Balloon Animals

I’m listening, right now, to a radio story about some guy who makes balloon animals for a living. I think most of his money comes from writing books and making instructional videos that teach other people how to make balloon animals rather than getting paid for making the balloon animals themselves.  In his heart of hearts, he really wishes he could make a go of it as a musician playing classical guitar… but, somehow, the balloon animals he started off making ‘just to get by’ while he worked on his real ‘art’ (music) became his full time job and the music is what he now what he looks forward to once he gets done selling his balloon animal videos.

While listening to the balloon animal artist complain about how his former artist and musician friends started treating him as a ‘sell out’ once his balloon animals led to his being able to afford a car, a house, a wife, a family, etc., was both comical and sad, I thought about other small ponds. It seems the smaller the pond, the more bitterly the few fish fight over being the master of it.

The bit done by David Sedaris about life as a performance artist that follows it is also well worth a listen.

On an only tangentially related issue, the reviewer Holland Carter, in writing about the death of the famous artist Mike Kelley, that Kelley was, “…one of the most influential American artists of the past quarter century and a pungent commentator on American class, popular culture and youthful rebellion.” I underlined the word ‘pungent’ because I think it’s just hilarious.


Cloud Atlas (2012)

Danger: 75% of people will probably hate this movie. I learned the hard way, when I took a date to see Gilliam’s “Brazil” and I sat enraptured throughout the film while she sat there hating it, that some people just don’t like the movies I like. Read my review and agree or disagree if you like, but if you plop down the cash to see ‘Cloud Atlas’ and hate it, don’t come crying to me.
Top row: 3 different roles for Halle Berry.  Bottom row: 3 different roles for Tom Hanks.

I think that the fact that I am still thinking about the movie, ‘Cloud Atlas’ almost two weeks after I went to see it is a good sign. The film is (apparently loosely) based on the controversial novel by David Mitchell (how it compares to the novel I can’t say; I haven’t read it) which wraps the threads of six different stories around each other.  These threads range from the story of an 18th century clerk/lawyer coming to the realization that slavery is immoral to a reporter in the 1970s who thinks that all is not right at a nuclear power facility, onwards to the life of a clone/slave in future Korea becoming self aware to a dystopian future in which primitives and  a representative of a technologically advanced minority speak in nearly incomprehensible pidgin-English that makes Burgess’ “Nadsat” from Clockwork Orange seem transparent in comparison.

“Cloud Atlas” is a 3 ½ hour long film that is so big it needed 3 directors; Lana and Adam Wachowski (The Matrix, etc.) and Tom Twika (Run Lola Run). And not all of it is good. But the good far outweighs the bad and I found myself wanting to talk with Annie about what the film meant after we left the theatre rather than just talking about how expensive it was or if it would do well at the box office. The author of the book upon which ‘Cloud Atlas’ was based said that as he was writing the book, he felt a little sad because, in his opinion, the book he was writing would be ‘impossible’ to translate into a film. The six different stories of the novel are told using six different literary forms. Adam Ewing, the 18th century clerk, tells his story in the form of a diary; Frobisher, the composer of ‘Cloud Atlas’, tells his story in a series of letters, another part of the book is written in the style of a genre detective novel, etc., and the author plays these different literary forms off of each other; the same characters appear in different parts of the different stories in different ways. The investigative reporter listens to a recording of ‘Cloud Atlas’ even as she is trying to unravel the mystery surrounding the death of Sixsmith, a physicist who was lovers with Frobisher (the composer of Cloud Atlas). Frobisher is reading the travelogue of Adam Ewing, the clerk whose story started the film.  There are other cross references within the film (both visual and narrative) that Annie tells me were a part of the novel.

One of the nice things about ‘Cloud Atlas’ is that it seems to be a novel that flirts with the concept of reincarnation without getting excessively maudlin or new-age/mystical about it.  There are just threads that follow from one story to another, allowing the viewer to draw the connections from one story to the next rather than forcing them. And the film uses the same actors to play different characters in the different stories without ever making an attempt to explain this — Tom Hanks plays the sinister doctor who is slowly poisoning Adam Ewing in the 18th century and the primitive goatherd who befriends a researcher from a more advanced group of survivors in dystopian future earth later in the film. No direct link is made other than we, as viewers, know that both parts are played by Hanks. There was a recurring birthmark shaped vaguely like a shooting star that appears and reappears on some of the characters (I thought this was heavy handed and don’t know if it appeared in the book or not), but, for the most part, the directors used a pretty light hand, implying the connection between the different characters and stories rather than stating them outright.

