Friday, 31 October 2008

Seasoned Rocket And Menthol Lockets

This woman deserves some kind of award for pointless sacrifice for the sake of pointless science. I almost vomited several times just reading the damn thing, God only knows how hard it must have been to actually research it.

This has me wondering whether I can turn my own borderline-OCD tendencies into an amusing article, though since it mostly just manifests itself in ensuring my Transformers collection is perfectly aligned, I'm not sure that it would lend itself to a funny piece, though Big G seems to find it pretty fucking hilarious.

Happy Halloween, everyone.


As always, leave it to the comedians to drive the point home:
STEWART: I mean, the whole Socialist/Marxist thing: if you do win, is that a mandate for Socialism in this country?

Thursday, 30 October 2008

I Can't Believe We Still Have To Have This Argument

Thanks to dday I know that today is "Write To Marry Day", where bloggers post some of their thoughts about gay marriage (in order to rail against the hideous abomination that is California's Proposition 8). dday has taken a fairly personal approach, but since I've yet to witness a gay marriage (or even a civil ceremony) and the closest person I know who has tied the knot to their same-sex partner is a former work mate who I haven't seen in years and I don't think liked me anyway, my contribution will have to flow along different lines.

Most of the arguments against gay marriage aren't even worth the effort of engaging with. At least one particularly befuddled fool is stinking up the intertubes suggesting that government-recognised gay marriage will infringe the right to freedom of religion. Apparently the only way to ensure people can worship freely is to ensure the government legislates according to one specific religion. Much like you can't have freedom of speech unless the government tells you that criticising them is treason.

A lot of the noise over this issue is similarly inane, but one argument that at least has the veneer of sanity is that marriage is currently defined as being between one man and one woman, and once you change one word in that definition, what's to stop later governments changing more of them?

Now, I don't agree with this line of reasoning, and I'll get to why in a minute, but at the very least this is an actual point, rather than a rant or an excuse or a false equivalency to having sex with turtles. It's worth refuting, in other words, which is what I'll do as my contribution to WTMD.

The problem with that argument is that any re-wording of the above phrase will necessarily fall into one of two categories. Either it changes it into some obviously unacceptable form, or it doesn't.

Take the most common re-formulation, which is to change the numbers to allow polygamy. Now, I would put that into the latter category. I don't want multiple wives, I don't want to be one of multiple husbands, and I can't understand why anyone else would want to do it either (the same, pf course, is true of pot-holing and attending a Bryan Adams concert). Having said that, if three or more people genuinely do want to engage in some sort of massively complex multi-partner marriage, than what the hell do I care? More to the point, what business is it of anyone else's? From that perspective, arguing that allowing gay marriage might create precedent for allowing polygamy is ridiculous.

"Ah", the objectors say, "But polygamy brings with it several problems." Which indeed it does. Marriage right now gives benefits to both parties that they would not have had otherwise. Extending those benefits to a trio would be a difficult process, and considerable thought would have to go into ensuring the system wasn't frequently abused. Maybe it couldn't be done fairly at all. Then there's the issue that if Wife 2 doesn't know about Wife 1, then she thinks she's getting the premium rate benefits for being in a "standard" marriage when in fact she's getting the, for want of a better term, group discount. Then you have to start worrying about making it illegal to become a bigamist unless your second spouse is informed of the first to stop confusion (and it's not like keeping a check on that is a trivial task). Plus divorces become even more Gordian and emotionally exhausting (I hope you're listening, CK, because this could be relevant if you ever have to consider multiple divorces of wives who have angered you), and so on.

The thing is, though, if the above problems are sufficiently unsolvable and serious to make polygamy a no-no, then that's the reason you give for not legalising it. I can't understand the idea that a slippery slope argument applies here. It essentially boils down to "If we make a sensible change to this law, then stupid changes might follow". If you can't construct an argument against polygamy that doesn't get trumped by "The gays are doing it", then either you're an idiot with no place in politics, or polygamy can't be all that bad, and you're denying one group of people the right to marry in order to stop another group acquiring the right to marry, and you haven't got an argument for stopping either of them.

So, no more nonsense please. Get on with the legalising.

