Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Listening to Richard Brautigan.

All good people dig Richard Brautigan.

They just might not all know that all the other good people do yet.

Whilst I was growing up, working my way through as many canonically ‘weird’ mid-20th C. books as I could lay my hands on, as scattered references and recommendations led me on a merry path from one ‘cult’ author to the next, nobody ever bothered to hip me to Richard Brautigan.

In fact, I’d barely even heard of the guy when I happened across a few of his books in the always reliable charity bookshop on Queen’s Road in Leicester, and thought “hmm… these look interesting”.

I have neither the time nor the eloquence to attempt to encapsulate the man’s work here, but needless to say, within ten minutes of getting stuck into those two paperbacks, I knew I had a new favourite writer all to myself.

I’m not usually a big re-reader; the vast majority of books I read get ploughed through once, and sooner or later end up shelved forever back in my old bedroom in my Mum’s place, in waiting for the day when I fulfill my dream and open a lending library for weirdos. Not so “Revenge of the Lawn” and “A Confederate General at Big Sur” though - they travel with me. I return to them whenever I feel the need, almost like music albums. I’d feel uneasy deeming a place ‘home’ were they not within easy reach.

In subsequent years, happy shadows of Brautigan have started popping up all over the place, much like a style of architecture or, I dunno, a fashion accessory or something, that you don’t notice until someone points it out to you, and then you start to see it everywhere.

I’ve still never actually read any tributes to Brautigan on the printed page, but all of his books have been republished with garish new covers (I much prefer the lovely old ‘70s Picador editions, most of which seem to feature a photograph of the author standing near a pretty girl, looking confused), and you can probably find one or two of them on the shelves of your local Waterstones for £8.99 a pop, which speaks of a certain ongoing popularity.

I’ve also bumped into various other Brautigan fans, most of whom seem to have independently discovered his writing in much the same way I did, and all of whom have been united by the fact that I have found them to be thoroughly decent, friendly, upstanding folks. One of my favourite bands, Comet Gain, sang a song about Richard Brautigan on the b-side of a recent single.

From once briefly thinking of him as a lost luminary whom I’d haphazardly rediscovered, I now tend to accept the possibility that EVERYBODY reads Richard Brautigan…. but they just don’t think to mention it to each other all that often.

ANYWAY, point of this post is: a while back, I was having an online forum type conversation about Richard Brautigan, with some fellow fans who were lamenting the lack of any but the barest scraps of audio/visual documentation of the author’s life, and in particular, the complete unavailability of “Listening to Richard Brautigan”, an LP that he initially recorded for Apple in 1969 (The Beatles were quietly busy being big fans of his too, it would seem), but that actually only saw the light of day a couple of years later on Harvest/EMI.

Quickly dropping out of print, and having never been reissued on CD, it’s a tough one to track down, but I came across a rip of the LP on a download site a few months back, and I guess it’s my duty to pass it on to all the other good guys out there, so, here goes:

Listening to Richard Brautigan (120mb .zip file).
[Link updated 03/11/12.]

It’s a pretty fun listen all in all, although perhaps not the best introduction to RB’s work. He reads extracts from “Trout Fishing In America”, “Revenge of the Lawn”, "In Watermelon Sugar" and “A Confederate General..”, along with a whole swathe of pomes from “The Pill vs. The Springhill Mine Disaster”, in addition to which you get to hear the great man goofing about the house with some friends, discussing how one guy has an obsession with making really strong coffee, and what they’re gonna have for dinner. He records some “sounds of my life in California”, answers the telephone, and somebody decides to subject the world to a couple of post-Revolution No#9 type “sound pieces”. Unsurprisingly, Brautigan sounds like a really nice, easy-going guy. His voice is a kinda half Kermit, half Stephen Hawking monotone that I’d imagine could get real whiny real quickly if he was in a bad mood, but thankfully here he’s in a good mood, and everything is cool.

I think this would be a perfect record to put on on a spring afternoon, at the weekend, whilst you’re, say, carving something out of wood, or rewiring a hi-fi. Or perhaps in the early morning, laying in bed with a headache. Yeah!

Thursday, 19 March 2009

(or, a quest to briefly understand Japanese animated television before I waste too much time), Part # 2

6. I! My! Me! Strawberry Eggs

Episode 1, part 1, English sub.

COMMENT: Begins with a ruthless old lady collecting rent with a gun. However, from promising beginnings, we find a show about a teacher who pretends to be a woman so he can teach sport at a girl’s school (or something to that effect). I'll say more about this sort of thing under # 17.

