I hate puppets, but like the Muppets. It’s something of... | Reviews / Movies | Coagulopath

I hate puppets, but like the Muppets. It’s something of a predicament, for the Muppets are puppets.

I’m OK with Kermit and the animalian muppets. But the muppets that are supposed to be human (like Bunsen and Beaker) inspire loathing and horror. I want to mercy-kill them. The way their mouths naturally hang open makes it look like they’re screaming, as if a witch imprisoned the souls of people inside itchy piles of suffering cloth.

Oddly enough, that’s nearly the plot of this movie. The story comes from the Der Froschkönig (lit. “The Frog King”) by the Brothers Grimm: a witch transforms a heroic knight into a frog, true love’s kiss is the only way the spell can reverse, details details details. In effect, it’s another of Henson studio’s “famous story, but with muppets cracking jokes” adaptations.

Henson was a master. Despite this being a cheap TV movie from 1971, he goes balls-to-the-wall, tackling tricky shot after tricky shot. Puppets move around scenes, entering and leaving each other’s space. They interact believably with human actors. We see their feet. We see frog puppets leap and swim, and even a puppet bird flying. King Rupert II’s mouth is perfectly synced up with his words, and his hands gesticulate at the correct moments (I assume there were multiple performers controlling him).

The budget precludes nutso stuff like “Kermit riding a bike” or “Jennifer Connelly exploring an MC Escher castle”, but Henson seems hell-bent on making puppets do things they shouldn’t. Why not? It’s not as if they can unionize and demand overtime and a dental plan.

The star of the dish is Henson’s inspired directing, and the writing is merely adequate. As with Sesame Street, it’s for little kids, with occasional jokes aimed at adults. King Rupert II makes a royal announcement from a castle balcony, and then starts doing hacky stand-up, with a royal advisor reminding the crowd to laugh—that sort of thing. Princess Melora has been cursed by a witch (the same one that transformed Robin) so that she spoonerizes all her words (she says “you’re a wearable titch!” instead of “you’re a terrible witch!”—that sort of thing). Sometimes it’s funny, but they draw from that comedic well a little too much.

The music is fairly weak, and so is the acting. Princess Melora is the movie’s only actress (she would later play a groupie on Pink Floyd’s The Wall—this fact is more interesting than anything she says or does in The Frog Prince). Jim Henson’s Kermit and Jerry Nelson’s Robin are fine, but director Jerry Juhl voices the witch Taminella with an annoying NOOO YAWK accent.

None of the “classic” Muppets appear, aside from Kermit, Robin, and Sweetums. Speaking of the latter, I highly enjoyed the scene where Sweetums goes crazy and smashes a dungeon. It’s hard to go wrong with a good room-wrecking scene, whether it’s Citizen Kane or the muppets. The ending of the film strikes the right sentimental note, and it ends in a cute song.

The strength of the Muppets as a franchise is their adaptability. They could be in anything, and connect with anything. You can have them host a PBS children’s program. You can have them talk to Orson Welles. They had no limits as a franchise, and with a competent director and someone who knew, they could be a reliable money-spinner that stayed relevant for decades and decades.

Weird and disturbing through they could be, the Muppets outlived the man who created them. I wonder how long it took before Jim Henson realized that this would be his legacy—he’d be remembered as the man who shoved a hand up Kermit the Frog’s metaphorical rectum, and little else. How did that make him feel? Defeated, or proud? Or both?

He certainly got to indulge most of his artistic impulses. The Muppets filmography is broad and diverse. Pretty much the only thing they never did was raunchy R-rated comedy (his son Brian directed The Happy Time Murders, which made me tap out 10 minutes in, so maybe Henson Senior’s judgment was correct.)

I’m uncertain as to how well the Muppets hold up for adults.

The Muppet Show and several of the Muppet movies still hold up. The overwhelming, cloying sentiment probably locks The Frog Prince into “kids only”. Although there’s a point where kitsch crosses over and becomes a sort of art in itself.

