There are books that don’t sound real.
“A parable from the 70s about a seagull that wants to fly really fast. He strives day and night to set a new speed record for seagulls. The others make fun of him, but he never abandons his dream. Finally he dies and goes to heaven, where he attains perfect speed.”
Described as what it is, this book sounds like a parody of banal inspirational literature. “The author must be a Holocaust survivor” was my thought while reading it. “Or a Guyana survivor. Or a survivor of something. That’s the only way this could have been published: on the back of the sobbiest sob story ever.” I was wrong, Richard Bach was an aviator turned technical writer, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull took wing entirely on its own merits.
There’s a thing called “irony poisoning”, where detachment is used as a weapon against criticism. “Didn’t laugh at my joke? Get bent, I never meant it to be funny.” Jonathan Livingston Seagull has the reverse problem: sincerity poisoning. It’s painfully earnest, solemn as a hymn, and blind to its own ridiculousness.
Why is the seagull called “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”? Why is his surname his species? Can seagulls smile (as they do here, repeatedly)? How does he always know his exact velocity and altitude? It doesn’t even make sense to ask questions like that: the book exists in its own little world.
Sometimes this works. Bach’s story choices create a weird and dislocative mood, and you go along with Jonathan Livingston’s odd adventure. At times it approaches CS Lewis’s vision of a fairytale for grown-ups.
Other times I agree with Roger Ebert’s pan: “a book so banal that it had to be sold to adults; kids would have seen through it.”.
One problem is that seagulls can’t actually do much. Jonathan just flies, and flies, and flies, setting pointless speed records over the ocean that nobody will document, remember or care about. This is a metaphor for following your dreams and believing in yourself (along with some Christian/Buddhist spiritualistic hippie mumblecore), but the meaninglessness of what he’s doing makes it tragicomic, not inspirational.
The book has three sections (dealing with Jonathan’s life, adventures in Heaven, and return to Earth). In 2013 it was reissued with a fourth part, which is set hundreds of years after Jonathan Livingston’s life. The flock that rejected Jonathan now reveres him as a spiritual figure, but has stifled his teachings in ritual and cant. This is satire about organized religion, and seems to have been created reactively to silence critics who found the book pointless (not so – apparently it was written concurrently with the first three). It’s more interesting, but also less sincere.
The book is slim and could have been slimmer. Photos of seagulls pad the pages. Specifics about angles of descent and wing profiles about are endlessly elaborated, to soporific effect. It’s like reading a book by an autistic child whose special interest is the airspeed of birds.
From a thousand feet, flapping his wings as hard as he could, he pushed over into a blazing steep dive toward the waves, and learned why seagulls don’t make blazing steep power-dives. In just six seconds he was moving seventy miles per hour, the speed at which one’s wing goes unstable on the upstroke. Time after time it happened. Careful as he was, working at the very peak of his ability, he lost control at high speed. Climb to a thousand feet. Full power straight ahead first, then push over, flapping, to a vertical dive. Then, every time, his left wing stalled on an upstroke, he’d roll violently left, stall his right wing recovering, and flick like fire into a wild tumbling spin to the right. He couldn’t be careful enough on that upstroke. Ten times he tried, and all ten times, as he passed through seventy miles per hour, he burst into a churning mass of feathers, out of control, crashing down into the water. The key, he thought at last, dripping wet, must be to hold the wings still at high speeds — to flap up to fifty and then hold the wings still. From two thousand feet he tried again, rolling into his dive, beak straight down, wings full out and stable from the moment he passed fifty miles per hour. It took tremendous strength, but it worked. In ten seconds he had blurred through ninety miles per hour. Jonathan had set a world speed record for seagulls!
Being the world’s fastest seagull is only slightly more interesting than being the world’s fastest tapeworm, but this is the personality type the book appeals to: the pointless striver. The person who thinks that effort, in and of itself, is valorous. Jonathan Livingston Seagull is the battle hymn of the illiterate “writer” with a shoebox full of manuscripts, the tone-deaf singer, the 5’2 wannabe pro basketball player, the aging LA actress who mails (ten years out-of-date) headshots to every agent in Hollywood. “Follow your dreams,” it says “no matter how unlikely success is, or how pointless success would be.” In the real world there’s a dark side to dream-following. Athletes cripple their bodies, entrepeneurs bankrupt themselves (and sometimes their families), naifs are exploited by scammers and grifters. Sometimes it is both good and necessary for a dream to end, and the book doesn’t confront that possibility. Jonathan Livingston only wins. He wins so much he gets tired of winning. He barrel-rolls past every obstacle, breaking even the laws of physics, proving every doubter wrong. It’s a shot of wish fulfilment pornography, both endearing and toxic. It takes twenty minutes to read and might ruin your life.
