Monday, November 23, 2009

Glam 'N Gore: Two Neato Movies With Lots of Shiny Things and Blood

Weird, sexy, dark shit. Black leather and nasty violence, bloody messes and flamboyant costumes. Recently I saw two movies that had these enticing properties in spades upon spades. One of them was actually good, and the other was enjoyable trash.

Repo! The Genetic Opera
is not a good movie. I did, however, find it immensely enjoyable. The film very much wants to be the next Rocky Horror Picture Show, and its earnest desire to supplant that flick as the reigning midnight movie is actually sort of cute. Rocky Horror, though, is ultimately a fun little romp about exciting underwear with not much in the way of blood and gore. Repo!, though, more than outperforms Rocky Horror when it comes to blood, gore, and sheer fuck up-edness.

The plot, such as it is, focuses on Anthony Stewart Head (you know, Giles from Buffy) as a futuristic repo man who extracts designer organs from deadbeats who can't pay their surgery bill. Also, there's some implied sibling fucking and a neon-blue corpse-based designer drug in their somewhere. Also, Sarah Brighton sings (oh yeah- it's a rock opera with songs of dubious musical quality) and Paris Hilton's face falls off. It is awesome. It's not good, artful, or redeeming, but it kicks ass. I would recommend watching it with lots of booze and lots of friends. My group peppered the screen with MST3K style retorts, and we frequently had to stop for "booze breaks." Repo! isn't the next Rocky Horror, but the world is a bit more nifty because of its existence.

Titus, though, is an actual good movie. This is surprising, given the source material, Titus Andronicus, considered one of Shakespeare's worst plays. The Bard wrote it very early in his career, and I suspect that the budding playwright was thinking of little else besides how to pack the house with rabble. This is several orders of magnitude down from, say, King Lear. Titus Andronicus is grindhouse Shakespeare. Heads and hands are lopped of characters, rape and insanity feature prominently, someone gets their tongue ripped from their head, an absurd body count mounts, cannibalism and slaughter ensue, and there's even some blaxploitation in there.

Director Julie Taymor obviously realized this, so Titus is an insane, weird, costume-heavy, gory, version of the play that gleefully slams anachronisms together, mixing gladiator armor with overcoats, vibing together the aesthetics of ancient and fascist Rome in a blend of insanity that just sort of works with the over-the-top source material. Anthony Hopkins plays the title character with more than a little of his Hannibal Lecter-y scenery chewing, and it's an entirely appropriate leading performance to go with all of the swirly weird shit, severed limbs, casual murder, and general shininess that pervades the film. If you like Shakespeare (or just movies with really nice costumes and/or orgies) see it. That old Elizabethian hack would be proud.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

"But the evil is that they hold for certain that they are in the light."

I sit down at my computer on Sunday night, all ready to finish up my post on Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco that I'd been working on earlier, and what do I find? That post-stealing cockblocker Seph has beaten me to it. The nerve. Nevertheless, I had this thing mostly written. Might as well finish it up...

The plot centers aroudn three editors at a vanity press are up to their earlobes in manuscripts about the occult, conspiracy theories, and general weirdness. To amuse themselves they decide to create a world-spanning fictitious model of history and reality that connects all of the esoteric stuff that they've read about, a grandiose intellectual game they call the Plan. Problems arise when a rather nutty group gets wind of their fictitious explanation of everything, and takes it seriously. Indeed, even the creators of the fictitious Plan take it far too seriously themselves, and eventually their creation consumes them.

(Incidentally, I would not have really enjoyed the book very much had I not been constantly consulting Wikipedia about the various historical, religious, and esoteric references the tome is crammed with. I liked the intricate connections and fanciful historical weaving, but constantly having to look up what the hell the characters were talking about made it something of a slog.)

I will admit to having a sort of enthusiasm for this kind of thing- I loved The Illuminatus! Trilogy, have read both the Principia Discordia and the Book of the SubGenius, and know what "fnord" means. The central appeal of the occult or conspiracy theory genre is that at least someone is in charge, at least that which appears arbitrary and meaningless from the outset actually has a place in a grander scheme. Everything means something, and while the world may be dangerous and mysterious, it is at least not capricious. I understand that appeal, enough that I sported an eye-in-the-pyramid on my arm at Burning Man. However, I also engaged the book somewhat seriously, and through the filter of my own particular biases and interests.

