts”. Again, they’re hip, and happening, but don’t appear to actually solve any problems with real world contracts, which have always been interpretation (what does “anticipatory breach” mean?) and enforcement (how do you punish anticipatory breach if it happens)?
A famous example: Robin Williams voiced the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin, he stipulated that the genie’s likeness not take up more than 25% of the space on any poster associated with the film (he didn’t want to be typecast as a cartoon character). Disney famously screwed him by making the Genie take up 25% of the space…and making the other characters significantly smaller. Williams joked that they drew Mickey Mouse with three fingers so he couldn’t pick up a cheque. How would putting his contract on a blockchain have helped Robin Williams?
These case studies, and many more, give the impression that blockchains aren’t a viable asset so much as a melon dropping towards the pavement. The book is comprehensive, and well written. Certainly out of date date by now, but that’s hard to avoid – in fast-moving fields, a book can easily be out of date before it reaches publication.
The most interesting parts (which could have been elaborated on more) were the mental psychographies of bitcoin’s users. Cryptocurrencies are a selection filter for unusual brains. The concept is futuristic. The very name sounds Gibsonian. They massage your preconceptions and ideologies: you’re John Galt, Johnny Mnemonic, and . Sadly, they’re also attractive to scammers: the concept is complicated enough that you can bamboozle laypeople, but not so complicated that you can’t fake the jargon with a little practice.
I’ve seen bitcoin evangelists in action. They’re like robots. They probably aspire to be robots – robots that don’t need to eat or sleep or do anything except refresh market depth charts twenty four hours a day. Their arguing styles are almost thrilling in their casuistry and dishonesty. “Blockchains might be used for x” is equated to “blockchains are used for x”, which in turn is equated to “blockchains are the best solution for x”. Sometimes they bust out tu quoque arguments. “Fiat money is imaginary, too!” I don’t follow the logic. All money is worthless…so buy bitcoin?
But they’re making money. Or at least, they used to, and they’re convinced they will again, if they weather the storm of negativity and FUD stirred up by the enemies of freedom. In short, they’ve fallen prey to self deception. “I have invested in bitcoin. This can’t possibly be a bad decision, because this would mean I am stupid. And I’m not stupid, so investing in bitcoin was smart.” I think many of them will look back after the crash and wish they could erase every single post and Tweet they ever typed about bitcoin. But that day is not today.
When the Hindenburg fell, it fell hard, billowing fire across many acres. By then, its failure was obvious, but for the people on board this knowledge came too late to save them. Why not get ahead of the curve? Why not stay clear of the Hindenburg altogether? Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain has all the information you need not to throw your money into the blockchain bubble, or at least to be very cautious if you do.
Remember how people said that Judas Priest is old? Obsolete? Yesterday’s news? Irrelevent? Remember how this was thirty years ago?
Judas Priest is now so cartoonishly old that it’s difficult to know how to relate to them. They formed a year before the first Black Sabbath album, and their story encompasses every single rock cliche in the book. The young, scrappy upstarts (the first album), the creative prodigies (the next few), the complacency and artistic rot (the few after that), the inspirational rally (Screaming for Vengeance and Defenders of the Faith), the immediate collapse into self-parody (Turbo and Ram it Down), the even more inspirational comeback (Painkiller), the years in the wilderness following the loss of their singer (Jugulator and Demolition), the awkward picking up of pieces (Angel of Retribution), the self-indulgence Spinal Tappery (Nostradamus), and now we have their eighteenth album, Firepower, for which no storyline seems to apply.
The album’s firepower risks being overshadowed by the fireworks happening behind the scenes. Glen Tipton simultaneously revealed that a), he will not be touring with the band, and b), that he has Parkinsons, thus precipitating a). Additional controversy was provided by former guitarist KK Downing, who started rumors that Glen didn’t even play on the album. You know there’s a problem when your gay singer isn’t the most dramatic person in the band any more.
Firepower is hard to draw a bead on. On one hand it embraces nostalgia, mostly for the band’s Killing Machine and Painkiller sound. The title track and “Evil Never Dies” are both quite fast, and feature a downtuned approach to the angular E minor riffing that characterised Painkiller. But “No Surrender” and “Firepower” are quite consonant and radio-friendly, to the point of sounding like something from Rob Halford’s solo albums.
There’s no experimentation, and little blues (which is something I’ve always wanted Priest to revisit).
This contrast is found in the production job, which finds the band’s venerable early producer Tom Allom paired with veteran of the loudness wars Andy Sneap, who brickwalls Judas Priest relentlessly and leaves the listener little room to breathe among the overcompressed guitars. The overall package is entertaining and powerful, and even benefits a little from its fetishistic excess.
I wish it was shorter, but I also can’t pick which songs should be cut. They all have appealing moments, and good performances. Special attention must go to Halford, who sounds ridiculously good. The credits assure me the band still has a bass player, and I will take them at their word. Glen Tipton’s soloing (if it is really him) feels a little compromised. Probably the worst case is “Necromancer”, where he sounds like he’s wearing oven mitts. Ritchie Faulkner is more confident and poised, and strangely now one of the stronger points of the band.
