Archive for January, 2008

that, and NYC blew up…

Simone Deveaux painting
Heroes interrupted: Volume One in retrospect
1.02 Don’t Look Back

I really wanted to give Peter a break.  He was a nice enough leading character the first time I watched these, after all.  But…he told Nathan he’d been standing on that roof all night.  And when we first see Isaac and Simone in his studio, she tells him they’ve had a hard night.  Ah man…Peter really did stare vacantly at the painting of himself while the medically untrained girlfriend tried to revive her dying boyfriend, before dashing off muttering something about his destiny—leaving her to nurse both her dying boyfriend and dying father ALONE.

That trust fund baby is such an ass.

Angela Petrelli: maybe Freud was right

One of the more reliable combination spoiler/speculationsI’ve found (coming from showrunner interviews that Peter has used his mother’s power on screen) is that Angela Petrelli’s ability is related to Hiro Nakamuru’s.  She can see the future and past, and even be there to some extent (leaving her physical body in the present moment), but can’t affect it while she’s there.  She can only alter and manipulate the present in an attempt to change or cause what she sees.

In this sense, she could be the sort of monster she accuses Matt Parkman of becoming in the second season, using his powers to manipulate others in order the cause of his personal greater good.  Peter, who needs others’ attention and approval at all times to have any sense of self, would be more vulnerable to and damaged by the constant nudging than Teflon Nathan.

This is all supposition, of course, but there’s an oddness to the way she convinces hospital-bound Peter that he is delusional by telling him of his father’s “suicide”:

“He committed suicide.”
Same flat tone: “He committed suicide.”  Come on, be manipulated already…

If this is the way they go with her character, it could be quite interesting.  On the other hand, I’m still holding out for something completely undignified, something Hulk-like.  She’s always so pulled together and dignified that I’d love a scene where, after, say, battling Sylar to a standstill in some physically powerful way, she huffs in annoyance and starts the process of rebuilding her perfect WASP updo.

Simone who?

What did I remember of Simone?  Father owned the building where much of the show’s action took place.  Had a gallery full of Isaac’s prophetic paintings, most of which were sold to Linderman.  Started off dating Isaac, briefly dated Peter, shot and killed by Isaac.  Seemed to know everyone (in her services as plot enabler), none of whom noticed her death/disappearance.

She’s more interesting now, the token ‘normal’ who wasn’t obsessed with abilities.  Her interests and her worries are mundane: her father is dying slowly, and she’d like some damn support.  Instead, her boyfriend and the hospice nurse demand she prioritise their self-inflicted dramas.  Like most female characters on tv, she lacks a life—complete with friends—outside the male leads, and is thus narratively stuck hanging around these drips hoping they’ll reciprocate and, unsurprisingly, is only loaded with more demands.  And, not to mention, left out of the adventures, while she buries her father, alone.

Unfortunately, the arc requires her to be the resistor in the circuit of plot, as often the obstruction as the enabler.  She’s a successful (if born to privilege) businesswoman who expects support and respect from those who want to be close to her…in this group, she’s the freak.

Mr Bennet’s daughter

Ah, the days when Mr Bennet lacked context, backstory, even a first name…one of the first season’s great hooks was his interaction with his adopted daughter, Claire.  Was he a monster, a cynical experimenter, or even—least likely of all—a loving father?

Claire inhabits a well worn character slot, the teenage girl who is potentially powerful, but vulnerable not only to the revelation of her abilities but to the usual pains, parents, and sea changes of adolescence.  Her father attempts to manipulate what facets of her identity she explores and develops—while her latter-day “cool” Mom encourages her indiscriminately—from both altruistic and selfish impulses.  Her power threatens the fragile identities of both.

Not only is Claire a teenager, and thus not only free but expected to explore alternate personas—from cheerleader to hellraiser to krelboyne—she is also adopted.  Her strange ability is something that is unexpectedly part of her but upsets her “real” identity and life, as her own DNA has the potential to do.  Her present image as a smart, popular girl with an average and loving family is more a surface than she realises, but at this stage she only worries that her ability to heal from any injury hints at something horrible, or wonderful, in her past and biology.

Bennet thwarts her efforts to explore that past and her ability in order, he says, to protect her from leaving the relative safety of childhood and facing the adult world.  And, incidentally, from a life of torturous experimentation at the hands of his employers.  Mostly, though, he’s protecting himself, his sane, bland family life, and his unexpectedly cherished identity as a dad.

