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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In 1938 Orson Welles directed Citizen Kane, which is consistently cited as the greatest movie of all time. As Roger Ebert said, not everyone 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, but only because the director had made Citizen Kane.
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 doubt the vineyard had any wine 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.
These are sad tapes, but they’re also happy ones. Welles was 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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