…He’s a mouse, see. Movies about animals are legally required to have a pun in the title, and An American Tail walked so that Dog With A Blog and Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked could run.
It’s one of the grim, high-concept films Don Bluth made after he left Disney due to concerns that they’d drifted from their mission of upsetting children. Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, and The Land Before Time are famed for their craftsmanship, but they’re tough sledding, darker than any Disney film except for The Black Cauldron. A lot of people remember these films as classics. A lot of them also remember being scared and covering their eyes.
Tail is a parable about antisemitism. Fievel Mousekewitz’s family lives in a mousehole underneath a shtel in 1880’s Russia, until Cossacks burn down the shtel, and a gang of cats destroy their home. The opening scene is kind of hilarious, with mice being chased around by fez wearing, black-mustached cats roughly the size of Shetland ponies. Their growls have been pitch-adjusted down into half-terrifying, half-comical gurgles. If the cats could breathe radioactive fire, this would be a kaiju film.
The displaced Mousekewitzes board a steamer bound for America, a place where (they have been told) there are no cats. Fievel unwisely ascends to the fore-deck during a storm, is blown overboard, and eventually washes ashore in a bottle. The rest of the film involves him looking for his family, along with some other complications.
Tail’s plotting is less surefooted than NIMH or Time. After the problem is established (“will Fievel be reunited with his family?”), a number of supporting characters are dumped into the story – a friendly pigeon, a streetwise Italian mouse, a sign-waving female mouse activist, a rich lady mouse, a back-slapping politician type, a helpful vegetarian cat, and so on – turning the film into an top-heavy mass of characters right when it needs to be sleek and streamlined. I remember being confused and uninvolved when I first saw it. It became a series of events. And the villain is so forgettable that I did exactly that – forgot the movie even had a villain.
And although the animation is clearly Bluth, the film looks dull next to his other films. Secret of NIMH sparkled and twinkled, as if the cel sheets were studded with jewels. The Land Before Time had the hot, ferocious glow of the old world. Tail is just plain colorless. Dark seas. Sewers. City streets blanketed in smog. Average out all the pixels in the film and you’d get a muddy green-gray.
But it’s heartfelt, for all that. And the final showdown is both exciting and clever in how it pays off IOUs incurred at the start of the movie.
Roger Ebert criticized the film for being about anti-Semitism, while not explaining this in a way that children can understanding.
One of the central curiosities of “An American Tail” is that it tells a specifically Jewish experience but does not attempt to inform its young viewers that the characters are Jewish or that the house burning was anti-Semitic. I suppose that would be a downer for the little tykes in the theater, but what do they think while watching the present version? That houses are likely to be burned down at random?
I understand his point, but children can hear the music without hearing the words. They might not know what a ghetto or a blood libel is, but they’ll have encountered playground bullies – people who pick on you because you look different, or talk weird – and can relate the plight of the Jews to that of the mice. We’re not meant to sense any difference between the cossacks and cats: they attack at the same time, like two heads of the same hydra. And the Mousekewitzes are clearly different in a way that transcends species. One of Fievel’s problems in America is that everyone think his name sounds silly, so he changes it to a more goyische Phil. This is matched by a shot of a human Jew likewise changing his name.
In short, a kind of messy but compelling picture. I’m not a believer that Don Bluth could do no wrong, but he was doing very little of it the 80s.
Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective came out the same year, with nearly the same concept (a society of mice running parallel to ours). An American Tail is a worthy example of an animated twin film, along with Aladdin and The Princess and the Cobbler in 1992-3, Antz and A Bug’s Life in 1998, The Road to El Dorado and The Emperor’s New Groove in 2000, Treasure Planet and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas in 2002/3, etc. How to explain this? Animated films typically take years to make, which prohibits quick imitations and knockoffs.
(I got Mandela effect’d. I distinctly remember that Fievel sees whales on the ship. On the rewatch I conducted for this review: nope, no whales. His father describes “fish as big as this boat”, and we hear mournful whalesong, and a later Don Bluth film (The Pebble and the Penguin) features whales, so maybe my brain made a lot of connections. Another example of how movies in memories are not real movies.)
“If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster.”
If you undercrank stock footage of a city it looks frantic, and if you put peaceful music over a natural landscape it looks calm. That’s Koyaanisqatsi: an emotionally moving but intellectually casuistic tale of a supposed clash between modern man and nature.