Parkman: now with more fail

Matt Parkman is blessed with suck.  After failing the detective’s exam, again, the bored traffic cop begins to hear voices in his head that originate as other people’s thoughts, and immediately uses the ability to find the terrified little girl that the dozen or so detectives think has been kidnapped or killed.  He’s a hero, and goes on to become first a detective with a spotless conviction record, then commissioner, governor, and eventually the guy in one of Isaac’s Oval Office paintings.  He knows what everyone within earshot (so to speak) is going to do and how they can be persuaded to go his way, so there’s no stopping him!

Except, actually, there’s no non-psychic way he could have known where the little girl was hiding or the name “Syler,” so he instead turns from bored traffic cop to oversharing nervous schmoe to serial murderer suspect being roughly handcuffed and searched.

Part Xander, part object lesson, Parkman is the ordinary person who demonstrates to all potential heroes why they could do worse than liming their extraordinary potential in mediocrity like layers of playground mulch.  Those who witness—or in particular, are show up by—a hero’s unexplainable heroics will more often ignore Occam’s razor than favour of a convoluted conspiracy theory that leaves the dangerous person safely institutionalised, whether by Homeland Security or the men in white coats.

Even worse for poor Matt, his arc is defined by one of the first thoughts he hears, from a female superior: This guy is worthless.  In a slight change from the original pilot, Matt’s internal filter sifts away others’ calm, complimentary, or even relieved-at-seeing-a-cop thoughts, but turns up the volume for the dismissals and insults that feed his deep insecurity.

His power is paralleled by his severe dyslexia, which he refuses to reveal even when he is legally entitled to assistance or alternatives.  Parkman may not prove to be the pointiest pin in the cushion in later episodes, but he’s never shown to truly lack intelligence; nevertheless, he considers his problems with processing written information to be a secret stupidity that needs to stay hidden.  His dyslexia is only a component of his deep insecurity, and his telepathy becomes another.

Matt Parkman

how to kill your sex life in one difficult lesson

Cannibal Holocaust


Why analyse an infamous schlock horror flick nearly as old as myself, especially one with such an unoriginal and heavy-handed moral as Cannibal Holocaust?  Especially when, barely a generation past Auschwitz and Dachau, said schlock horror grabs that shock value for its title?

Because it hurt to watch, and in the sense of pure horror—a thing of the wordless id—Cannibal Holocaust is worth some study and, guardedly here, emulation.

Anyone conscious in the late nineties will recognise the beginning: a team of young, photogenic and vaguely repellent filmmakers venture into the wild to document an eldritch corner of modern (Western) humanity’s fears, and disappear, leaving behind only spooky footage.  In this case, they are seeking the Yanomamo tribe, cannibals in deep jungle that “civilized man has never seen.”  The words “civilized” and “civilization” (and later, “savage” and “primitive”) crop up roughly three time each per minute of footage, making me suspect that Ruggero Deodato wanted his savvy audience to pick up on some subtle theme.

Cue professor Harold Monroe of NYU’s anthropology department publicised decision to penetrate the jungle himself with the rain forest’s answer to Crocodile Dundee as a guide, to rescue the filmmakers or, at the very least, their footage.  The first animal, a spider monkey (or possibly a raccoon-like coatimundi), is killed on screen, ostensibly for food, its front paws gripping the knife.  Several more animals are killed on film, sometimes just inefficiently, but sometimes cruelly.  They meet first one tribe, the “Yacumo,” via an extended rape and murder scene (the director’s go-to move throughout the film), who are wary of more Western visitors but lead them on to the Yanomamo and Shamatari—tribes named after highly studied indigenous people in Brazil who little resemble their portrayal here and, by 1980, had become significantly more modern as a result of continuous contact with outside researchers and miners.

Monroe locates and bargains for the miraculously intact documentary footage—after chowing down on partly cooked human entrails—but discovers upon his return to the land of fresh underwear that the footage shows that the filmmakers herded the Yacumo tribe into a hut and deliberately burned many of them to death, planning to edit the footage into an example of a Yanomamo attack.  Monroe is the only Western character who objects to broadcasting a version of the footage that casts the dead filmmakers as innocent victims, and only convinces the others after showing them further footage of the gang rape and grisly murder of a native woman, as well as the filmmakers’ own well deserved executions by the Yanomamo tribe. 

