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George Lucas, You Are Worse Than Ten Hitlers

14 Dec

A while ago, I wrote this piece, in reference to George Lucas’ continued editorial meddling in home releases of Star Wars movies. At the time, I was kind of jocular about it, because, honestly, I don’t give a shit. I like the original Star Wars series, but I’m not hysterical over it. I never owned any of the toys, never considered following up on the expanded universe through novels and comic books, and though I did have a set of Star Wars bedsheets as a kid, I am fairly certain that these were requested by my brother, and not me–particularly since I was unaware that linens were something to be purchased. I figured the Fitted Sheet Fairy brought them or something.

About a year after the original Star Wars trilogy was released on DVD, I purchased it used from Academy Records on 17th Street. I had no plans to watch them right away, I merely wanted to own the movies in this format just in case I felt like popping them on. I was aware that Lucas had made changes to the movies–some slight, others major–and I didn’t really care. I mean, these are just stupid movies about space dudes in cloaks and giant bears wearing bandoliers waving around flashlights. I read a lot of the online vitriol against Lucas with a kind of bemusement, shaking my head at the poor souls who had invested so much of themselves into this silliness. So Greedo shoots before Han Solo. So Lucas added a bunch of cgi shit to Cloud City. So what? It’s not like the basic plot of the story is any more or less stupid than before. Star Wars is a space fairy tale, a story of wonder and whimsy and weird incestual overtones and maybe some religious dogma.

A few weeks ago, my girlfriend asked to watch the Star Wars series. I hadn’t sat through the trilogy in many years, and I was curious to know just what George Lucas had changed from the originals, so we started watching them. Immediately, I was entertained by the small and large changes to these movies. For one thing, the graphics and sound were definitely enhanced from what I remember. But I was more tickled by the incongruous cgi characters hanging around with crude puppets, extra scenes of worthlessness that didn’t pertain to the story, and obnoxiously overdone explosions which stripped the original works of their charm. All the while, I chuckled inwardly at the fans whose childhoods were ruined by these augmentations, as if one should be proud that their childhood is based on a blockbuster space movie in which Carrie Fisher adopts an awful British accent. Then, we got to the final movie, Return of the Jedi.

My relationship to Return of the Jedi is a strange one, to say the least. I wasn’t old enough to see the original Star Wars in theaters, but I did see Empire Strikes Back when I was about five or six. I was too young to understand the plot, and took away from the film a fear of Darth Vader and a love of Yoda. I was eight or nine when Return of the Jedi came out, and not only did I understand the plot, but I loved the movie: I loved the space battles, I loved the creepy Emperor, and yes, I loved the Ewoks. They were pretty much targeted to my age group, so it was difficult not to. It wasn’t until years later, when I would obsessively watch the trilogy on VHS with my college roommate, that I came to understand how Return of the Jedi is kind of a let-down in the series. It’s basically a big-budget remake of the original Star Wars, with Ewoks (who were initially supposed to be Wookies) patched in to pander to eight and nine year-olds. Still, it was the most technically proficient of the three movies, and though it doesn’t stand alone as a great work, it closes out the story as we know it rather nicely. It’s always held a special place in my heart, as “my” Star Wars movie, far removed from the Disco-era’s shitty spaceship models and poorly-done mattes which are hallmarks of the other two films.

So I naively thought that Lucas wouldn’t fool around with Return of the Jedi. What’s to update? By the time that movie came out, Star Wars was a multi-million dollar property and the movies’ formula had been exacted. Sure, there might be some technical changes, but by and large I considered it a perfect movie for the genre, one which was both ageless as well as a contextual piece for the Reagan era. How wrong I was. Due to my familiarity with the movie, I was able to pick out the alterations immediately: a horrible cgi scene in Jabba the Hutt’s compound where a bipedal, female fish sings a song about Jedis as Jabba’s concubine is playfully dragged to her death. Ugly-looking tentacles issuing from the toothy sand pussy meant to end the lives of Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Luke Skywalker. Every few minutes, there seemed to be another pointless addition to the movie, which either detracted from the tension and pacing of the original or padded out the film with useless footage. I found it all generally annoying, but it was nothing to get angry over. These are movies for kids, and as the theatrical version of Return of the Jedi pandered to my grade school self, so too should the DVD re-releases pander to eight and nine year-olds today. Maybe they want to see their sand pussies with beaks and tentacles, how would I know? The point of that scene wasn’t diminished, just its impact, which is sad but not unexpected from a champion of mediocrity like George Lucas. Still, I had to laugh at those who feel the home releases of these movies are “ruined.” Every change Lucas made to the movies made sense in terms of continuity with the newer trilogy, as well as technological advances and George Lucas’ softer sensibilities.

And then we got to the end of Return of the Jedi.

I can only assume you’ve seen these Star Wars movies, otherwise there’s no reason to have read this much of my essay. But to refresh those who may not have seen it in years, the end of Return of the Jedi depicts an Ewok celebration on their home planet of Endor (or one of Endor’s moons, I forget which) after Darth Vader and the Emperor have been killed and the Death Star blown up. During the celebration, Luke sees the ghostly images of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and his father before he went all black robot suit, smiling warmly at Luke as if to say, “Good job, bud.” There’s a song that plays at the end, a much lauded or hated song, depending on individual opinion. It’s kind of an Ewok chant that supports the action on-screen of Ewoks doing somersaults and dancing around in their stiff, costumed manner. In fact, here it is:

Well, they fucking changed the song in the DVD release!

