Friday, November 28, 2014

Monkeying With 12 Monkeys

We watched 12 Monkeys the other night, one of Terry Gilliam's more successful entertainments, in which Bruce Willis time-travels back to current (1990) Manhattan to head off a triggered apocalypse. In the process he has to persuade an overworked hospital psychiatrist (Madeleine Stowe) that he is who he says he is.

It's been a while, but I've seen the movie two or three times before. Once my memory of it started tracking I switched to Thought Experiment Mode and did a little time-travelling of my own, getting Willis and Stowe to switch roles, just for kicks.

"Wait, are you sure about this?"
To my surprise, with only very little tweaking, the experiment was a success — a smashing one, even. I say “surprised” for a couple of reasons. First of all, I'm not the Gender-Neutral sort — a similar experiment with Gone With The Wind proved to be a laughable disaster. But secondly, and more significantly, I can't think of another filmmaker who's applied his energies and intelligence more doggedly to carrying Joseph Campbell's torch than Terry Gilliam. Gilliam's entire ouevre is devoted to The Hero's Journey, and while the hero may have a thousand faces, 99% of those are masculine.

Not only that, but the feminine occupies a definitive space in Gilliam's work as muse and liege, in the Romantic tradition — again, very much in line with Campbell's narrative apparatus. But where other Hollywood filmmakers take a Cliff's Notes approach to these sorts of women's roles, reducing the gals to eye-candy or emasculating harpies, Gilliam's is more nuanced and mischievous. His women are frequently more actualized than his hapless masculine heroes. In Brazil, Sam Lowry's muse Jill is a trash collector who is physically stronger and more adept than the scrawny, balding protagonist. Or think of Mercedes Ruehl in The Fisher King, portraying a long-suffering woman who can no longer wait for her “boy”friend to become a man.

For Gilliam, non-actualized women are girls who voluntarily fall in line with the expectations of a stunted/immature masculine perspective.

Gilliam's is, I think, a shrewd POV that performs a necessary mischief. Currently there is justified hue and cry over what an infantilized masculine sausage-factory Hollywood has become. The now-famous Bechdel Test highlights the problem, but too much critical energy is devoted to changing the numbers. Sure, a Disney blockbuster meets the numbers (and rakes in the $$$), but really it only passes the Bechdel Test by 51%. There remains an untouched, very rich vein of narrative ore sitting right in front of our faces, just waiting to mined.

For a glimpse of that glitter, a writer could do a lot worse than monkey with one of Gilliam's scripts. Lemme tell you, the version of 12 Monkeys I “watched” the other night is one hell of a show.

Friday, November 21, 2014

“How About Reviewing Some Actual BOOKS, Prajer?”

A friend asks me why it’s been so long since I posted a book review that didn’t involve talking ducks. Have I stopped reading novels, biographies, etc?

Answer: I am indeed still reading novels, biographies, etc. Not as ravenously as I used to, mind you. For most of my life I was a sucker for the midlist. Now I find it difficult to work up much interest in that material. I’d rather skirt toward the marginal, which is easier to mull over. Unfortunately, giving the marginal its proper due takes more effort than breezily opining on the stuff everybody is already yakkin’ about.

Also: I think the internet has really changed the way books ought to be reviewed. I’m all for the “Deep Read” — I still take pleasure in long essays, and am keen to contribute what I can to the craft — but is that what we log on to read? An innovative site like Wink has me wondering.

Anyway, I’ve got further thoughts on the matter, which I hope to explore a bit. I’ve also got a ringette tournament in St. Catharines, so . . . you know where my priorities are at.

Not one talking duck in sight.

Friday, November 14, 2014

“Make Me A Real, Live Boy”: Artificial Gravity In WOLFENSTEIN: The New Order

When last we — well, I, at any rate — saw William B.J. “Blaz” Blazkovicz, he looked like this:
Blaz was the “P” a player FPSed through Castle Wolfenstein 3D, stabbing/shooting/Gatling down pixelated Nazis and their dogs by the hundreds, before getting to this guy:
"Und I am not ee-fen za vurst you vill faaace!"
Castle Wolfenstein 3D was goofy, violent, and very satisfying fun — a completely addictive time-waster and a godsend to a single guy in his mid-20s who'd finally outgrown the video arcade (although the original cabinet Simpsons game still enticed on occasion). Wolfenstein was the gateway to video games as we now know them. It capitalizes on A) a player's curiosity to see what unpleasant surprises lie beyond the next corner, B) the innate fun of innocently shootin' up bad guys real good, C) the darkly ironic sense of humour that ought to attend both those impulses.