As the final notes of “Sea of Red” fade like a bleached photograph, I’m left with a strange feeling: that this will never end. Judas Priest have always depicted fantasy in their lyrics and album covers. Perhaps the most fantastical was Stained Class, which depicted an android with a projectile embedded in its head. It’s not fantasy because of the android. It’s fantasy because it suggests Judas Priest can die.
Dillon Naylor is an Australian comic artist. His most remembered comic strip is Da’n’Dill, which I’m still uncomfortable in my ability to pronounce. It’s the verbal equivalent of a missing stair.
Da’n’Dill comics were endemic to Australia’s mid-90s landscape. They appeared in showbags, and were syndicated in newspapers. They were like a disease, apt to infest any blank piece of paper. Everyone read them. The concept was a riff on Mork and Mindy’s “aliens in suburbia”, but with a critical change. Naylor understood that comedy doesn’t come from insanity, it comes from conflict, and instead of a saccharine little girl, he made the Mindy character a thin-skinned, teeth-grinding nerd who was constantly having his plans foiled by the dumb, well-meaning aliens.
Naylor’s comics were funny. And they seemed even funnier when you were riding a sugar high on the train home from Luna Park. There are legends about how casinos hyper-oxygenate the air, to induce euphoria and compulsive gambling in their patrons. Naylor had this same racket all sewn up with the under twelve set.
Penni in Vegetaria is another of Naylor’s works. The setup is cute: it’s dinner time, and Penni doesn’t want to eat her greens. While hiding from her parents, she discovers an alien spaceship under a pile of leaves. She presses buttons, and is whisked away to a far-away planet inhabited by a race of giant sentient plants. The vegetable and fruit races are at war, and Penni is swept up in their conflict.
The story is safe, and layered with moralistic overtones. But there’s also some classic Naylor subversiveness: such as a funny visual gag involving a WWII-style POW camp (the prisoners are tomatoes, of course, because nobody’s sure which side they’re on).
Naylor’s art is wonderfully grotesque and expressive. Australian writers (Paul Jennings, Morris Gleitzman, Andy Griffiths) have always excelled at making twisted and disturbing nightmare fuel that actually isn’t objectionable at all, and Penni in Vegetaria is no exception. The comic itself is printed on incredibly thin A4 pulp, which might be a result of pro-plant lobbying. It’s pretty short and Naylor might have taken the concept further, if he’d had more pages (it’s a disappointment to see the fruit and vegetables fight each other with human weapons, rather than in some funny plant-based way. Also, I just know that Queen Broccoli was busy planning the Final Solution to the Tomato Problem.)
I’m not sure if there were more Tales from the Ovoid, or whether there’s any connection to the Da’n’Dill universe. Memory tells me that Penni is the sister of the aforementioned nerd, but this might not be true. It’s a pretty fun comic, and might be worth tracking down. Luna Park closed in the middle of the 90s, but then came back. Perhaps Naylor’s work is overdue for a similar renaissance.
Mary Shelley wrote a novel called Frankenstein, about a creation overpowering its creator. Unknowingly, she lived out the drama of her story – nothing else she wrote achieved the same fame, and her entire existence is a footnote to Victor Frankenstein. One day, Mary Shelley’s name will be spoken for the last time. Some other day afterwards, Frankenstein’s name will be spoken for the last time. The interval in between might be thousands of years.
Think of “Frankenstein’s monster” and what comes to mind? A shambling green Boris Karloff, with bolts sticking out of his neck? In the original book, the monster’s skin is yellow, and it has long black hair. The public’s conception of the monster changed with the years, to where it bears little resemblance to Mary Shelley’s creation.
It mutated. It evolved. Mary Shelley called it a monster. But perhaps in modern nomenclature it could be called a virus.
Ellen Ullman’s The Bug is a cyberpunk addendum to Frankenstein. A corporate programmer encounters a bug in his company’s software. This bug has a life of its own, resists his efforts to document and eradicate it, and cripples the program to the point of threatening the company’s big IPO.
At first, it’s called U-1017, as it’s the thousandth and seventeenth bug discovered in the program (although you’d think the programmers would use zero-indexing, making it U-1016). Then, matters become personal, and he calls it Jester. The fight against it takes on mythic proportions.
While he struggles against the bug, his personal life is falling to bits. His wife is unfaithful, the company is screwing him, and his neighbors play music too loud. His failure to defeat U-1017 feels like a referendum against his existence on Earth. Programming is literally the only thing he does. If he fails at that, then what’s left? He liberally comments his code with existential angst.
Ullman adds lots of interesting asides about programming, linguistics, and math. One of the book’s most interesting themes is Conway’s Game of Life: an x-y grid where cell-like automata live, breed, and die in accordance with simple rules. This is introduced as a parallel to corporate programming. There’s a brilliant typographical conceit where the beginning of each chapter contains an iteration of the Game. Clever though this is, it spoils the book. The reader can guess the ending after seeing the final iteration.