BEN’S COMMENT: I think here we meet some profound cultural disjuncture, because all my instincts tell me this should be really funny and entertaining, yet somehow… it really isn’t. Portrayal of the school girls seems kinda sleazy, although I feel I’m probably going to have to get used to that as we go through all thirty shows on this list. They are depicted as having different levels of ‘immunity’ to the lures of boys, which are built up almost like a forcefield.

7. Goldfish Warning

Opening, English sub.

COMMENT: the first 5 seconds - a television picture of a fish on a spire is obscured by a band (with instruments) of cows, one of their number holding aloft a similar fish, flying by on a clock-face. Again, another old-fashioned anime to confuse and confuse once more. The subs. of the opening theme suggest that the 'warning' part of the title is related to weather forecasting.

BEN’S COMMENT: "A high pressure of bowknot... is approaching your heart"? Um….. right. Ok. Next.

8. The Virgin Mary Is Watching You

Episode 1, part 1, English sub.

COMMENT: 'Watching you' is meant in the sense of 'watching over you', alas: merely lost in translation. Added to Youtube in English since last I surveyed. It is a romance in a Catholic Girls School. See # 17 for further comments. In fact, seems, on the face of it, like a very serious, Catholic, version of # 17.

BEN’S COMMENT: the way the girls are drawn in this one is strange and kinda ugly – odd, misproportioned faces, and all that softly shaded hair blowing in the wind. It’s sorta aesthetically disagreeable. The seeming HYPER-INNOCENCE of this stuff is also curious, not to mention the Hyper-Boringness. Is this an anime with some kind of sinister Christian chastity agenda, or are they just trying to cop the signifiers of old-fashioned, ‘respectable’ Western culture (tedium, Christian iconography, classical music) to try to assert their artistic seriousness? Perhaps shows like this serve as a deliberate rebellion against the OTT sexualised carnage of much other manga/anime? Who knows…

9. Ebichu the Housekeeping Hamster

Episode 2 (English sub.) - Episode 1 (in English) seems to have been censored by Youtube community.

COMMENTS: Japanese 'South Park' with a hamster. However, while this is the best description, it does not capture the concept. There is a sense of despair in this cartoon. Some might call me a lightweight for saying this. Whereas South Park is quite a blanket treatment to the notion of the comedy of taboo, Ebichu is much more of a dagger: it is directed and without mercy... then again, it is just an 'exceptionally naughty' hamster. Must be my religious vein...

BEN’S COMMENT: I gather this is supposed to be… funny? Actually, this gives me a similar sense of despair and confusion to much contemporary British/American ‘comedy’. I dunno * sigh *.

10. Panda Z: the Robonimation

Episode 1, English sub.

COMMENT: Cartoon with Panda Mechas (giant robots). Not much talking. 'Heavy Metal' soundtrack plays all-the-way-through. Silly. Not much fun.

BEN’S COMMENT: Now, you see, when I wanted to do some posts investigating crazy Japanese pop culture, THIS was the kinda thing I had in mind, not that grim, misanthropic hamster sex comedy shit! Does this have any kind of story, or is it just nifty retro-toy visuals and absurdly awesome novelty hair metal songs? Why so I even feel the need to ask?

Thursday, 12 March 2009

(or, a quest to briefly understand Japanese animated television before I waste too much time)


Japanese Anime is an odd business to say the least. Most of us who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s will have at least some knowledge of the movies and series that have attained a higher profile in the West following the success of ‘Akira’ and subsequent stand-alone blockbusters, not to mention the concerted efforts that were made a few years back to get English speaking teenage boys hooked on good-natured nonsense of the ‘Gunsmith Cats’, ‘Dominion: Tank Police’ variety and the widespread distribution of, and renewal of interest in, the genuinely wonderful films of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.

But, for the most part, the mind-bogglingly vast range of animated TV series and episodic movies that form a huge part of the entertainment-diet of Japan remain the concern of only a small, hardcore fanbase in the West, a fanbase which, needless to say, includes neither myself nor anyone I know, hence my general ignorance of the subject.

A few months ago however, my brother Paul emailed me a list he had compiled of the thirty anime series with the most ludicrous or unlikely translated titles, and stated his intention to track down and watch extracts from each of them in turn.