When iD announced a 20-years-later reprise of Blaz and Castle Wolfenstein, I was juiced. Globally victorious Nazis taking over the fizzy pop zeitgeist of the '60s? Blaz to the rescue? Count me in!

I'd missed subsequent additions to Blaz's epic of pixelated blood-letting, so I had no idea what to expect from this latest chapter. Boy oh boy, was I in for a shock: Blaz has an emotional life.
And he looks like this -- all the time.
What does the emotional life of a man who's personally perforated thousands of Nazis, including a cyborged Fuhrer, look like? Why, nothing so much as that of your run-of-the-mill aggrieved heterosexual adolescent male, who thinks the mere fact of his existence entitles him to the sexual affections of the dishiest dame in the room.

This complicates a (seemingly) mature man's enjoyment of the game, to say the least. Taking Blaz seriously is seriously wrong — it requires the player to take Nazis seriously, an even greater story-board miscalculation. The entire exercise is akin to sending Indiana Jones to give Oskar Schindler a little help. And outfitting the camp commandant with some Robocops, just to make things interesting.

Which is not to say I abandoned the game in a state of high moral dudgeon. It's a short game, finally, with some amusing elements. Rocketing Blaz to the moon captured perfectly the deranged goofiness of the original game. For a moment I was surprised and delighted to see the game's physics replaced by the physics one expects on the lunar surface. Of course the physics revert the second Blaz steps through an air-lock — I guess the Nazis invented artificial gravity.

But then this entire game is built on artificial gravity. I can't imagine Blaz's “poor me/what a crazy, mixed-up woyeld” mutterings tugging at anyone's heartstrings, but I could be wrong — when I see the lads attempting to catch the attention of my daughters, I'm continually struck by the distance of perspective I have on my own adolescence.

If nothing else, iD's missteps highlight for me what I generally expect from a game. Diversion, first and foremost. Secondly, emotional bonds that are light and exclusive to the world as rendered in the game — evocative, but not too evocative, of actual reality.

And really, by now the bottom line for game developers couldn't be clearer: aggrieved adolescent hetero males — no matter what their age — don't want to be reminded of their miserable plight. Easy-peasy . . . right?

Elsewhere: AV Club asks, Is it okay for Wolfenstein to turn Nazis into cartoons?

Friday, November 07, 2014

Super Duper Alice Cooper

I finally caught up with Sam Dunn's Super Duper Alice Cooper, a project I was very much looking forward to.
"Me three, pal!"
I had a renewed romance with Coop some years back, enjoying his snarly clowning around in recent offerings like Dirty Diamonds and Brutal Planet.

As for Dunn, I've followed him ever since he glued together Metal: A Headbanger's Journey. Dunn's fresh-out-of-college shuck proved surprisingly effective in disarming his subjects, from drooling fans to long-in-the-tooth rock 'n' roll survivors. “I'm an anthropologist, looking into the anthropology of the Heavy Metal scene.” Sure, kid. Whatever you told the National Film Board to get your funding works for me, too.

Since then, Dunn's movies have traded on his unabashed joy for the genre and its artists, producing jolly, affirmational behind-the-scenes extravaganzas like Iron Maiden: Flight 666 and RUSH: Beyond The Lighted Stage. His enthusiasm is remarkably infectious: even the notoriously reticent Neal Peart chuckles and opens up to Dunn's camera. Super Duper offers Dunn, in conversation with Alice, while the cameras roll. Could this agreeable fanboy filmmaker entice new revelations and insights from the Coop's thin lips?

Short answer: beyond copping to a cocaine addiction in the '80s, no.

I should point out this is something of a departure for Dunn: it's a narrative doc, with no footage of Dunn-yacking-with-the-subject. But the film starts promisingly enough, with Vincent Furnier and the other original members of Alice Cooper narrating the sequence of the band's origins, while home movies and animated photos play out against a pastiche of vintage horror flicks, with particular emphasis on Dr. Jeckyl & Mr Hyde. Stylistically, Dunn is borrowing heavily from Julian Temple's The Filth & The Fury: A Sex Pistols Film — a commendable, if dangerous choice. Commendable because Temple's film is rousing entertainment; dangerous because comparisons quickly reveal the weaknesses in Dunn's movie.