Upon seeing this, I crossed over from the Light Side to the Dark Side of Star Wars fandom, from chortling at the whining pleas of those who would dress as Storm Troopers to joining their angry ranks, gathered at comic conventions, calling for the head of George Lucas. Why did you change this song? Why? Not only does it make the Ewoks’ scenes of celebration seem bizarre and out of sync, over the mild dirge that replaces the happy and annoying Ewok song, it also completely changes the end of Return of the Jedi from triumph to contemplative confusion. I’m not even mad at the stupid cgi scenes of interplanetary peace, though they look imported from another movie entirely. I’m okay with changing the original actor that played Darth Vader’s human ghost to the brooding dude from Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. That was all for continuity with the newer trilogy. But why change that final song?

Because, ladies and gentlemen, George Lucas is worse than ten Hitlers combined. Fuck him.

Forget the Stupid Justice League Movie Already

14 Dec

Hey, there’s been some recent news about the long-rumored Justice League film, due out 2015! Isn’t that exciting? Haven’t you been waiting for a movie about the Justice League for like freaking ever?! You know the Justice League, right? That collection of DC Comics properties that includes Superman, Batman…I think Wonder Woman is in it…also the Flash and Green Lantern, and…that green guy. No, not Green Lantern, I already mentioned him. The other one. The guy that’s as strong as Superman plus he turns invisible. Also the guy with the wings, Hawkman is in it. I think that’s it. Oh wait, Aquaman, he’s got to be in there. Basically everyone from the SuperFriends except the non-white characters.

Wait, there’s more heroes in the League? You say that the Justice League contains every hero belonging to DC Comics, going back to 1938? Well, fuck me. There’s something lackluster about a specialized league that anyone with a talent remotely approaching a super power can join. They have two heroes with the power to stretch themselves like taffy. There are about four that can run faster than the speed of sound. And there are so many meta-humans with the power of flight, that their base of operations has to be held on a fucking satellite. Otherwise, they’d have to employ air traffic controllers, opening up a host of labor problems. There are more people in tights in the Justice League than the Ringling Bros. circus. And every time they hold a meeting, there’s a rift in the space-time continuum or something that spells imminent disaster for the cosmos. I mean, I’m not saying there’s a causal relationship, but it’s a coincidence worth investigating since the fate of the universe seems to depend on it.

Why Warner Bros., parent devils to DC Comics are so gung-ho for a Justice League movie, I have no idea. It’s not like their other attempts at comic books-turned movies in the new millennium have been successful excepting Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies and, to a lesser extent, attempts to turn Alan Moore’s graphic novels into movies. Green Lantern was an irredeemable piece of shit. Superman Returns was almost as confusing as it was boring. What DC has proven is that when they have a lot of input into how one of their characters is represented in movies, the result is garbage. Only when more talented people take the ball and run with it, like Nolan did, are the results satisfactory. “Perhaps,” you begin, pushing your coke-bottle glasses up the greasy bridge of your blackhead-specked nose, “comics are already in their perfect medium and require no film representation at all.” You might be right, despite the cloud of halitosis you belched in making that comment. But Marvel comics has made a bunch of superhero movies in the 2000s that are entertaining and enjoyable. They even made a pretty good movie around their clown costume conglomerate, The Avengers, which collects a bunch of well-known Marvel heroes, many of them already established in their own films.

That’s the first reason that the Justice League movie shouldn’t be made: we haven’t seen decent representation of the heroes involved outside of comic books and cartoons. And let’s face it, only nerds and fatties watch cartoons and read comic books. The rest of the world will be scratching their heads wondering why a hero like the Flash exists when there is already an even buffer dude named Superman who can move at super-speed. Batman as represented in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy obviously doesn’t exist in a universe populated by other superheroes, and besides–spoiler alert for this movie that’s been out for six months–Bruce Wayne gives up the Batman mantle at the end of The Dark Knight Rises. It would seriously taint an otherwise solid trilogy if DC dragged the same character out of retirement so he could fight space fish with Dr. Fate and Plastic Man. The implication of the article linked in the first paragraph is that Joseph Gordon-Levitt will play Batman in the Justice League movie, tying it to the Nolan trilogy since Gordon-Levitt was in the last movie. But that strikes me as totally unnecessary and stupid. For one thing, this would mean that Bruce Wayne will not be Batman in the Justice League movie, which will thoroughly befuddle and irritate the average person who is familiar with popular representations of Batman. For another thing, it’s entirely unnecessary. The tale of Batman is timeless, it can be (and has been) told and re-told a lot of ways, provided the basic tenet–that the son of wealthy socialites deals with the trauma of having watched his parents get gunned down before him by dressing up like a bat–remains the same. Jospeh Gordon-Levitt could fit that bill well enough, particularly if he’s to be surrounded by other heroes in their technicolor dreamcoats. He would be a cog in the Justice League machine, so a fully fleshed-out character may not be necessary.

But even given that fact, a Justice League movie would only serve the highlight the fact that DC has made little progress ingratiating their characters with the general public. Where is the long-rumored Wonder Woman movie? How about an attempt at telling Hawkman’s fairly intricate origin story outside of a film that will have to squeeze in the characterizations of at least half a dozen super folks? Baby steps, people. This apparent need for DC to skip to the end of the story was the main flaw in the Green Lantern movie. Yes, as I wrote before, Ryan Reynolds was mis-cast in his role as Hal Jordan. But it might have been a serviceable movie had his character not gone from ordinary test pilot to a cgi space cop battling the oldest evil in the universe in the space of one movie. In the comics, Hal Jordan doesn’t even get contacted by the Intergalactic Nerd Cops until he’s dicked around with his new ring for a while. They might have stretched the Green Lantern story into two and three movies, instead of making one largely incomprehensible piece of shit. And that’s what we’re looking at in a Justice League movie in two years.