So much of what is described in Foucault's Pendulum- the esoteric arts, arcane secrets, cloistered spiritual orders -seems to imply a certain amount of contempt for the wondrous nature of the real world. For truths to have any sort of impact or value for the esoteric scholars in the book, they need, necessarily, to be secreted from view, to be apart from and cloistered off of the "real" world, to be part of narrative that is not accepted by "conventional" descriptions of history or science. Some of the most painful, and poignant, chapters of the book are when the main character's girlfriend offers him grounded and realistic insights into some of the details of the Plan. She is persuasive and touching in her deconstruction of the "hidden" truths that the narrator and his friends have concerned themselves with, but despite her enlightenment, despite the fact that he even says "yes" to her, the narrator and his companions still remain enmeshed in their all-consuming fiction.

Despite the book's slogginess, I found this emotional thrust to be deeply affecting. Years ago, I spent no small amount of time in the occult and New Age section of a used bookstore in Eugene, stocking shelves and conversing with the patrons there. I could not help but feel that these book buyers, these enthusiasts of the occult and arcane, needed their truths and revelations to be hidden and privileged. Knowledge, for them, did not come from the "real" world, but from a realm actively suppressed and ignored by reality.

Giving these people their books, ringing them up and hearing their comments about them filled me with a range of emotions that went from pity to anger. In the rest of the store one could find books on history rather than conspiracy theories, medicine rather than auras, philosophy rather than hokum. Set before them was the choice between that which was enriching and real, and that which was self-deluding. They chose, actively and deliberately, to delude themselves, much like the narrator of Foucault's Pendulum fails to heed the advice of his girlfriend. Worst of all, they thought that they were privileged with truth, privy to something more real than real.

Again, This is not to say that I don't find that sort of stuff amusing. I think that delving into weird shit and strange beliefs is a lot of fun. It's utter brain candy, and as such I could entirely identify with the pretentious editors in Foucault's Pendulum, men who take obvious scholarly joy in weaving all of this stuff into a coherent whole as an exercise in intellectual gamesmanship. At the end of the day, though, there is more real wonder in a single real leaf than in fraudulent delusion. The conduits of the greenery, the veins and the stems, the photosynthetic processes and changes from green to gold- all of these are greater truths and more potent revelations than anything about telluric energy or Templars. There is more active power in those intricate veins than in all of the ley lines that supposedly cross the Earth. Realizing that, one should not mourn the death of delusions or cry over the loss of intricate conspiracies. Rather, take joy in reality, chaotic and undirected though it may be.

(One last thing, unrelated to my above rant. When the Da Vinci Code came out, the thematic similarities were obvious and Eco was asked if he'd read it. His response:

I was obliged to read it because everybody was asking me about it. My answer is that Dan Brown is one of the characters in my novel Foucault’s Pendulum, which is about people who start believing in occult stuff.
- But you yourself seem interested in the kabbalah, alchemy and other occult practices explored in the novel.
No. In Foucault’s Pendulum I wrote the grotesque representation of these kind of people. So Dan Brown is one of my creatures.

As far as I'm concerned, that is some serious literary bitch-slapping, proclaiming a lesser author to be one of your comical characters. I think that Umberto Eco could probably make Dan Brown's fingernails fall off just by staring at him, such is his brainy power.)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Watching The Planets!

The Flaming Lips have finally released the video that I took part in, and it is pretty damn cool. I'm most visible towards the end, wherein we all take off Wayne Coyne's clothes.

Here it is, very NSFW.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Why Conan the Barbarian is One of the Best Fantasy Movies Ever

Conan the Barbarian was the very first R rated movie that I ever saw. I remember being at my redneck neighbor's house and being informed that it was "kind of like He-Man." He was sort of right- it is kind of like He-Man, except with nudity, blood, and way more awesomeness. I re-watched it tonight after over twenty years, and it holds up surprisingly well. In fact, I found it sort of incredible. I sat down expecting a cheesy movie where the governor of California tossed off one-liners and mowed down extras, and got a lot more than that. A few reasons why this movie is a masterpiece of sword-based cinema:

1: Conan, not to put too fine a point on it, has a dick.

A trope of fantasy movies and literature that I absolutely detest is that the main characters win by simply being "pure at heart" or "chosen." What bullshit. What utter tripe. I'm not pure at heart, and neither are you. Fortunately, Conan avoids this idiotic trope, though, and we get to see plenty of the titular character and his friends having sex, drinking, buying drugs, stealing stuff, stabbing the bad guys in the back, and in general enjoying themselves. (I hate to say it, but as much as I love LotR, you've got to admit that Frodo and Co. really don't have much in the way of gonads. It's like they have glowing sacks of goodness instead of balls.)

And think about this- how many times have you seen the heroes of fiction show mercy, but then have the bad guys betray them? For that matter, villains often fall victim to their own villainy and arrogance rather than to the efforts of the heroes. None of that in Conan- there is no unwarranted mercy, and the heroes triumph not because they are good or pure, but because they are strong, smart, and willing to strategically decapitate dudes when the opportunity arises. That is something so absent from popular fiction, that I actually said "Fuck yeah!" a couple of times when Arnie and friends mercilessly mowed down the evil snake cultists.