The 1980s were grim years of faceless corporatism, and this was felt in the decade’s cartoons. Who made He-Man & Masters Of The Universe? Nobody knew. It appeared on your TV once a week, as if by magic. You knew the studio, of course: millions of grownups still have conditioned Pavlovian reactions to the Nelvana bear, the bouncing DIC ball, the “Filmation presents…”. But you kinda forgot that human beings created the show. No kid could name one of them.
This changed in the 90s, when a fad for “creator driven” content meant networks began branding shows around their lead creative personnel. Everyone knew The Simpsons was “made” by Matt Groening, and Ren and Stimpy was “made” by John Kricfalusi. It was easy to believe that the show was the sole creation of a wacky genius doodling in his artist loft.
This creator-driven approach could backfire. Sometimes “creators” were self-destructive assholes. Sometimes they were untalented hacks who’d lucked into (or stolen) their one good idea. Associating a brand with a (flawed, complex) person means the brand can easily become toxic: attempts to restart Ren & Stimpy now face the obstacle of John Kricfalusi’s personal life, and The Simpsons‘ wholesome “stick it to the man” satire becomes tough to laugh at if you think Matt Groening took executive-class flights on the Lolita Express.
But it was still an exciting era that rewarded strong personalities and odd perspectives. None of the tentpole shows of the 90s (Beavis and Butthead, South Park, Daria, King of the Hill) could have existed in the 80s. They were derided as juvenile toilet humor at the time. In hindsight, the reverse was true: it was the decade where TV animation grew up.
The 90s should have been Ralph Bakshi’s moment.
You might have heard of him. X Rated cartoons. Rotoscoping. Blaxploitation. He’s one of animation’s greatest auteurs, and his work is suffused by a violent, turbulent energy that elevates the lowbrow material. Ralph Bakshi isn’t always good, but he’s always Ralph Bakshi.
He’s a titan of 2D animation, but it’s easy to slip into past tense when discussing him. His classic films all date from 1972 to 1983, and by 1990 he hadn’t made anything good for a very long time. Was he still relevant?
His 1992 film Cool World was a devastating misfire. A jokeless, plotless, idealess nothingburger featuring bad animation and bad live action film composited in a bad way. Roger Ebert had the best pan. Cool World marked the final death rattle of the adult animated film, with rubbish such as Heavy Metal 2K being the final meaningless puppeteering of the medium’s lifeless corpse.
But adult animation, it was believed, still had a future on the silver screen, where the stakes of a failure weren’t so high. And in the mid 1990s, HBO gave Bakshi a shot at redemption.
He “redeemed” himself with Spicy City.
It’s a sci-fi anthology show, hosted by an Elvira ripoff called Raven. In classic Bakshi fashion, most of the budget was spent drawing very large breasts. Truly, he is to boobs what Robert Crumb is to asses.
The show (which was laughably advertised as the first “adults only” cartoon) failed miserably. It was a one season wonder, cancelled after six episodes.
But that means nothing, in and of itself. Maybe it was ahead of its time. Let’s find out.
I exhaustively deep-dived into Spicy City. Which means I watched three episodes that someone uploaded to Youtube.
Tears of a Clone
An eyeless detective is hired to track down a human blob’s missing “daughter” who somehow escaped his gravitational field.
…Or, as the show relates the plot: “Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah? Blah blah blah.”
Holy fuck, this is the talkiest cartoon I’ve ever seen. Where’s the action? The dialog scenes go on and on and on and on. I want to go back to nineteen-twenty-whenever and throw Max Fleischer’s Phonofilm sound equipment in the Potomac in the hopes that cartoons remain silent.
Maybe it would help if the characters occasionally said things that weren’t cornball detective cliches, like “there’s just the small matter of my fee…”
That brings me to another issue: Spicy City’s setting.
The show aspires to an edgy cyberpunk aesthetic (the city itself is just Gibson’s Sprawl). But 59-year old Bakshi had no natural affinity for high tech worlds (or desire to learn) so he said “screw it” and went with film noir.
Think of the hackiest noir cliche you know: it’s here. A private eye who’s down on his luck? A dame in trouble? Smoke-filled clubs filled with sleazy characters? Fashions that consist of trenchcoats, fedoras, zoot suits, cocktail dresses, and pearl necklaces? All here.
Welcome to the future. We dress like this.
Bakshi’s cyberpunk world looks like a 1940s Hollywood film lot, with story choices to match. It’s so dated and old that it’s totally jarring when a character (for example) uses a computer. Yes, cyberpunk draws on noir. But Spicy City does so excessively, and the sci-fi plots (cloning, virtual reality, and cyborgs) are tonally incongruent with Bakshi’s world.