Now the raving linguistic insanity that inevitably seems to result when Japanese titles are translated directly into English is nothing new – even the quickest overview of Japanese exploitation cinema for instance will instantly have the curious reader marvelling at the existence of ‘The Sperm Hunts At Night’, ‘Go Go Second Time Virgin!’ and ‘Emperor Tomato Ketchup’ – but nonetheless, Paul’s list blew my mind.

Sure, it featured a few better known series such as ‘Cowboy Bebop’. But what of ‘Boogie-Pop Phantom’? ‘All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku’? ‘Hayate The Combat Butler’? – clearly this is an avenue of world culture that demands further investigation!

Thus I have arranged with Paul to present the results of his marathon survey on this very weblog, for your entertainment and education, in six parts beginning below.

Needless to say, all text in these posts is his, unless otherwise stated.

(or, a quest to briefly understand Japanese animated television before I waste too much time), Part # 1

Close to six months ago, I found I had time on my hands and went on a mini 'anime crusade'. That is, I systematically drew, from a LIST, the animes with the silliest names, and watched, or attempted to watch, them on YouTube. I found material from almost all of them and watched my fill of a surprising number of them. Afterwards, I wrote a short report, which I was asked to reproduce here. I find myself, currently, with a little time and, thus, thought I'd re-write my report with fresh links and fresh material that I have learned of since writing the original. My thanks to the work of the tropers at TVtropes (above link) for their sum knowledge.

In writing this list, I have excluded the better manga/anime canon items: like Akira, Studio Ghimli films, such as Whispering Heart, Princess Mononoke and the Gainax TV series Neon Genesis: Evangelion (as well as the films). I suggest you turn to these first; this is an exercise in ad-hoc sampling and not a means to finding the best of the medium.

What follows is the list of anime titles. I chose 30 because that was the number of silly names I found to the nearest ten. Surprisingly, some material on ALL THIRTY of these shows can be found on YouTube, though not all are in any way completely represented. If you have witnessed some anime, a few of these titles may not be new to you. Rest assured, they were all new to me.

Before we begin, a few disclaimers. Do not be thrown by the funny names: most of these shows are not as funny as the names suggest and will merely waste your time. There will be comments, as well as some asides about generalities. Some do not deserve comment. Neither comments nor asides are meant to be comprehensive, but are merely points of interest.

1. Boogiepop Phantom

Episode 1, parts 1, English Dub:

COMMENTS: Interesting - but a bit of an obvious replica of the so-called "Mind Screw" anime (e.g. Neon Genesis - Evangelion) but without the same sense of authorial 'high-weirdness'. Likely it’s just the bad acting leading me to say that. It’s a pity it’s only available (for free) with the English dub. Anime is often better with original sound. Still, suggestions of better things.

Quote: (close up on girls eyes as she thinks, dead-pan) "He was probably killed... by Boogiepop."

BEN’S COMMENT: This seems a lot more dull and angst-ridden than something called ‘Boogie-Pop Phantom’ has any right to be.

2. Cowboy Bebop

Episode 1, parts 1, English Sub.:

COMMENTS: Original. Best of the bunch. A simple plot that can be told well through the limited medium of the cartoon. Excellent music. Episode 20 (I think; the one in the amusement park) is an insane gem. It seems to squeeze-in aspects of every genre, especially Westerns, Detective Noir and Science Fiction without really breeding a new genre, as some of its fans will claim. Hence, you can't really put your finger on a template used to construct Cowboy Bebop, but, at the same time, it provides no guidelines for its replication (so to speak).

BEN’S COMMENT: I watched this a few years ago. Ok, it is indeed pretty good, but, foolish westerner that I am, I’m still infuriated by the lack of either cowboys or bebop.

3. Coyote Ragtime Show

Episode 1 Trailor (English dub) & Strange clip (Japanese):

COMMENT: None, really. Doesn't seem terribly earth-shattering. Then again, hard to tell with so few clips that aren't in Spanish. The second link leads to the interesting sight of the '12 sisters' (robots, apparently) raiding what seems to be the prison of the first clip. They are dressed in costumes that, I am informed, are examples of GOTH LOLI: short for 'Innocent Gothic Lolita', which is a 'goth' version of dolls clothing.

BEN’S COMMENT: This is just about the greatest thing I’ve seen in my life. All hail Coyote Ragtime Show!

4. Doctor Slump

"the Super Driver" - part 1. English Sub.:

COMMENT: When I did my original survey, there wasn't much on this. However, I infer from YouTube posts, that there is a new version in the pipeline. This is an older Japanese cartoon (as a cartoon, one for kids: you remember those). One thing I've noticed about Japanese cartoons is that the older they are, the more incomprehensible (with some exceptions, qua Bobobo, #30 below). This is an example.