(John Horton Conway, by the way, is another Mary Shelley. The Game of Life is so visually intuitive and thought-provoking that it overshadows most of Conway’s other work, much of which he feels is more significant.)
The novel is set in 1984, the age of the Apple Macintosh and the IBM. A lot of bands like Van Halen and Quiet Riot are name-dropped. Women are described as having padded shoulders so frequently that it becomes like a tic. A book like The Bug could never have been written today. The programmer would have posted his code on StackExchange and gotten six solutions by his midmorning break.
The Bug evokes a pretty powerful response from modest ingredients. It’s fascinating, and emotionally affecting. And Ullman doesn’t cheat: we actually do learn the solution to the bug in the end.
Cannibal Holocaust has many descriptors, but only one matters: filth. People watch it because it’s filth. Midway through, an anthropologist and his guide surreptitiously watch a native ritually rape and sacrifice an adulteress. “Enjoy the show,” his guide advises. The anthropologist throws up, but doesn’t stop watching.
Few films manage to capture such vileness and perversity. The jungle’s heat and humidity seems to press upon you through whatever piece of glass you watch it on. The camera lens itself appears infected, like a petri dish. The soundtrack mixes whimsical Italian pop, eerie tribal percussion, and experimental electronic music, becoming a bleeding and suppurating welt of sound.
The plot is secondary, or tertiary, or duodenary. An anthropologist is in the Amazon, searching for a film crew that went missing many months before. He discovers their tapes, brings them back to civilisation, and watches them. There isn’t much to this movie beyond a powerful impression of sickness. But it’s clever: because it knows to keeps the viewer at arm’s length. Other than one attempt at a moral point (“what if WE’RE the real cannibals?”), the violence happens very far from home, both literally and morally. You don’t feel threatened by the gore and bloodshed, or the fact that you’re enjoying it. It happens in a part of the world so strange that it feels like an alien planet, and everyone who dies is either a primitive native, or a white person who “deserves it” (the missing film crew are established as arrogant and dislikeable). That was Cannibal Holocaust’s “it factor”. Guiltless violence.
There was a “shock jock” radio duo called Opie and Anthony who were famous for their sex-based stunts (such as launching fireworks out of a female fan’s vagina, which sounds very boring over a radio show, but whatever.) At the peak of their infamy, they were interviewed by conservative talk show host Bill O’Reilly. They described their on-air hijinks, and he took them to task, calling them disgusting and degrading to women and so forth. Very well, they’d expected that. They gave him stock answers. Mumble, radio show, mumble, entertainment, mumble, First Amendment. Next question, please.
But O’Reilly wouldn’t let the topic go. He kept coming back to it, over and over, like a dog with a bone. The sex. The nastiness. He wanted to hear all about it. He wanted them to describe it. He wanted to register his shock and disgust, repeatedly. They had an epiphany: O’Reilly was exploiting sex in the exact same way they were. But because his audience was made of grandmas and geezers (median age of Fox News’ primetime audience: 68, according to Nielsen), he had to cloak his pruriance in moral disapproval. It was his way of getting filth on the air: he just had to make sure it was coming from someone other than him, with him wagging a disapproving finger.
Everyone loves perversion, but some of us are hypocrites about it. There’s a saying among prostitutes: he who points with one hand is masturbating with the other.
I won’t overstate Cannibal Holocaust’s cleverness. Of course, “awful things happening in foreign lands” is a common trope, even outside cinema. Octave Mirbeau’s The Torture Garden features long, almost slavering descriptions of the tortures supposedly carried out in Cathay, and George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels work at a similar level (Marquis de Sade, with typical ballsiness, set all of his atrocity porn within his own nation of France). In fact, Cannibal Holocaust’s portrayal of natives will discomfort modern viewers, even beyond any of the events of the film. You’re not supposed to make indiginous peoples look like savages, and monsters. They’re people!
Yes, they’re people. But at real life digging sites, all around the world, anthropologists find human bones in ominous proximity to camfires. Sometimes they’re roasted and split, the marrow sucked out. The events portrayed in the film have really happened, sometimes shockingly recently (the Fore people of Papua New Guinea were practicing cannibalism as late as the 1960s). The truth is, you don’t need to be a monster to eat another person. Even we would do it, if circumstances required. If we are only three missed meals away from anarchy, how far away is cannibalism? Four missed meals? Five? The day might come, and then we will see how much ironic distance Cannibal Holocaust has.
It’s shot well. It has a strong atmosphere. It has all the grace and subtlety of a flint axehead crunching through your parietal lobe. There are some good performances. It is a good movie, by many categories.
But it’s filth. Not just at the surface, but right the way through. After a wave of bannings, censored cuts of it were released, but they did no good. You can’t wash clean a pair of hands that are made of dirt.