Reasons to be cheerful #5

Stevie Wonder once performed a six-minute Superstition jam, on Sesame Street.

The mind-blowing excellence of this needs no further explanation.

Love the wee hip kid with the fantastic ‘fro.

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the word is now a virus: Pontypool

Pontypool is in one way a simple satire with a single didactic message: English-speaking media is turning citizens into empty-headed and desperately violent zombies, and the only way to save yourself is to excise the language entirely. Metaphorical tumor and healthy flesh must be sacrificed together, and refuge is to be found in the less id-baiting vocabulary of Lacan’s French.

Why Lacan? The seemingly random words that punctured each person with this verbal infection made me think of his famous near-koan, “a letter always arrives at its destination.”

Horror is at its most effective, though, when it has some solid conceptual underpinnings, remains faithful to them, and – most importantly – allows the audience to ignore them completely. Fortunately, as the Spoony One pointed out (getting us interested enough to rent it), Pontypool has another showy concept up its sleeve: it’s practically a radio play, relying on audience imagination for the first two acts.

This leads to the film’s most common criticism, that it cheaps out on showing the horror that a viewer presumably expects to see based on the cover art. Unsurprisingly, I disagree. I love zombie flicks, but they’re samey in their special effects and “shocking” gore notes. They’re almost comforting that way, like a bedtime story you’ve heard read a hundred times…assuming your father was Jeffrey Dahmer. If a character on a crackly phone line describes an undead mob converging on a victim, I’ve got the mental image in place by the fourth word. If that mob is dog-piling on a family’s car while imitating windshield-wiper blades…I’ve got to work a little harder for it, and when the visual finally clicks…hoo boy. There’s no filmed scene that could ever match up.

Another benefit of this limitation is that it puts us inside the media body that in a typical horror flick would conveniently contextualise the mayhem with an explanation of the source, and provide an arrow toward the survivors’ solution if not the solution itself. Here, they desperately try to put together disparate reports into a coherent story to tell (because it has to be a story to be news, not just isolated facts), while debating whether they should be repeating any of it on air. Is it true, is it a prank, is it in fact life-and-death real and could get them fined for accidentally broadcasting the inappropriate reality of madness and death?

The virus, and the film, move on understanding. Currently unknown English words (although ones pertaining to love and hate, most beloved hot-buttons of infotainment, are early favorites) carry a new sort of virus, one that takes hold in the ephemeral moment when someone not just hears the word but understands it. (It’s reasonable to suspect that this will not be one of evolution’s fortunate mutations, as a successful word virus would be more like William S. Burrow’s conception of the written word as a symbiotic virus that made speech possible, not one that invariably led to its host eating all other potential hosts and then exploding.) What then? If Burroughs is right, we can’t halt our internal vocalisation, and that inevitably spills out verbally, possibly carrying the fatal virus and delivering that letter to anyone near you, or listening at home.

The film plays with the fuzzy dividing line between signal and noise. They broadcast a clear signal, but the words on it are difficult. The small town listening thrives on gossip and speculation, and fuelling this will only lead to the station’s censure, right or wrong. Give them only the boring but comprehensible signal, none of the primal and artistic noise. But the new dj, like all in his profession, thrives on attention, negative as much or more than positive. Words are not only his livelihood, they are his joy, leaping straight from his fluidly rhizoid brain to his lips, layering grains of exact truth with rhythm and melodrama. Facts and speculations fling themselves into the de-sanctified studio too quickly to be comprehended, let alone judge. As the dj states in the film’s opening monologue about a lost cat named “Honey”:

Well, Norman Mailer, he had an interesting theory that he used to explain the strange coincidences in the aftermath of the JFK assasination. In the wake of huge events, after them and before them, physical details, they spasm for a moment; they sort of unlock and when they come back into focus they suddenly coincide in a weird way. Street names and birthdates and middle names, all kind of superfluous things appear related to each other.

These details seemed related because the JFK assassination and its aftermath happened live on television. It was a seemingly direct experience, just filtered through media’s commercial imperatives. It became a story, and in a story, everything should connect, but where was the author?

A foreign doctor seemingly at the centre of the disturbances appears right on cue. They want him to explain what’s going on, he wants to explain what’s going on, they give him a microphone, and…they keep getting distracted. The speed of incoming fragments makes them feel urgent, even though they only give information we already know (something contagious is making people behave incomprehensibly), while the doctor is offering solid intel on how the affected act, and how to hide from them. But noise is news; noise gets priority.