BEN’S COMMENT: Wow, this is insane and wonderful! Like a psychedelic Japanese Hanna Barbara show! Makes about as much sense as ‘Stop The Pigeon’, but it’s a thousand times more visually imaginative – I love it.

5. Fafner in the Azure: Dead Aggressor

Episode 1, part 1/1, English sub.

COMMENT: Anime these days can look very impressive, and usually borrows pop music from the Japanese charts. Fafner seems to be an example of this. It wasn't on Youtube when I searched previously. A giant robot caper in the manner of Evangelion, though, in the 1st episode, without the strangeness. Bland, at first glance.

BEN’S COMMENT: Hmm… this one isn’t doing much for me. Seems like an over-earnest rip off of ‘Independence Day’ or something?

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

[Insert bad "Who watches the Watchmen? - nobody if they can help it" type joke here]

As the final nail in a pretty damn secure, lead-lined critical coffin, Jessica Hopper tells me everything I need to know about the Watchmen movie in one convenient paragraph.

I remember years ago reading an interview with Alan Moore in which he talked about how he found overblown, poorly thought out Hollywood blockbusters to be actively offensive, saying something to the effect of; if I write a shitty comic, ok it wastes some paper, but I'm not throwing away $150,000,000 that could be used for the betterment of mankind on realising some teenage videogamer's wank fantasy.

So quite what karmic/magickal evils the poor guy must have wrought in a past life in order to see ALL of his major writerly works transformed into a series of movies so point-missingly crippled at birth that they alone could stand as a pretty thorough A, B, C of everything that's wrong with the past two decades of Hollywood cinema, I can scarcely imagine.

Seriously: all we need now is M. Night Whatshisname doing an Americanised 'Voice of the Fire' in small town Ohio and Ridley Scott's idiot cousin making his directoral debut dragging that woman in the leather from the Underworld movies through the mill as Halo Jones, and that's Moore's whole life's work, shot in the belly and left for dead.

I guess he must at least be enjoying the royalties, extra sales, publicity, suits reading "V For Vendetta" on the tube etc, and can rest safe in the knowledge that he still has a pretty huge cadre of longtime fans who are able to appreciate his work on it's own merit, but still, it must hurt.

And, word to wise: if I were an evil, scheming studio mogul who was gonna set out to desecrate the work of one cantankerous cult author, I probably wouldn't pick a guy who looks like this, carries a big stick everywhere and practices ceremonial magic:

I've seen "Theatre of Blood". I know what's coming down.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Witches, Zombies, Hair Metal and Orson Welles: February Film-Watching Journal Part # 1

I had a couple of weekends to myself last month: no social events, no responsibilities to take care of, no plans, nothing. Meaning? A few perfect evenings to catch up on the backlog of horror movies I’ve been acquiring recently you’ll be unsurprised to hear, as I’ve yet to start a damn blog about staring at the ceiling in existential anguish, or building cathedrals out of matchsticks or something.

Rock N’ Roll Nightmare (John Fasano, 1987)

First into the DVD player one Friday night was Rock n’ Roll Nightmare, which I’ve read about here and there over the years and, speaking as someone who takes an interest in just about any rock n’ roll / horror crossover movie, no matter how bad, you can appreciate that I was looking forward to some enjoyably stupid, rampagin’ fare. God, what a disappointment. “Cult classic” my ass, this film fucking stinks. I mean, I’ve seen some uninspired, slapdash, “will this do?” filmmaking in my time, but can you imagine the lack of commitment necessary to take the following concept - ‘80s hair metal band led by charismatic glam-rock barbarian called Thor go to deserted old house with their girlfriends, fight goo-dripping Evil Dead style ‘80s monsters - and produce a movie that is not only a crass, ugly and deeply stupid work (as might well be expected), but is also utterly lacking in any kind of entertainment value…? How can this be? Couldn’t you just, I dunno, put the rockers, the girls and the monsters in a room, tie a camcorder to ceiling and let nature take it’s course, and still emerge with something that’s at least…. kinda fun? To screw up this badly takes a special kind of incompetence.

Don’t get me wrong here. I mean, I’m not being some witless “films should be coherent and well-made” bore, writing an Amazon product review to reveal to the world the shocking truth that “Werewolves On Wheels” isn’t actually very good. I love all kinds of objectively *bad* films: mysterious-bad films, weird-bad films, funny-bad films, sublime-bad films, culturally interesting-bad films… but Rock n’ Roll Nightmare is just a downer on every level that fails to throw the audience anything to reward them for sitting through the damn thing. A bad-bad film.

