“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.
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Doom didn’t receive a proper retail release for a long time. For years, the “correct” way to get the game was still to log on to ftp.uwp.edu and spend all night downloading it on your 14.4k modem. This wedded the game to early internet culture: the idea of buying Doom in a store seems fundamentally wrong, like viewing a Pre-Raphaelite work of art on an iPhone.
Regardless, mission packs of varying quality and legality soon appeared on shelves. Many included a DOOM.EXE executable, and as such were a handy way to get the game if you weren’t on Al Gore’s information superhighway.
1997’s Depths of Doom was one of the last. It contains the original games (Doom + Thy Flesh Consumed + Doom II), plus DWANGO, plus Windows executables (playing at 640×480 was cool back in the day, although obsolete in an era of GZDoom). It also has Master Levels, a 21-level set that are generally superior to the originals in quality (aside from the shit joke level with fifty Cyberdemons shooting at you).
The second disc contains Maximum Doom, which was ~1800 fan-made levels downloaded from the internet. “Shovelware” is the term for this, I think. There’s no quality control: some levels crash, almost all suck, some are actually for different games like Heretic and Hexen, and some are graphical and audio mods containing content from the Simpsons or Monty Python, meaning the entire release is probably illegal.
But I still enjoy playing Doom wads. They’re historical documents from the pre-Google (<1995) internet…or the at least the part of it frequented by teenage boys. You see their fascinations spread out like a mandala: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Beavis and Butthead, porn stars who are now old enough to be grandmothers. If there’s a soundtrack, it’s probably a midi of Metallica or Pantera.
Some of them invite you into their lives in small but touching ways: designing levels based on their house or their mall or their school (that last one didn’t age well). I’m fascinated by how many of these uploaders include text files telling you how to contact them…including their real names, and phone numbers, and street addresses.
Was the internet less nasty in 1993? Or were kids stupider?
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Wally/Waldo is a man in a red striped jumper and bobble hat, hiding somewhere in a complicated picture. Why does he wear such a distinctive outfit? Why not wear black clothes and blacken his face and hide in a coal mine?* Because Wally’s not actually hiding. You’re supposed to find him.
The appeal of games – from Martin Gardner puzzle books to Super Mario Bros – is that they invite you into a universe that wants you to win. Reality isn’t like that, and people addicted to games are often addicted for good reason.
But Where’s Wally puzzles are fascinating even when you’re not an addict. They carry a magical enchantment – one glance sucks you in, and then you’ve spent five minutes looking for a ridiculous bobble hat. Or ten minutes. Or however long it takes. I’ve heard disturbing stories of people posting edited puzzles online with Wally removed. And you thought you didn’t support the death penalty.
I wonder how many children were subconsciously influenced to become programmers by these books. Finding Wally takes skill as well as luck: it’s fundamentally a search problem, and there are several ways to find Wally.
The most obvious method is a blind fishing algorithm; let your gaze wander around on the page until you spot the striped jumper by chance. This is a poor method: it’s hard to remember the places you’ve already looked and you’ll probably check the same place multiple times. Also, the human eye is a biased sampling tool. It’s drawn to busy, high-interest areas, which won’t necessarily contain Wally.
A better method is to cut the page into a 10*10 grid of tiles (either with your eye or a knife), and examine it square by square. You’ll find Wally eventually, but it might take a long time: if you start looking top-left and Wally’s at bottom-right, you’ll have to check every single tile.
Is there a faster way? Yes. Remember that not every tile is equally likely to contain Wally. Some contain empty water or empty sky. More fundamentally, you’re not looking for Wally; he doesn’t exist, you’re looking for an illustration on a page containing red ink. Any square without red will ipso facto not contain Wally, so throw all of them away.
You are now left with a small number of tiles that maybe contain Wally. Speed up your search still further by remembering that Where’s Wally is a book, and the author rarely puts Wally on the edge of a page (because you’ll look there when you turn the page), or in the top left corner (because there’s a text box there describing the environment). Arrange your tiles so that the unlikely ones are on the bottom. Using this method, you’ll have tiles sorted high-probability to low-probability, and you’ll probably find Wally after picking up just a few. That is, if you don’t suffer a fatal heart attack from EXCITEMENT.