It’s the movie few people understand and nobody wants. Maybe if I thought they’d do the Justice League from Keith Giffen’s run in the 1980s, I’d get on board. That was a group of secondary heroes doing a kind of Moonlighting/Hill Street Blues type of thing, and the characters were evinced through dialogue with each other. I guess I fear that the Justice League movie in 2015 might open with Batman and Superman standing on the bridge of their satellite headquarters, then during the credits they get attacked by Starro the space monster. Twenty minutes later, they’re already on an alternate earth fighting Owlman and Ultraman. By the last half hour of the movie, they’re replaying the events of Infinite Crisis to a thoroughly bewildered and bored audience. But maybe I’m too pessimistic. Or maybe I ACTUALLY WATCHED THAT FUCKING GREEN LANTERN MOVIE WITH RYAN REYNOLDS AND I WANT MY GODDAMNED TWO HOURS BACK.

More Shitty Movies That Are Great

11 Oct

I shared some of my favorite movies once before, and if you’re so inclined you can check out my prior offerings. But just to recap: I’ve been watching crappy horror and sci-fi flicks for almost as long as I’ve been alive. It’s a venerated tradition, passed down from parent to child, and one I’d like to pass down to you since kids are assholes who can’t appreciate true cinema, or anything not fully-rendered in computer graphics that leaps off the screen like projectile vomit.

Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, 1971

If you’ve never seen a Godzilla movie, this is not the one with which to start, because it is hands down the most tripped-out and darkest film in the series. It carries a strong ecological message thoroughly diluted by surreal cartoon segues and inexplicable scenes, like when the human protagonist goes to a night club and hallucinates that everyone’s got fish heads. I don’t mean that they’re holding fish heads, I mean that their human heads have been replaced with oversized heads of fish. Then, the Smog Monster–a gigantic, shuffling turd with eyes–steps up to a smokestack and pulls a righteous bong hit (which makes his eyes glow super-red…totally). Another unusual thing about this movie that isn’t canonical with the series is that a lot of people die after whiffing the Smog Monster’s smoky farts. That doesn’t stop the survivors from whooping it up on the slopes of Mount Fuji as an Armageddon Eve celebration. The DVD version allows for English and French subtitles, but I suggest you watch the dubbed version if only to hear the awesomeness that is the theme song.

18 Again!, 1988

There were few kids-as-adults type movies that hit theaters in 1988: Big, Vice Versa, Like Father, Like Son. But there’s one that gets overlooked…okay, so all of them get overlooked, besides Big because it was the only one that didn’t seem like a made-for-TV movie. But the most overlooked one is 18 Again!, starring Charles Slattery and that irascible, cigar-chomping vampire George Burns. George slips into a coma and is visited by his grandson, played by Charlie, and then through some sequence of events that I forget they trade spiritual places, so that George is an old man in a young man’s body and Charles is…I guess some old guy in a coma. The movie is worth seeing for Slattery’s crummy George Burns impersonation, but I’ve always been tickled by the fact that this was probably George Burns’ easiest job ever since he spends almost the entire movie lying in bed, feigning sleep. This is acting? I sleep at work all the time, no one has offered me any Academy Awards. I don’t recall a whole lot of the plot, but it’s an 80s comedy movie so you’re bound to see some tits.

Rappin’, 1985

The inclusion of hip-hop into mainstream American culture was not completely organic or seamless. There were a lot of attempts, both credulous and ludicrous, to bring rapping, deejaying, breakdancing and writing graffiti into places beyond American urban centers. It’s difficult to stand here, decades after the fact, and determine if these attempts actually aided hip-hop’s emergence into the spotlight, or if they were symptoms of a growing cultural awareness of what was going on in the South Bronx. It’s not difficult, however, to spot an impostor, as we do with the movie Rappin’ starring Mario Van Peebles and featuring Kadeem “Dwayne Wayne” Hardison of A Different World fame. The movie is about Mario’s character, newly-released from jail, seeking to rehabilitate his beleaguered neighborhood by winning a rap contest. He proceeds to succeed in his endeavor by delivering some of the shittiest, corniest rap lines this side of “Rappin’ Rodney.” It’s worth watching until the end credits, when the entire cast kicks verses about their roles in the movie, essentially reiterating what you’ve just watched. In fact, you can fast-forward to the end and spare yourself the pain of watching Mario Van Peebles try to act hard in a mesh tank top and sensuous Jheri curled hair.

Some Movies That Fucked Me Up a Little

17 Feb

I have the honor of being a Younger Brother. Moreso, my sibling is an Older Brother, not an Older Sister, which has deep ramifications. My childhood was full of farting contests and instruction on masturbation and being made to feel like an insignificant worm, while an Older Sister might have simply made me feel like an insignificant worm and left it at that. One dubious benefit of having an Older Brother is that I got to hear music and watch movies that, at the time, I was probably too young to fully comprehend. My particular Older Brother was a big fan of the horror genre, which is why, when my age was still in single digits, I saw a lot of movies that kind of fucked me up.

When A Stranger Calls, 1979, color

Of all the movies I watched at grade-school age that I shouldn’t have–A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Sleepaway Camp–When A Stranger Calls is arguably the least scary from an objective viewpoint. However, it made a big impact on me because it was the first horror movie I ever saw. It may have been the very first time my parents went out for the evening and left my brother in charge, but it was certainly during one of these initial expressions of parental trust that I saw the movie, which ultimately led to me not sleeping for two weeks. The plot to When A Stranger Calls is the same as that campfire story about the prank caller who ends up have called from inside the house all along, a trite, old yarn that I had never heard before seeing the film. I can recall a scene depicting a bloody guy in a bathtub that I don’t believe is actually in the movie. Though I was terrified of When A Stranger Calls and had lingering nightmares because of it, I don’t think I ever explained as much to my parents. I guess I thought they’d be pissed off if they knew my brother let me watch it.

