There are books that don’t sound real.
“A parable from the 70s about a seagull that wants to fly really fast. He strives day and night to set a new speed record for seagulls. The others make fun of him, but he never abandons his dream. Finally he dies and goes to heaven, where he attains perfect speed.”
Described as what it is, this book sounds like a parody of banal inspirational literature. “The author must be a Holocaust survivor” was my thought while reading it. “Or a Guyana survivor. Or a survivor of something. That’s the only way this could have been published: on the back of the sobbiest sob story ever.” I was wrong, Richard Bach was an aviator turned technical writer, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull took wing entirely on its own merits.
There’s a thing called “irony poisoning”, where detachment is used as a weapon against criticism. “Didn’t laugh at my joke? Get bent, I never meant it to be funny.” Jonathan Livingston Seagull has the reverse problem: sincerity poisoning. It’s painfully earnest, solemn as a hymn, and blind to its own ridiculousness.
Why is the seagull called “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”? Why is his surname his species? Can seagulls smile (as they do here, repeatedly)? How does he always know his exact velocity and altitude? It doesn’t even make sense to ask questions like that: the book exists in its own little world.
Sometimes this works. Bach’s story choices create a weird and dislocative mood, and you go along with Jonathan Livingston’s odd adventure. At times it approaches CS Lewis’s vision of a fairytale for grown-ups.
Other times I agree with Roger Ebert’s pan: “a book so banal that it had to be sold to adults; kids would have seen through it.”.
One problem is that seagulls can’t actually do much. Jonathan just flies, and flies, and flies, setting pointless speed records over the ocean that nobody will document, remember or care about. This is a metaphor for following your dreams and believing in yourself (along with some Christian/Buddhist spiritualistic hippie mumblecore), but the meaninglessness of what he’s doing makes it tragicomic, not inspirational.
The book has three sections (dealing with Jonathan’s life, adventures in Heaven, and return to Earth). In 2013 it was reissued with a fourth part, which is set hundreds of years after Jonathan Livingston’s life. The flock that rejected Jonathan now reveres him as a spiritual figure, but has stifled his teachings in ritual and cant. This is satire about organized religion, and seems to have been created reactively to silence critics who found the book pointless (not so – apparently it was written concurrently with the first three). It’s more interesting, but also less sincere.
The book is slim and could have been slimmer. Photos of seagulls pad the pages. Specifics about angles of descent and wing profiles about are endlessly elaborated, to soporific effect. It’s like reading a book by an autistic child whose special interest is the airspeed of birds.
From a thousand feet, flapping his wings as hard as he could, he pushed over into a blazing steep dive toward the waves, and learned why seagulls don’t make blazing steep power-dives. In just six seconds he was moving seventy miles per hour, the speed at which one’s wing goes unstable on the upstroke. Time after time it happened. Careful as he was, working at the very peak of his ability, he lost control at high speed. Climb to a thousand feet. Full power straight ahead first, then push over, flapping, to a vertical dive. Then, every time, his left wing stalled on an upstroke, he’d roll violently left, stall his right wing recovering, and flick like fire into a wild tumbling spin to the right. He couldn’t be careful enough on that upstroke. Ten times he tried, and all ten times, as he passed through seventy miles per hour, he burst into a churning mass of feathers, out of control, crashing down into the water. The key, he thought at last, dripping wet, must be to hold the wings still at high speeds — to flap up to fifty and then hold the wings still. From two thousand feet he tried again, rolling into his dive, beak straight down, wings full out and stable from the moment he passed fifty miles per hour. It took tremendous strength, but it worked. In ten seconds he had blurred through ninety miles per hour. Jonathan had set a world speed record for seagulls!