There were some things that didn’t work. The makeup job on Hugh Grant, in which they used prosthetic cheeks and a nose to try to make him look like a jowly old man, resulted in something that didn’t look human (he looked more like Gollum’s cousin who had just crawled out from under a rock and put on some Cabana wear). The dialogue in the latter part of the film, where Hanks and Berry converse in a futuristic pidgin English, is just too hard to understand; Annie said the meaning was easier to infer when you saw it on the page. And there were a few bits that were just a little too sentimental for my taste. But I think the director’s choice to transform the same actors into different characters made this otherwise impossible movie work. I think the parallels of experience by different people in different situations and different times which the film makers managed to evoke by using the same actors throughout the film made perfect sense to me when the film was over, even though there does not seem to be any way to describe it without making it sound contrived or gimmicky.

World War Z (part 2)

Do zombies have ‘swarm consciousness’ like ants or bees?

The other day I posted a bit about the World War Z movie and how much I was looking forward to it.  Since posting, I’ve seen a lot of negative comments about the movie from people who think its going to suck, which made me wonder if a) do I have really crappy taste or b) did we all see the same preview?

A lot of the negative comments about the movie focus on the fact that it doesn’t resemble the book that much.  People really liked the book and thought that the movie should be more like it… but I just can’t see a series of vignettes of different people talking about the zombie-pocalypse like a Ken Burns documentary really working as a Hollywood movie.  I think that using the ‘World War Z’ book title is misleading, but I didn’t like the book that much (I liked Brook’s tongue-in-cheek “Zombie Survival Guide” much more). If I had been a bigger fan of the book, I would be more upset about the World War Z movie bearing only a superficial resemblance to the World War Z book.

One of the things I didn’t like about the book was that many of the characters from different parts of the world who were all relating how they spent the ‘Zombie Wars’ didn’t seem ‘different’ enough in voice in the book. It just kept me from buying the premise. Maybe writing a book from 100 different points of view is an impossible task — I don’t know if another writer could have carried it off, either, and I certainly like the concept, but Brooks’ prose just didn’t work for me.  I also found some of the characters were too close to stereotype for me to buy them.. the Japanese otaku who, faced with the end of the world, becomes a master of the samurai sword, for example. It just didn’t ring true for me. I don’t know if that is a failure of imagination by me as a reader or a result of failure by Brooks as a writer. I loved “Zombie Survival Guide.” I just found portions of “World War Z” a bit flat and melodramatic.  I seem to be in the minority in that opinion (my friend Jon C., whose opinion on all things writing I respect, loved Brooks’ WWZ book, so there you go).

I’ve mentioned it before, but if I had to recommend only one book of zombie genre fiction, it would have to be ‘Zone One’ by Colson Whitehead. I haven’t read anything else by Whitehead (although, based on how much I enjoyed Zone One, I plan to), but Whitehead’s novel was more effective because he kept the scope pretty narrow. Everything is told from a single protagonist’s point of view, even though he is just one man with PTSD in the army of ‘zombie clean-up crews’ that have been formed since the zombie apocalypse. As opposed to World War Z, Whitehead shows the emotions in his characters rather than tells — an important distinction that made it a lot more enjoyable for me to read.

It’s been a couple years since I read World War Z, so I probably don’t remember the book well enough to write an in-depth review, but I do remember parts where some of the different narrators described the zombies just moving forward relentlessly, in a swarm.  There was one battle described in (I think) India where the military retreated across a deep ravine and blew up the bridge behind them, and then just watched in horror as the zombies just started to pour over the cliff like a waterfall, slowly filling up the ravine, which was one image from the book I really found effective… and that’s what the exploding swarms of bodies in the preview made me recall. A similar ‘zombie surge’ figures prominently in the end of Whitehead’s “Zone One.”  Zombie surges are perhaps becoming all the rage in the genre. Maybe that’s what helps make zombies scary again… by this point, everyone knows you can defeat them by shooting them in the head and evade them by closing the gate of a chain link fence, but what if there are so many of the living dead, swarming like ants, that you know you can’t kill them fast enough to keep yourself safe and they will press and pile up against any barrier until they knock it down through sheer numbers? Maybe it’s the idea of all of these humans having lost their humanity that fascinates us — people are starting to say that the zombie genre is played out; I think it still has some mileage left in it yet.