Director Godfrey Reggio seeks to show the world we live in, but he relies heavily, too heavily, on audiovisual effect, and the film ends up feeling artificial and manipulated, more like a staged ballet than a piece of honest documentation. I’m reminded of Luis Buñuel’s 1933 “documentary” of Spain’s remote Las Hurdes mountains, Land Without Bread. The theme – this is a harsh land, where life is cheap – is sold by a powerful shot of a goat climbing a steep cliff and slipping and tumbling to its death. When you learn that the scene was staged (the goat was shot with a rifle) you feel a little cheated.
Godfrey Reggio’s film isn’t deceptive in the same way, but why contrast bustling cities with the Grand Canyon? Is this a logical or obvious comparison? Why not compare a city with a raging ocean? The Antarctic Circumpolar Current carries a million times as many tonnes of water through the Drake Passage than Times Square does cars. There is peacefulness in civilization, and instability in nature.
“Koyaanisqatsi” is a Hopi word, defined (according to Wikipedia) as “life of moral corruption and turmoil” or “life out of balance”. The film ends with Hopi prophecies portending our doom. The film’s reverence toward primitive man is of a piece with most environmentalist scare programming on TV: white people are bad, capitalism is bad, technology and industry are bad. Instead, we should take a moment to learn from beautiful primitive people, who have so much to teach us. It’s strange that most of the people promulgating this regressive message are politically left wing, – nostalgia for the 1950s makes you a conservative dinosaur, but nostalgia for 10000 BC makes you an enlightened child of the earth-spirit?
I don’t argue that modern society is perfect, just that our greedy hyper-capitalist “life out of balance” has brought us good things, too: medicine, global communications, global transport, and the ability to make and distribute a film such as Koyaanisqatsi. We’ve created problems (climate change), but we now also have the tools to fix them. By contrast, primitive people are largely helpless against desertification, disease, ecological collapse, and so on. Any romance one feels towards pre-technological civilization probably lasts until your first toothache.
While I dislike Koyaanisqatsi‘s theme, I like almost everything else about it. It’s an extremely clever folding of sound over image (and vice versa), demonstrating how one can enhance and illuminate the other.
The visuals are powerful. Clouds slide in reflection across glass skyscrapers, time-lapsed so that they ripple and pulsate like gaseous alien creatures. Endless streams of traffic flow down streets, accelerated into rivers of pure light. Koyaanisqatsi was a microbudget production and contains a lot of stock footage, but the way this footage is cut together is always clever and interesting.
Popular culture was influenced by Reggio’s style. The “sped-up urban footage” motif endemic to 90s music videos started here, for example. Near the end of the movie there’s an extended sequence where the camera tracks a person in the street…until they look up, notice they’re being filmed, and we cut to another person. To be honest, I’m not sure what the point is, but it’s a striking trick, and I’ve seen it imitated since.
Philip Glass’s music is the equivalent of a pointillistic painting, thousands of self-referential cycles of dying notes that seem to melt inside the ear like icicles. The soundtrack is complex yet paradoxically simple. Brian Eno’s pioneering ambient music in the 1970s attempted to reward any level of listener attention (whether you’re focusing intently or listening with half an ear, the music should be enjoyable), and Glass’s work achieves this with even more beauty and concision.
The film was released and the world kept turning. Reggio tried to reignite the fire of Koyaanisqatsi twice, with 1988’s Powaqqatsi (which was about third world exploitation), and Naqoyqatsi (which was about futurism and accelerationism).
The later films had bigger budgets but smaller impacts: they were like bombs landing on a target already blown to rubble. The trouble with making sequels to an experimental film is that, by definition, you’re no longer experimenting: you’re adding to a tradition. And even though Naqoyqatsi (in particular) tried to differentiate itself by amping up the digital editing to ridiculous and obnoxious levels, the Koyaanisqatsi approach had soaked into popular culture, and no longer seemed new or interesting. Hard to be impressed by time-lapse footage when you can change the channel and see the same stuff in Nike ads and Madonna music videos.
Koyaanisqatsi is an awkward beast. Its strongest element is its craft…the craft that subtly works against it at every turn, because it adds distance between the viewer and the reality it portrays. This is one of those films that might be better if it was less competently made, because then we might the truth, instead of an endless farrago of editing tricks.