The story of the happening has to be plucked from noise. Here’s where the writing and acting are particularly strong, with characters speaking in elliptical, semi-conscious prestidigitation, trying to verbally camouflage their own fears and secrets. Early on, the show’s producer defends specific townspeople who are precariously recovering alcoholics just trying to hold onto their jobs; later, she seeks refuge in the dj’s bottle of Glenfiddich and refers to being continually drunk at the end of her marriage. Ah…so her earlier words were partly about herself, and partly a feint away from “I’m an alcoholic and your jokes about drunks are painful.”

That, or anyone would hit the bottle during a painful divorce or “conversationalist” zombie siege, and it has nothing to do with her comment before. Is Honey the lost cat, and the dj’s broadcast about her, at the epicentre of the outbreak, or is it just a coincidence that the animal’s name is in the “love” circle of seemingly infected words? It appears to line up, strung together by adequate coincidences, to produce meaning, but are you convinced? What’s your criteria for being convinced; do you even know? Meanwhile, doom is close…so they tell you.

My impression: the dj and producer are carriers, Typhoid Marys, able to fight off the disease themselves but also infecting every poor soul who hears them. They are both depressed, both regularly self-medicating, and unable to meaningfully connect with others. They both want to – the dj’s handmade Valentine’s Day cards for his coworkers, the producer’s fatal phone calls to her distant children – but are only hearing others through a thick filter of helpless gloom, distorting their meaning. Their well-meaning attempts to warn listeners – not-so-incidentally skyrocketing their own profile in the process – are spreading the disease to everyone who tunes in from as far away as the UK via a BBC simulcast. Their dissociated thinking can save them, but trying to pass the trick on to others is impossible as even they don’t truly know

Where did the virus come from; did the mysterious doctor create it or just study its rapid development? It’s inconceivable in any case, right? Barack Obama is a Muslim from Kenya who wants to put Grandpa in front of a death panel, and Dick Cheney personally orchestrated September 11 2001 to justify his imperialist war machine. Desecrating a holy text is a Christian act; that potential desecration justifies violent demonstrations against uninvolved parties. How have sections of societies been infected with these illogical ideas?

Frankly, the world would be better off with the conversationalist zombies.

Also: I have no idea what to make of the dadaist stinger after the credits, but if it were a movie I would buy the dvd and every scrap of related merchandise.

Scott Pilgrim vs my brain


I don’t know where to start with this movie. It was intolerably irritating, and also one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen this year. Often at the same time. It has a surly blue-haired girl wielding a giant pixellated sledgehammer, which alone should quality for a special award.

It often feels like Wonderfalls, a brilliant show doomed to fail as it was the best show of the mid-nineties, with the misfortune of airing in 2004. Scott Pilgrim references 8-bit video games and Seinfield (a trope namer for a very relevent concept) in the lives of early-twentysomethings…ie, people who were in diapers when Jerry Seinfeld was anything but a Bee Movie shill and never unironically played a non-3D Mario brother. This film, like Wonderfalls (and, now that I think of it, most of the references in Juno), is written from a Gen-X perspective and awkwardly grafted onto Gen-Y characters.

That’s probably why I enjoyed it so much, and why it doesn’t really hang together.

Kick-Ass is a Millennial movie in a way this isn’t. It hearkens back to the hallowed 80s trope (like goddamn everything in the last seven years) embodied by Anthony Michael Hall then and Michael Cera (…usually) now, in which a bitter, unsocialised loser boy would discover the magical solution of “confidence” that would let his inner awesomeness out, snagging the personality-free Hot Chick, thus instantly attaining maturity forever.

(Go right to hell, Nathanial Brandon. Ayn’s waiting with a carton of unfiltered Camels.)

Scott has already passed through this stage, full of unearned self-confidence and even a bit of a Casanova, why not. He’s also a complete tosser, despised by his friends and exes (everyone except his ultra-fetish fuel underage girlfriend, who is temporarily blinded by inexperience), and needs to properly grow up. The entire point of the film is that both he and his potential love are emotional idiots utterly lacking empathy. Since puberty, they’ve run through significant others like kleenex, promising relationships while actually using them as disposable props for whatever self-image suited them at the moment. Ramona’s a little ahead of the game; she’s been on the receiving end of that treatment and taken it as a mirror, making a vow to change with no clue how to go about that. Scott‘s still a dick, using the very cool Knives Chau only as proof that he’s over his last break-up and cheating on her without a thought for her existence, let along feelings.

Their bad karma catches up with them, metaphorically, as they both do battle with their own and each others’ wounded exes; the battles are wonderfully over-the-top for representing two people just coming to terms with their crush having had a life before them, and that they may be only another interchangeable future ex. Spoiler alert: by the end, they manage to grow up, realising that neither love nor self-esteem are magic unbeatable weapons, and that the best you can do is be honest with themselves and others…and try not to be such a dick. Great stuff.