It’s possible to solve a Where’s Wally puzzle quickly, just as it’s possible to eat an ice cream in ten seconds, but part of the appeal is taking your time and enjoying the art. Where’s Wally pictures are packed with more detail than a Persian carpet, containing so many people that they don’t even look like people: they’re objects, like a strew of spilled jellybeans. Author Martin Handford owes a debt to horror vacui, an art approach that relies on filling everything with something.
Despite occasional verisimilitude (a tiny exposed breast on page 2 has earned Where’s Wally repeated bans from bookshelves), the overall effect is to distance you from life. Everything becomes a sea of human-shaped noise, as dead as a TV screen tuned to static…but you have to find a man in the static.
Again, there’s a weird vocational training aspect to Where’s Wally, turning kids into private eyes. Can you find a certain person who’s identical to the rest…except for a bobble hat? How much noise can you sift through to find a signal? There could be a Where’s Wally to programmer pipeline. There could also be a Where’s Wally to NSA analyst pipeline. Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and Julian Assange had the misfortune of becoming Wally in real life.
I remember an animated Where’s Wally cartoon that missed the point: they turned Wally into a heroic protagonist who goes on adventures, which is necessary for dramatic purposes but destructive to the spirit of the books. He’s supposed to be a face in a crowd. He could be any of us. He’s not special – or is he? How would we even tell? Are we Wally to someone else? If so, how easy should we make it for them to find us?
We live in a Where’s Wally puzzle as wide as the Earth. We’re born knowing nobody except a few family members. From the remaining 99.99999% of the human race, we’re supposed to locate friends, associates, and romantic partners. Some people find Wally with instinctive ease. Others struggle, and rely on sorting algorithms such as dating sites and social media. And still others don’t try at all, because failure is terrifying.
Climb up to a high place in a busy city, and look down at the thousands of people flowing in pulses, as if a great beating heart is driving them. Think of how little you know about them. Some of them rescue pets from burning buildings. Some of them rape and strangle children. The world is a huge inscrutable horror vacui of saints and sinners. Do these people want to help you? Harm you? You don’t know. You’re forced to guess based on tiny signs, small clues. Instead of a striped jumper it might be a word, a gesture, or an insincere smile that doesn’t reach the eyes. Perhaps this is why Where’s Wally is eerily compulsive: we hear the echo of our lives inside it.
Where’s Wally is training.
(*obviously, this is blackface, Martin Handford would be #cancelled and branded an international hate criminal, and Wally himself would become a symbol of racism, starring in new books such as Where’s Wally at the Nuremberg Rally, Where’s Wally at Auschwitz-Birkenau II, and Where’s Wally at the 2021 Academy Awards.)
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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.
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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.)
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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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In 1938 Orson Welles directed Citizen Kane, which is consistently cited as the greatest movie of all time. As Roger Ebert once observed, not every critic agrees that Citizen Kane is the best, but the ones that don’t can’t agree on a film to replace it.
His subsequent career was a skyrocket, ie, it spent most of its trajectory going down. His later films were largely financial failures and soon stopped having finances to fail with; 1942’s The Magnificent Ambersons grossed $1 million on a $1.1 million budget, and 1948’s Macbeth was made for $800,000 but never saw wide release.
Welles spent the latter part of his life as professional box office poison, self-financing his films through residuals and bit parts. He’d become (vide Scott Walker) a man everyone wanted to know and nobody wanted to write a check to. Critical reaction to his films was also cooling: you can read contemporary critics struggling with his work, giving it shot after shot, because it was directed by the auteur who had made Citizen Kane a long time ago.
Ebert’s review of Othello reads like a mechanic detailing a car: he explains its ins and outs and production hurdles and obscure details about the set design…and you still have no idea whether he likes it or not. Except that you do: when a critic reviews a Great Director(tm), silence means something.
Gregory: “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”
In 1945, Welles was given a column at the Washington Post. For $350 a week he produced freewheeling, unfocused, unreadable scandal columns containing insular Hollywood gossip, some of which were potentially libelous (“the fascist salute was invented by the Hollywood film director C.B. DeMille”). The column lasted one year, and became an early example of how the formula of famous person + massive platform simply cannot fail to fail to fail.
Orson Welles finished his career the way he’d started it: by using his voice to sell things. In 1970, an advertising agency tapped him to record ads for various consumer goods, and in case he thought he still had dignity to lose, they made him audition for the part.
“An ad agency called and asked me to do a voice over. I said I would. Then they said would I please come in and audition. ‘Audition?’ I said. ‘Surely to God there’s someone in your little agency who knows what my voice sounds like?’ Well, they said they knew my voice but it was for the client. So I went in. I wanted the money, I was trying to finish Chimes at Midnight.”
