Max Headroom is the “computer animated” TV host of the 1985 UK music video series The Max Headroom Show, the 1985 telemovie Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future, and the 1979 science fiction series Max Headroom. Air quotes because he’s not computer animated, he’s actor Matt Frewer with bits of latex and foam stuck to his face. Computer animation cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per minute in 1985, and Victorian chimney-sweeper logic kicked in: “we could theoretically solve this problem with technology, but it’s cheaper to send an eight-year-old boy up the flue.” Some people bemoan that computers are stealing our jobs. Max Headroom is a reminder that we once stole theirs.
Max’s character is jarring and wrong, stuttering and repeating himself while reeling off corny Dangerfield-esque one-liners. The idea is that he’s a human consciousness digitized imperfectly – a broken half-a-human. You can’t be at ease while watching him, it’s like eating dinner off a plate with a huge crack in it, and this made him unforgettable. He is a vivid example of glitching and ugliness used for artistic effect (note the similar stuttering used in Paul Hardcastle’s “19”).
Max is a one-joke character, but the joke was heard all over the world. He’s widely parodied. There’s a Hello Kitty quality to Max Headroom: everyone recognizes the character, but nobody’s really sure where he comes from or where they first saw him. For many, Max Headroom just exists, floating freely in conceptual quintessence. Despite this, the character was created out of a very specific set of circumstances.
In 1981, video killed the radio star, and stations such as MTV needed hosts to talk between records and sell products. Unlike the radio hosts of the past (who were heard but not seen), video jockeys needed to look attractive. They couldn’t, for example, be a man “shaped like whatever container you pour him into” (in Patrice O’Neal’s immortal roast of chubby radio host Jim Norton).
While most stations wanted their hosts to be hip, the UK’s Channel 4 took a different path and made their host a weird, uncool goober. Max Headroom won’t ever become lame: he’s already maximally lame. He won’t lose dignity when he plugs a sponsored product: he never had any to begin with. Rock stars will want to talk to him: he’ll made even the most incompetent cokehead seem lucid.
Nonetheless, it’s not the music video show that made Max Headroom famous. I don’t know when it occurred to Channel 4 that the character would work for a character-driven drama. But the result was an interesting cyberpunk film that owes a lot to Blade Runner and Brazil, although made for far less money.
The plot takes place in England of the very near future, which could be described as “Margaret Thatcher, but more”. London is as black and filthy as the inside of a cancerous lung. Thugs lurk in the shadows, ready to kidnap you and sell your organs to body banks. Industry is ferocious, a machine ratcheted up to such a degree that nobody notices that its fuel has become human lives. There are televisions everywhere, blaring demented idiocy.
The plot involves domineering entertainment conglomerate Channel 23, who has a new advertising method called “Blipverts”. Traditional 30-second ads have the drawback of annoying viewers and causing them to change the channel. Blipverts allow for an ad to be compressed into a few seconds of high-intensity audiovisual stimulation. Ratings are through the roof. However, some people experience side effects: they explode.
There’s some hilarious boardroom scenes of Channel 23’s execs trying to defend Blipverts (we’re probably supposed to connect this to how tobacco companies behaved when their products were revealed as dangerous). Surely some percentage of the population can be expected to randomly explode, right? It’s not statistically significant. Anyway, if you explode after watching an ad, isn’t it your fault?
Channel 23’s star reporter Edison Carter, gets “too close to the truth”, and suffers a tragic motorcycle accident. However, he’s supposed to appear on air, and a clumsy, bungled attempt to digitize Carter’s brain results in an odd lifeform that immediately utters the words “Max Headroom”, because that was the final thing he saw. Writer George Stone has said that Max Headroom caused British firms to spend three million pounds relabeling the “Max Headroom” signs in public garages to “Maximum Height”, due to its association with the character.
The movie is not a high budget one. It’s portrayal of futuristic London as an industrial wasteland is a concession to a lack of money (in a fortunate stroke of luck, they were able to shoot in Beckton Gasworks, where Stanley Kubrick filmed certain scenes of Full Metal Jacket). But it nails the things that are cheap: acting, and tone. A grungy mood soon appears. And the camera-work has an aggressive, edge-pushing quality that’s as jarring as Max Headroom himself. For example, consider the terrifying way the villainous Channel 23 head Grossman is framed. Sharply underlit, and subtly distorted by bubbled lensing in a way that emphasises actor Nickolas Grace’s exotropia. He looks terrifying, an all-seeing one-man Panopticon.
Max Headroom doesn’t actually get to do a lot in the movie. The same holds true for the American TV series: the episodes explore some science fiction conceit (), and Max is just a framing device. But isn’t that what a VJ is supposed to do? Introduce stuff, and get out of the way?