World War Z and Zombie Fantasy

I previously mentioned the Max Brooks books, World War Z and Zombie Survival Guide, on this blog. I just found out that the World War Z movie (starring Brad Pitt) will be out in July 2013. My friend Jon C. has been so excited to see this that I wonder if he will be able to stand having to wait that long? I also wonder if I’ll be able to convince Annie to see it with me?  She hates scary movies.

The preview looks like it was inspired by Brook’s book rather than a straight translation to film, mostly because the book is really just a series of anecdotes from different people in different countries following the zombie plague — recollections of people in China who saw the first outbreak contrasted with stories from Frenchmen who exterminated zombies in the catacombs beneath Paris, for example.  It looks like the film makers stitched the different vignettes together with Pitt as a central character; he apparently is some sort of U.N. crisis specialist who is jetting around the world while they try to deal with the whole ‘Z’ situation. Hopefully Pitt is better at his job than that  Brownie guy from FEMA was during Katrina.

The preview doesn’t tell me much, but, wow, rivers of people surging forward instead of the usual shuffling hordes of rotted zombies is a welcome change… it looks like this film might manage to make zombies scary again! With ‘The Walking Dead’ on T.V. and movies like this coming out, zombie fans are getting a lot of entertainment.  What makes us love this zombie stuff so much?

I have a theory. I think one of the things people love about zombie movies is that these films allow us to imagine ‘killing’ people without moral consequences. I remember hearing about how the rationalist, Rene Descartes, used to say that animals didn’t feel pain; he claimed that if a dog howls after you kick it, the ‘pain response’ of the dog was of no more significance than a squeaking of a wheel on a cart. I have no doubt that Descartes was wrong; I believe animals do feel pain, but maybe Descartes was actually seeking to excuse how horribly people treat animals by saying that it didn’t matter. And maybe that’s part of the appeal of the zombie fantasy. Descartes statements about animals have (thankfully) been mostly discredited and Hollywood has discovered that Americans actually don’t like to watch people killing animals (just ask artist Tom Otterness; he was videotaped shooting a dog in way back in 1977 as an ‘art project’ and a lot of people (including me) still think he’s a douche).  We hate to see animals getting killed, but we do like to watch people killing other people (well, at least simulated versions of people killing other people).  One of the advantages of ‘deactivating’ a zombie is that it is not potentially immoral in the same way that shooting another human in the head might be immoral simply because you are not actually ‘killing’ the zombie; it is supposedly already dead. In fact, by ‘deactivating’ the zombie, you are performing a public service since that zombie will just wander around trying to infect other humans, right?

I think another reason that the ‘zombie apocalypse’ has common appeal is that most of us live fairly trammeled lives in which we travel back and forth between work, home, school, etc., and little that we do in our day to day lives has much significance.  Whatever else one might say about a world in which the social order has been destroyed, zombies shuffle or surge up and down the streets while the survivors seek to live just another day (or even another few moments), at least it wouldn’t be boring. Romero had his zombies shuffling up and down the escalators of a shopping mall, and the appeal of that image probably said a lot about how many members of the audience felt like they were not really living, either.  The survivors, on the other hand, need to be quick and clever and resourceful. The irony is that in television shows like ‘The Walking Dead,’ the priciple characters spend a lot of time saying how horrible life after the zombie event is — they are always on the run, dirty, hungry, scared and afraid of losing their humanity — but I can’t help thinking they will also never have to sit in traffic or listen to a mind numbingly boring sales pitch/teacher’s lecture/sermon/power point presentation again.  The zombie apocalypse takes away a lot, but, at least in it’s fantasy form, it appears to give a lot too — bursts of adrenaline as we try to outrun the shuffling hordes, a ‘first person shooter’ experience that would be more immersive than any video game and the chance to remake yourself in a brave new world where the old social order has been swept away and the population is defined in one of three ways: dead, undead and still living. Basejumping and other more pedestrian thrill seeker activities pale in comparison.