Speaking of snake cultists...

2: James Earl Jones is fucking awesome as the bad guy.

There are plenty of bad guys out there who seem to be evil just for the sake of plot. They swish around sinisterly, wring their hands with badness, and in general remain fairly undeveloped. Not so with James Earl Jones' Thulsa Doom. Jones is a charismatic cult leader, seeing him in action one can actually see how he'd be able to attract followers and keep a large organization going and growing.

Moreover, he has an awesome suit of armor and a sexy, sexy voice. And speaking of sexy...

3: Valeria is a badass.

I wouldn't say that Conan is a feminist movie by any stretch of the imagination, but Valeria holds her own in the movie. She is, most assuredly, not detestable little femme-flower. She's a competent killing machine who happens to have breasts. I can get behind that. Conan's two other compatriots, a thief and a wizard, are also quite neat, enough to make any D&D enthusiast smile.

So, yeah. I liked the movie so much that now, as I'm blogging about it, I'm listening to Motorhead and grooving on the awesome slayage that is Conan. Apparently there is a remake coming out next year. I am very cautiously optimistic.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

In Which I Read About Meat

On Wednesday night, I shared the stage with a hunk of dead cow. This was somewhat unusual for me.

The event, Livestock, was billed as a "literary and literal conversation of killing our dinner," and was hosted by the Art Institute of Portland's International Culinary School. The highlights of the evening included a demonstration of cow butchery, readings about experiences with meat from three local authors, beef tasting, and and Q&A session with a butcher and various farmers. I was one of the authors, though I felt the term slightly outsized for me.

I saw the submission call and sent in a short essay that I wrote a while ago about seeing eels getting slaughtered in Japan. Somewhat to my surprise, I was accepted, and was to read my essay aloud, along with two other authors, while the butcher took apart a side of cow before a crowd of wine-sipping onlookers.

When I got to the event (which is in it's first year) I was sort of nervous. I hadn't read any of my own work aloud since college, and was trying to psych myself up for it. Seeing who the other two speakers, were, though, kind filled me with equal parts excitement and dread. One was the poetry editor of the Portland Oregonian (who also teaches at PSU) and the other was Emily Chenoweth, an actual published novelist who has written one book under her own name and a number under pseudonyms. Then there was me.

On one hand, I was completely thrilled to be on stage with them. The organizer had decided that my essay was just as nifty as the stuff from the actual, published, credential-bearing people. On the other hand, I felt like I was severely outclassed by the "real" authors, and my heart began beating in earnest, looking for an escape route from my chest. That I was reading last did not help matters, (though I was sort of also thrilled about that).

The crowd filed in, the butcher got the cow flank ready for cutting up, and various plates of hors d'oeuvres and bottles of wine were available for consumption. I was way too nervous to eat or drink anything. The first author, the Oregonian editor, took the stage, and I started listening to what I had to share the stage with.

She was great. She wrote a wonderful, touching short essay about going hunting with her father. This was NPR quality stuff- good stuff that actually jerked a few tears out of the crowd. I was nervous. The novelist was next, and absolutely killed. She was witty, funny, and had the entire audience in stitches while reading about misadventures with bacon. The butcher even had to put down his various knives and take a moment to regain composure. This woman was funny.

I thought to myself "Well, fuck. I'm not touching or funny. I'm just sort of purple-prosey, metaphor-laden and weird." I think that was the point, though. All of our pieces were very different, and I suspect that the organizer wanted a diversity of styles at the event. When the novelist finished, I stepped up, my heart pounding and...

And calmed down. As soon as I was up there, as soon as I started reading, I was at ease. People, much to my delight, were into it. I read all about witnessing public eel slaughter, about attitudes towards meat in Japan, and about how I ate some kind of odd things while I was there. My mention of eating an entire sparrow got an audible "eww!" from the audience. I was reading my own work, and the crowd was reacting positively to it. I can see how open mic stuff gets addictive.

After I was done, I felt relieved, and the editor said that she really liked what I'd written, and gave me some advice about selling it. I thanked her, and downed a glass of wine. The rest of the evening was an informative Q&A with the butcher and a few farmers about what goes into raising and preparing beef, and different sorts of meat were presented for a tasting.

I stuck around to answer a few questions from people ("Did you really eat a sparrow?" was the most common one, "What's raw horse meat like?" was the other) and chatted a bit with a chef who'd spent a fair amount of time in Southeast Asia eating weird stuff. I left the event and abuzz.