“My name is Aeon Flux. I’m here on a mission to assassinate Trevor Goodchild.”
Fans of “unusual” animated cartoons are often recommended Aeon Flux, which might be like recommending that a fan of chili peppers shove a flamethrower into his mouth. The show is dynamite in your brain, confusing, provocative, unclear, and ultimately highly rewarding.
Even Aeon Flux seems ill at ease with what it is. The first two seasons (1991-1992) are silent 2-5 minute works of expressionism, depicting a woman dying over and over. The third (1995) is a thirty-minute show where the characters “talk” (often without saying much).
It owes debts to German expressionism, Ralph Bakshi, and highbrow anime like Suehiro Maruo. It’s exaggerated to a degree that makes it difficult to successfully parody. In 2005, the fan Livejournal Monican Spies posted a “leaked” Aeon Flux movie script from SomethingAwful, causing confusion about whether it was real or not.
It’s a work of violence and tension: like a screw overtightened until it starts to strip its threads. All the men and women seem on the verge of either murdering or fucking each other. There are fetishistic fixations on body parts (feet, teeth, tongues, ears), and even the violence is amped up into a fetish, with heroes gunning down armies of enemies like a video game with the infinite ammo cheat enabled. The art is Slender Man-disturbing: everyone’s limbs seem stretched out twice as long as they need to be, and sexual acts are distressing, like watching the autophagous mating of two praying mantises.
Aeon Flux‘s mood is that of frustrating uncertainty. You feel like you’re just on the verge of understanding it, if only you knew one more fact. All of this probably makes Aeon Flux sound pretentious and obtuse, but it isn’t.
Honestly, it’s one of the few TV shows that makes any amount of sense.
Small Plot of Land
“For truly barren is profane education, which is always in labor but never gives birth. For what fruit worthy of such pangs does philosophy show for being so long in labor?” – Gregory of Nyssa
Aeon Flux is the vision of a particular man, Peter Chung, who conceived it (at least partially) as a reaction against unhealthy trends in mainstream TV.
Basically, Chung believes that most TV shows (and many other things besides) are dead. Not in the sense that they’re badly written, unimaginative, or the soulless products of corporations, duuuude (as if those are barriers to art); rather, he thinks they have a very specific cancer in their core.
Consider a basic question: what’s a story? A linear series of fictional events? No, that’s what a story looks like. What a story is (or should be) is a bridge: a way for an artist to connect to you and share his ideas.
This distinction is important. Yes, Catcher in the Rye has a story (Holden Caulfield flunks out of school, fights with a friend, and so on), but this is supposed to encode particular themes: adolescence, a search for authenticity, and so on. That’s the only reason the story exists. The plot is arbitrary: Holden Caulfield could be an Pueblo Indian boy living in 1700. The theme is the important part, not the specific details.
An overemphasis on narrative is deadly, smothering artistry instead of nurturing it. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a well-told story as much as the next person (I assume Chung does too), but you can’t care too much about them, or think that they exist just for their own sake.
A good story contains the shadow of the author; a bad story – even if it’s well-written – is a meaningless pile of details.
This, in Chung’s opinion, is the reason so many TV shows feel boring and inert. They’re bridges built to nowhere. They have literally nothing inside them except story. They’re a firehose of narrative and narrative and still more narrative, characters doing things and then more things and then still more things until the network cancels the show. As time passes, the fictional universe becomes more convoluted, but no more meaningful. It’s a dying star, expanding and sucking mass until it collapses under its own weight.
Our culture is littered with dead stars: endlessly-detailed fictional worlds that say absolutely nothing. As of 24/12/20, the Marvel wiki hosts 261,582 tedious pages, documenting Steve Ditko arcs from 1965 and timeless characters such as Deathcry [“With the invasion of Earth’s dimension by the entity called the Chaos King, Deathcry (along with other deceased Avengers Captain Marvel, Doctor Druid, the Vision, Yellowjacket, and the original Swordsman), returned from the dead. When Mar-Vell was killed again by the Grim Reaper, Deathcry inherited his cosmic awareness and became an enhanced version of herself as Lifecry.”] What’s the point? Was there ever a point? It’s all trees and no forest.