Super Duper isn't the story of a band, it is the story of one man, Vincent Furnier, and how he survived a near half-century in showbiz. Consequently, though Dunn brings in a chorus of other voices to round out the narrative, the predominant voice is Furnier-Cooper's — he determines the framing of the narrative, and the others (including ex-bandmates) pretty much fall in line with it.
"And that's what really happened -- just ask anyone in this room."
Makes sense, really. It's the formula to success that manager Shep Gordon spotted and quckly honed to a razor's edge and weilded in his own self-interest: “Alice Cooper” The Persona is the meal-ticket; fence that off, and everything else becomes negotiable.

Now that would be an interesting angle to explore. But Alice Cooper is also Dunn's meal-ticket, so we get the expected narrative of addiction and recovery — or more accurately, the pernicious All-American Narrative Of Addiction And Recovery, which extolls the virtues of the Nuclear Family closing ranks behind The Rugged Individualist, cleaning him up and sending him back into the fray, to prove himself (and by extension them) Victorious Conqueror Of The Scene At Large. If Coop's version doesn't grab you, go watch Johnny Cash. Same story, different costumes.

I don't want to come down too hard on Dunn: these films take a heap of work, and the film I really want to watch is an almost impossible challenge, if only because Furnier and his handlers are too vigilant to allow it. But I'm hoping Dunn rediscovers some of his anthropology texts soon.

What were the social conditions that made Alice Cooper such a smash hit? Furnier says he owes his success to being the only one doing what he was doing when he was doing it — he saw a gap and filled it, basically. Even if we accept that claim at face value (and I don't) why was America ready to make this guy a superstar? When was America ready to make him a superstar?

Answer: 1973, with the landslide re-election of Richard Nixon coinciding with the release of Billion Dollar Babies, Alice Cooper's first album to go gold, and eventually platinum.
"Oh, I'm just warming up."
At the time, parents (like my own) saw clips of Alice Cooper's outrageous stage antics and thought this was the behaviour of a man in fact possessed by demons — a curious claim at a curious time. If an anthropologist were to do a little trawling through the counter-cultural penny-press of that era, focusing on the publications devoted to the occult and esoterica, he'd quickly discover that the long-haired kids saw clips of the president their parents had re-elected and believed this, too, was the behaviour of a man in fact possessed by demons. Now consider how the Babies show concluded with a roadie in a Nixon mask being beaten to an inch of his life by the band — and an increasingly frenzied audience — and you have a better grasp of the when behind the why.*

That's just one of many other more interesting stories swirling in the wake of this Addiction Recovery Success narrative, but you'll have to read books to find 'em — starting with What You Want Is In The Limo: On The Road With Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper & The Who In 1973, The Year The 60s Died & The Modern Rock Star Was Born by Michael Walker (A). Pair that up with Nixonland by Rick Perlstein (A) and you'll be clutching your blankets and calling for mommy faster than you can say, “Welcome to my nightmare.”

In the meantime you can take or leave Dunn's flick for what it is: a reverent tribute to a showbiz veteran, a nostalgic diversion.
No Muppets were harmed in the making of this production.
 *Another when question worth asking: when did Alice cease to be frightening?

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Tears For Toronto's El Mocambo?

I’ve had my fun in Toronto’s El Mocambo club, made some indelible memories, but I’ve gotta say: I just don’t understand people’s nostalgia for the place.
Cool sign, tho.
So you’ve seen some great acts there — the ElMo itself is crap. Its architectural format is completely unremarkable: if you’ve been to any bar/club with a stage, you’re already familiar with it.
"We came here for the singularly unique stage!"
You don’t go for the food or drink or ambience — if nobody is playing at the ElMo, there’s no reason to be there.

And the people who were playing were often unhappy with the conditions. The ElMo has two floors, and over the weekends there were often two acts playing simultaneously. If you weren’t the louder act, you were miserable.

If you were a performer, you deserved better. If you were a paying member of the audience, you deserved better. So spare me the tears, please.

On the other hand, if you want to shed a few on behalf of Toronto’s languishing Masonic Temple, I’ll break down and join you.
Not-so-cool sign, however.

But the stage... to die for.
Now there is a fabulous performance venue. History, ambience, drama and acoustics — let’s get this place back up and running, tout de suite.

Update: Dragon to the rescue. One of us is backing the wrong horse, but one of us has the money to do it.