Phantasm, 1979, color

My brother was able to traumatize two family members with this film: my mother first, when she took him to see it in the theater and then never took him to see another horror movie again for as long as he lived. Then again, much later, when he and I watched it one evening that my parents were out. The plot, as I understood at age nine, is about a horrifying tall man that scares the shit out of everyone just through his sheer existence. There are also little Jawas that kidnap people and send them to another dimension through a portal hidden within a mausoleum, but what I mainly remember is the Tall Man, played by Angus Scrimm. How good is that name? Angus Scrimm. With a name like that, you’re either going to be a bagpipe player, or someone that scares the pants off of little kids without much effort. But there’s no way you could be both.

The Last House On the Left, 1972, color

I’m closing in on forty years old at the time of this writing, and I still don’t think I’m old enough to watch this movie. Arguably one of the most disturbing theatrical releases in history, Last House On the Left is about two thrill-seeking teenage girls who go to a rock concert only to get raped and murdered. Parents of one of the teens take their opportunity to enact (a sort of convoluted) revenge when the killers show up at their doorstep due to car trouble. I saw this movie when I was nine years old. The song that plays over the closing credits is one of my favorite songs of all time–a kind of freewheeling country tune that basically outlines the plot of the movie. If you’ve got a strong stomach, I recommend you watch this movie because it’s definitely an interesting juxtaposition of gore, psychological horror, and slapstick comedy–yes, you read that right, slapstick comedy. However, if you’re a nine year-old boy who pisses himself when highly anxious, then you should put this flick on the back burner and watch something more tame like House.

You Spring For the Rum, I’ll Get the Drugs

23 Jan

I first became aware of the Amish practice of Rumspringa from watching The Devil’s Playground, a documentary about Amish teenagers. After viewing that movie, my understanding was that Rumspringa is an Amish person’s last chance to engage the “English” world of sin, debauchery, and other types of fun. I figured that it made good sense: by allowing its members to sow their wild oats, the Amish religion can retain at least some of its members, should they feel vacuousness in the secular world of ironic t-shirts and gangster rap music. It was my small-minded assumption that everyone in the world wants to watch shitty prime-time sitcoms and play with their digital watches which led me to believe that Rumspringa is a structured allowance to sin, an attempt to abate any future curiosities and non-Amish leanings. I mean, those Islamic fundamentalists are just jealous and hate our freedoms, right? All they want is to sink their teeth into a salty Quarter Pounder with Cheese. But they can’t, and that frustrates them, so they hijack planes and stone women to death.

Then I read the book Rumspringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish by Tom Shachtman. Let me say right away that you should not read this book. It is very poorly-written, and in fact comes across like a medium-grade master’s thesis for a third-tier university. It’s not so much an essay as it is a string of direct quotes from Amish teenagers, who–surprise, surprise–are not a whole lot more articulate than their “English” counterparts. Curse words are inexplicably redacted with a bracketed “[expletive deleted]” like it’s the fucking Nixon White House tapes or something. Buddy, if I’m old enough to read about Amish kids smoking crystal meth, then I can probably handle a few instances of the s-word. The writing is shitty and dry, and may have benefited from a few bad words peppered among the ridiculous dialog.

That being said, the information contained within Rumspringa was very interesting. I came to learn more about Amish life and mores, and had a few of my preconceptions shattered. For one thing, like in any religion, there are many different sects and beliefs under the umbrella of the Amish religion. Amish people do not eschew every modern convenience, and in fact there are regular meetings among Amish communities to determine what, if any, technologies can be applied to daily life. It’s a struggle to keep a balance between living an austere existence, which will involve some suffering, but still working efficiently in a way that will compete with “English” suppliers of the same goods. For instance, some communities would not allow gas-powered plows on their farms, though their use had been suggested year after year. But most of these communities will have one communal telephone, which is integral to doing business. And if that telephone gets used occasionally to contact distant relatives, well there’s no great harm done.

More interesting to me was the actual philosophy behind Rumspringa. It has little to do with sowing your oats, as I thought, and everything to do with the Anabaptist tradition of only accommodating members who join of their own free will and cognizance. People are baptized as adults, and that baptism is a pact between the adherent and his church, not a direct communion with God. In fact, being baptized Amish doesn’t itself guarantee passage to heaven, which is the usual cornerstone promise a church offers for your tithing. People born to Amish families are raised in the Amish tradition, but when they are old enough to think for themselves, they can then choose to join the church or not. While deciding, they are free to live life however they wish.

I had assumed that Rumspringa would last roughly between the ages of sixteen to twenty-one, but I found that many Amish-born people stay in a technical limbo for much longer than that. The trick here is that if you don’t join the Amish faith, then you will simply be the “English” relative of an Amish family, allowed contact with them and even to stay at home, if the father sees fit, until you make a choice one way or the other. But if you do join up and then decide to change your mind later, then you stand a possibility of being shunned; contact will be severely limited and you will not be allowed to share meals or in functions with the community. Seems to me that the best way to hedge your bets would be not to join, that way you can sin to the degree that you like and still talk to your mother from time to time. But that is, of course, my secular view of things. Certain churches demand allegiance as a kind of threat: join us or your family, your community, and your God will hate you. The Amish church is, in this sense, more liberal than some other Christian denominations. You should only join the church knowing full well what is expected of you and because you think it is right, not because you’re afraid of losing touch with your family.

Some years ago, I had the opportunity to sit and talk with an Amish woman, who lived on a farm in southern Wisconsin with her large family. She invited myself and my friends in for some incredibly weak tea and bland ginger cookies. The house was cozy but relatively bare, not jammed with lamps and framed pictures and plush furniture like my own home. The floor was covered in a fine, brown dust of tracked manure. While the younger girls tended to the youngest children, I conversed with the matriarch of the family who was very pleasant and accommodating. It was a few years after 9/11, and the Amish woman asked me about it. I began to relate my personal story of the day, when she cut me off: “No, I mean, what happened that day? Some structures were blown up? Did it affect New York?” She was aware that a serious event had occurred, but didn’t know any of the specifics. Trying to look at it from her perspective, I can’t say that any of the specifics mattered. There was a great loss of life, the president used that to justify military action, and the exact figures and dates are minor compared to those points. From my perspective, the events of 9/11 were a turning point for world politics and how America would be perceived in the twenty-first century. To this woman, it was just more calamitous noise coming from the secular world. How did the events of 9/11 affect this woman, her family, and their farm? Most importantly, how did it impact the price of eggs?