Here’s Umberto Eco in “Casablanca”: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage:

“When all the archetypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths. Two cliches make us laugh, but a hundred cliches move us because we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves and celebrating a reunion. Just as extreme pain meets sensual pleasure, and extreme perversion borders on mystical energy, so does extreme banality allow us to catch a glimpse of the Sublime. Nobody would have been able to achieve such a cosmic result intentionally. Nature has spoken here in place of men. If nothing else, this is a phenomenon worthy of veneration.”

He wasn’t speaking about the Muppets. He was speaking about the Muppets. I don’t believe Jim Henson ever had any connection to Walter Elias Disney, but they seem like similar artists. They both had an extreme connection to magic, and the ideals of the past. Sometimes this manifested as retrogression, but sometimes it makes the past feel preserving. He was never cynical or mean.

But puppets are creepy – I can’t get over that point. They just hit all the “not right, shouldn’t exist” buttons in my brain. Are people seriously able to watch stuff like this without having their skin shudder completely off their skeleton and roadtrip to Kickapoo, Indiana on a journey of radical self-discovery?

But hey, the fact that the Muppets is the most glowing recommendation I can make.

Lawrence of Arabia depicts what was nearly the birth of... | Reviews / Movies | Coagulopath

Lawrence of Arabia depicts what was nearly the birth of the modern Arab state, but it’s shot like the end of history. The movie is apocalypse-sized; as if it expects to the last one ever filmed. Everything is huge and grand and excessive – the setting, costuming, score, running time, everything. It thunders over the senses like a train.

It’s an epic about TE Lawrence, as interpreted by Peter O’Toole and largely derived from Lawrence’s own prolific writings. It paints a picture of a freak, a misfit, a uniquely-shaped gear who fell into the engine box of history and miraculously slotted into place, allowing world events to turn. I don’t have much interest in its factual accuracy. Movies aren’t Wikipedia articles.

Lawrence of Arabia starts at the end: with Lawrence’s death in 1935. We see a media frenzy around the dead man, a jostling clash of claim and counterclaim. A great hero? An exhibitionist? Everyone’s comparing puzzle pieces of the deceased man, but none of them match. We sense that Lawrence hasn’t left much of himself behind.

Then the film cuts back in time to 1916, with Lawrence a young army lieutenant in the Arab Bureau intelligence unit. He backtalks his superiors, and comes off as pretentious and arrogant. He paints, knows his classics, and deports himself with a certain effeteness. The film can’t explicitly depict him as gay, but the subtext is a brick to the face.

But when he’s dispatched to Arabia (to shadow Prince Faisal, a putative ally of the British in the revolt against the Turks), his alienness becomes an asset. He establishes a rapport with the tribes, and comes up with daring, impossible plans: crossing a desert that can’t be crossed, storming a city that can’t be taken. He stands out – both with his white complexion, and inability to play the game the normal way – and is soon at the center of regional politics.

His handsome face becomes a generic slate onto which various characters project their desires – Prince Faisal’s wish for Arabic independence, Sherif Ali’s personal ambition, Auda Abu Tayi’s lust for plunder, General Edmund Allenby’s desire to entrench Britain’s tactical position against the Ottomans. Like all messiahs, Lawrence is who you need him to be, and like all messiahs, he is disposable.

Virtually no part of this movie could be made now. There are no speaking roles for women. The set of Aqaba was built by Franco’s fascist regime. The idea of British intelligence running the show in Arabia is portrayed as morally neutral or positive. Most of the actors (Omar Sharif excepted) are not Arabic but British or Americans in brownface. Anthony Quinn, who plays Auda Abu Tayi, has a Brooklyn accent and a silly fake nose.

I’m sure most kids now watch this movie for a school report, and write about how it’s a racist old film about how unenlightened Arabs just need a smart British person to whip them into line.