I can’t even think where to start in shooting this thing down, there are so many easy targets. The supposedly creepy, isolated old house is right next to a main road, is mainly filmed in overcast daylight, and looks like a Barrett Home! Nothing at all happens, for ages! When the inevitable monster/death scenes do turn up, they’re short, crap and filmed in such a joyless manner they might as well have not bothered, and just had the characters declare “ok, I’m dead now”, and wander off, which in some cases they pretty much do! They can barely even be arsed to make clear who’s alive and who’s monster-ised at any given point! The band is so boring and polite they make Stryper look like Mayhem by comparison, and we have to watch them playing all their dull-ass, six minute songs in their entirety! Much of the rest of the running time seems to be taken up with awful, awful dryhumping sex scenes – soundtracked by Thor’s own love ballads, natch – that it’s fair to say NOBODY wanted to see.

Ok, so vaguely on the up-side, Jon-Mikl Thor manages to pass himself off quite well as a likeably earnest and engaging…uh… protagonist (I’m reluctant to say ‘hero’, as he doesn’t actually do much), and it would be fun to see him strut his stuff in a better film. He seems like a nice enough guy. The legendarily ludicrous ‘trick ending’/final battle sequence/flying starfish bit is pretty funny, in a ‘would provoke some chuckling if you stumbled across it on late night TV’ kinda way, but, if you’re sufficiently bored, I’m sure you can probably find it on youtube without slogging through an hour’s worth of aimless, lifeforce-suffocating crap to get there (here ya go).

Somewhat unfeasibly, my DVD of ‘Rock n’ Roll Nightmare’ is a ‘collector’s edition’, packed with ‘special features’, a circumstance that seems akin to putting a new rocket engine in a slug. They’d better be pretty damn special, that’s all I’m saying.

The Witching (Bert I. Gordon, 1972)

Another one well worth avoiding. Director Bert I. Gordon was responsible for b-movie classics such as ‘The Amazing Colossal Man’ and ‘Village of the Giants’ back in the ‘50s, but squandered the resultant goodwill by spending much of the rest of his career turning out the occasional bit of unremarkable hackwork. If you were feeling particularly cruel, you could say Orson Welles did much the same, only, y’know, with ‘Citizen Kane’ and ‘Touch of Evil’ to look back on instead of ‘War of the Colossal Beast’.

Certainly, ‘The Witching’ would seem to mark a definitively depressing example of the decline of both men, as Gordon sets about directing it with all the flair and atmosphere of a public information film about crop blight. Apparently, this movie was originally released under the title ‘Necromancy’, with all the nudie witchcraft scenes cut out, a strategy which I can only assume was an attempt to create the most boring 70 minute film on record, but hey, what do I know? Maybe there was a big gap in the family movie market in ’72 for really dull, PG rated witchcraft thrillers featuring former cinematic luminairies sitting in a big, uncomfortable chairs muttering to themselves. Anyway, the nekkid witches and occasional bits of bloodshed were reinstated (they were part of the original production, not later inserts) when ‘The Witching’ got a second chance at life on the ‘80s home video market, and that’s the one I’m watching here.

Things start on a high with a pretty enjoyable satanic ritual scene, as Orson’s coven initiate a new witch by slicing a chunk out of her chest and trying to persuade her in turn to stab a voodoo doll which causes the death, hundreds of miles away, of Pamela Franklin’s unborn child. From there the action (and henceforth I use the term loosely) cuts to Pamela and her husband (played by Michael Ontkean – Sheriff Truman in Twin Peaks), who are driving across the desert en route to the isolated small town – called ‘Lilith’, would you believe - where Welles rules supreme in his capacity as a sinister patriarch/warlock type guy. Hubby has been offered a new job there you see, with the town’s sole employer – Orson’s toy factory.

From this not entirely unpromising opening however, the rest of the movie basically just reheats scraps from ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ in flat TV movie fashion, as the townsfolk try to get the new couple interested in joining their hip, swinging witch cult (they “worship pleasure” you see, which in Lilith seems to amount to holding cocktail parties where lots of housewives lounge around in witch gear with their tits hanging out), and Pamela, understandably though boringly, gets all ‘I-don’t-like-it-here’ and ‘am-I-hallucinating-or-are-they messing-with-my-mind’ and ‘why-did-they-bring-us-here’ and ‘can-I-still-trust-my-husband-or-what’ and BLAH BLAH BLAH.