And yet, the lead characters are both such horrible people! I wanted them to fail! Fail horribly, while everyone else got ponies! Especially Wallace, who took as much joy in Scott’s failures as me!

Also very 90s: the utter lack of parents, not only as characters but as any sort of presence. Video games have given these people more moral guidance than their self-obsessed boomer parents (if I learned anything at all from Reality Bites). The hangover-80s apartment furnishings and club design, setting off the retro-slacker milieu (or possibly Canada today, in the words of Tom Servo). The social circle is one of inertia, relics of high school and blood relationships and held together by schadenfreude, one meant to be left behind like chrysalis (all of whom seem to be encouraging Scott to vamoose for exactly that reason), rather than maintained forever by a complex web of social networking.

The only part that was truly irritating (in a not kinda-on-purpose way, like Scott and Ramona’s repellent immaturity) was the forced happy ending. They’ve both realised they need to get out of their niche and grow up in order to make new, less sociopathic relationship mistakes, but they bring each other along. Their relationship has been successfully argued as an extension of their mutual issues – they barely know each other, and have used each other as identity props. Scott wants to be cool, and he thinks Ramona’s cool. Ramona wants to be nice, and she thinks Scott’s nice. Together, they can only backslide into vapidity trying to keep their happy ending.

It doesn’t even fit the genre. Sure, Mario rescued the Princess, but he doesn’t marry her. At best, she non-metaphorically bakes him a cake.

Reasons to be Cheerful #4

Mnahmnah! (Doo doo do do do!)

Rings a near-subliminal bell, doesn’t it?

Classic Muppet Show nonsense, the plush hepcat scatter versus two punctilious whatever-the-hells, and coming out with the most stubborn earworm since ‘Tenser’, said the Tensor; ‘tension, apprehension, and dissension have begun’: two minutes of pure childhood.

Ironic,  in the Alanis Morissette sense of the word, that “Mah Nà Mah Nà” was originally famous in 1968, as the soundtrack to a steamy sauna scene in the film Svezia, inferno e paradiso. A much tamer version named “Mais Non, Mais Non” was recorded by Henri Salvador, famous both for recording the first French rock and roll singles and his somewhat paradoxical lifelong hatred of rock and roll. It’s since found its way into a variety of recordings, sadly including the official Worst Video Ever.

History lesson over. Now that the mnah mnah is good and stuck in your head, click here to clear it away…though the scratch might be worse than the itch.

An Evening with Dementia

Trevor T Smith was a familiar figure on the Royal Mile in August, meandering through the Fringe Festival hooplah in character as an elderly man who was no longer himself, trailed by a protective woman (his wife, I believe) who explained the purpose of his appearance and one-man play, An Evening With Dementia. (See a photo here; I could never snap one for myself, feeling like a creep.) It was always a jolt, after eeling through crowds surrounding crudely boisterous street entertainment and politely taking flyer after flyer from eager young things desperately trying for a smile and hopefully another ass in a seat, to be confronted by a figure of senility wearing a sandwich board. Before making out what kind of show he was advertising, mental inertia filled in the details: some edgy thing self-consciously pushing the boundaries of good taste, mocking basic human compassion?

Far from it. Smith brought a little genuine humanity to the crass anything-for-attention stretch of the Fringe, along with as many or more laughs than most of the straight comedy shows on offer.

The concept is simple, and elevates his advertising campaign to a sort of performance art by tying it in with a line about nursing home escapees found hours later wandering on the high street. A former actor, who assures us that while he does have dementia, he certainly doesn’t suffer from it, mentally talks over the footlights as he once did as a Shakespearean orator and pantomime player. The life of an elderly resident of a nursing home is not without its compelling challenges and contentments, to his mind, despite regular humiliations – politely ignored – and bouts of depression; as much a crapshoot of luck and attitude as any stage of life, one could conclude.

Though the most unreliable of narrators, Smith keeps faithfully to the first-person perspective and offers many beautiful moments couched amongst midst of confusion and shame. My favorite is his recollection of holding an infant (most likely a grandchild or even great-grandchild after its christening) while a huge gathering of family takes pictures of them, the singular connection he feels suddenly as they hold each others’ gaze, “with not a memory between us.”