Could It Be…Satan?!

14 Nov

My brother was a big fan of Dungeons & Dragons, but I never got into the stuff. Truthfully, I was a few years too young for it even in 1985, when the craze for role-playing games was dying out. The whole thing seemed too complicated to me, a lot of charts and weird-looking dice, and I was never into the fantasy genre. Still, you couldn’t get away from Dungeons & Dragons and a few other similar games in the early 80s. Their popularity seemed to grow alongside the mounting hysteria surrounding these games’ connection to teenage depression and the occult. My brother often quoted a most likely false tale about a kid who was so obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons that when his character died while playing the game, the guy went home and committed suicide. My brother would grin with glee while telling this story, proud to be dabbling in something so dangerous and wicked.

I wasn’t raised a Christian, so I wasn’t told that God is an all-seeing, all-knowing vain asshole who requires my persistent patronage and adoration. But I did know that Satan was a force of evil, I was made aware of this by news reports of satanic ritual abuse and talk shows about satanic cults and pamphlets and magazine articles and movies all telling me that Satan was looking to steal my soul. Strangely, it never occurred to me that Satan was in an eternal struggle with God, I thought it was us versus Satan; either we let the devil make us bad people, or we decide to be good. The punishment for siding with Satan would be eternal damnation and torture, but the reward for being good would simply be death. Mind you, this is something I determined when I was nine years old. I can only imagine what kinds of berserk shit I’d have been thinking had I been raised a Catholic like my friends and specifically told what tortures lie in store for me should I ponder upon a bosom.

The fear generated by the belief in a worldwide Satanic conspiracy during that time was unbelievable. Satan was everywhere: in our music, in our television shows, in our board games. He preyed mainly on standoffish adolescents and cooing infants, though he wasn’t above the occasional demonic possession of a retiree. Stories about massive cult blood orgies and ritual sacrifice of kidnapped children began popping up, each instance awakening the repressed memories of former members or victims of these cults, their flashbacks recorded while under deep hypnosis on a therapist’s couch. These satanic organizations comprised a highly organized network of devoutly evil people who had infiltrated every town, every suburb, every neighborhood. The most insidious thing about it was that anyone could be a secret satanist: your teacher, the bus driver, even members of your very own church could be paying lip service to God while shitting on a crucifix in their spare time. The main concern were those targeted by the prince of darkness: children. And so a lot of corny shit was justified to insulate the average child from inducement into evil by way of Black Sabbath records and fantasy board games.

No one considers themselves a bad person. We always do what we think is right, which pretty much justifies any act. The guy killing prostitutes at the suggestion of the voices in his head is only doing what he thinks is right. It’s a lot more palatable to believe that the fucked up stuff we do to one another is beyond our control, all manipulated by hoary forces and complex machinations that work incessantly to foster your poor choices. Demon bullies, essentially, or comic book super villains that are committed to evil for evil’s sake. Growing up, my Christian pals told me that God had given all of us free will, which boiled down to the freedom to choose between believing in Christ the messiah or eternal hell fires. This struck me as odd since it implies that our natural state is to be bad, that we have to work to get into God’s graces or we can relax and act naturally for a free trip to Hades. I figured that after all this time, that many billions of souls condemned to hell had to have figured out a loophole. I mean if there’s anything the human race excels at, it’s justifying and even reveling in its own laziness.

The notion that evil forces are invested in making our comings and going as nefarious as possible is a scary one, but far scarier is the reality that there are no evil forces, that we hurt our loved ones and fall short of our potential because we are selfish, and small-minded, and hopelessly locked within our own skin. There is most likely no final reward, no waiting punishment, no foundation to the ideas of karma or cosmic balance or divine retribution. We’re a component of a universal design so complex so as to render us practically irrelevant, and whatever little squabbles we have with each other, no matter if we kiss or kill each other, our most important function is to exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen. Our lives are not significant enough to warrant speculation by demons and devils. Our best hope is that, along the way, we’ll get to roll the twenty-sided die a few times and end up with an extra bit of treasure or a Cloak of Wisdom or something.

George Lucas is a Sensitive Artist

7 Sep

The creative process is not some formula you can apply unilaterally with predictable results. All art starts, presumably, with an artist’s vision, something they want to achieve and probably present to the public. After the vision is defined, it’s anyone’s guess as to how the creator will realize that vision, but we can safely assume that, along the way, the artist will need to make compromises and changes based on available time or money. Or perhaps they are constrained by their own abilities. Perhaps, even, the artist is able to change their methods and tweak the original vision along the way to get a desired result. Seldom does a creation match exactly the original vision that birthed it. This is but one part of the crushing loneliness of being an artist, that they rarely if ever show the world exactly what’s bubbling in that wild brain of theirs, and so people understand only a faint example of what the artist was attempting to say.

Most artists move past their finished works and set their sights on greater, more immediate things they’d like to accomplish. Once in a great while an artist finds themselves in the enviable position to revisit their earliest output and give it the finishing touches that it deserves. And so is the case with producer/sometimes director/Hollywood Guy George Lucas, the man who birthed the Star Wars franchise way back in 1978. The original Star Wars, aka Star Wars: A New Hope was an incredibly ambitious project for its time, and Lucas’ special effects department revolutionized the industry with their innovative tricks and groundbreaking techniques. It filmed in various locations, famously at London’s massive Elstree Studios where Star Wars took up all six stages. The movie needed to be written and re-written continuously during production, and entire scenes were dropped in order to save time, money, or make a more cohesive plot. It was a gamble, financially for 20th Century Fox and professionally for George Lucas, one which ultimately paid off and resulted in roughly sixteen zillion sequels, spin-offs, and units of merchandising, and the Star Wars industry is more successful today than ever.