As for Orson Welles’ performance, about the best thing you can say about it is that, well, at least he turned up, and allowed them to point the camera at him for a bit, which is more than can be said for certain other occasions on which his services were engaged during the ‘70s. Obviously overcome with disgust at being reduced to appearing in such a crappy motion picture, Orson spends his scenes motionless, lethargic and grumpy, delivering his lines in a resentful, semi-coherent monotone as if reading them off an autocue. A fun, powerful performance from a decent character actor as the villain could have livened this picture up 100%, but Welles is a complete charisma vacuum throughout. Still, at least Gordon got to stick “starring Orson Welles” on all the marketing without even having to lie about it, thus presumably increasing this otherwise lousy movie’s distribution/profit potential by a factor of ten, which was probably the point of persuading the big O to do it in the first place. Hell, I know curiosity re: ‘Orson Welles + witches = ??’ is what suckered me into watching it.

And that’s yer lot really. I can’t really recommend wasting your time on this one, unless you really, really, really like topless witches and watching Orson Welles looking sleepy, and have already exhausted the possibilities of all the other motion pictures in the world that feature such things.

Day of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1985)

After all that, I felt like I REALLY needed some real solid horror, with guts and substance. So I’ll admit it, I just watched “Day of the Dead” again. Job done. And as with my most recent viewing of “Night of The Living Dead” a few months ago, this time around I found myself mainly contemplating how fiendishly effective George Romero’s manipulative good cop / bad cop characterisations can be, and the way he employs them to undermine expected audience reaction.

For instance, I’m sure I’ve watched ‘Night..’ upward of a dozen times over the years, but it was only on the last viewing that I finally realised that arch-asshole Mr. Cooper actually purveys pretty sound survival advice throughout the film, and that, if they’d listened to him rather than to Ben, they might conceivably have all lived through the night (assuming they could bring themselves to behead the infected kid). But neither characters nor audience take heed of this, even after obsessive repeats viewing in my case, because, y’know, he’s such an unbelievable asshole, what kind of world could this be where he could actually be right about stuff?

Similarly, on maybe the fifth or sixth viewing of “Day..”, I still manage to get me all hot and bothered, thinking, christ, those soldiers are SUCH inhuman jerks, and the helicopter pilot and the radio guy are SUCH solid, likeable, no nonsense awesome dudes; I vow that when the apocalypse arrives, I’m gonna be like them (at least until I die of hyperglycaemia)! There I am, putty in George’s directorial hands, as per usual. Of course, he doesn’t repeat the same subtle morality vs. practicality turnaround used in ‘Night..’, but instead concentrates on ratcheting up the audience’s hatred for the ‘bad guys’ until it comes time for them to suffer stomach-turning, visceral deaths at the hands and teeth of the undead, at which point you’re caught thinking HA HA, THAT’S RIGHT, DIE YOU…. oh my god, there are maybe only a dozen human beings left alive in the world of this film, and I’m here CHEERING as half of them get their entrails ripped apart and their throats torn out by walking corpses….? – at which point things take on a distinctly unsettling resonance for us liberal humanist type viewers.

Analysis of Romero’s zombie films (prior to his heartbreakingly awful recent efforts at least) has often tended to dwell on their oft-praised social/political commentary, but to me those elements sometimes seem shallow and heavy-handed (in ‘Dawn’ and ‘Day’ at least – admittedly you could write whole books on the cultural resonance of ‘Night’), taking a definite backseat to his truly subversive mangling of character dynamics and narrative expectations.

Planet Terror (Robert Rodriquez, 2007)

After the failure of that fateful Friday’s attempt to get with some simple-minded, gory fun, the following evening’s viewing began with a flick that’s SURELY got to deliver: Robert Rodriguez’ ‘Planet Terror’. Now, let it be said that I’m not generally a fan of Rodriquez’ somewhat chauvinistic, stylised action movie aesthetic, but I , like all good people, adore ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’, I loved Tarantino’s ‘Kill Bill’(both parts), I think the two directors joint b-movie fascination tends to bring out the best in both of them and, well… essentially this is a movie in which Rose McGowan from out of The Doom Generation fights zombies with a machine gun for a leg. Ok, I realise Rose McGowan may have been thoroughly blanded out by over a decade doing stuff like ‘Charmed’, made-for-TV Stephen King adaptations and an unfortunate stint as Marilyn Manson’s ladyfriend, but to me she’ll always be Rose McGowan out of ‘The Doom Generation’, and, in this movie, a post-ironic b-movie-pastiche blockbuster staring out at me from the shelves of Fopp with a £4 pricetag, she fights zombies with a machine gun for a leg.