Being the world’s fastest seagull is only slightly more interesting than being the world’s fastest tapeworm, but this is the personality type the book appeals to: the pointless striver. The person who thinks that effort, in and of itself, is valorous. Jonathan Livingston Seagull is the battle hymn of the illiterate “writer” with a shoebox full of manuscripts, the tone-deaf singer, the 5’2 wannabe pro basketball player, the aging LA actress who mails (ten years out-of-date) headshots to every agent in Hollywood. “Follow your dreams,” it says “no matter how unlikely success is, or how pointless success would be.” In the real world there’s a dark side to dream-following. Athletes cripple their bodies, entrepeneurs bankrupt themselves (and sometimes their families), naifs are exploited by scammers and grifters. Sometimes it is both good and necessary for a dream to end, and the book doesn’t confront that possibility. Jonathan Livingston only wins. He wins so much he gets tired of winning. He barrel-rolls past every obstacle, breaking even the laws of physics, proving every doubter wrong. It’s a shot of wish fulfilment pornography, both endearing and toxic. It takes twenty minutes to read and might ruin your life.
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There was a mass shooting in Buffalo, NY. Ten dead.
This is a bigger deal than the ~60 murders that happen in Buffalo every year because of the shooter’s beliefs, which were rather naughty. He belonged to the far right. He believed in something called “The Great Replacement”. The FBI is conducting forensic analysis of his keyboard to see if he ever typed offensive hate-slogans like “subscribe to Pewdiepie”, but sadly he probably did.
Social media is effervescing with the usual mixture of anger, sorrow, sloganeering, conspiracies, and bizarre object-level claims about reality. In particular, people seem fascinated with the idea that the media ignores right wing terrorism; or that it calls terrorists “lone wolves” if they’re white.
Look at the breezy confidence of these tweets. Look at the thousands of likes they’re getting. They’re not saying the media might call him a lone wolf. They’re saying it will. That it has.
Is this true? I’m going to cheat by actually looking at what the media’s saying.
CNN: “The 18-year-old man who allegedly shot and killed 10 people at a Buffalo supermarket Saturday afternoon was motivated by hate, authorities said.”
ABC: “Authorities say the shooting was motivated by racial hatred.”
Axios: “The suspect allegedly published racist writings before the attack.”
Fox News: “U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland called the attack ‘a hate crime and an act of racially-motivated violent extremism.'”
NBC News: “The Buffalo supermarket shooting suspect allegedly posted an apparent manifesto repeatedly citing ‘great replacement’ theory”
Buffalo News: “Racist manifesto details hateful views, methodical planning of accused gunman”
LA Times: “Buffalo shooting is an ugly culmination of California’s ‘great replacement’ theory”
WSJ: “the writer describes himself as a fascist, white supremacist and racist”
The Grauniad: “Hate-based crime has been getting worse in recent years, largely cultivated in the cauldron of darkest reaches of the internet”
Associated Press: “racially motivated violent extremism.”
Ten stories from large, reputable sources.
Zero out of ten describe the attacker as a “lone wolf”.
Ten out of ten connect him to right wing causes, or quote officials who have done the same.
In fact, Googling “Buffalo + ‘lone wolf'” serves no relevant results, just people handwringing about how everyone is calling the shooter a lone wolf.
This is the epitome of “making up a guy to get mad at”. Guys, nobody is doing this thing. Nobody at all. “The sooner we can dispense of this absolutely ridiculous descriptor, the better.” We can’t “dispense” of a descriptor that nobody’s using.
Twitter almost feels like a window into an alternate universe at this point. These people live in a world where every newspaper headline and news station chyron is referring to the shooter as a “lone wolf”. So why are their messages appearing in my world, where the most casual investigation shows this to be false? Is this a quantum entanglement anomaly? I wish these visitors from Dimension X would specify whether their tweets relate to their home planet or to the world that I live in, similar to how Marvel Comics distinguishes between Earth-616 and Earth-1610 timelines. It would be less confusing.
“Lone wolf” means something relatively specific: a terrorist that plans and executes an attack alone. It doesn’t mean “the shooter is unmotivated by ideology” or “the shooter has no political views”. No semantic boundary exists between “lone wolf” and “terrorist” and “white supremacist”. You can be all of those things at once. It’s less a question of “what did you do?” or “why did you do it?” and more a question of “who did you do it for?”
Did you blow up a migrant hostel with two tons of ANFO because you’re nuts? Then you’re a lone wolf. Did you do it on the orders of Combat 18? Then you’re part of a terrorist group. But there’s a huge fuzzy area in between, where blame becomes hard to assign. What counts as a terrorist group? What counts as acting alone? What counts as being nuts? We end up asking existential questions about the nature of free will and causality.