“I’ve started a few shows out of curiosity […] I get about 4 or 5 episodes in, and there’s always this maddening awareness that: 1. the plot is being dragged out as long as possible, and 2. the storytellers are only using the imaginative, speculative premise as some exotic backdrop to what amounts to soap opera. The provocative implications of the story’s premise are starved. Of course, they’re giving audiences what they want, because the truth is that most viewers aren’t looking to have their thoughts provoked or their minds expanded.” – Peter Chung, 2015, ILXOR
The disease doesn’t create itself. This thundering pointlessness is what the public wants. The average person consumes fiction on a shallow level, they can’t do thematic analysis, and the details are all they see and all they care about. They watch Twin Peaks and ask “who killed Laura Palmer?” They watch Inception and ask “does the spinning top fall at the end?” They’re obsessed with assembling the narrative details of a story like it’s a puzzle to be solved. They hate ambiguity, hate unresolved issues, hate not being told things. They want the plot to contain certain fixed details (if it’s a Young Adult book, it had better star a plucky, likable protagonist.) And most bewilderingly, they think that excessive narrative detail is in and of itself valuable.
I still remember being assured by a CRPG fan that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is an amazing work of art because it has over 1100 unique characters, or something. I haven’t played that game, but who gives a shit? Those characters are all arbitrary and made up. They have no external existence. A Markov chain could have generated them. Even people who should know better fall into this trap. “Tolkien invented his own language!” Is that the important thing about Lord of the Rings? That it’s a Berlitz language course? What’s the story really about?
Aeon Flux is a catharsis from the tyranny of narrative. It dials back the story to barely perceptible levels, and asks you to look behind it.
It’s a work of dystopian science fiction work that takes place in the year [doesn’t matter], featuring an athletic infiltrix whose name is the same as the show’s. She is an agent from the anarchist nation of Monica, and must infiltrate the totalitarian Bregna (for reasons that are unclear and subject to change), which is under the command of the Doctor Trevor Goodchilde.
Someone probably runs an Aeon Flux wiki that charts events blow-by-blow or whatever. Don’t bother reading it: that is the wrong way to analyse Aeon Flux. The sparse, contradictory plot details (such as a heroine you know nothing about, and who ends up dead a dozen times) exist just to collapse on the screen, allowing themes content to emerge. Aeon Flux is like one of those fish that has very thin skin, so you can see the glistening bones and organs inside.
The Inside View
“A concept is a brick. It can be used to build a courthouse of reason. Or it can be thrown through the window.” – Gilles Geleuze
Aeon Flux, fundamentally, is not hard to understand. Its ideas are unusually explicit and clear.
It’s about symbiosis: all ideas actually exist as part of an interconnected system: even the ones that seem to negate each other. Put more simply: the front wheel of a car needs a back wheel, and you need your enemy.
Aeon Flux represents extreme liberty, and Trevor extreme order. They’re ostensibly in conflict, but it’s an act. They’re as reliant on each other as men in a three-legged race.
Without rebels like Aeon, Trevor would have no way to justify his totalitarian measures. She’s the bogeyman, the Big Bad, the Eternal Jew, the Eastasia-with-whom-we-have-always-been-at-war, the Osama bin Laden that means you’re not allowed to bring scissors on a plane twenty years later. People like her are the fuel that keeps his engine of oppression running.
And he feels for himself the allure of freedom (even as he intellectually dismisses and publically denounces it). He’s a hypocrite. He supports global surveillance…but not for himself. He has a private area where he can be alone and unwatched. And of course, his totalitarianism is a manifestation of his own will. It’s very well to decide that nobody should have rights. If that decision was made for him, would he happily accept it? Or would he rebel, and become like Aeon? He loves power, and does what he must in order to keep it. He has no true allegiance to any ideology, and the exact shape of the world is of no concern to him: the important part is that he’s the one shaping it.
Likewise, Aeon is meaningless without Trevor. Her identity is Trevor-I-am-not, and like many rebels seeking to tear down the system, she has no plans for how to replace it. There’s a romance to fighting the evil; there’s no romance to being the evil. Johnny Rotten might raise a middle finger to society, but he’d never want to run society: he’d fuck it all up, and fail, and be remembered by history as a failure, and someone else would be a cool punk rocker. And there are good things in Trevor’s totalitarian state. It’s interesting how it’s always anarchist Monica invading totalitarian Bregna. Almost as if, despite its oppressiveness, Bregna is the one that has built something valuable…
And like him, she’s insincere. She repeatedly has Trevor at her mercy but doesn’t kill him. Without Trevor the game ends. She’d become like those Twitter leftists who has ejected anyone politically different from their social circle and spends their days fighting with other Twitter leftists about whether “latinx” is a colonialist slur, or whatever. Her identity is in the fight, she doesn’t know how to do anything else. She’s a human delete key: eradicating meaning without putting a single word of it back in, and she abhors the blank page an anarchy represents.