The topics of his monologue sometimes range outside the boundary of dementia’s fog to a larger disconnection. A defense of social workers, most likely referencing the Baby P tragedy, calls out those who are still able to connect with the larger world and choose not to, leaving overworked civil servants fruitlessly trying to fill in for all that blocked empathy and taking the blame for society’s failures. He tells us that he once knew the names of every child in his neighborhood, because people socialised across familial limits; now, he dreads visits, and his primary rule for keeping the little freedom he still has is to never use a person’s name, even when he’s sure he knows it. I don’t know the names of the people in our building or speak to their children for fear of being seen as a potential pedophile – am I that much better off?

Smith’s show embodies the emotional dichotomy of hoping your loved one is still inside this poor worn body. I’ll admit that my first sight of Smith on the Royal Mile upset me, even though I’d already mentally noted the show as one I wanted to see. My grandmother had been recently confined to a care home with dementia as well as rapidly declining physical health, and that was who I saw in the street. It hurt, almost physically, thinking of her so lost, even knowing she was getting the best possible care. As mentioned previously, she died not many days later.

When she first moved into the care home, she despised it, and spent the first several weeks trying to escape. This mild, sweet, but iron-cored woman transcended her mental labyrinth several times to set off the fire alarm so that the key-code door would automatically open and dashed through. She somehow flung small furniture through windows and tried to jump, foiled by her worn body and the very fast attendants. We wondered if she had secretly been Wonder Woman in her younger days, while worrying for her safety (and the attendants’ misery).

An Evening With Dementia had much the same feel. It was a relief to peek behind the character so often seen lost and vacant-faced amid festival crowds, to hear from the strong personality still fighting against his trials, still living. How wonderful, and how awful, that the ember is trapped within and slowly going out. This evening will stay with me.

Your Days Are Numbered: The Maths of Death

Matt Parker and Timandra Harkness put on an extremely well constructed show. There are a few (very small) problems with that, but perhaps only for those sensitive to set-ups. When the audience participation gets a little to independent, there’s anxiety: will they manage to bring out the punch lines of the planned brick jokes at the right minute?

The nominal thesis of the show is the calculation of your personal chances of death at any given time, in any given way, using a unit of risk measurement called the micromort: a one-in-a-million chance of dying. Taking a tab of ecstasy and smoking a single cigarette, for instance, both carry a risk of one micromort. In the UK, dying by shark attack and as the result of a tea cozy incident carry the same risk: zero micromorts. A glass of wine or a breakfast fry-up, well…that’s more complicated. Chronic alcoholism certainly shortens one’s life, but moderate drinking (whatever that may be for any individual) is actually linked to a lower risk of heart attacks. And, all factors considered, it’s actually healthier for most people to be a little overweight (again, whatever that is person to person) than a little underweight (likewise).

At this point, an overweight man in front of us yelped, “Has that sample been controlled for people who’ve lost weight due to cancer treatment?”

“Yes!” Harkness replied immediately, and continued, “We have the best hecklers of any Fringe show: ‘So’s your control group!'”

A running gag is the treatment of the audience as a sample group, treating each minute of the show as a year with all of us born as it started, with Parker doing his math-genius thing of calculating the percentages for a 146-member audience on the fly. At 65 minutes, most of us were lucky: only one in ten UK resident will die before that age, so only the front row had stickers on their forehead declaring them “DEAD.” After that, though, there was the expected steep drop-off, which somehow culminated in a mock shark attack, then a song about the point of life being what goes on underneath all the calculations, ending on a cheery note.

My grandmother died a few days before the show. We’d bought our tickets earlier that week, so it wasn’t as if we chose to be morbid, but we did nearly have second thoughts about attending. It’s a testament to the show’s warm silliness that I left it feeling better about the mysteries of life, death, the universe, and everything.

reasons to be cheerful #3

Fallout: New Vegas coming out this fall.

Such august reviewers as the AV Club and Spoony faintly praise the previews as “pretty much Fallout 3 in a new location.” Which makes me anticipate it all the more. I’ve played the hell out of Fallout 3, including every expansion pack. Because I’m a massive dork, after beating it a couple of times as a super-powered saint, I went back and started again as an evil, mentally retarded character named “Ayn” (but still reverted to a previous save after killing GretaCarol was just so damn sad).

Even if it turned out to be a glorified stuff pack, I’d be a happy camper. In fact, it’s being developed not by Fallout 3’s Bethesda but by Obsidian,  who brought out 1 and 2. During old-school and particularly patient moods, I’ve been inching through Fallout 2, and it’s got a very different worldview and sense of humor than 3. If anything, it’s snarkier, meaner, and dirtier. Can’t wait to see what they bring to a modern FPS engine, if the go-go dancer Super Mutant is any indication.