And still, those of us who grew up watching the original Star Wars trilogy in theaters only got a pale example of the artistic vision George Lucas was trying to execute. Thankfully, in every home release Lucas has had the luxury to go back and digitally fix the problems that plagued his original movies and made them less than they could be. For example, near the beginning of Star Wars: A New Hope, when Luke, Obi Wan, and the droids make their way into that bazaar on planet Tattooine, the original movie has the characters interacting with some Stormtroopers before making their way into the city proper and ultimately visiting the Cantina where they will meet and hire Han Solo and Chewbacca. In the revised edition, available since 1997, George Lucas had some extra monsters and Jawas digitally added to the scene to amplify the point that this place is fucking busy. So busy, in fact, that there are monsters lumbering around. This puts a whole new spin on the franchise, as far as I’m concerned! See, I knew that planet Tattooine was a remote trading outpost, largely a desolate wasteland save for a few repositories patronized by bounty hunters, used android salesmen, and scoundrels, where they could rest up and look for employment opportunities. What I didn’t realize until 1997 was that there were a lot of monsters there, too.

A little later on, in the Cantina, we meet Han Solo and Chewbacca. Obi Wan hires them to fly the Millennium Falcon into the wild black yonder, but before take off, Han is accosted by an agent of interstellar gangster Jabba the Hutt who demands some money that Han Solo left in his other pants. In the original version, Han Solo banters with the alien for a bit before firing his blaster under the table, rudely and permanently ending their discussion. This was important because, through the whole first movie, you’re not sure if Han Solo can be completely trusted, and this scene in the Cantina reinforces that mistrust since it portrays Han as someone who values money and his own safety over life or morality. Though it makes for more compelling conflict, this is clearly not what was intended by George Lucas, since he altered the film in 1997 so that Jabba’s agent Greedo fires first, forcing Han Solo to fire back in self-defense. It’s all so much clearer to me now, Han Solo is not an opportunistic, greedy smuggler/thug-for-hire, but an ethically pure individual who comes off a little bit coarse at times. His relationship with the Rebel Alliance wasn’t one built over time, strengthened by valorous incidences and proofs of his loyalty, no, Han Solo’s loyalty was a fait accompli the minute Obi Wan spoke to him in the crowded Cantina. Which, by the way, was digitally made even more crowded by George Lucas, also in 1997. Thank goodness! I initially thought the Cantina was a dangerous bar crowded with alien lifeforms that had mean dispositions. I know now that the Cantina was actually very crowded with alien lifeforms having mean dispositions.

Of course, this essay comes on the heels of the revelation that George Lucas has augmented one of the final scenes on the Blu-Ray release of Return of the Jedi, having dubbed James Earl Jones (as Darth Vader) screaming “Nooo!” as he tosses the Emperor over a railing in order to stop his son from being electrified. People are annoyed at this change, only the latest in a list of changes to the home-released versions of the franchise, because they feel that it affects the entire tone of this scene and alters the character Darth Vader as we know him. What these people need to understand is that the Darth Vader we knew is but a bastardized, incomplete version of the human-cyborg hybrid, one that was helplessly castrated by the constraints of movie-making in the 1980s. These movies that we love and grew up with aren’t ours, they belong to George Lucas, and no matter how popular they are and how much money they generate, we’re still only seeing a piece of the puzzle until Lucas can go back and restore his initial ideas to the original movies. Give the guy a break! The technology to overdub “Nooo!” in what is arguably the most important scene of the Star Wars series didn’t exist in 1983.

The Dark Knight Rankles

20 Jul

My hordes of faithful readers already know that I’m a pretty big fan of Batman. I know I’m not his only fan, and I don’t think I’m his number one fan, but I think Batman is cool as shit and I’ve followed his comic book exploits religiously since I was about eleven years old. I’ve even gone back to get reprints of older Batman comics so I could get the full scoop on this enigmatic multi-billionaire superhero–yes, even many of the incredibly shitty Batman comics from the 1950s where he hangs out with space aliens and crap like that. Turns out that my research was for nothing, since DC has rebooted their overall continuity more times than I care to remember, effectively doing away with Batman’s past right after the point that his parents’ lifeless forms crumpled in Crime Alley, leaving poor Brucie Wayne an orphan.

In 2012, the final movie of Christopher Nolan’s triumphant Batman trilogy comes out, and I am pretty excited about it. “Geeked out” would be a better term, as I’ve been on the internet speculating about this imminent film since before the last movie was even out of theaters. Of particular consideration was which members of Batman’s Rogues Gallery would be facing off with the Dark Knight in the last chapter of Nolan’s saga. Pretty much every name was thrown out, and several were derided and discarded by more vociferous fans as not being in tune with Nolan’s “realistic” portrayal of Batman. Among the villains assumed to be too weird for the movie were Poison Ivy, the Penguin, and Killer Croc.

Which criminal has been confirmed? Bane, that South American in a luchador’s mask whose mass increases by a factor of ten when he shoots himself up with specially-formulated steroids.

When Christopher Nolan said he wouldn’t brook any silliness in his Batman movies, I assumed this was only in contrast to the prior live action series directed by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher. Because, to my mind, if you’re going to make a Batman movie, there’s going to be some silliness in there. Once you assume that one of the world’s wealthiest men would suit up as a bat in order to pummel criminals more efficently, then you can pretty much go wherever you want with the story. In actual reality, a man like that would be locked up and the key hidden in a stack of All-Star Batman and Robin comic books, never to be found again. I mean, the last movie had Two Face in it, for crying out loud, and featured a guy with half of his face burned off and an eye hanging out of its socket hopping out of his hospital bed to gain haphazard revenge on people who, you know, didn’t have half of their faces burned off. That fairly well stretches the limit of credibility, as far as I’m concerned.