In short, nonsensical setting, weak story, twice as much dialog as necessary, and hideous character design. Fuck finding the girl, this guy needs to find his missing eyeballs.
A bongo player called Mano Mantillo is the hottest thing in town. That’s Spicy City worldbuilding for you: an cyber-metropolis where everyone’s wild about bongos.
Mano’s hands made him a star, but they have a life of their own. When mob enforcers cut them off for nonpayment of debts, they begin strangling people.
Here we see Bakshi’s lifelong fascination with black/latino culture, mixed with the trope of the demon-possessed musician (Robert Johnson, The Devil and Daniel Mouse, Soul Music, Rock & Rule, and so on). In effect, it swaps one set of cliches for another.
I didn’t love “Mano’s Hands”. It has less dialog and it’s certainly gruesome enough, but the premise is dated and lame. Is this really what we’re doing with the “world’s first adult cartoon show”? Ripping off EC Comics and The Addams Family?
By the way, Mano is Spanish for hand, so the episode’s title is “Hand’s hands”. I wonder why his surname isn’t Martillo, which is an eighth-note bongo pattern. Mantillo simply means “mulch”.
“Love Is a Download”
Same setup as “Tears of a Clone”. A private detective is hired to track down a missing girl. However, the client is clearly an abusive stalker, and the PI develops feelings for the girl.
Here the action takes place in virtual reality. Essentially, it’s Baby’s First Cyberpunk Plot: “what if virtual reality was better than real life?” The detective’s an obese slug in reality, and the girl’s a battered victim. But in cyberspace he’s a buff stud, and she’s a…helpless geisha? Empowering stuff, ladies.
Bakshi’s cultural references finally leave the 1940s. The stalker Jake (who appears as a shark in the VR game) is dressed like a Miami Vice extra. Again, it doesn’t quite work in a cyberpunk setting, but at least it’s not ridiculously off.
I was confused by the choice to make the woman gorgeous in the real life. Shouldn’t she be ugly, like the male detective? I guess she had to be attractive for Jake to have an interest in controlling her. But couldn’t he have a different motive (maybe he’s after her inheritance)? I don’t know. In a show about the gritty side of life, it’s strange that woman aren’t ever allowed to be unattractive.
I have mixed feelings about “Love is a Download”. The main problem is that the virtual reality sequences are incredibly long and overwhelm the episode. I think this is because they’re barely animated and must have cost virtually nothing to create. It’s like watching a slideshow.
So that’s my taste of Spicy City.
Maybe I saw the three worst episodes. Unlucky. I’ve now watched 50% of the show, and probably won’t bother with the other 50%.
It has no spark to it. It wants to be the edgiest thing on TV but it comes off as dated, lame, and “OK boomer”. The basic plots are all 20-50 years old. Raven is excellently animated but the rest of the show is just barely acceptable. The adult content seems tame next to, say, South Park, or even less famous fare like Crapston Villas. As a sci-fi drama it doesn’t even reach Aeon Flux’s knees.
But I don’t regret watching it, because I had an epiphany about Bakshi.
He’s not a creator. He’s an enhancer.
Fritz the Cat is Robert Crumb.
Wizards is Vaughn Bode.
Lord of the Rings is JRR Tolkien.
Fire and Ice is Frank Frazetta.
In all these cases, Bakshi acts as an amenuensis, an artistic midwife, adapting the art of someone else into film. He does a creditable job, capturing what’s great about the original and infusing his own style and personality. But he’s not building castles in the sky: he’s working from a foundation already established. That’s what he’s always been good at. You do not allow him to create something from the ground up.
He’s like a podcast host who can “riff” hilariously in a room full of funny people, but who could never carry a solo comedy act. Spicy City demonstrates what that looks like: a dull, derivative slog with plentiful boobs but no clear sense of what it is.
Bakshi fans in 1997 had no idea of the drought that was about to follow. The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Luca Turilli is an Italian “shred” guitarist known for playing symphonic power metal: a fact you might not guess from reading his Wikipedia page.
Having always declared to love music at 360 degrees, Turilli has dedicated himself to multiple musical genres, ranging from trance and electronic music of his first compositions to symphonic metal inspired by the world of soundtracks and also to modern pop and piano compositions of his current productions.
I like how you find, quietly inserted in the middle, the thing that encompasses 95% of his work and the reason he’s famous. It’s like describing GW Bush as an “artist, author, philanthropist, public speaker, bicyclist, politician, and dog-lover”. There’s burying the lede, then there’s putting it in a lead-lined coffin. I respect not wanting be constrained by expectations, but give me a break: nobody hears “Luca Turilli” and thinks “trance music.”