They’re both attracted to the ideals of the other, and this sublimates (if that’s the word) as physical lust. They hate that they love each other, can’t escape the umbilical cord. Figure needs ground. Ying needs yang.
Another point the show repeatedly makes: nobody is the main character.
Humans have the misfortune of being born with movie cameras in our head (literally: an Arriflex lens is designed to mimic the way our eyes perceive light). We live in a visual world that puts us at the center: if life is a movie, nobody thinks they’re an extra, or part of the second unit. Aeon Flux sometimes toys with the idea. What if you ultimately weren’t important?
The show repeatedly establishes Aeon Flux as a Campbellian hero…and undercuts it in a cruel, laughing way. Usually by killing her, suddenly and for a stupid reason.
In the first episode, she seems the verge of accomplishing her goal…and then dies because she stepped on a tack. The Monican intelligence agency obliterates all evidence of her body, and she isn’t mourned or remembered. Actually, that’s not quite right: in the final shot we see a guy in a store, perusing a sleazy foot fetish magazine depicting Aeon. That’s her legacy. Porn.
This iconoclasm of personal heroism is seen even more starkly in “War”, which runs for five minutes and contains fodder for a dozen doctoral theses. It depicts a battle between Breen and Monican forces under an oppressive red sun. Aeon is leading the charge. She’s a one-woman army, massacring scores of enemies with ludicrous ease. She never misses, and her guns never run out of ammunition. If you saw a Quake player doing what she does, you’d call her an aimhacker, you’d try to have her banned from the server. This feels like a parody of action movies: Aeon’s the hero, invincible, cloaked in Plot Armor.
And then it falls apart. Aeon’s is overpowered and disarmed by a single Breen soldier. He has her pinned on the ground, between gunsights, preparing to shoot. But then her gaze flickers over his shoulder. A friendly Monican agent is sneaking up behind him! Hurrah!
…but the Breen soldier shoots her, and then effortlessly kills her would-be rescuer, too. After this jarring anticlimax, the episode continues on in a bizarre direction. The camera changes sides, and we follow the nameless Breen soldier through the battle. He does the same thing Aeon did: except he’s slaughtering dozens of Monican soldiers. The exact same heroic beats and notes are used, the same filmmaking tricks that Peter Chung used to valorize Aeon are now to valorize a nameless Breen grunt (example: how he’s shot from an downwards angle, silhouetted dramatically against sky like a monolith)…it doesn’t seem to matter that he’s fighting on the wrong side.
We’re struck by the sense that the Breen soldier is undoing all of Aeon’s progress. And that he’s no less of a hero than she was. This is pointed commentary: it’s not just your side that gets to have heroes. There are heroes who hate everything you stand for, heroes who want to napalm your children.
But it goes on. The seemingly invincible Breen soldier meets his end: a Monican agent kills him. The camera changes allegiances again: following the Monikan agent, who slaughters endless numbers of et cetera (this time the parody is hilariously thick – the guy using a medieval sword, and the Breen soldiers can’t defeat him even though they have guns. It’s not even trying to be believable), until he meets a Breen woman, who…
The “War” episode ends with a characteristically picture-containing-a-thousand-dreams shot: the camera focuses on a punctured pipe, which is slowly leaking oil into a tiny puddle on the ground. Do we learn the fate of the final set of characters? Do we even find out who won the battle? Nope. Fuck you. Here’s a puddle on the ground. The camera has no friend. It recognizes no main character. The Universe doesn’t have an “eye” – and if it did, you’d be of no particular interest to it. It would be as likely to stare at a worm than it would be to follow your adventures.
…These were examples of what you get from Aeon Flux. I’m not claiming they’re profound themes, or original to Aeon Flux, or even that Aeon Flux always presents them in a skillful way. Sometimes things get a bit too drippy for my preference. In episode one, we get shots of crying women and children standing over the bodies of the soldiers Aeon killed (geddit? They had lives too!) which feels manipulative and unsubtle – although the shot of hapless Breen janitors staring at an ocean of blood with mops in their hand was funny.