But the point of Lawrence’s character is that he isn’t British, except in a nominal sense. He has no loyalty to his homeland. When he’s praised for his achievements by Allenby and Dryden, their words sound hollow and false. Lawrence never conquers Aqaba out of some “Rule, Britannia!” patriotic impulse. It’s something darker, less explicable, less controllable. In any case, the sympathies he develops for the Arabs soon cause Allenby to suspect he’s gone native.

But what does Lawrence really want? I kept asking this of the film, but director David Lean leaves it unclear. Lawrence is a confusing person: outwardly flashy and flamboyant, but inwardly hollow. He’s more defined by what he doesn’t have than by what he does.

We see a streak of kindness in Lawrence (as well as an unwillingness to get his hands dirty), but also a vanity that almost gets him killed. While spying undercover in an enemy city, he is captured and mocked by a Turkish bey. A real politician would not have risen to the bait, but Lawrence lashes out, and earns himself a beating. Soon it becomes clear that the British will betray the deal they brokered with Faisal, shattering the last of Lawrence’s confidence in himself.

His stated motives for his actions (“I just want my ration of common humanity!”) sound curiously unspecific. It shows the danger of not having a moral center: you get sculpted and distorted by whatever your environment is. He ends up as an existential ghost, haunting the desert like a Dybbuk, detached from the world he thinks he controls. Lawrence reshapes the politics of the Middle East to suit himself, but he’s reshaped by it in turn. Soon this nightmare becomes apparent in his eyes. He’s nothing, and knows it.

Lawrence: I killed two people, I mean two Arabs. One was a boy. That was yesterday. I led him into a quicksand. The other was a man. That was before Aqaba anyway. I had to execute him with my pistol. There was something about it I didn’t like.
Allenby: Well, naturally.
Lawrence: No, something else.
Allenby: I see. Well that’s all right. Let it be a warning.
Lawrence: No, something else.
Allenby: What then?
Lawrence: I enjoyed it.

Is this an accurate depiction of Lawrence? I’m doubtful. It occurs to me that most “weirdos” are not actually that weird – they’re non-freakish people who can play the role of oddball on command but are actually fairly normal. David Bowie (who likely took fashion notes from Peter O’Toole in this movie) is a good example.

Imagine if Forbes Magazine ran a “most inspiring poor person” contest – most of the entrants would be crustfunders or fakers or LARPers. Genuine poor people don’t read Forbes Magazine and would never hear about the contest. It takes lots of social cleverness to become famous: a misfit celebrity is something of a contradiction in terms. Genuine freaks are either ignored, or are put in cages to be gawked at. Freakishness is as prone to gentrification as anything.

But even if Lawrence wasn’t like this, the depiction still rings true in a game theory sense. Sometimes it does pay to be an alien dropped out of the sky. Lawrence has no reason to prefer one tribe of Arab over another. He is blind to doctrinal differences, doesn’t care about interpretations of Wahhabism vs Hanafalism. This is his strength. It’s often worse to be a little different than vastly different (other players “neargroup vs fargroup”). Think of how Genghis Khan is popularly regarded in society, vs Hitler. Or how the Tlaxcalans of Mexico allied with the fargroup Spanish agains the neargroup Aztecs.

Lawrence is Genghis Khan to the Arabs. In his first few days in Arabia, he learns a harsh lesson. Upon landing in Arabia, he journeys with a Bedouin guide. The guide drinks from a well owned by Sherif Ali without permission, and is killed by Ali. Lawrence drank too, but is spared. In this land, being a foreigner is like protective armor. He doesn’t yet know about the Islamic principle of amān (safeguard) which likely just saved his life.

Again, Lawrence of Arabia is better off watched as a fantasy film, not as commentary on the geopolitical ramifications of the Sykes-Picot treaty or whatever. Beethoven once said “To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable.” Real life contains a lot of smallness and silliness and incidence that cannot be used as fodder for a story. Epics, almost by definition, have many wrong notes.