It’s a bit poetic to make Max Headroom impotent and powerless, a talking head. People like Edison Carter and Theora got to have all the fun, running around and solving crimes. Max is frozen in place, transfixed like a glitching, jittery butterfly on a pin, telling idiotic jokes. Matt Frewer was wont to complain about how annoying his makeup and prosthetics were (“like being on the inside of a giant tennis ball”), but the character itself was just as restricted by its role as a video host, introducing the action without ever being a part of it. VJs are like eunuchs guarding the sultan’s harem – yes, they know all about the deed, but they’ll never do it for themselves. It’s no surprise that the career breeds dissatisfaction, and a search for something more.
The “mockbuster” is an fascinating entity: a low-budget imitation of a famous movie designed to fool you into purchasing it instead of the real thing. Major Hollywood films have print and advertising budgets in the hundreds of millions, and just like harmless moths copy the markings of venomous wasps, a fraud can exploit this publicity blitz without spending a cent in advertising itself. A rising tide lifts all boats, but it also lifts turds.
Mockbusters are frequently surrealist masterpieces without even meaning to be. They try so hard to be safe and generic and familiar that they always end up being creepy, amusing, freakish, and pathetic. It’s cinematic uncanny valley. You might say that mockbusters follow the rules so hard that they break them.
2002’s Max Magician and the Legend of the Rings is an archetypal mockbuster with a can’t-fail concept: Lord of the Rings was making money, Harry Potter was making money, so if you combined them in one movie, you’d make money squared. Money times money. Hopefully it worked, because the director clearly had crack debt times crack debt.
There were a few problems: no budget, no actors, no set designers, no producers, and the fact that nobody involved in the movie seems to know what they’re doing and some actually appear to be held on set at gunpoint. But otherwise, they were good to go.
The result is an experience that has to be seen to be believed: a disastrous collage of fantasy cliches sewn together with the brutality of a serial killer’s skin mask. A young amateur magician called Max Majeck finds a doorway to a fantasy world under attack by a guy in a shitty Halloween costume. He saves the day by slowly reading incantations out of a magic book, devastating spells such as “slowly levitate a few sticks of wood” and “cause several mice to appear on the villain’s shirt”. Watch out, Stephen Strange.
Everything is bungled with utter ineptness. The fantasy realm is clearly just the woods outside someone’s house. The movie introduces an old, wise mentor to provide plot exposition, forgets about him, introduces a second old, wise mentor, and then forgets about him. There’s a character called “Mr Tim”, and he refers to his wife as “Mrs Tim” because they couldn’t be bothered to come up with a woman’s name.
Like any watchable bad movie, it assails you with badness in every direction at once, so much that you can’t even focus. Take the elves. They have pig ears. And the pig ears don’t match their skin tone. And the queen of the elves is clearly played by the same actress who plays Max’s mom. And she has a strong Midwestern American accent.
The audio should be singled out, as it’s exceptionally bad. The music is laughably inappropriate, and clearly comes from a free stock library. Huge swathes of the dialog is ADR’d, suggesting that their original audio got spoiled somehow. They must have rewritten the dialog at this stage, too, because the lips rarely match the voices.
I do have to correct some misunderstandings the internet has about Max Magician. The first is the claim (featured on imdb) that “There are no rings.” No, there are definitely rings in this movie. Mr Tim’s book references magic rings. Dagda steals a green ring from Queen Belphobe.
The second is that it’s just a ripoff of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. That undersells the film’s ambition. It also rips off The Chronicles of Narnia (a talking mouse character + children travelling between worlds), The Neverending Story (an enchanted book), and Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (the goblins-bickering-in-the-closet scene at the end.)
It’s nevertheless good “make fun of bad movies” fodder. You would do well to go into Max Magician armed with a few basic facts about it’s production, such as the fact that the weapons are literally pool noodles. Or that the talking mouse Crimbil is actually portrayed by two different mice after the first got eaten by a snake. (You can notice this on-screen because the two mice don’t quite match in color: OG Crimbil is slightly gray, while Emergency Backup Crimbil is slightly brown. Can you identify which Crimbil appears in which scene? Make a drinking game out of it. )
Mockbusters are designed to be disposable. Strangely, this one picked up a second life after pop culture commentary Youtube channel Red Letter Media tried (and failed) to review it. Their video was corrupt and displayed 86 minutes of static. I think my video’s corrupt, too. It displays 86 minutes of shitty movie.
(Ironically, “mockbuster” is itself a linguistic mockbuster, riding on the fame of two prior words – mockery, and blockbuster – to achieve its affect.)
This featurette opens Monty Python’s 1983 film The Meaning of Life, and is my favourite part of the film. Hail Terry Gilliam.
It’s a parody of a pirate movie, filled with swordfights and swashbuckling and people yelling “‘ard to starboard!”. But as with Brazil, it’s actually a kind of fear teabag, steeped in subtle flavors of alarm, disquiet, and anxiety, releasing those flavours upon repeat viewing. You can’t separate The Crimson Permanent Assurance from the year 1983, or the changes happening in the world at the time.