The frozen pea ad is notorious. Even to this day, it has a cringeworthy aura to rival LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE and so on. Orson Welles is visibly irritable and quibbles with his director about his lines and how he’s to say them. It’s the sort of thing they pay satirists to come up with. The magisterial, stentorian voice that used to orate Shakespeare is reduced to selling frozen goods. For money. The peas aren’t the only thing on ice.
In the Youtube era these ads went viral yet again. “We Will Sell No Wine Before Its Time” has probably been viewed more times than any of Welles’ actual films, save Citizen Kane. Welles slurs incomprehensibly. I’m not sure how much wine they had left: he appears to have drunk their entire stock to dull the pain.
On one level, it’s upsetting to see Welles reduced to this, like seeing bones being melted to glue and realizing they once belonged to a prize race horse. It’s also startling to see behind the curtain of the TV ad world. I don’t know, I guess on some level we still believe that Santa is real, that pro wrestling isn’t fake, and that the guys on TV mean what they say.
But these sad tapes are also happy, in a way. Welles might have been washed up at the end of his life…but is that such a bad thing? Being washed up means you were once in the water. Most of us spend our lives on the shore.
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At the risk of sounding like a dril tweet, you gotta hand it to Valerie Solanas. She saw a problem and did everything in her power to fix it. Of all the feminist theorists scribbling about society’s war on women, Solanas was one of the few who truly meant it. She’s in a class with Elliot Rodger, Fred Phelps, and Pol Pot: true believers who make you feel as small as an insect because they bled for their beliefs as you’d never do for yours. Reading SCUM Manifesto is like “reading” the shattering wall of light from a plutonium bomb explosion at ground zero: it’s hard not be blinded by the intensity of Solanas’s faith.
“To call a man an animal is to flatter him; he’s a machine, a walking dildo.”
The disease: men. The cure: no men. In SCUM Manifesto (which is not titled The SCUM Manifesto, the Scum Manifesto, or any of the internet’s misspellings) Valerie Solanas outlines the failings of male-governed society and proposes radical action: Eve needs to take her stolen rib and plunge it back into Adam’s chest, sharp end first.
You may have heard that SCUM stands for “Society for Cutting Up Men”, but Solanas doesn’t want to cut up men, precisely. She feels that men can be rationally convinced of their uselessness, at which point they’ll “go off to the nearest friendly suicide center where they will be quietly, quickly, and painlessly gassed to death.”
Is the book meant as satire? It could be read that way. The rest of Solanas’s life is a compelling argument that it isn’t. Much of the book is clearly an inversion of Freudian psychoanalysis (it proposes that men suffer from “pussy envy”, and so on). But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Solanas is insincere: serious ideas are often formulated in the shadow of their opposites (Hegelian antithesis, etc.), and it’s likely that SCUM Manifesto contains an extreme or distorted version of Solanas’s true feelings.
As an academic and one-time actress, she would have known of Antonin Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty” method: exaggeration; cranking up the volume; overloading the senses; shoving actors and audience alike past their comfort zone. SCUM Manifesto might be a Book of Cruelty, intended to shift the Overton window so that milder versions of SCUM would be politically viable. Or she may have been crazy. Or crazy like a fox. To be a chauvinist pig, she wasn’t a fox in any other sense.
What’s often overlooked about this book is Solanas’s utopian visions of the future. SCUM Manifesto is nearly a misclassified science fiction novel: Solanas foresees a world containing ATMs, electronic ballots, automation, UBI, luxury communism, the end of death itself, and…Tiktok?
“[FOOTNOTE: It will be electronically possible for [a male in the future] to tune into any specific female he wants to and follow in detail her every movement. The females will kindly, obligingly consent to this, as it won’t hurt them in the slightest and it is a marvelously kind and humane way to treat their unfortunate, handicapped fellow beings.]”
That’s no way to talk about Belle Delphine’s subs. Solanas stresses that we (meaning her 1970s readers) would be enjoying all these things already if it wasn’t for men ruining everything. It reminds me of those dubious graphs on atheist message boards, where humanity’s rising progress gets bodyslammed from the top rope by the CHRISTIAN DARK AGES. We’d be colonizing the galaxy by now, if Constantine I hadn’t gotten baptised. Although we are, when you think about it. A one-planet-sized portion of the galaxy.