The depictions of Arabs as squabbling idiots who can’t even keep the power on without British help (that’s literally a scene at the end) may come off as racist. But it may have a grain of truth. Certainly, Saudi Arabia was late to the modernisation game. Here’s an interesting anecdote I read on Matt Lakeman’s blog (for which he tragically does not provide a source)

Wahhabis oppose innovation. This is not just an accusation flung from the moral high horse of my modern liberalism, this is how Wahhabis describe themselves. They believe in a strict literalist reading of Islamic texts, hence innovation is deviation from the texts. This mindset expands beyond esoteric theological theory into everyday life. The founder of modern Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz al Saud, publicly smashed a telegraph to appease his clerics who worried he was using too much modern technology.

That aside, some scenes do overplay their hand, and come off as goofy. The action was as good as it got in 61, but it’s not as visceral and bloody. It’s very “stagey” – punches that clearly miss, men who don’t duck when fired upon, but stand up, so the cheap seats can see them. There’s the obligatory scene where a man gets sucked to his doom by quicksand: it’s supposed to be shocking and horrible, but the fact that it’s quicksand gives it a Roger Corman quality.

We’re meant to watch it on a huge screen (and on 70mm stock) and some scenes don’t really work on a small one. As Lawrence’s men cross the terrible Al-Nafud Desert, the warrior Gasim falls from his camel, and is left behind. When Lawrence discovers this, he goes back to rescue him. It’s an important scene, setting off an IOU that pays off later in the movie…but if you watch it on an 640×480 DVD rip acquired in an extremely legal fashion some shots (such as a distant man walking across the dunes, like a crack piercing the sky) become impossible to understand. The human figures are too small to see. Can you see the man in the picture below? Look closer.

The film has some of the best desert footage ever shot. Lean has a sense of depth and space, and how to make it resound off the screen like an echoing scream. This movie made me feel gravity. At times, I felt vertigo swirling out, as if I might fall forward into the celluloid.

It diminishes the human side of the conflict. Imposes a sense that none of it truly matters much. Whoever prevails in the Arab Revolt, the only winner will be the desert.

Everyone seems tiny in this ocean of sand. The British, the Hashemites, the Bedouins, the Ottomans – are just ants floating in an ocean of sand, slowly dying in a light more blinding than any darkness, hunched double with their thawbs and keffiyehs flapping against blasting wind, hoping that the oasis in front of them actually exists. They might be princelings, warriors, or statesmen, but the desert equalizes them, crushing them all down to nothing. The film achieves an odd effect: the mythic figures look so powerless that they actually become human again.

The film brilliantly portrays the main character’s psychological collapse. Reportedly, Lean’s cameras kept malfunctioning, because they were choked up with sand. Lawrence eventually reaches the same point. He is humiliated, damages, and begins descending into the kind of honor-feud vindictiveness. He learns of the British plot to betray Arab interests, and begins to wonder what it was all ultimately for. A sense of setting sun hangs over everything: the end of history. It’s one of Hollywood’s final great epics.

According to Hollywood lore, the cheapest special effects are bare breasts and dwarves. Lawrence of Arabia has none, but it finds another one: deserts. But the desert’s so big and empty that it projects futility. What can one man ultimately do out here, except lose?

The final time Lawrence meets Auda Abu Tayi, he says “I pray that I may never see the desert again.” To which Abu Tayi says “there is only the desert for you.”

The final shot argues that this is true. He is driving out of Arabia. “‘home, sah!” his driver says. But we see dry dust twisting up into the air behind the car, and it tells another story. The hot, soul-chilling desert is coming out with him, like a shadow that will never leave. He can’t run from who he isn’t. Wherever Lawrence goes, he will find the lone and level sands waiting for him.