Incredibly, people once trusted banks. Almost, almost. The local bank was like the local butcher: probably holding a finger on the scale, but at least you thought you understood him. He was part of your community. He was yours.
In the 80s, that started to change: the globe shrank, trade deals and computerized systems enabled companies to spread their tentacles across continents and oceans, and suddenly your bank was no longer part of your community. It was a shadowy, alien thing from somewhere else. Maybe the outer dark.
Finance has always had aquatic metaphors. Cash flow. Liquid assets. Trickle down. Mutual pools. Skimmed profits. As the financial sector exploded in size and complexity, the metaphors became more pointed. Loan sharks. Corporate raiders. Headhunters. Buccaneers.
The idea that finance firms had become something akin to pirates is a compelling one. Amoral entities afloat a sea of cash, with no masters, no Gods, no loyalty but to the firm, flying the flag of civilized commerce only when it suited them. Scuppering enemies with leveraged takeovers. Burying treasure in offshore tax havens. Terry Gilliam’s idea was to make the whole thing literal.
The featurette opens with a bunch of elderly accountants slaving at their desks, while young men with American accents boss them around. (This reflects another British anxiety from the period: that venerable and supposedly honest British institutions would be swallowed by faceless American corporations). When one man gets fired, the rest mutiny, throwing their American overseers “overboard”. They then turn to a life of crime, sailing their building through London as if it were a ship, plundering and pillaging.
It’s a great bit of absurdist comedy, and Gilliam has fun turning accountants into pirates. They wield “cutlasses” made from the blades of office fans, fire “cannons” that are actually spring-loaded desk drawers, etc. There’s little Pythonesque wordplay, and almost every joke is a visual one. It’s almost like watching a comedy sketch made for deaf people; although they’d miss out on the bombastic score.
There’s the usual artsy film touches. The Crimson Permanent Assurance building is almost comically antiquated, even older than the men inside it, but the buildings they plunder are sleek and modern, webs of glass and steel spun by giant spiders (emphasising a theme of old vs new). The opening shot of downtrodden accountants hunched over rows of desks is matched with a parallel shot of the same men pulling oars in a Roman slave galley. The amount of money spent on tiny details must have been staggering. You know list of subsidiaries on the corporate boardroom of the Very Big Corporation Of America? Those are actual names.
The film ends with the narrator cheerfully describing how The Crimson Permanent Assurance took on the world with their business acumen…and we see bleak shots of the building sailing across a desolate skyline, having destroyed everything. Then it falls off the edge of the world, and the rest of the movie begins.
The Pythons each brought something special to their troupe. Cleese and Jones had their characters, Idle had his music, Palin had his writing, Chapman had his dramatic acting skills. But the visions? The dreams? Those, in large part, came care of Mr Gilliam, and here’s proof, sailing across the main.
Zardip is a robot alien whose body keeps breaking down. He has come to our planet to learn about dieting, nutrition, and exercise, and other things that would be useless for a robot.
The show’s concept shines through like a radioactive skeleton: “Mork and Mindy, but educational and for children”. A typical episode features Zardip interacting with his new human friends, misunderstanding some heath concept, and being corrected. All the usual cliches make an appearance. Is there a rap song about the importance of health? Yes, does air contain air?
I love the title more than I love my family. It somehow manages to be clunky, overlong, grammatically challenged, redundant (implying the existence of “unhealthy wellness”), and if that’s not enough, it contains the word “Zardip”. Some TV guides didn’t even bother to print the full title, shortening it to Zardip’s Search.
Zardip’s Search For Blah Blah is live action and mostly shot on the same 2-3 sets. To break things up there’s cutaway scenes featuring 2D animation, claymation, and even a few seconds of CGI (which must have cost a fortune in 1988), giving it the air of a variety show. It provides basic medical information mixed with dubious factoids – it repeats the “43 muscles to frown and only 17 to smile” urban legend, for example. The end credits thank a “Dr Robin Williams”, which honestly feels like a joke.
In the late 80s and early 90s, Canadian broadcasting achieved an international presence that it never would again, particularly among the British Commonwealth. The historical reasons escape me, but for about ten years studios like Nelvana and Atkinson’s Film Art were easier to watch in Australia than, say, Hanna-Barbera. They damned near had the country speaking French as a second language.
Zardip’s Search For A Better Title doesn’t belong in a class with Babar and Heavy Metal. It was briefly syndicated but achieved no lasting fame or notoriety. It’s one of hundreds of shows that existed until it abruptly didn’t.
Wikipedia boldly asserts that “the show has a cult following among Canadians who attended grade school in the late 1980s and early 1990s”. This cult must have overdosed on zero sugar Kool-Aid and died from excessive Healthy Wellness(tm), because I can’t find them online. The IMDB entry for Zardip’s Search has just seventeen ratings (averaging 7.8/10, higher than the last Quentin Tarantino film) and only two reviews. A VHS transfer exists on Youtube with about two thousand views per episode. It likely won’t come to Netflix tomorrow.