If you think I’m not gonna watch it, you give me more credit than I deserve.

So how was it for me? Well, by way of a review, simply close your eyes and imagine the sensation of drinking four beers in quick succession, then open your eyes and heed my words as I say, MAN - THAT WAS FUCKING AWESOME.

And what more is there to say? A whole bunch of stuff happened, I don’t quite remember it all, and in retrospect it probably didn’t make much sense, but it seemed reasonable at the time. There were a whole crew of weird, entertaining comic book type characters, and loads and loads of hideous gross-out violence and a hospital full of mixed up zombies, lovable redneck cops, nasty crooked mutant soldiers, and loads of guns and bombs everywhere! Gunshot wounds that do a big, satisfying SPLAT like in an old Peckinpah movie only more so, and sleazy b-movie injokes, severed limbs and goofy, interesting sub-plots and really, really cute girls riding around on motorbikes, wielding shotguns and doing go-go dances and kung-fu and stabbing guys with syringes (but they have real characters and are tough and idiosyncratic and kick-ass and stuff too, so the modern day “not being a misogynist bastard” rules say it’s allowed). Oh my lord, it was good.

And that’s that! It’s a film that consciously avoids any kind of intellectual engagement, so I’m gonna respect its wishes and not give it any. It’s clearly the best mainstream Hollywood movie in years, just by default! It rules! Even the music was quite good! It wins my Oscars! The End!

I know I should be grumpily discussing how conspicuously Rodriquez fails in his brief as regards making a modern day recreation of a ‘70s exploitation movie. For one thing, ‘Planet Terror’ is half an hour longer than any actual b picture, it’s far too carefully planned out/shot/edited, and any one of the aerial shots, explosions, car crashes or stunts that it lays on by the screaming dozen would be beyond the reaches of the blowing-the-budget finale set-piece of a genuine grindhouse effort. Not to mention the incongruous appearance of faces like Bruce Willis, which make the whole conceit seem a little flimsy (I mean, that would be like what – Cary Grant turning up in a H.G. Lewis flick or something?).

BUT, I don’t think that’s really an issue. As with ‘Kill Bill’, the true intent here is not the authentic recreation of a b-movie, but an attempt to bring to life the kind of film that the more crazed and imaginative b-movie directors COULD have made, had they had access to the budget, time, technical ability and talent necessary to fully realise the majestically fucked up panaramas of awesomeness that we fans would like to think were buzzing around their heads as they set out with joy in their hearts to film some fuzzy footage of lingerie models doing amateur kickboxing moves in the desert, or whatever.

‘Planet Terror’ often succeeds very well in capturing this spirit, but…. I can’t help but feel maybe it succeeds TOO well, in some ways. In the midst of its modern day Hollywood excess, it perhaps ends up crushing to death the very b-movie essence it seeks to reserve. After all, one of the basic prerequisites of b-movie fandom is to realise that you WILL be disappointed, that the movies will very rarely live up to the decadent depravity of their advertising. But, if you’re lucky, you may find instead that they make amends by offering something a little more strange, touching, funny or disturbing than the unaffordable/unfilmable adolescent wish fulfilment of their posters ever could. That's what we love 'em for really.

By laying on it’s expectation-surpassing gore/action/sex with all the restraint of a 12 year old psychopath and then throwing the results into a contemporary multiplex context, a film like ‘Planet Terror’ can easily lose this mixed up charm where ‘Kill Bill’ was (arguably) stylish and idiosyncratic enough to retain it, cracking the legitimizing veneer of post-modern trash homage, and leaving, well…. what exactly? A soulless parade of girl-porn, gun-porn, explosion-porn, car-porn, gross-medical-disaster-porn, flying limb-porn and more girl-porn (although strangely little porn-porn) that plays to a patronising, reductionist idea of what a male audience wants to see just as thoroughly as a lowest common denominator ‘chick flick’ plays to the assumed idea of what a female audience wants to see? Although the inherently patriarchal nature of the film industry and movie fandom allows ‘Planet Terror’ a far greater level of critical acceptance than ‘Confessions of a Shopaholic’ is liable to receive, are they not, in some sense, flipsides of the same grim, exclusionary coin?