Nevertheless, they’re themes. Ideas. Amid a sea of monster-of-the-week or verbal diarrhea, Aeon Flux is actually saying something. The glass teat learned to speak.
The Hot Equations
“Television knows no night. It is perpetual day. TV embodies our fear of the dark, of night, of the other side of things.” – Jean Baudrillard
Chung got the show made by lying.
“Initially they had a hard time understanding what Æon Flux was and what I was trying to do and why it belonged on Liquid Television. So I kind of had to pitch Æon Flux as a parody of action shows or action movies because everything on LiquidTV was a parody of something.” – Peter Chung, FormerPeople, 2014
Aeon Flux, aside from a few moments, is not a satire of anything. But this is how an auteur survives in Hollywood – you tell the suits what they want to hear, cash your checks, and then make whatever you were going to make anyway. Chung lucked out. Aeon Flux tested well, and MTV decided to keep rolling the dice with him.
He’s clearly a virtuoso: and his talent is immediately visible on the screen. It’s not a slow-burn type of show, it instantly grabs you with its visuals and sound design. The colors chosen, the way the action flows, the music, Aeon Flux is craftsmanship at a very high level.
And it encapsulates what I like about hand-drawn animation, the tension of imagination and constraint. In theory, you can draw anything you like, but it’s expensive and slow. TV runs at 24 frames per second, so an animator will potentially need twenty four unique pieces of art for every single second of run time. Most animation cheats by stretching one picture across multiple frames – it’s common to hear about animating “on the twos” (every 2nd frame has a new picture, like Disney movie), or “on the threes” (every 3rd frame has a new drawing, which is mostly reserved for anime and low-budget programming).
Despite these cost-saving measures, a lot of art has to be produced, even for a five minute work. You can’t not know what you’re doing. Every second of animation is blood squeezed from stone.
This puts the director on the ropes, forcing him to make sacrifices and tough decisions about what’s important to the vision. The sky is limitless, but your rocket ship only has a small amount of fuel. Where will you go?
This is why works of animation tend to be tightly scripted and edited: the action nailed in place by keyframes as precise as rivets on a battleship. This doesn’t mean they’re good, but at least you avoid the sort of aimless gonzo “just film whatever” bloat common to live action TV. Aeon Flux gleams with craftsmanship, but it’s all precisely directed and focused.
Which isn’t to say that Chung doesn’t splash out effort wherever he can. Sometimes he deliberately take the hard road. For instant, hand-drawing every single eyelash on a face. I’d never seen that on a TV show before. Aeon Flux has a visual style that’s entirely it’s own.
And although Chung attended Cal-Arts, members his team didn’t always have the “usual” animation CV. Background artist Tom McClure, for example, trained as an architect, and seems to draw on this to create baroque environments that are nonetheless sensible and physics based. You can feel his otherworldly structures creak and thrum as they disperse force from the wind. Even the pilot episode (which McClure didn’t work on) features astounding detail. It’s typical for animation to blow its wad on the focal foreground elements (characters, and so forth), with backgrounds becoming a barely-present outline. But in the first episode we see Aeon Flux is breaking into an industrial complex of some kind, and although it’s clearly complicated, you can sense everything architecturally connect and make sense. Aeon Flux’s world is an arbitrary and confusing and self-contradictory one, but it’s also as perfect as an ice crystal.
The sound design is another strong point. Drew Neumann’s music is particularly felt in seasons 1 and 2, almost substituting for the missing dialog. It’s full of stabs and swirls and Orchestral motifs – arty and baroque stuff that matches, twists, and subverts the action like a riptide around the ankle of a swimmer. The Aeon Flux theme is essentially the Indiana Jones theme moved to Phrygian and 7/4 time. It sounds almost heroic but warped, like the melody has been worked over with a flamethrower and melted out of shape.
Even the names of the characters are chosen with care, and advance particular themes. The show’s an Freudian paradise.
Bregna sounds like regnant, but the addition of the letter B makes it an ugly word: slimy and unpleasant in connotation. It sounds like pregnant, smegma, phlegma, magma. It also sounds like impregnable, which would be ironic, because it isn’t. Set in opposite is the rogue state of Monica. Hegemonic? A broken part of a whole? It’s possible. I think it’s more likely a derivation from the Gnostic concept of the monad (monas), the highest level of God.