By the way, Zardip is played by a striking child actor called Keram Malicki-Sanchez. He turns in a surprisingly powerful performance, reminding me of David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth. What happened to him? I Googled his name, praying that Zardip’s Search for Healthy Wellness wouldn’t be among the top results. It was. Ouch.
At age nine, anything seemed cool if it was rumored to contain swear words. I lived in awe of the Rapper Who Swears (Eminem), the Videogame That Swears (Grand Theft Auto 3), the Books That Swear (Tom Clancy’s), and particularly the Cartoon That Swears (South Park).
When I finally saw the South Park in adulthood, I was surprised. The Cartoon That Swears turned out to be an intelligent and funny show with a lot to say and a finger close to the pulse. But I never really liked the show’s cultural commentary. It always had a strained quality, with Trey Parker and Matt Stone struggling so hard to be both funny and profound that you could see sweat dripping from the storyboards. I preferred the episodes that took a lighter touch and had the kids just goofing around.
The duo’s 2004 film Team America: World Police has similar strengths and weaknesses. Lots of jokes land, but many others don’t, and there’s a clear reason why.
It’s about Team America, a covert spec-ops force who (in the opening scenes) blows up the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and the Arc de Triomphe while attempting to stop a terrorist attack in Paris. One of their members dies in the fiasco, and his replacement is Gary, a Broadway actor. With Kim Jong Il and terrorists from Durkadurkastan threatening to commit “9/11 times 2,356”, they need Gary’s acting skills to infiltrate a terrorist cell.
Straight away, there’s a horrible miscalculation: puppets. Nobody likes puppets, or wants to see puppets. They’re creepy. The nightmare fuel is at relatively low levels during dialog scenes, but whenever a puppet moves or does something the odd stiffness is all you can focus on. It would have been better as CG, or South Park style cutouts, or live action. Anything except puppets.
But TA:WP‘s big problem is that the geopolitical satire elements just don’t work. Who are we laughing at? And at whose expense? There’s a saying that comedy should punch up, not down (in other words, make jokes about deserving targets). I don’t agree: often it’s unclear who the “deserving” target is in a given joke and reducing comedy to a form of cultural warfare is gauche, to say the least. But Team America doesn’t punch up or down. It punches the air. And itself.
An example: the first scene involves Team America destroying half of Paris. “Okay,” I thought, “it’s mocking gung-ho American aggression.” But soon things get muddled: the terrorists actually pose a credible threat to global stability, and Team America’s methods are both necessary and successful in fighting them. The film basically chops away its own knees: creating straw men and then valorizing them.
And (as Roger Ebert mentioned at the time) it’s striking that the White House is spared as a target. Team America operates on their own, without supervision (it’s mentioned that it’s sponsored by corporations, a shot at Halliburton that goes nowhere). The implication seems to be that if a military operation ends in disaster or tragedy, it’s the fault of a few loose cannons on the ground. Nobody higher up should be blamed or held to account. Is that what they’re saying? I don’t know. What are they saying?
To be clear, I don’t care that the film is apolitical, nor do I want it to be full of Bush jokes (nothing was more hack in 2004) But when you make a movie about a complex geopolitical situation, you should have more to say than “everyone is a retarded fag, plus the military is cool”. It’s a rough bit to laugh at.
But I insulteth the film too much. A lot of it is really funny. There’s one gag as hilarious as anything I’ve seen recently, and it has nothing to do with politics. As Gary gets briefed at the top-secret Team America base, he’s told that if he’s taken prisoner he’ll want to take his own life using a special tool. You’re expecting a high-tech gadget…but Spottswood hands him a hammer. A fucking claw hammer.
There’s plenty of jabs taken at the messiah complex of certain actors. The funniest Simpsons episodes are the ones that riff off the cartooning industry, and Parker & Stone are likewise in their element when writing about showbiz. They’ve never been afraid to shit where they eat. They famously attended the 2000 Oscars dressed in drag and high on LSD, which might explain why they don’t generally get invited to nice occasions like that.
Even the Thunderbirds-esque puppets sometimes work as a source of “anti-comedy” (think Tim and Eric). There’s a moment where Gary is riding a motorbike, collides with the camera, and awkwardly flips over. It’s so jarring and dumb that it gets a laugh. I’m pretty sure that this was an actual accident left in the film.
This is the sort of film where you find enjoyment in the decoration – the occasional bit of inspired craft or filmmaking, the funny one-liners, the songs – rather than the substance. TA:WP is like scaffolding that stays up while the building at the center collapses. The satirical core of the film – which should have been its strong element – ends up just being a gaping black hole.
You’ve heard your friends talking about this Netflix documentary, and I suggest you see it right now, before it saturates the water cooler ecoystem and it loses its shock value. It’s sad that nobody can watch The Sixth Sense in 2020 without knowing that Bruce Willis is a ghost. I’d hurry up and watch Tiger King before it gets spoiled for you.