Yes, the killer was influenced by 4chan’s /pol/ board. Is the board causally responsible for the terrorist attack (in the sense that if moot hadn’t renewed 4chan’s domain name in 2004, ten people in Buffalo would now be alive?) Possibly. But that’s not the same as moral responsibility. It’s also possible that Payton Gendry was a psychologically broken person, and that without /pol/ he would have fallen down some other rabbit hole (or would have encountered the same reading material elsewhere, and would have been radicalized the same way). We can’t conduct a scientific a/b test involving two Payton Gendrons, one exposed to /pol/ and one that wasn’t. We’ll never know. Calling/pol/ a terrorist network feels very tenuous, in the same way as calling William Powell a “terrorist leader” because someone copied a bomb recipe from The Anarchist Cookbook.
A lot of people want to use the shooter’s ideological stance as a weapon against mainstream conservatism. If you’ve spoken critically about immigration, you’re promoting “Great Replacement” conspiracy theories, and a direct causal line can be drawn from you to the killer.
Twitter’s saying this, but Twitter is a bad website. Big boy journalists are getting in on the action too. Here’s Talia Lavin, in Rolling Stone: The Buffalo Shooter Isn’t a ‘Lone Wolf.’ He’s a Mainstream Republican
I don’t blame her for the headline, which she didn’t write. I blame her for the stuff after the headline, though, which she did.
The argument seems to be “Tucker Carlson is worried about birth rates declining, and the killer is worried about birth rates declining, so let’s draw a causal link between Tucker Carlson and the killer, based off no evidence. Don’t question it. They’re both on the same side.”
But there’s no sign that the killer was a Tucker Carlson fan, or had anything but contempt for the Republican Party. He cites NZ shooter Brenton Tarrant as an influence. From his manifesto:
On p157, he says “conservatism is dead. Thank god. Now let us bury it and move on to something of worth.” On p31, he includes an antisemitic collage of Fox News hosts, each with a Star of David over their faces. The implication appears to be “Fox News is run by Jewish globalists”. Was he really an avid Tucker Carlson fan?
The fact that he and Carlson may have agreed on some points is neither here nor there. This man – insofar as he has a firm political outlook – is probably an eco-fascist, as Tarrant was. I doubt Tucker Carlson has ever endorsed such a viewpoint on his show or even knows what eco-fascism is.
Your political opponents are not all secretly the same. This must be the most prevalent fallacy in politics. I used to see it on boards like Free Republic, where you’d hear about how Obama was going to rally his army of Islamic terrorists and Godless atheists and Marxist college grads and Hispanic anchor babies and devil-worshipping Satanists to overthrow America. They seemed to believe that all of these (vastly different) people were all working on the same team.
This isn’t how it works. Conservatism isn’t a monolithic hivemind any more than liberalism is, but Lavin has no interest in that kind of nuance. To her, life is a chessboard. There’s her side, then there’s the enemy side. All conservatives are working together, operating from the same playbook.
It’s an awful piece, full of emotive verbiage and factual mistakes (Alito did not coin the phrase “domestic supply of infants”, he quoted it from a 2008 CDC report about adoption). Also, it’s written like shit. Aren’t journalists supposed to be eloquent?
“The Republican Party’s embrace of nativism has been more of a full-on dash than a slow slide, and it has been catalyzed by the vast constellation of right-wing media.”
Can an “embrace” be a “full-on dash” which is “catalyzed” by a “constellation”? This sentence has five metaphors and four make no sense with any of the others.
“Far from ebbing as Trump has ceased to be the party’s sole center, however, the tide of white animus has become even more central to a new crop of Congresspeople and candidates.”
How does a “tide of white animus” become “even more central” to a “crop”? What’s a “sole center”? Is there any other kind?
But hey, I’m glad to have Ms Lavin writing this stuff, if it leaves her too busy to pursue her side hustle as an internet Nazi hunter.
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The 1980s were grim years of faceless corporatism, and this was felt in the decade’s cartoons. Who made He-Man & Masters Of The Universe? Nobody knew. It appeared on your TV once a week, as if by magic. You knew the studio, of course: millions of grownups still have conditioned Pavlovian reactions to the Nelvana bear, the bouncing DIC ball, the “Filmation presents…”. But you kinda forgot that human beings created the show. No kid could name one of them.