Horror on the Hill!

Look: It’s in Japanese!

Avast! Spoilers for “Horror on the Hill” lurk below!

I saw that Grognardia wrote about ‘Horror on the Hill’ theother day. I tried to comment there, but he uses some kind of funky comment thing called ‘Disqus’ that won’t let me comment unless I update my browser or something — I don’t know, I haven’t figured it out (“Disqus?” I think that’s what it is — it is supposed to look/sound like ‘discuss’ but it makes me thing of ‘disgust’). But I LIKE “Horror on the Hill” and wanted to say so, so I figured I would make my own comments on my own blog.

I didn’t own a copy of this back in the day. I don’t know when ‘Horror on the Hill’ was published, but I think by the time it came out I had probably thought of myself as having moved ‘beyond’ the basic set… or maybe I had stopped playing D&D altogether (as I did for a long while). I think I finally got a copy years later; the first and only time I ran it was in 2003.

You’ve probably already read James’ description, but, to re-iterate, Horror on the Hill is a low level ‘introductory’ adventure. James compares it to “Keep on the Borderlands.” I think it’s probably better than Gygax’s “Keep on the Borderlands” because it doesn’t feel so thrown together. The adventure starts with players arriving at a small town called “Guido’s Fort.” Here, the players hear rumors of an ancient, ruined monastery across the river at the top of a hill. If the players cross the river and climb the hill (possibly encountering Neanderthals, a hut with witches, etc., on the way), they can explore the monastery (which, as I recall, had some zombies, spiders, etc.). Underneath the monastery are tunnels with goblins and hobgoblins. Underneath THAT is a maze that the players can get trapped in before finally finding another exit( assuming they survive). As written, it is silly-difficult. There are loads of hobgoblins in the upper levels that will likely overwhelm the low level player characters it is intended for, especially if the goblins use any tactics like ambushing or encircling the characters… if they defeat the hobgoblins, they will probably then fall down a one-way pit trap into a maze of tunnels where they are likely to have their numbers further reduced by savage humans and other wandering monsters.  The players can’t go back up the way they fell in, so they need to find the other way out.  This includes navigating the maze and then fighting their way past a tribe of troglodytes  (or are they lizard men?  I don’t remember), and, if they survive THAT, then they need to fight their way past a red dragon to get to the exit. If fighting a red dragon were not hard enough when supplies (and probably hit points) are depleted, in order to get to the dragon they need to work their way down a narrow tunnel, single file, that is likely to become a player character incinerator if the dragon is alert and breathes fire at the right moment.

One of the things that is, in my opinion, ‘nice’ about this adventure is that once the players are in the tunnels below the hobgoblin hideout, they can’t leave back the way they came and they need to forge ahead to survive. A somewhat frustrating aspect of low level play in D&D is that it can, at times, take on a surreally slow pace of exploration where players are constantly running back to ‘civilization’ to rest, heal and regain spells every time they get scratched by a kobold’s spear or nipped by a giant rat.  So players will enter room 1 of the dungeon, defeat the monster, then run back to town to rest and heal for a week, return, and, assuming some new monster hasn’t occupied room 1, enter room 2, defeat the monster, run back to town to rest, etc., rinse and repeat.  At early levels, before access to healing spells, most adventuring parties rarely put in an 8 hour day’s worth of exploring since they are constantly dashing back to town to heal and buy more lamp oil. “Horror on the Hill” short circuits that process by dropping the players down into the maze so they can’t go back the way they got in and need to explore the rest of the place to get out. Although the trap that lands the players in hot water doesn’t make much logical sense (why would the ruler of the goblins want to drop players down into a pit AFTER they have killed him and left his throne room? Wouldn’t even the stupidest goblin king want to drop the players down the pit BEFORE they reach his throne room and slit his throat?), I think the overall effect (it forces the players to go forward) is worth it. The pit-trap makes the adventure into a “railroad” that forces the player characters along a single path with a series of obstacles to overcome, but there is enough logic to it, as well as a series of ‘mini-dungeons’ (the monastery ruins, the goblin caves, the maze, the troglodyte warrens, etc.), that seem to be incidentally hooked together to create a larger dungeon… so even though it IS a railroad, at least it doesn’t feel like one while you are in it (although the forced encounter with the dragon at the end is probably a bit much).