It’s one of the most insane things I’ve ever seen. The people in it hardly seem real. I was constantly veering between shock and laughter. “…he’d come and rub them balls in my face” gets spoken at an eulogy. A man shoots himself in the head barely off camera, and it’s not even the fifth craziest thing to happen in that episode. There’s a straightfaced discussion about whether a human body can be put through an industrial mincer.
Basically, it’s about a war between owners of big cats, which culminates in a tangle of attempted (and perhaps successful?) murders. Joe Exotic owns a zoo. Carole Baskin owns an “animal rescue” that is indistinguishable from a zoo. Both of these people have a lot of shady history: we get the sense that they’re both dangerous, as well as incapable of walking away from any situation where they see themselves as the loser.
Owning a big cat is legal in most US states: but not in a same way that owning a head of lettuce is legal. The animals are as dangerous as their owners (one of Joe Exotic’s weirdly devoted employees loses an arm in a tiger cage) and there are laws against breeding them. Joe is clearly on the wrong side of these laws, but he needs to breed them, because it’s the only way his zoo can remain profitable.
The documentary educates you on the brutal economics of the tiger business: an adult tiger costs several thousand dollars per month to feed, and you can’t do anything with them except exhibit them. The real money is in tiger cubs, which are small enough to be cuddled and petted. Joe Exotic claims he can make a hundred thousand dollars from a newborn cub.
However, profitable cubs age into unprofitable tigers. Joe’s zoo in Wynnewood Oklahoma (aka Backup Florida) had a total 176 tigers, saddling him with staggering food bills and forcing him to breed still more cubs. The Chinese saying “he who rides on the back of a tiger can never get off” describes Joe’s basic dilemma: he’s running a tiger-based Ponzi scheme that will basically never be profitable (except in the short term). Unless he euthanizes grown tigers, which he’s pretty clearly doing.
He might have escaped notice for this, but he also starts targeting human prey. Supposed animal rights activist Carole Baskin may have fired the first shot in their war (she objects on moral grounds to the breeding of tiger cubs), but he escalates their feud to ridiculous, Wile E Coyote levels, piling up incriminating evidence against himself. The series straight away spoils the ending – Joe Exotic makes a call from his Fort Worth prison cell – but there’s no way it could have ended any other way. It’s a testament to the man’s unnatural charisma that he got away with so much for so long.
It’s hard to describe how fun and exhilerating Tiger King is. Even thinking about a few of my favorite moments overwhelms me with options. It’s like digging a hole to find gold, but the dirt you’re casting aside is also gold, and your pickaxe is made of gold too.
It’ll give you a lot to think about, too. Joe Exotic would probably still be a free man if he hadn’t effectively lynched himself via social media. But his self-exhibiting impulses were the only reason he was ever successful: albeit in a quasi-legal fashion. And in this sense, is he any different from the tigers he kept?
About ten years ago, there was a “furry” called Stalking Cat who took his feline obsession to ghastly extremes, undergoing over fourteen body modifications to become a tigress before committing suicide. Joe Exotic succeeded where Stalking Cat failed. Spiritually, he became a tiger.
The main role of tigers, in our culture, is to stand out and attract attention. If they were boring, they’d already be extinct. They survive because people love them. Joe Exotic was the ultimate charismatic megafauna. We adulated him, we feared him, and eventually, we put him in a cage.
This isn’t good at all.
It’s barely even a movie: it’s like a long episode of Batman: The Animated Series featuring an occasional boob and a soundtrack of angsty, edgy mallcore. Music was shit-awful in the year 2000, and if you need a reminder, the first Slipknot album is shorter by thirty minutes, so listen to that instead.
What connection does it share to the original Heavy Metal? The title.
Instead of being an anthology, it contains a single bad story based on a graphic novel by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman. The plot (narrated by someone who was probably making dramatic hand gestures in the vocal booth), involves the Arakacians producing an elixir of immortality and a secret key lost in space and a villainous asteroid miner and a tertiary villain who’s a dinosaur and an xtreme grrl heroine and a second xtreme grrl heroine and a plucky comic relief character who later becomes a sidekick and is replaced by a different plucky comic relief and a plot MacGuffin and Guy DeBord and Roland Barthes and asdf
The film is overloaded with detail and characters, because it’s basically a 170 page graphic novel jammed into a VHS player with a shoehorn. The screenplay couldn’t have more holes if it was made of swiss cheese. Where does the villainous Tyler get the weapons he uses for the raid on Eden? Why do none of those futuristic space-guns appear in the final showdown, which is fought with spears and swords? Why does becoming evil cause your hair to grow twenty inches?