Aeon, in Gnosticism, is an emanation of God, a specific particle of the Monad. Flux indicates change, shift, perhaps corruption. These holy emanations come in male and female pairs called a syzygy: it seems that Aeon Flux and Peter might be such a union.
And consider Peter Goodchilde’s own surname. It’s ghoulishly nice. Isn’t there the whiff of something ironic and sinister in good child? It’s the sort of thing a defensive mother would say. Please officer, my son would never do a thing like that. He’s a good boy.
“The rulers wanted to deceive man, since they saw that he had a kinship with those that are truly good. They took the name of those that are good and gave it to those that are not good, so that through the names they might deceive him and bind them.” – Gospel of Philip
Aeon Flux was a classic case of “nobody heard the song, but those who did started a band on the same day”.
It punched above its weight, influencing a lot of things and a lot of people. You might not have seen Aeon Flux, but you’ve probably seen something from Aeon Flux: its visual style is aped in the Matrix and Blade movies, and in the aggressive, anatomy-defying fetishism of Rob Liefeld’s 90s comics. In May 2020, Elon Musk made the questionable decision to name his newborn son after the character.
It anticipates Tomb Raider and Resident Evil. One of barriers Chung faced from studios and audiences is that nobody had seen a heroine like Aeon Flux before. Now, everyone’s seen a heroine like Aeon Flux before – the most striking imitator being (again) the Matrix. Trinity is a cold Aeon Flux, hiding her fly-trapping eyelashes behind wraparound shades.
It inspired comic books and manga. It was made into a movie starring Charlize Theron, which I haven’t watched.
More than anything, it anticipated videogames that wouldn’t be made for another 5 years. This is the big mystery to me. I can’t find anyone from id Software or Valve claiming that they were inspired by Aeon Flux. Yet the action scenes are Wolfenstein 3D before Wolfenstein 3D, and the stealth parts suggest Thief and Half Life. The indoor environments just scream “mid-90s shooter”, polygons slotting together with Jengalike perfection, illuminated by raytraced lightmaps.
The only thing Aeon Flux has yet to inspire is a continuation of itself.
From time to time, I hear rumblings of an Aeon Flux revival. It’s debatable whether this will happen, or whether it needs to happen, or whether Chung will be involved.
Chung’s own mindset has moved on past Aeon Flux. It’s a concept he created in 1991, and it has some undeniably juvenile aspects – Aeon Flux’s sleazy T&A bondage outfit doesn’t seem connected with anything the show’s trying to say, other than to give it a salacious hook. As revealed in 2005, Chung had originally intended Aeon Flux to die – her first death was to be her final death – but as the show continued, he realized she had to come back.
Aeon Flux represents his vision, but only in a confined and compromised form, made to appease censors and bean-counters. If he’d had perfect freedom, it might have been very different. There’s nothing wrong with that. Everything on TV exists under those conditions. But nor is the show a work of holy scripture, or a sublime work of pure auteurism.
Here’s an interview where the interviewer asks him about a certain quote…but Chung no longer remembers it. It’s been too many years, too much water under the bridge. He now speaks about Aeon Flux with the measured care of a man talking in a second language.
“Trying to redo Aeon Flux now, over ten years since the last time I worked on it, I realized that my own interests are very different. My own take on the character is very different from what it was originally. I almost get the feeling that trying to adapt the character to the ideas and themes that interest me now would require reinventing the character altogether and at that point why do Aeon Flux? Why not just create something else? So that’s really the direction I want to go in.
One of the things that I’m working on now is an adaptation of Cyborg 009, which is a Japanese comic book character and an animation series from the ’60s, which I grew up with. Japanese animation is very popular all over the world, so a lot of it is being adapted into animated features.” – Peter Chung, 2008, AWN
Chung still clearly likes Aeon Flux, still enjoys talking about it and thinking about it. But it’s no longer his, exactly. He’s moved on.
A successful continuation of Aeon Flux would have to continue the show’s spirit, not its literal events. It might not even necessarily contain Aeon Flux and Peter Goodchilde. That risks turning the show into a formula and a franchise: Aeon cavorting around in leather bondage gear, shooting some people, someone mumbles some confusing Gnosticism, tune in next week. And that’s another variant of the trap Chung tried to avoid. It’s not necessary for things to run on for ever. Sometimes finishing points are necessary. A straight line, if followed forever, will inevitably lead straight over a cliff or into the sea.