This changed in the 90s, when a fad for “creator driven” content meant networks began branding shows around their lead creative personnel. Everyone knew The Simpsons was “made” by Matt Groening, and Ren and Stimpy was “made” by John Kricfalusi. It was easy to believe that the show was the sole creation of a wacky genius doodling in his artist loft.
This creator-driven approach could and did backfire. Sometimes “creators” turned out to be self-destructive assholes, or untalented hacks who’d lucked into (or stolen) their one good idea. Associating a show with a single (flawed) person meant the brand could easily become toxic: attempts to restart Ren & Stimpy now face the obstacle of John Kricfalusi’s personal life, and The Simpsons‘ wholesome “stick it to the man” satire becomes rough to laugh at in light of Matt Groening’s (alleged) executive-class flights on the Lolita Express.
But it was still an exciting era that rewarded strong personalities and odd perspectives. None of the tentpole shows of the 90s (Beavis and Butthead, South Park, Daria, King of the Hill) could have existed in the 80s. They were derided as juvenile toilet humor at the time. In hindsight the reverse was true: it was the decade where TV animation grew up.
The 90s should have been Ralph Bakshi’s moment.
You have heard of him. X Rated cartoons, rotoscoping, blaxploitation. He’s one of animation’s greatest auteurs, and his work is suffused by a violent, turbulent energy that elevates the often lowbrow material. Ralph Bakshi isn’t always good, but he’s always Ralph Bakshi.
He’s a titan of 2D animation, but it’s easy to slip into past tense when discussing him. His classic films all date from 1972 to 1983, and by 1990 he hadn’t made anything good for a very long time. Was he still relevant?
His 1992 film Cool World was a devastating misfire. A jokeless, plotless, idealess nothingburger featuring bad animation and bad live action film composited in a bad way. Cool World marked the final death rattle of the adult animated film, with rubbish such as Heavy Metal 2K being the final algor mortis of the medium’s lifeless corpse.
Adult animation, it was believed, still had a future on the silver screen, where the stakes weren’t so high (and failure meant the studio took a bath of a few hundred thousand, rather than tens of millions). And in the mid 1990s, HBO gave Bakshi a shot at redemption.
He “redeemed” himself with Spicy City. It’s a sci-fi anthology show, hosted by an Elvira ripoff called Raven. In classic Bakshi fashion, most of the budget was spent drawing very large breasts. Truly, he is to boobs what Robert Crumb is to asses.
The show (which was laughably advertised as the first “adults only” cartoon) failed miserably. It was a one season wonder, cancelled after six episodes.
But that means nothing, in and of itself. Maybe it was ahead of its time. Let’s find out.
I exhaustively deep-dived into Spicy City. Which means I watched three episodes that someone uploaded to Youtube.
Tears of a Clone
An eyeless detective is hired to track down a human blob’s missing “daughter” who somehow escaped his gravitational field.
…Or, as the show relates the plot: “Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah? Blah blah blah.”
Holy fuck, this is the talkiest cartoon I’ve ever seen. Where’s the action? The dialog scenes go on and on and on and on. I want to go back to nineteen-twenty-whenever and throw Max Fleischer’s Phonofilm sound equipment in the Potomac in the hope that cartoons remain silent.
Maybe it would help if the characters occasionally said things that weren’t cornball detective cliches. “There’s just the small matter of my fee…”
That brings me to another issue: Spicy City’s setting.
The show aspires to an edgy cyberpunk aesthetic (like Gibson’s Sprawl). But 59-year old Bakshi had no natural affinity for high tech worlds (or desire to learn) so he said “screw it” and went with film noir.
Think of the hackiest noir cliche you know: it’s here. A private eye who’s down on his luck? A dame in trouble? Smoke-filled clubs filled with sleazy characters? Fashions that consist of trenchcoats, fedoras, zoot suits, cocktail dresses, and pearl necklaces? All here.
Welcome to the future. We dress like this.