Action girl #1 is played by Julia Strain. She has boobs. She beats the shit out of people who look at her boobs. What more character development do you need? Tyler himself looks like Ruber from 1998’s dose of box office strychnine Quest for Camelot, and exemplifies the problem I have with almost all “crazy” cartoon villains (such as Batman’s Joker): he turns sane and calculating whenever the plot requires it. The result is a mechanical artifice of a film where you can feel the interference of the writer on every frame. Why do characters do anything in Heavy Metal 2000? Kevin Eastman wanted them to do it.
“Calculating” applies to the film in general. There’s none of the sense of liberty and freedom of the original – instead it’s like a cold-eyed gambler, hedging every bet.
A great example is the SHOCKING ADULT CONTENT…which isn’t integrated in any way to the story! 95% of the film is a bland Saturday morning cartoon, then we get a pointless splash of violence and nudity, then the movie becomes a Saturday morning cartoon again. This is obviously intentional: they set up the movie so they could quickly chop all objectionable content and get a PG-13 rating. The quislings.
The animation is TV quality. Suffice to say that 90s cartoons looked as shitty as 90s music sounded: Heavy Metal 2000 is dark, lacks contrast, and has the palette of an Excedrin headache. Enjoy your browns, grays, and khaki greens. This is like playing Quake, right down to the underwhelming final boss.
This underscores the biggest offense Heavy Metal 2000 commits: it isn’t fun. Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi once said something (aside from “I thought she was 18, your honor”) that I find profound: animation’s strength is that it creates visuals that would be impossible with live action. If you animate visuals that are even more drab and bland than real life, you’re ignoring the possibilities of the medium. Heavy Metal 2000 doesn’t just ignore the possibilities, it hoists the black flag and directly repudiate them. What an ugly fucking film.
Heavy Metal was only barely successful. Heavy Metal 2000 went direct-to-video, and should have gone direct-to-landfill. It killed off attempts to bring Metal Hurlant to life for nearly another 20 years, before an anthology called Love, Death & Robots appeared on Netflix. I haven’t seen it and probably won’t: it’ll likely be a pandering joke full of references to Twitter and trans issues, with a villain called “Tonaald D’rump” or some shit. Heavy Metal is a nostalgic look at the past. As such, it’s best left in the past. The world did not and still does not need another Heavy Metal.
I decided to watch the 1981 animated film Heavy Metal because of its reputation.
Like Vegemite and the blonde German chanteuse on the first Velvet Underground album, Heavy Metal doesn’t have an especially good or a bad reputation; it merely has one. It grossed $20.1 million on a $9.3 million budget, enough to be considered a mild hit but not enough for a sequel. It has 6.7/10 on IMDB and a 60% Rotten Tomatoes score (critics’ consensus: “sexist, juvenile, and dated”).
It’s based upon the Heavy Metal comics anthology, which in turn is derived upon Métal Hurlant, the legendarily explicit French outfit home to everyone from Paolo Eleuteri Serpieri to Moebius; the film adapts stories from the comics, which vary from erotica to science fiction to horror. The art style changes from segment to segment, ranging from itchy “realistic” rotoscoped footage to stuff that could be a Saturday morning cartoon.
I watched it once. It made an impression. I watched it again. I decided I really liked it.
Halfway through my third rewatch, I thought this is my favorite movie of all time.
Heavy Metal is spellbinding yet rationally hard to defend. I like it more than any movie I’ve ever seen, but what intellectual case can be made for it? It’s embarrassing. There’s actually a story about a dweeb who visits a fantasy world, gains huge muscles, and has sex with hot babes. The art is sometimes excellent but more often workmanlike. The “groovy, man” tone of the writing hasn’t aged well. If “auteurness” is important to you, this lacks the personality of a Bakshi film or the polish of a Don Bluth. I have no idea who the individual directors are, or what they did before or sense. So what does it have that makes it special?
It has heart. Sincerity. It throws itself before the mercy of the court and receives a pardon. Heavy Metal elicits the nostalgia-drenched emotions of a beloved childhood film that I haven’t seen in twenty years, but I first saw it ten months ago. How’s that possible? How can you be Pavlov’s dog and salivate before you hear the bell?
“Soft Landing” is a stop-motion music video depicting a Corvette falling from orbit and landing in a field.
“Grimaldi” provides the framing device: a glowing green orb called the Loc-Nar (“the sum of all evils”) hypnotizes a young girl and shows her visions of the devastation it has wrought across time and space. These visions form the remainder of the film’s shorts. I hate it when words seem like anagrams but aren’t, and “Loc-Nar” is such a word.
“Harry Canyon” is the hard-luck tale of a New York cab driver in 2031 (ten years away!), driving aliens and vaporising mugs. He gets tangled up with a pretty young moll who’s on the run from the local goon squad (representative line: “Here I was, stuck with this beautiful girl. I knew she was gonna be nothin’ but trouble”). Might be mistaken as a parody of noir crime, but Heavy Metal is too earnest to parody anything.