Why Bane is a more sensible villain than, say, the Penguin is also beyond my comprehension. In medical terms, Bane’s existence (heh) is a load of grade A horse shit, while the Penguin is just a dumpy little guy named Oswald Cobblepot that has a lot of trick umbrellas. In fact, there’s no real reason a guy like the Penguin couldn’t exist, except maybe that an umbrella-helicopter wouldn’t actually work. Also, he’s alarmingly agile for a man with Danny DeVito’s body type. The more important question here is: why are we trying to make a “realistic” Batman movie? Sometimes realism can show all of your flaws, like in the live action Garfield movies. We knew he was a fucking annoying and lazy cat, but only computer graphics could show us how godawful ugly he is.

The very idea of a serious approach to Batman is patently retarded. “Finally! The truth can be told about the lonely billionaire who swings above city rooftops in his underwear.” It’s this same impetus that makes comics fans and creators alike such sticklers for continuity, as if consistency regarding these decades-old fictional characters means fuck all. What would Batman be like in the real world? Most likely, he’d be dead, tripped up by one of his own Bat-laces or felled by a well-placed bullet from the gun spray of some gangbanger. We love Batman, we don’t want him to die. So let him fight Poison Ivy and leave the realistic, serious criminals to that Jason Bourne guy.

You Would Be the First to Get Vicked

26 May

Nostalgia is big business. The biggest concert tours in the world are, for the most part, fueled by people’s nostalgia for their youth, when they gave a shit about music. eBay exists primarily to supply upwardly-mobile adults with rescued and rehabilitated toys from their childhoods. I think that the business of nostalgia was invented by Joe Franklin, who used to have a late night talk show on WWOR TV that ran for something like ten billion years. People have always gotten wistful for the good ol’ days, but it was Joe Franklin who dusted off those relics of the good ol’ days and stuck them under harsh studio lights for people to fawn over. Stories of yesteryear no longer need to be passed down from generation to generation, you can now record and relay the actual artifact for future historians and pop culture junkies to puzzle over for all eternity. So you have many lenses through which to view history, be it through the land disputes and wars which have created the world’s borders we know today, or through a subtle progression of the Coca-Cola logo.

There’s so much media reference for the twentieth century that it’s difficult to know which memories are our own and which have been created by nostalgic reverie. I remember when the space shuttle Challenger blew up, I was in the sixth grade and a special assembly had to be hastily arranged to inform students and allow teachers a space to cry. In my mind’s eye, I can recall sitting in a classroom with a bunch of students, watching the space shuttle lift off and soar towards the clouds, then suddenly vanish in a bright puff that spewed two other smoke trails to either side of the craft. I can recall everyone gasping and holding their hands up to their mouths, my teacher wide-eyed in shock at the occurrence. The thing is that I didn’t watch the Challenger lift off live on television, my sixth grade teacher didn’t arrange for us to watch it during class like some other teachers had. However, I saw repeats of the disaster after school and for many days afterward, viewed footage of classrooms around America watching the horror unfold on television sets rolled in by maintenance. So my actual memory of the event, which should include that I knew nothing of the space shuttle’s planned takeoff or that it had civilian passengers until after the fact, is faulty.

Despite my not actually being aware of its scope, I was alive and cognizant for Challenger’s fatal flight. But I can’t remember a thing about the 1970s. In fact, one of my earliest memories is watching President Ronald Reagan speak on television, Jimmy Carter a forgotten footnote already by the time I was five years old. I grew up on the Northeastern end of Queens, and if my parents took me to Manhattan before I was in kindergarten, I don’t remember it. I recall going into “the city” with my parents during the 80s, terrified of the rocking subway with its windows and maps darkened by spraypaint and indelible ink, the lights flickering off for minutes at a time, conductor announcements crackling loudly through distended speakers that rendered them completely inaudible. I remember a lot of filthy winos and fat cops who lazily watched people drinking and smoking dope outdoors from behind inscrutable mustaches. It all scared the shit out of me and made me want to rush back to my native Flushing with its endearing neighborhood drunks and white trash weirdos. These were the last vestiges of 1970s New York, though I couldn’t comprehend that at the time. And it looked fucking awful.

It’s easy to romanticize New York City of the 1970s, what with all of the books, movies and music that make it seem like a hedonistic utopia. Sure, flicks like Taxi Driver and The Taking of Pelham 123 ain’t all sweet. There’s a lot of anger and tension in the works of The Last Poets. But the ideal is that 1970s New York was a place where you could get away with shit, where you could drink a beer while walking outdoors past peep shows, savoring the aroma of unwashed junkies. The subways were glittering canvases of color, punk rock an urgent expression of malaise. One gets the impression that budding artistic geniuses populated every block in Manhattan, each of them coiled and ready to splatter game-changing mindfucks on a street smart populace thoroughly jaded by repeated mindfucks. This was a time before AIDS, a time before crack cocaine, when potential rewards appeared to outstrip their respective risks.

I love it when some goatee-having hipster dressed like Sammy Davis, Jr. on vacation complains about the current state of New York City and whines that he wishes it were more like it was in the 1970s. What the fuck do you know about it, dude? You like the Talking Heads and you watched The Warriors and thought you had it all figured out. Buddy, you would be the first to get robbed. The very same cop who might look the other way while you smoked a doobie in Lincoln Center would likewise ignore the four teenagers digging through your pockets while holding a box cutter to your throat. Is not being able to read any signage or see out of subway windows worth bringing back graffiti on trains? Because from my experience in the 80s, for every spectacularly-painted train car there were twenty that looked like they’d been through a war. Yeah, you’d like to have seen Blondie’s inaugural performance at CBGB’s but you probably aren’t willing to be on the receiving end of a Doc Marten steel tip to the mouth. Your version of 1970s New York City mercifully dismisses the homicides, the disenfranchised non-white people living on blocks of burning buildings, the squalor. Your favorite bagel joint on Bushwick Avenue. was once a looted storefront when the neighborhood was held under siege for two weeks in 1977. And if you resided in that neighborhood then, you would be dead.