Bakshi’s cyberpunk world looks suspiciously like a 1940s Hollywood film lot, with story choices to match. It’s so dated and old that it’s jarring when a character uses a computer. Yes, cyberpunk draws on noir. But Spicy City does so excessively, and the sci-fi plots (cloning, virtual reality, and cyborgs) are tonally incongruent with Bakshi’s world.
In short, nonsensical setting, weak story, twice as much dialog as necessary, and hideous character design. Fuck finding the girl, this guy needs to find his missing eyeballs.
A bongo player called Mano Mantillo is the hottest thing in town. That’s Spicy City worldbuilding for you: a cyber-metropolis where everyone’s going gaga over bongos.
Mano’s hands made him a star, but they have a life of their own. When mob enforcers cut them off for nonpayment of debts, they begin strangling people.
Here we see Bakshi’s lifelong fascination with black/latino culture, mixed with the trope of the demon-possessed musician (Robert Johnson, The Devil and Daniel Mouse, Soul Music, Rock & Rule, and so on). In effect, it swaps one set of cliches for another.
I didn’t love “Mano’s Hands”. It has less dialog and it’s certainly gruesome enough, but the premise is dated and lame. Is this really what we’re doing with the “world’s first adult cartoon show”? Ripping off EC Comics and The Addams Family?
By the way, Mano is Spanish for hand, so the episode’s title is “Hand’s hands”. I wonder why his surname isn’t Martillo, which is an eighth-note bongo pattern. Mantillo simply means “mulch”.
“Love Is a Download”
Same setup as “Tears of a Clone”. A private detective is hired to track down a missing girl. However, the client is clearly an abusive stalker, and the PI develops feelings for the girl.
Here the action takes place in virtual reality. Essentially, it’s Baby’s First Cyberpunk Plot: “what if virtual reality was better than real life?” The detective’s an obese slug in reality, and the girl’s a battered victim. But in cyberspace he’s a buff stud, and she’s a…helpless geisha? Empowering stuff, ladies.
Bakshi’s cultural references finally leave the 1940s. The stalker Jake (who appears as a shark in the VR game) is dressed like a Miami Vice extra. Again, it doesn’t quite work in a cyberpunk setting, but at least it’s not ridiculously off.
I was confused by the choice to make the woman gorgeous in the real life. Shouldn’t she be ugly, like the male detective? I guess she had to be attractive for Jake to have an interest in controlling her. But couldn’t he have a different motive (maybe he’s after an inheritance)? I don’t know. In a show about the gritty side of life, it’s strange that woman aren’t allowed to be unattractive.
I have mixed feelings about “Love is a Download”. The main problem is that the virtual reality sequences are incredibly long and overwhelm the episode. I think this is because they’re barely animated and must have cost virtually nothing to create. It’s like watching a slideshow.
So that’s my taste of Spicy City.
Maybe I saw the three worst episodes. Unlucky. I’ve now watched 50% of the show, and probably won’t bother with the other 50%.
It has no spark to it. It wants to be the edgiest thing on TV but it comes off as dated, lame, and “OK boomer”. The basic plots are all 20-50 years old. Raven is excellently animated but the rest of the show is just barely acceptable. The adult content seems tame next to, say, South Park, or even less famous fare like Crapston Villas. As a sci-fi drama it doesn’t even reach Aeon Flux’s knees.
But I don’t regret watching it, because I had an epiphany about Bakshi.
He’s not a creator. He’s an enhancer.
Fritz the Cat is Robert Crumb.
Wizards is Vaughn Bode.
Lord of the Rings is JRR Tolkien.
Fire and Ice is Frank Frazetta.
In all these cases, Bakshi acts as an amenuensis, an artistic midwife, adapting the art of someone else into film. He does a creditable job, capturing what’s great about the original and infusing his own style and personality. But he’s not building castles in the sky: he’s working from a foundation already established. That’s what he’s always been good at. You do not allow him to create something from the ground up.
He’s like a podcast host who can “riff” hilariously in a room full of funny people, but who could never carry a solo comedy act. Spicy City demonstrates what that looks like: a dull, derivative slog with plentiful boobs but no clear sense of what it is.
Bakshi fans in 1997 had no idea of the drought that was about to follow. The lone and level sands stretch far away.
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