If I recall correctly, I made a few modifications before I ran this adventure.  I didn’t use ‘Guido’s Fort,’ but instead put the ruined monastery a few miles from a village in my campaign world.  This village was under increasing attacks by goblins (the rationale was that the monastery was a rest/resupply center for the goblins). I made the monastery into a ruined temple/monastery for an evil god and the goblins had some NPC cultists for allies. I replaced all of the hobgoblins with regular goblins. I added several NPCs as prisoners that could join as helpers/replacement characters (these were player characters that had previously been captured by the forces of evil). I got rid of the dragon. According to my notes, I ran this adventure about 9 (!) years ago, but from what I remember, we had a lot of fun… although some of my players tired of the ‘dungeon bashing’ aspect by the end.

PS: Shout out to Kevin S. who based a whole campaign on “Horror on the Hill,” with toilets!

Death by Thesaurus

This Finlay I nabbed from ‘The Land of Nod’ blog kicks all kinds of asses.

I have a confession. I begin to tire of Lovecraft.  There were times, in my dissolute youth, where, after smoking too much pot, I would suddenly get too stoned to be able to stand being around people, so I would retreat to my room to read Lovecraft and I would find myself chuckling at jokes that were not there and write notes to myself that would make no sense in the morning. I hope my saying that I am less than enchanted with his work than I once was does not make you think I am a bad person… I just don’t think that Lovecraft is a very good writer — great ideas, but his prose is more funny to me than impressive.  I think the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ is brilliant and fan-fucking-tastic, but when he piles adjective upon adjective and the verb at the end of the phrase frequently he puts… well, his prose is really kind of a mess. That said, he’s a far better writer than I would ever hope to be… and he has certainly inspired a lot of good writers (like Ligotti), but, sheesh, sometimes he just goes on and on about how something is ‘soul-blasting’ or so horrific that it cannot be described, yet HPL plows on, stitching those run away phrases and dangling verbs together while trying, doggedly, to describe things that are too “horrific” to put words to. I know I’m going to be pilloried for this, but I actually think that both Derleth and Clark Ashton Smith write better ‘Lovecraft’ than HPL himself, simply because the two of them are capable of producing romantic prose in the tradition of Dunsany or Poe without such ridiculously ponderous sentences.

There are people who say that his prose is ‘terrifying’ and the ‘essence of horror.’ Maybe it failed to terrify me because I don’t believe in the elder gods — or maybe it fails to terrify me because the people in it seem so flat.  Even when I was really stoned and paranoid and ready to swear on a stack of bibles that the dude at the pizza take-out place was a narc who could tell I was stoned and was sending the cops to my apartment (in my defense, I was stoned)— even then I didn’t find Cthulhu terrifying.

None of this is to claim that I don’t find Lovecraft entertaining… I find him extraordinarily entertaining.  But he just doesn’t scare me the way Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ or Orwell’s ‘1984’ or Burgess’s ‘Clockwork Orange’ or Mcarthy’s ‘The Road’ scared me when I read them.  Maybe it was the excessively baroque language that I think old HPL couldn’t quite carry off. Maybe it was because his characters didn’t seem to have lives beyond the page. Maybe it was just that there were too many stock characters sprinkled about his prose with regular predictability like raisins in oatmeal; everyone was either a ‘disgusting specimen of a mongrel’ or a ‘great, wholesome Irishman’ or a ‘Yankee of respectable stock’ that his stories start to feel like episodes of “Law and Order” where the same character actors return again and again in different seasons to play different victims, perpetrators or witnessses and you, as a watcher, begin to think, “Wait a minute… we’ve seen this dude before! He played the reluctant witness who didn’t come forward in last week’s episode, now he’s a dirty cop who was involved in a cover up and next week he’ll be playing the arrogant assistant DA…” Their faces and mannerisms remain the same, but their names and wardrobes change making it harder for me to enter into the TV world imaginatively much like having the rubber nose fall off in mid sentence would make the spook-house witch less scary.  I suspect that HPL wasn’t interested enough in people (or, being a recluse, didn’t know enough about them) to be able to write effective characters.