Today New York City is homogenized, pasteurized, fortified with vitamin D. Its teeth have been capped, its nails have been tastefully filed, and you can enjoy a shopping mall experience like you might in almost any other major American city on the map. What made New York interesting has all but been eradicated. But what made the place interesting was never the danger, it was not the filth and grime. It was the people who challenged the status quo, who refused unjust and pointless laws and who knew the value of minding your own business. I know you like running around Bedford Avenue with your can of Montana spray paint, scrawling inanity on the sides of buildings and on lamp posts. But you should know that if you tried that thirty-five years ago, you could have gotten your meat lumped. Not by picky residents on a coalition for neighborhood beautification, but by other writers who wanted to steal your shit. And that would have been a blessing, because if the Savage Nomads caught you out there, it would be over.

Your Idea of a Shitty Movie Sucks

10 May

I may have mentioned before that I was dutifully raised to appreciate crappy efforts. I recall my mother exhorting me to watch Godzilla movies and Robot Monster as far back as seven years old. My home was full of examples of failed literature and art which existed for our familial amusement. Sure, my parents like plenty of high art paintings and classic literature, but when it comes to laffs nothing beats the misplaced effort of an earnest creative type. At least, that’s how I was brought up.

I think that being able to laugh at a movie like Reptilicus is to intimately understand sarcasm and satire. Most comedy sarcasm is obvious, a mere refutation of the facts stated in a droll voice. But to really enjoy a shitty movie, you have to be willing to mock someone’s heartfelt attempt at creativity. This requires a personal investment that is more pointless than having produced the work of art in the first place. So the cycle goes: people churning out claptrap and critics poking fun at their attempts, the publicity of which foments more claptrap. I don’t claim to be a stalwart defender of aesthetic standards and I have no compunction about contributing to the tidal sea of assholes that are everyone’s opinions. I do, after all, have a blog.

Whatever you think you know, however many dues you think you’ve paid, there’s always someone who can do you one better. And if your thing is watching crappy flicks, then I am that person. I’ve seen more poorly-produced, inaudible and haphazardly-written films than the average pop culture weirdo, and there’s a good chance that the movies I’ve seen are way shittier than yours. Oh sure, you saw Plan 9 From Outer Space and thought you’d watched the worst that Hollywood had to offer. You were a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and enjoyed the snarky commentary. But you’re not prepared for shitty movies of this magnitude.

The Corpse Grinders, 1971

They say that once a tiger tastes human flesh, it will hunger for succulent people sandwiches for the rest of its life. Borrowing from this possibly erroneous piece of information is the plot to The Corpse Grinders, a movie about two partners who grind up cadavers to make gourmet cat food. Cats eat the pureed person bits in gravy and become ravenous man-eaters. You can pretty much guess that the offending entrepreneurs will fall into their own corpse-grinding apparatus–which looks like kind of like Calvin’s transmogrification machine–by the end. What you don’t know about is the colorful cast of characters you’ll meet throughout the movie: a slovenly hillbilly gravedigger who looks sort of like a cancerous Johnny Cash, a deaf mute office cleaner whose fake sign language looks like she’s doing the rhumba, and the hapless cat owners who are devoured by their felines as they shuffle through dreary-looking kitchens in their housecoats. The whole movie looks like it was filmed in a kitchen, actually, with a few “outdoor” scenes nicely filmed on a ludicrous sound stage. This film would make a good five minute short, but at an hour and fifteen minutes, only dedicated shlock-watchers need apply.

The Beast of Yucca Flats, 1961

There are Cold War era films that really evoke the paranoia and fear of nuclear annihilation of the time, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Then there’s movies which come straight from the gut, unapologetic clusters of hatred and misinformation that make no apologies and offer no commentary. You’ll find such an experience in watching The Beast of Yucca Flats, about a defected Russian scientist played by Tor Johnson (of Plan 9 From Outer Space fame) who gets caught in a nuclear blast and then stumbles around the desert for an hour with his shirt coming off. My favorite thing about this movie is that something clearly went terribly wrong with the sound, and most of the dialogue in this movie is done as voice-overs while the camera fixates on people’s shoes or a distant rock on the horizon. I have never seen the MST3K episode that lampooned this movie, though I wish I had. Watching this movie without running commentary besides your own is a brutal experience.

American Kickboxer 1, 1991

My friend Benito put me on to this movie, he said I would love its shoddy style and that it was the most homoerotic movie he’d ever seen. Now Benito is the kind of guy who thinks that two male actors on screen doing anything but kicking each others’ asses is homoerotic (oh irony), so I figured he was probably exaggerating things. Having seen the film, I can say that it is the most homoerotic film I have ever seen that didn’t actually involve men having sex. The plot is easily forgettable, and I’ve forgotten large portions of it. The story centers around the protagonist B.J. Quinn, a champion kickboxer who is kills some guy in a fit of ‘roid rage, does some time, then comes out of jail to face the new champion Jacques Denard. Could these names be any better? The chemistry between the two of them is intense, as B.J. and Jacques taunt each other mere centimeters from each others’ sweaty faces for so long that even the most homophobic viewer will exclaim, “Just kiss the guy already!” There’s also some kickboxing in the movie, which bores the shit out of me. The title’s confidence is not extreme, since there was a sequel. However, it was not called American Kickboxer 2. I’m sure Jacques ran off with that title in a snit after B.J. refused him a BJ.

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