SCUM Manifesto can also be read as comedy. I’m not joking: Solanas is hilarious. Her prose is a mixture of histrionic sincerity, phrasing as odd as an Achewood comic, and 1960s “groovy, man” lingo that’s impossible to imitate and impossible not to laugh at. Why didn’t anyone tell me it was this funny?
“SCUM is too impatient to wait for the de-brainwashing of millions of assholes. Why should the swinging females continue to plod dismally along with the dull male ones? Why should the fates of the groovy and the creepy be intertwined?”
“The sick, irrational men, those who attempt to defend themselves against their disgustingness, when they see SCUM barrelling down on them, will cling in terror to Big Mama with her Big Bouncy Boobies, but Boobies won’t protect them against SCUM; Big Mama will be clinging to Big Daddy, who will be in the corner shitting in his forceful, dynamic pants.”
Surely Solanas wasn’t totally serious. Nobody could write “forceful, dynamic pants” and actually mean it.
Or could they? This is the most fascinating thing about the SCUM Manifesto: it’s as forceful as an anvil to the face…and nobody’s sure what it means. To anti-feminists, it’s a stick to beat feminists with. To feminists, it’s variously a reactionary horror from the 60s; a brilliant satire like A Modest Proposal; or a work to be approached with sympathy and compassion, containing the howl of a woman pushed to the edge and then far, far, over it.
It’s a radical document. It’s a foundational text of Second-Wave Feminism. Some want to burn it, others want to teach it. Few works mean so many things to so many people.
Sadly (to some people), Solanas’s legacy is one of failure and unfulfilled dreams. SCUM Manifesto will soon be fifty years old: its promised utopia has yet to arrive: men still exist, the fates of the groovy and the creepy are still intertwined, etc. Solanas’s faith could move mountains, but the mountains all moved back.
SCUM Manifesto might never have achieved notoriety at all if had hadn’t come wrapped around a metaphoric and literal bullet – but that’s another testament to Solanas’s willingness to lay it on the line, because her will was all she had. It’s a final irony that her name will go down in history so indelibly linked to that of a man that she might as well have married him.
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“Paul, a folk-influenced singer-songwriter with ear-length black hair, forms a writing partnership with another man. They are wildly successful in the early 1970s, although sometimes controversial due to their socially transgressive lyrics. Paul’s ego and micromanaging ways drive a rift between the two, causing a breakup. The guitarist is arrested. However, they reconcile before death.”
(The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Peter Paul & Mary, KISS)
“A female singer with black hair and acute symbols in her name is born on a cold island in the 1960s. She achieves modest fame as part of a band and greater worldwide success as a solo act. She is noted for overdubbing lots of vocal tracks, often not in English. A psychotic stalker from a Latin country falls in love with her. Events culminate in a suicide attempt.”
(Björk, Enya, Sinead O’Connor, nearly Beyoncé)
“A punk-influenced band with ties to New York features a blonde female bassist and a dark-haired male singer-songwriter. Their relationship fails, and the band splits acrimoniously.”
(White Zombie, the Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, the Smashing Pumpkins)
“A biracial guitar player in a platinum-selling heavy metal band from California is involved in a fatal automobile accident. Nobody involved was wearing a seatbelt. The respective bands have all released a self-titled album, as well as an album cover that’s all-black except for the image of an animal.”
(Metallica, Motley Crue, Deftones)
“A UK rock frontman named after a disciple of Jesus forgets to delete his internet search history. Legal problems ensue.”
(Pete Townshend, Ian Watkins, Gary Glitter, nearly Massive Attack, partially Jimmy Savile)
“A songwriter/producer is renowned for his innovative use of sound. His records thunder with Wagnerian pomposity, and could be likened to a solid wall. The producer is a troubled man, however, and is haunted by demons. As the years pass he is blown like a paper bag into paranoia, mania, and eventually murder.”
(Phil Spector, Joe Meek, Varg Vikernes)
[minor cheats: Art Garfunkel didn’t write songs until the 1990s, Peter Paul & Mary had their final #1 hit three months before 1970, a guitarist in KISS was arrested but he was not the same one that the rest applies to, I don’t think D’Arcy Wretzky and Billy Corgan dated, Vince Neil and Chi Cheng played guitar but not in their respective bands, Chi Cheng died years after his accident, it’s a stretch to call Varg Vikernes a producer dot dot dot or a songwriter el oh el]
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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.
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