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 aspect to Max: everyone recognizes the character, but often they aren’t sure where he’s from or when they first saw him. For some, it was the New Coke commercial; for others, Max Headroom just exists, floating freely in conceptual ether. 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 terrifying machine running on a fuel of 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 annoy viewers and cause them to change the channel, but Blipverts allow ads to be compressed into a few seconds of high-intensity audiovisual stimulation. Ratings are through the roof. However, some people experience a side effect: they explode.
There’s some effective (and funny) satire where we see Channel 23 execs trying to defend Blipverts. 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? We’re probably supposed to remember how tobacco companies responded when their products were revealed as dangerous. Modern viewers will also think about oil companies and climate change.
Regardless, 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 Carter saw before crashing. Writer George Stone says British firms spent millions of pounds relabeling the “Max Headroom” signs in public garages to “Maximum Height”, due to association with the character. There’s a chance that Max Headroom actually cost Britain more money than it made.
The movie is not a high budget one. Its 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 and effective mood soon appears. The story’s confusing and hard to follow, but it’s never boring.
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 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 himself doesn’t do a lot in the movie. The same holds true for the American TV series: the episodes explore some science fiction conceit related to capitalism and media (a reality TV show is attracting viewers through subliminal mind control, or something), and Max serves as 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 his idiotic jokes and becoming more outdated day by day. 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.
Video hosts are passive, powerless ciphers, introducing the action without ever being a part of it. They’re 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.
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A “mockbuster” is a low-budget ripoff of a famous movie designed to trick you (or more likely your grandmother) into buying it. Major Hollywood films can have print and advertising budgets in the range of hundreds of millions of dollars, and just like harmless moths copy the markings of venomous wasps, a well-designed fraud can exploit another movie’s publicity blitz without spending a cent in advertising itself. A rising tide lifts all boats, but it also lifts turds.
Mockbusters are frequently masterpieces of surrealism. Their only desire is 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 cover): Lord of the Rings was making money, Harry Potter was making money, so if you combined those things into one movie, then hell, you’d make money squared. Money times money. Hopefully this plan worked, because the director clearly had crack debt times crack debt.
What he didn’t have 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 whose shamelessness is matched only by their incompetence. You feel genuine embarrassment for everyone in the zoning district.
Story? A young amateur magician called Max Majeck (you just heard the movie’s funniest joke, by the way) finds a doorway to a fantasy world under attack by a guy in a Ren Faire costume. Max saves the day by reading incantations out of a magic book, unleashing 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 about the movie is misjudged, including the decision to make it at all. The “fantasy realm” is clearly the woods outside someone’s house. The movie introduces an old, wise mentor character, forgets about him, introduces a second old, wise mentor, and then forgets about him. There’s a character called “Mr Tim” who refers to his wife as “Mrs Tim”, probably because it was too much work to come up with a woman’s name.
Like any truly bad movie, it’s actually hard to critique: it’s a firehose of awfulness overwhelming any cogent attempt to analyse it. An example of the rollercoaster ride the film takes you on: 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 speaks with the same Midwestern accent in both roles. I literally can’t focus on any one thing because there’s always something worse distracting me.
But the audio stands out as exceptionally horrible. The music is completely inappropriate, sounds like it came from a free stock library, and was 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 misunderstanding 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 (the talking mouse character + the children travelling between world plot point), The Neverending Story (the enchanted book), and Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (the goblins-bickering-in-the-closet scene at the end.)
It’s fairly good “make fun of bad movies” fodder. I suggest going 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 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 scene contains which Crimbil? This could be a drinking game. )
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.)
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This is a book of nightmares. It can be read online, but should it? You might regret it. It’s up there with “Loving Your Beast” (a zoophile’s guide on how to have sex with your dog) as one of the most excruciating things on the internet.
Who do you love more than anyone else in the world? Think of that person. Now picture being chained to their bloated corpse- forever. What was once my beloved body is now a corpse. I can only describe the feeling it gives me as supernatural revulsion. It’s unthinkable. Flabby, misshapen, atrophied, etiolated. When my legs kick and jerk me around, they seem to me like something indescribably loathsome. Not warm and mammalian or even reptilian. It’s like a crab or a spider. Like the twitching and jerking leg pulled off of a spider. A thing with no soul. Cold and hideous, harrowing, ghoulish. A grotesque, obscene, and hideous thing. It horrifies me and tears at my sanity. Everything inside of me screams to get away from it. How would you feel chained to your beloved’s ghastly, distended corpse? Sometimes when I am around others I feel as if I am struggling not to flinch with tarantulas crawling on my neck in my efforts to hide from everyone the torture I’m enduring.
It began (and ended) with a thread on motorbike forum Adventure Rider. A user with the ominous handle of OZYMANDIAS announced his intent to ride from Seattle to Argentina on a Kawasaki KLR650, his last big hurrah before law school.
He crashed just outside Acapulco, and woke up in a Mexican hospital, unable to move his legs. OZYMANDIAS (real name: Clayton Schwartz) had rolled the dice in the cripple lottery and won T4 paraplegia, meaning his spine was broken below the fourth thoracic vertebrae. Put a finger on the back of your neck, and then walk it down about four inches. Then imagine not using anything below that point – not even the smallest muscle – for the rest of your life.
“I am two arms and a head, attached to two-thirds of a corpse.”