“Den” is an adolescent nerd power fantasy. Describing the plot in detail would cause me to break out in pimples and start expressing strong opinions about D&D 5th Ed, so I’ll just say that it’s charming and pleasant, with a wonderful final shot. Den has the voice (but not the physique) of John Candy.
“Captain Sternn”‘s eponymous hero is in a jam. He’s on trial for 12 counts of murder, 22 counts of robbery, 37 counts of rape, et cetera. He thinks he has a plan to get off the hook (no, it doesn’t involve getting a job in the TRUMP ADMINISTRATION, ha ha), but as usual the Loc-Nar appears and ruins everything. Entertaining but lightweight, “Captain Stern” is the only segment that could have been cut without dramatically worsening the film. But it’s cute.
“B-17”, by contrast, is horrific. The pilot of a WWII bomber is flying home after a sortie, only to notice that everyone on his plane has died. Or have they? Gruesome and unredeeming, it’s similar to the Aldapuerta short story “Ikarus”, as well as the Twilight Zone episode “Terror at 20,000 Feet”. Great art, and a sense of doom as thick as squid ink.
“So Beautiful & So Dangerous” is about a babelicious fox/foxelicious babe who gets abducted by aliens and decides she’s into anal probes. I haven’t read the original comic but there’s clearly piles of story being left on the cutting room floor – we never learn what’s causing the mutations, for example. You have to leave room for tits and drug references, and this has plenty of both.
“Taarna” is an epic that closes off the film and resolves the story of the Loc-Nar. A peaceful people are on the verge of being slaughtered, and the warrior maiden Taarna rides to save them. It’s a heavily compressed version of a Moebius story, with continuity errors appearing at a rate of about two a minute (random example: how does Taarna get her sword back after escaping the pit?), but its flaws are obliterated by its grand, epic heft. The short evokes nigh-apocalyptic size: seeing this on a big screen must have been something. There’s some gorgeous panoramic shots of landscapes where every grain of sand seems to be animated – were computers involved? The final few minutes are a masterclass in color: bloody battles against an incarnadine sky, sickly green as the Loc-Nar makes its final stand, and a final shot of black splashed with faint colour: hope still exists, but you have to reach for it, into the stars.
Describing anything in Heavy Metal is a waste of time: all I can do is describe my reaction to it, which is beyond positive. Heavy Metal stands alone. It needs every concession ever made, and gets them. I don’t care if it objectively sucks, I don’t care if you think the comics were better: this is the best movie ever made by human hands.
This HBO documentary has so many creepy moments that it’s difficult for any to stand out. Here’s one that did.
Imagine that your kid brother is living a real-life fairytale: he’s best buddies with with the world’s biggest music star, hanging out at the guy’s cool-ass mansion, eating ice-cream and playing videogames with him, and hearing secrets that Vanity Fair will never know.
It sounds unbelievable, like a tall tale from the playground’s biggest bullshitter (“I’m going steady with Miss America! No, you can’t meet her, she goes to another school!”) but this is actually happening to your brother. It’s enough to make you believe in magic.
Then you turn on the TV. A child exactly like your younger brother is accusing the pop star of abusing him.
Wouldn’t your brain…implode? The fairytale is gone. The years of happiness are now have a sinister new context. Was this what was happening to your younger brother? Those holidays and funpark rides and sleepovers…was this the price?
That’s the situation the brother of Wade Robson (one of the two subjects of the documentary, with James Safechuck being the other) found himself in 1993. It’s emblematic of how the Michael Jackson story has ended: too good to be true. I’ve heard alcohol described as a way of robbing happiness from tomorrow. Michael Jackson was cultural alcohol: the past was fun; but now the hangover has arrived. To be fair, Michael Jackson may have stolen happiness from some people’s present, too.
I grew up in the 90s, when he seemed terrifying: a raceless, genderless skeleton with bleached skin and a face crafted from paper mache. I laughed when people called him a “sex symbol”. For whom? Department store mannequins?
If I’d grown up in the 80s, I might have had different memories: an impossibly talented vocal acrobat who (along with Quincy Jones) created large parts of the 80s as they are now remembered.
But even in his glory days there was something strange about Michael, as though every camera was looking at him from slightly the wrong angle. In 1984 he swept up eight Grammy awards for Thriller, which had sold thirty-four million copies in twenty months. He was accompanied to the awards ceremony by Brooke Shields, one of the most desirable women on the planet, but he spent the entire evening ignoring her in favor of twelve-year-old Emmanuel Lewis, who sat on his lap.
Things deteriorated after Jones left his life. In the nineties he had a reputation as a talented but eccentric and even faintly sinister man – Howard Hughes with a surgically reconstructed nose. The tabloids (sensing skeletons in his Neverland closet) aggressively hounded him, and this became a narrative upheld by fans to this day: poor Michael Jackson, harassed by the media. Can’t they all just leave him alone?
If one half of Leaving Neverland is true, the media didn’t harass him nearly enough.