What happens next? What needs to happen next? Nothing, really. The past is set, and Aeon Flux still stands: a numinous monument to contradictions, flaws, internal collapse, spirituality, mundanity, and change.
Judged on its own, it reaches great heights. Compared with the rest of TV (both in its day and ours), it splits the heavens. The world is full of literary smokestacks, jetting thick black clouds of pure narrative, clouds that are endlessly complex in their hills and valleys and yet are still a black petrocarbon mass that chokes anyone who breathes it. Aeon Flux is a reminders that behind the smog there lies the sky. It is cold, it is strange, it is huger than huge, and if you have the will you can spread your wings and fall endlessly into it.
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 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 some, it was the New Coke commercial; for others, 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 (or at least interesting). 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 “Thatcherism, 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 entertainment conglomerate Channel 23, who have invented a new form of TV ad called the “Blipvert”. 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 ultimately 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 later that day, 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 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 alarming 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 that relates to capitalism and media addiction (a reality TV show is attracting viewers through subliminal mind control, or something), 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 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 ripoff of a famous movie designed to fool you into buying it. 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. A rising tide lifts all boats, but it also lifts turds.
Mockbusters are frequently masterpieces of surrealism. They try hard to be safe and generic, but they always feel uncomfortable, creepy, freakish, and strange. You might say they follow the rules so hard they break them.
2002’s Max Magician and the Legend of the Rings is an archetypal mockbuster. It wears its can’t-fail concept on its sleeve (or rather, it’s cover): 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.
What he didn’t have, apparently, was a budget, actors, set designers, producers, or writers. Nobody involved in the movie seems to know what they’re doing, and some actually appear to be held on set at gunpoint. The result is an experience that has to be seen to be believed: a disastrous collage of fantasy cliches presented with a well intentioned “will this do?” attitude.
A young amateur magician called Max Majeck finds a doorway to a fantasy world under attack by a guy in a slightly better than average Ren Faire costume. Max saves the day by reading incantations out of a magic book, invoking awesome 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 wrong. 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, disarraying your ability to process it. There are elves. They have pig ears. The pig ears don’t match their skin tone. The queen of the elves is played by the same actress who plays Max’s mom. She has an incongruous Midwestern accent.
The audio should be singled out as being exceptionally bad. The music is laughably inappropriate, sounds like it came from a free stock library, and also may have been queued into the film by a deaf person. Countless lines of dialog are dubbed, suggesting that their original audio was spoiled somehow. They must have rewritten the dialog, too, because the lips generally don’t match the voices.
I 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 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 (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 remains good “make fun of bad movies” fodder. You’d do well to go into Max Magician armed with a few 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 from Britain.
Incredibly, people once trusted banks. 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 finance = piracy metaphor 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. That list of subsidiaries on the corporate boardroom of the Very Big Corporation Of America? There’s actual stuff written there.
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 in human form 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”. A typical episode features Zardip interacting with his new human friends, misunderstanding some heath concept in an amusing way, and being corrected. All the usual cliches make an appearance. Is there a rap song about the importance of health? Does air contain air?
I love the show’s title more than I love my family. It simultaneously manages to be clunky, overlong, grammatically challenged, redundant (is there such a thing as “unhealthy wellness”?), and if that’s not enough, it contains the word “Zardip”. Some TV guides didn’t even 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 feels like a joke.
In the late 80s and early 90s, Canadian broadcasting achieved a striking international presence, particularly in the British Commonwealth. As an Australian boy I saw damned near everything Nelvana and Atkinson’s Film Art ever made, or so it seemed. The historical reasons elude me. Perhaps the syndication rights were cheaper? In any case, Zardip’s Search For Schnorp doesn’t belong in a class with Babar and Caillou. Briefly syndicated, achieving no lasting fame or notoriety; it’s one of hundreds of shows that once existed and then abruptly didn’t.
Wikipedia questionably 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 excess Healthy Wellness(tm), because I can’t find them online. The IMDB entry for Zardip’s Search For Arglebargle 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 (or, for that matter, the day after).
Zardip is played by a striking child actor called Keram Malicki-Sanchez. He turns in a 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 A Printable Title wouldn’t be among the top results. It was. RIP.
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.