Two Arms and a Head is not a biography but a tortured shriek. It transcends merely uncomfortable and becomes the equivalent of having the contents of a clogged drain oozing down your optical nerves. It’s repulsive and existentially horrifying, like a nonfiction Metamorphosis where Gregor Samsa loses two legs instead of gaining four.
It is not an “inspirational” book…except insofar as it inspires one to never get on a motorcycle. Then it’s the War and Peace of inspirational books.
It’s a wildly successful piece of writing, however, because it accomplishes one of the main goals of the craft: taking an alien experience and making it seem familiar with words. There are things about disability that you’d never think about unless you were there, and Clayton communicates these in unsparing detail.
Losing your body from the armpits down? As bad as that sounds, the reality is worse: Clayton hadn’t lost his body, it’s still there, he just can’t use it. He’s attached to 150 pounds of ballast, a parasitic tumor that makes up 70% of his mass. He repeatedly fantasizes about sawing his useless lower half away. He envies bilateral amputees.
Clayton piles on stomach-turning detail as to how he goes to the bathroom (or shits himself), how he gets into a car (with difficulty), how he deals with with neuropathic pain (he waits for it to stop), etc. He’s a prisoner in his own body. Every activity he used to take for granted is now as mechanically complex as the erection of Stonehenge. Every activity he used to enjoy is now impossible except as a parody of its former self. Going to the beach? That now means sitting on the shore and watching others swim. Building a house? That now means giving advice and passing nails and screws while someone else does the work. Having sex? Denotationally possible, but connotationally not.
The world is designed for the abled. More than that, nature designed us to be abled. He makes a striking analogy: imagine Manhattan was cut in half with a huge saw, and the lower half thrown away. Obviously everyone in lower Manhattan is dead, but upper Manhattan would suffer greatly, too: the fallout from broken power lines, roads to nowhere, destroyed sewage and drainage networks, etc would be colossal. Half a body doesn’t equal half a body, it equals something less, because that half was designed to work as part of a whole.
Most authors from the “disability lit” genre (Nick Vujicic, Sean Stephenson, etc) produce cheerful “I’m disabled and taking life by the balls!” motivational fluff. They’re upbeat, optimistic, accepting of the hand they were dealt, taking each day as it comes, and brimming with peppy slogans. The only disability is a closed mind!
In light of that, it’s genuinely shocking to read a disabled person liken their body to “a living, shitting, pissing, jerking, twitching corpse”. The book’s precis is that disability is a fate worse than death, and that anyone trying to say that this kind of life is worth living is delusionally misguided. He doesn’t want to motivate, just educate. He spends a lot of time kicking disability rights advocates (metaphorically, I mean), who he sees as trying to force a lifestyle – a deathstyle – upon people in his condition, when the most kind thing is euthenasia.
Often there is nothing more unpopular than the truth. I will not make many friends with this book, but that is my lot in exposing many things people would prefer not to see or know about.
Another difference between this and other disability lit books is that Clayton doesn’t really try to be likeable.
I’m sorry to say that, but it’s true. Sometimes he’s insufferably pretentious. The book opens with a literal preamble that name-drops Bertrand Russell, Soren Kierkegaard, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Then we get an angsty rant about religion that sounds like it’s from an atheist teenager’s Typepad in 2007. “The fawning, sycophantic, unquestioning, swooning, pitiable way so many worship God is enough to make me puke.” A fair amount of the book comes off as one-up-manship over other, less disabled people. “Oh, you think you’re disabled? You have no idea!”
Yes, Clayton was more disabled than some. But less disabled than others. He had some reason to be thankful. He only broke his T4 vertebra. A little higher, and he would have lost his arms as well, then the book would simply be called “Head”, and it would either not exist or be about ten times shorter due to the difficulty of composing.
And quadriplegia would have made it far more difficult for him to enact the final part of the plan. I suppose I should spoil it. Clayton’s case is fairly famous, after all.
This is not a book, but a suicide note. There’s a Wile E Coyote moment when you realise intends to kill himself, where it doesn’t register as real, and then he plunges you off a cliff.
There are things in the final part of the book that I never thought I’d read. He describes the knife entering his stomach in as much detail as he can, which is a lot. Clayton was wrong in the end: his disability did give him something denied to a normal person: he was able to write lucidly about stabbing himself while doing it, without overwhelming or short-circuiting from pain. The book’s final pages are extremely disconcerting: he wavers between nihilism and cheerfulness, sanity and loopiness, and the book simultaneously ends and crashes to a stop.
It’s very rare to see a man’s mental stage fluctuate so nakedly on the page. It reminds me of Louis Wain, who was an artist who drew cats. In his early years, they were naturalistic portraits, and he made a good amount of money selling them as postcards But as schizophrenia took hold of his brain, the cats became twisted and terrifying: resembling owls, monsters, demons. In his final years, they were little more than abstract explosions of light.
…Or so the common story of Louis Wain goes (some art historians now dispute it). But it’s what I thought of as I watched Clayton die: his vocabulary shrinks (or bleeds out), he makes increasingly frequent grammar and punctuation errors, and he becomes preoccupied with the bottom parts of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. He feels hot. He’s sweating. He feels dizzy. And then…
It’s a grim story, but a true one. And most importantly, it’s one that’s going to happen again. Other people are caught in Clayton’s situation. What can and should be done about them? What are the limits of life we should tell people to accept?
If nothing else, it’s worth remembering Clayton, the man who tried to find a silver lining on a cloud that covered the entire sky.
“I’m going to go now, done writing. Goodbye everyone.”
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