I watched this with some friends – we’d been told... | Reviews / Movies | Coagulopath

I watched this with some friends – we’d been told it was the sickest, goriest movie ever made.

The tagline is “AUGUST UNDERGROUND’S MORDUM WILL VOMIT ALL OVER YOU AND LEAVE YOU FOR DEAD!” That sounds pretty hardcore. Does it have that effect every time? I’m not sure I’ll rewatch it much. They should have toned it down, so that it only acid-burps in your face and leaves you with a faint sense of despondency.

The film wasn’t very good. I don’t know what else to say. It’s a fake snuff film – shot in a deliberately amateurish style – about a trio of serial killers, who record their crimes. They have sex with each other, mutilate themselves, go to a crack den, kill someone, and then a fifth event occurs, and then a sixth, and then a seventh. If you like movies with events, you’re in luck! This one has so many of them!

August Underground’s Mordum doesn’t have a story, it has incidents. The scenes could mostly be rearranged in any order. The dialog consists of shouting and profanity. The cinematography consists of flailing shakycam that made me literally nauseous – surely if there’s one positive trait sadistic serial killers possess, it’s calm, steady hands?

It’s artless, boring, and dismaying. The writing is so blandly and forgettably stupid that I fully expected a character to say “As an AI language model, I am programmed to follow ethical guidelines.”

Whiles, Cristie: [cutting herself deeply in the chest with a piece of glass] Do you fucking like it?

Vogel, Fred: Shit yeah I like it!

Whiles, Cristie: Why don’t you jerk off on it, fucker?

No, I don’t know what August Underground’s Mordum means. There’s nobody and nothing called “August Underground” in the movie, and “Mordum” isn’t a word – though, pronounced phonetically, it absolutely becomes a description.

The film has serious Marilyn Manson Now Going Door-To-Door Trying To Shock People energy – it’s trying hard to be the most outrageous thing you’ve ever seen, so much so that it backfires and becomes not shocking at all. The actors are often visibly uncomfortable with what they’re asked to do, which is funny. The climactic final scene involves the character Maggot raping a dead body in a bathtub. He gives it some fake, half-hearted humps, like a frat pledge trying not to look gay. At no point does his pelvis touch anything except air.

The runtime is padded out with pointless crap, like a scene of Maggot getting a septum piercing. There’s actually a term for this: “Shoot the rodeo”. Is your movie too short? Just scrounge around your camera’s SD card for some unrelated footage, and suddenly it’s not. The concluding shot is of a cat eating a mouse.

The thing about August Underground’s Mordum is that you can basically know everything about it just from a single detail. Do I give an in-depth discussion, or can I just mention that it has characters called “Maggot” and “Crusty”? Or that the director fronts a death metal band? Or that the production company is called Toetag Pictures, and their website has a .biz TLD, like all serious big-boy websites?

A toe tag, by the way, is a piece of cardboard that is fitted around a corpse’s toe, providing identifying information to the coroner. Most morgues haven’t used toe tags for a long time – now there’s an ankle bracelet. But it fits the company’s approach to invoke a cliche that’s twenty years out of date.

August Underground’s Mordum seeks to recreate the flat, naturalistic affect of Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer, and the gooberish “OMG, is it real??” rubberneck-factor of Cannibal Holocaust or Guinea Pig 2. Those are old movies. And they didn’t seek to be mistaken as real, it happened by accident.

As Dave Kehr noted once, “It is a curious attribute of camp that it can only be found, not made.” You can’t really click your heels and wish your movie into cult status. It has to happen organically, and accidentally. This is exactly one of those try-hard “let me into the canon!” camp classics that Kehr writes about. There’s a reason The Room will be remembered forever, while the word Sharknado already has no meaning to anyone.

This film is the middle child in a trilogy of films. I briefly considered watching the first or the second, but then I decided to watch HR Pufnstuf instead. That’s a good example of August Underground’s Mordum‘s strike rate: it loses a battle against HR Pufnstuf.