It’s a documentary about false and true narratives: it doesn’t hide (for example) the fact that Safechuck and Robson testified that Michael Jackson never touched them during the 1993 Jim Chandler trial. However, it puts this in proper context – they were kids who had been Michael’s favorite. They wanted to be his favorite again. They wanted his approval, his love, and when Michael coached them on what to say in court, they said it.
The documentary runs for four hours. There’s a lot of biographical detail on two people you’ve probably never heard of unless you’re a hardcore Jacko defender with his entire legal saga pinned on the wall with red tape (in which case, your opinions about Safechuck and Robson are probably negative). At first the homespun folksy stories of S&R’s childhoods seem pointless, but they quickly prove their worth: Jackson is such a massive figure that it’s easy for everyone in his orbit to seem like a 2D cutouts, as inhuman as the dancing zombies in “Thriller”. The director wanted to make the accusers seem like people you know.
If so, it worked. I believe them. They seem credible. Misremembering a date or a location is typical when twenty five years have passed, and so is feeling affection for one’s molester. There’s detailed descriptions of sex acts, which gives the documentary a compulsive rubbernecking-the-car-crash aspect. Tip: if you don’t want to hear stuff like “In Paris, he introduced me to masturbation”, maybe watch Regular Show instead. Equally disturbing are the faxes Michael sent the boys, and the desperate manipulation he tried towards the end to stop his entire house of cards collapsing.
The bottom line? Michael Jackson was probably a pedophile, and his defenders were wrong. Their webpages and blog posts and Facebook groups (“TOP 10 PROVEN SAFECHUCK LIES!!! #MJINNOCENT”) are barricades built to defend an image of a man who only exists in their imagination.
So where does that leave Michael Jackson in the year 2020? Is he “cancelled”? Is that even possible? There’s a psychological term called “splitting” – an inability to view people as having both good and bad sides. Michael’s strongest defenders clearly love his music, and certain aspects of his personality (philanthropy, generosity, etc) inspired them. Claims that he molested children represent a threat to that image of Michael, which is why they argue themselves into logical pretzels defending him.
It doesn’t have to be that way. You can still enjoy Michael’s music (and be inspired by the positive sides to his character) without retreating into solipsistic delusion. Michael caused people to become better – it was what he loved to do – and we become better when we embrace the truth. Watch Finding Neverland and let Michael Jackson change you one final time.
“Jack and the Beanstalk” is the American Psycho of fairy tales.
The hero breaks into a man’s house, steals his possessions, and murders him when caught in the deed. Most retellings add a clumsy exculpatory backstory (the giant killed Jack’s father, or something), but the tale has enough malevolence to be an interesting choice for one of the Disney studio’s “fairytale + mouse” adaptions.
Mickey and the Beanstalk was released with center billing in 1947’s Fun and Fancy Free, and re-cut for TV several times with different narrators, including Ludwig Von Drake, Shari Lewis, and Winnie the Pooh voice actor Sterling Holloway. The tale begins in Happy Valley, where “all the world is gay”. The gayness stems from a magical harp, which is stolen one fateful night. The crops fail and the river dries up, leaving three unfortunate peasants (Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy) facing starvation. There’s a hilarious gag involving Mickey Mouse slicing transparently thin sandwiches from a single slice of bread.
Mickey foolishly trades their last cow for some magic beans, which grow into a huge beanstalk, reaching up into the clouds and a giant’s castle. The giant is one hell of a dude: you’d think merely being a giant would be enough, but he also possesses magical powers allowing him to fly or transform into anything. It’s like the Tommy Lee/Pam Anderson sex tape, where we discover that, in addition to being a millionaire rockstar, Tommy Lee also has a huge penis. Some guys get all the luck.
Mickey’s plan to trick the giant into turning into a fly and swatting him fails, and Donald and Goofy are locked inside a snuff box. This leads to the film’s most nail-biting moment – Mickey stealing the key from the giant’s pocket while he sleeps. It’s unfortunately necessary to kill the giant at this point, which they achieve through a method that doesn’t make a lot of sense given what we know about his powers.
Mickey and the Beanstalk is well animated, well conceived, and has some laughs. If I had a complaint, it doesn’t find a use for Goofy. Disney’s “big three” are types: Mickey is the straight man, Donald is angry, spiteful, and insecure, and Goofy is the good-natured fool. The latter role is filled by the giant, giving Goofy nothing to do (except a cute scene where he tries to rescue his hat from a giant-sized block of jelly).
There is (perhaps) a deeper level to this film than I initially thought.
In 1913, an aqueduct was built, diverting the Owens River to Los Angeles. This enabled La-La Land to grow to its current size, but it had a dark side: Owens Lake completely dried up, devastating Owens Valley and ruining the livelihood of many farmers. The man responsible for this was William Mulholland. It might be a coincidence, but the name of the giant is “Big Willie”. I also note that Owens Lake is only a three hour drive from Burbank.