And I swallowed the whole damn thing, hook, line and sinker.

GOD, that’s depressing.

Me and my stupid brain! Why did I have to pay attention to it? I was having so much fun! Stupid, crappy ‘thinking’! Whose idea was that anyway? Fuck!

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Manos: The Hands of Fate
(Hal P. Warren, 1966)

There is nothing a can possibly say to explain or justify the allure of ‘Manos: The Hands of Fate’.

I do not even pass on the opportunity to view it to you as a recommendation, or an internet-borne gift. More like a misguided public service, or a piece of dubious, ill-conceived lifestyle advice that steadfast men & women should rightfully shrug off in favour of spending seventy minutes of their leisure time pursuing some healthy and fulfilling art or craft, unless….

Unless what? – well exactly. That’s why we’re all here, right? That big UNLESS.

Just don’t say I made you watch it.

What you definitely SHOULD do however is read Keith’s review of ‘Manos: The Hands of Fate’ on Teleport City. Not merely because it sets out everything you need to know about this particular night-haunted cultural artefact, but also because it is one of the wisest, funniest, most engaging pieces of writing I’ve come across in a long while, with the final section getting straight to the heart of the strange motivations that drive fans of.. this sort of thing… ever onward in such an inspiring fashion it makes me feel like pledging allegiance, so deeply do I recognise and agree with his conclusions.

And so, with those shining words thoroughly absorbed, your loins girded with the appropriate background and context, it might – might – be time to begin.

Oh, and I should probably point out for the benefit of those whose first exposure to the film comes via the rather wonderful newspaper ad reproduced above that ‘Manos: The Hands of Fate’ isn’t really about “a cult of weird, horrible people who gather beautiful women and deface them with a burning hand”. Or at least, I don’t think it is. I suppose it might be. So flimsy is any sense of narrative, motivation or explanation within ‘Manos’, it’s difficult to tell. There are certainly some weird people, who might well be horrible. There are some women, although their beauty is something of a moot-point. At one point there is indeed a burning hand. But quite what the connection between the three elements really is, as with every other aspect of this eerie mirror of our own perpetually uncertain ‘reality’, remains gloriously unknowable.

‘Manos: The Hands Of Fate’ is available on Youtube, split into seven ten minute sections, beginning here:

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

"I mean, let's face it, Jimmy. You're no Sidney Riley."

This will be old news to any comics fans in the audience, but last week I finally found the time to catch up with Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s most recent League of Extraordinary Gentlemen collaboration, The Black Dossier, which was recently published in paperback.

And I thoroughly enjoyed it too, I must say. Quite a different proposition from the two previous LOEG mini-series, it takes Moore’s penchant for multi-layered cultural cross-referencing to new heights, creating a book that works less as a conventional action/adventure yarn, and more simply as an obsessive matrix of imaginary interchanges between the whole spectrum of popular fiction up to the year 1958, as relatively short comics sections are used to string together a collection of lovingly realised alternate world literary pastiches and artefacts, covering everything from a fragment of a lost Shakespeare folio to an extract from Sal Paradyse’s groundbreaking beatnik novel “The Crazy, Wide Forever”.

So thick and fast is this manic referencing that the initial feeling of stupidity at not being able to pick up the origin of each passing character and location is swiftly put aside as you realise that scarcely anyone is liable to be well-read enough to grasp the whole lot (this list, though incomplete, proves helpful), and when, say, Wilhelmina Murray and Allan Quatermain pay a visit to the Birmingham Space Centre in their flight from a British Intelligence team that includes both 'Bulldog' Drummond and Emma Peel, you find yourself less concerned with whether they make it out alive, and more with whether or not Moore will manage to cram in a reference to Professor Quatermass and his Rocket Group (shockingly, he doesn’t, but here’s hoping the League get to make a visit to Hob’s Lane in some of the new escapades promised later this year).

Needless to say, in Moore’s capable hands, the whole thing is a cornucopia of wonders for any fan of weird fiction and popular culture, and highlights for me included some of Oliver Haddo’s occult musings, composed during his solitary retirement in Hastings, the epic, 3000+ year biography of the immortal Orlando, and Bertie Wooster getting into a tight spot with the Great Old Ones in “What Ho, Gods of the Abyss?”

Best thing of all though? – the well-deserved treatment dished out to a certain English spy who we’ll know simply as “Jimmy”:

(If you’re planning to pick up a copy of The Black Dossier, why not give Amazon the heave-ho, and help Page 45 or Gosh stay healthy?)