The vast majority of fake brutalities (aside from the real animal deaths) happen to women, and almost all have a sexual component.  In defence of his gender, the husband postulates that this is standard fare in horror flicks because it is more frightening to the male audience.  Men are culturally encoded as the perpetrators and victims of violence, particularly in coming-of-age scenarios, but physically hurting women is a reinforced taboo.  Watching fictional representations of women being hurt should thus make a socially “normal” man feel more visceral pain than seeing a grown man assaulted, who “should” be able to defend himself.

More cynically, I wonder if it doesn’t fulfil a semi-conscious masturbatory urge, giving the audience more of a visceral response to seeing the gender that has the power to sexually reject the overt or implied sexual advances of insecure, unlucky, or socially repellent males.  In Cannibal Holocaust, however, unlike the quick edits—teases of pain—of  traditional gore flicks and even later meme-droppings like Hostel, the pain and gore is drawn out, too sickening to allow any but the most sadistic to maintain the hazy arousal.

The on-screen killings of animals creates an infamous halo effect over the cinéma vérité style brutalities against humans.  This film was banned in many countries upon its release under the mistaken belief it was a snuff film (accidentally supported by the contracts that held the actors to not appear in any media for a year after filming), although the special effects are often clearly visible.  The viewer, however, has just seen several animals killed in torturous manners, and the more primitive lobes of the brain refuse to believe that the human victims are just actors pretending to rape and dismember.

It’s terrifyingly effective, in a way that most horror films can only pretend to feed the alligators, in Stephen King’s term.

It’s possible the director deliberately conflated rape with sex in some scenes to draw a contrast between the natives and the filmmakers.  The filmmakers don’t directly assault their script girl, perhaps because she is something of an equal, or because she is in a relationship with one of them, but she is the target of visual violation.  Twice when she’s vulnerable, her partners film her nude, and continue to film as she attempts to cover herself and deflect attention to other possible victims.  She can’t stop the filming or get an apology; her only option is to laugh it off.

The indigenous women are fair targets.  The men rape a Yanomamo woman, while their female colleague protests not the act but their filming of it, and joke that they’ll be able to sell it as a porno movie.  Afterward, they film documentary footage of the same woman, impaled on a pike, smirks peeking through solemn expressions as one narrates that she was likely killed by her own people due to an obsession with virginity.

When indigenous characters rape, it’s emphasised to be punitive, as prelude to execution for adultery or murder.  There’s a clear divergence between assault and reproductive or recreational sex. 

The contrasting attitudes to women and sex, however, are only part of the false moral relativism (the savages commit horrible assaults on each other, but it’s their way and we can’t hope to understand) and false liberal enlightenment (the Western, civilised characters are worse, raping for fun and murdering for profit).  The film’s view of indigenous people is purely colonial.  They are both inhumanly violent lunatics and innocent victims of corrupt Westerners, two stereotypical sides of the same outside judgements.   Their own point of view and interior lives remain opaque.

The same year this movie was released, white South African writer JM Coetzee published Waiting for the Barbarians, set in a universal colony surrounded by unspecified barbarians.  Typical of his work, Coetzee implicates his colonial protagonists for their complete incomprehension of the Other they feel free to use, oppress, brutalize, or lionise in turns.  Inside these narrators’ minds, we are shown their preconceptions to be cloaks thrown over real people, who are never completely covered but also never turn to the reader themselves with the truth.  The narrators will never understand them as people, and so the reader is never given the ‘in’ to understand them, either.  The end of his novels is designed to leave us with that loss, the knowledge that there was something fascinating that has been crushed and can never be truly recovered or even remembered—to feel the consequences of a postcolonial society ourselves.  Much like the Holocaust from which this film cribs some spare horror—the tragedy and survival become an indelible part of cultural identity, destroying the original context.

On a purely visceral level, this is a fine, uncompromising horror film that strips the viewer emotionally raw.  It displays the sheer power of film to affect a person’s real emotional experience like few movies I’ve ever seen.  Unfortunately, like the filmmakers portrayed, Deodato presents as savage monsters a remote group of people with no ability to refute his assassination of their culture as the worst fears and id impulses of all humanity—ostensibly to make the liberal point that Westerners are even worse under the nice clothes and tall buildings.  His Yanomamo are barbarians in a barbaric world, who we can never hope to understand or judge, so the finger points only to us…or, with better aim, at those like Deodato who cynically exploits everyone involved, from indigenous actors to every audience member.

A must-read review: 1000 Misspent Hours