One of the things that throws my Lovecraft dilemna into sharper focus is that Annie and I finally got around to watching Joss Whedon’s “The Cabin in the Woods” this weekend (Good flick! I rate it 4 1/2 out of 5 severed heads!). Annie hates horror movies because when someone leaps out of the closet with a machete, it frightens her and she screams… whereas I find horror movies funny and chuckle to myself when the inevitable blonde goes, like clockwork into the woods/basement/dark house to look for her missing (and probably already dead) boyfriend and tells him to “Quit screwing around!” when the monster is creeping up on her. Annie hates that stuff, but she likes Whedon so she was willing to sit through “Cabin in the Woods.”  We had to watch it at home, however, so she could pause the video to calm down periodically. And Whedon’s movie was full of Cthulhu references (OK, no spoilers), but the references were also funny (to me) because they were nestled cheek-and-jowl with references to just about every modern horror movie ever made.  Which, I guess, is how I like my Lovecraft. I’m not afraid of elder gods or sea creatures or the unknown or witch craft — I’m more afraid of my fellow human beings. I don’t find the fungi from Yuggoth or the fish-people of Innsmouth or Azathoth scary; I find them entertaining. To be honest, I’m more afraid of people with road rage or the hillbillies from Deliverance. So when people try to tell me how scary Lovecraft is, I just don’t get why they are so scared.


The Thing (2011) SPOILERS

OK, so I have very fond memories of the 1982 version of ‘The Thing’ by John Carpenter. It scared the piss out of me when I first saw it.  So you can understand that I was a bit skeptical in 2011 when I heard they had remade ‘The Thing.’ I know that movie nerds are going to tell me that complaining about remakes is lame but since I’m old enough to have seen the original ‘The Thing’ in the theater and loved every blood soaked, chest-bursting, eye popping minute of it, the fact that I bitch, bitch, bitch about remakes should come as no surprise.  Yes, this old person is old. Now go stick your dick in a pencil sharpener and let me complain.

That is some fucked up shit!

I was a bit less annoyed when I heard that rather being a remake of the original, the new ‘The Thing’ was going to be a prequel.  In the 1982 movie, it starts during just another day at a US arctic research facility. Some Norwegians show up, trying to kill a dog that is running across the snow and the Norwegians end up dead (one in a hand-grenade accident, the other is shot when he accidentally wounds one of the Americans while he is trying to kill the dog). The Americans think that the Norwegians have just gone insane and stick the dog in the kennel. Kurt Russel flies his helicopter back to the ruins of the Norwegian station where they find everything destroyed and a very strange burned body and clues that something happened after the Norwegians found something in the ice. Unfortunately, that something is now disguised as the dog (the ‘thing’ is an alien organism that can duplicate and replace other creatures) and it starts killing off the rest of the Americans one by one.

So, I though, OK, it will be dealing with what happened at the Norwegian station BEFORE the “thing”got to the US station.  OK. Cool.  I can deal with that.  And it did.  But it was otherwise almost the same movie. Which kind of made me wonder, “Well, what was so wrong with the original that we had to have the same movie made again?” It wasn’t exactly the same, but it was ‘same enough’ to feel redundant — people find weird thing in the ice, thie weird thing ‘infects the humans and duplicates members and then tries to turn them against one another, the humans are cut off from the outside world and are trying to kill the thing and the more altruistic decide that ‘the thing’ must never leave antarctica since it will wreak havoc on humanity if it does, so freeze the thing and roll the credits.

One of the interesting things about ‘The Thing’ (1982) is that the film is filled with people being ripped apart and transforming into all sorts of slimy, rubbery, grotesque tube-filled critters that are then burned. Despite all this death and dismemberment, the scene that always made me wince the most is when some of the survivors start instigating a test to see if someone is infected, they use a scalpel to slice the thumbs of the others to check whether they were ‘dopplegangers’ or not. Maybe the rest of the bloodshed seemed so over the top and the slicing of the thumb seemed so specific that I was able to dismiss the way out mutations on fire as ‘special effects’ whereas slitting your thumb open was a pain I could relate to.

I don’t know. I think I’ll just stick with the 1982 version. I suppose if the 2011 version was the first one I saw, I wouldn’t be so ‘meh’ about the remake. And the original story concept is so good that it would be hard to get away from — I just wish they had found a way to make the plot substantially different from the last one.  Give it 2 out of 5 severed heads (and that’s a gift).