Turilli isn’t the only power metal musician to enroll himself in the witness protection program (heard anything good from “heavy rock” artist Jorn Lande lately?). It’s an uncool style of music to make or listen to, particularly Rhapsody of Fire’s brand of it. Look at it this way: they have fourteen albums, which have a total of eleven dragons on the covers. That’s just too many dragons. Their Dragon-to-Cover ratio is 11/14, or 0.785, one of the highest ever reported.
Rhapsody of Fire was a great band, but also a punching bag. To many, their songs symbolized all the worst traditions of European power metal: riffless, orchestra-layered “conceptual” cheeseballs about a cave troll called Trarg. Luca Turilli was definitely the bandmember who chafed the most under the “flower metal” designation (as well as the D&D fantasy-style marketing enforced by their various labels), and when he became a solo artist he couldn’t throw that stuff in the trash fast enough. Luca Turilli has seven solo albums, zero of which have dragons on the cover, giving him a D-t-C ratio of 0/1 and 0%.
But that’s what I find interesting about Turilli: the fact that such an important pillar of the power metal scene does not particularly like power metal. Maybe that’s the reason I enjoy him: he’s not Hammerfall or Dream Evil, turning the crank, producing bland genre worship until the day he dies. He wants more. He wants to progress.
Prophet of the Last Eclipse is a solo record he recorded in 2002. It’s possibly his masterpiece. It’s wildly original, filled with hooks, imagination, and a sense of wonder. There’s nothing wrong with it. The musicianshp
The electronic and film score elements are the first thing. Carmin Burura meets The Matrix vocals of “Aenigma,” or the pulsating glitched-up take on Italian operatic pop (?!) found in “Zephyr Skies Theme”. Nothing sounded like this in 2002.
Most of the album is fast, with “Rider of the Astral Fire”, and “Age of Mystic Ice”, and “New Century Tarantella” rampaging along like Rhapsody of Fire in full speed mode. Even here, there’s curveballs. “Rider of the Astral Fire” has a comical a-capella vocal section that sounds like a Danny Elfman soundtrack, and “New Century Tarantella” does for Italian folk music what Angra did for Brazilian tribal music.
Those are the worst songs on the album, by the way.
“War of the Universe” is an arresting and immediate opening track, with great melodies and a propulsive feel. Turilli likes writing epics, but he never goes wrong when he writes for the 4:00 minute mark, either.
“Demonheart” is savage and corroded, almost industrial metal in places, but with tons of speed and an addictive chorus. Olaf Hayer turns in another great vocal performance here.
“Prince of the Starlight” is the fastest song, and the second most formally elaborate. Helloween-style dual harmonies exist alongside Baroque cadences, electronic flutters, and a progressive jazz-sounding piano part. Often, Luca’s guitar parts are treated with phaser effects, and seem to needle and drill like laser beams bracketing a target. Alien-sounding, yet accessible.
But none of these are the greatest composition Prophet has to offer. That would be the 11-minute long closing track, “Prophet of the Last Eclipse”. After an eerie vocal intro, Turilli hits the afterburners hard, with fragments of shouted Latin (in mezzo-soprano and tenor vocal parts) swirling like leaves in the wake of drummer Robert Hunecke-Rizzo’s double-bass blast. The song is relentlessly heavy and crushing, delivering agitated verses and an immense chorus, before an extended guitar solo section, and then a final implosion into neotonal free-time music. I don’t know if this is the best song Turilli ever wrote. I do know that no better one came to my mind before I finished this paragraph. Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine: et lux perpetua luceat eis.
The limited edition of the album from Limb Music is worth getting. “Caprice in A Minor” is just filler – cool if you’re into classical music, I guess. “Autumn’s Last Whisper” is an Icelandic neofolk ballad (with vocals from Rannveig Sif Sigurðardóttir) that sounds like it wandered in from a CD in a totally different aisle. But then there’s “Dark Comet’s Reign”, which is a monster of a track. It could have easily swapped places with one of the lesser uptempo songs on the main album release.
If you’re in the “power metal fan who’s becoming bored and jaded” group, this is (and has) everything you could possibly want. It’s over two decades old but still sounds fresh and forward looking. It’s as monumental and as well-constructed as an aircraft carrier: even in the lesser songs you’ll marvel at how tight and punchy the snare is, for example. I find this album infinitely more interesting than the post-Luca Rhapsody albums, or horrendous ripoff bands like Twilight Force. Who knew that trance musician Luca Turilli was capable of something like this?