Sixty Second Music Corner

The new Ryan Adams & The Cardinals album Cardinology has been acquired, and been judged. Final verdict: Adams has just taken his last album, Easy Tiger, and rewritten all the songs. Luckily, almost all of them are better now.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

So Much For Working

Having finally managed to beat that damn Rebelstar II game (I eventually had to download it to stop it crashing every time I pulled ahead), I was briefly concerned that I would have to actually get on with some thesis writing.

Thank God then, for BT, who has found this site for me. I personally recommend Krakout, the most inspired brick-and-bat game ever conceived (right up until the cannibal balls show up in the later levels), and Quazatron, a sort of isometric forefather to Grand Theft Auto III, except that you're hacking robots instead of beating down civilians.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #8: Proto-Morph

Man, and I thought writing about the Mimic was going to be hard. At least when he joined the X-Men, someone bothered to tell us about it.

I suppose I'd better start at the beginning, or at least, what I would assume was the beginning. Our first confirmed sighting of the Changeling came during the X-Men's showdown with the villainous Factor Three (I will bet all the money in my pockets that no other comic book story in history starts with the heroes taking odd jobs to earn plane tickets to Europe, and ends with them defeating an Sirian octopus before it can unleash a storm of thermonuclear weapons upon humanity). Changeling is the second in command of the aforementioned outfit, under the command of the aforementioned extra-terrestrial cephalopod, masquerading as"The Mutant
Master". Their stated goal: obliterate the human race by the simple expedient of irradiating the crap out of them, leaving the world free for mutants. Well, for the evil mutants, at least, Double M is very clear about how the world will be safe for evil mutants (seriously, how did anyone buy into a single thing this guy said?).

The X-Men arrive at Factor Three's hideout, in attempt to rescue the kidnapped Professor X. Instead, they are captured themselves, and put on trial for crimes against mutants ("crimes against mutants" being defined here as "not letting other mutants commit crimes"). Ultimately, the day is only saved when Changeling turns against his master by transforming into Professor X and tricking him into confessing that his ultimate goal is the frying of all humanity, regardless of the specifics of their DNA spirals.

That is the last time we see Changeling as himself. Three issues later, he is dead, not that we realise it at the time.

In previous articles I've mentioned alternate universe versions of our heroes, on the theory that even twisted mirror images can offer some insight into character. With Changeling, we don't really have much choice.

When a new X-Men cartoon was slapped together for the nineties, it was decided that a character would die in the first episode, to demonstrate how edgy and unpredictable and, well, nineties it was. They didn't want to kill off a character anyone might have heard of, of course (there's edgy, and then there's suicidal), so they based a new X-Man around Changeling, and called him Morph. Ultimately, the shape-changer proved so popular in his brief appearance that he returned for several episodes. This in turn caused Marvel to write the character (who apparently shared nothing beyond a name and the ability to shape-shift) into the Age of Apocalypse, most prominently in the four-issue Astonishing X-Men series. I'm not sure if it's ever been explicitly stated that the two characters are one and the same, but there are enough clues and head-nods to assume that this is the case.

Almost everything that can be surmised about the Changeling in our own universe comes from the two most prominent alternate-universe Morphs, the first from the Age of Apocalypse, the second from The Exiles comic. The most obvious characteristic the two share is a spectacularly immature sense of humour, combined with a total inability to recognise when to shut up. It's probably far from surprising that someone who can alter the shape and colour of his body into anything he wants to wouldn't feel the need to develop his humour to anything beyond obvious visual jokes, but of course the specifics of his jokes are far less interesting than why he bothers. In the two realities, he gives very different explanations. In the war-torn blood-drenched hell-hole of Apocalypse's Earth, he simply points out that he is determined to enjoy his life for every moment possible, until the very second an Infinite finds some way to kill a man made entirely of unstable molecules. When travelling with the Exiles, the second Morph admits that his refusal to take things seriously comes from rebelling against his severe father, who demanded Morph buckle down and control his life after the passing of the shape-shifter's mother.

Like the Joker in Batman Begins, there's no way to tell which explanation is true, or if neither are. It's possible both are true given their origins in separate realities. The link between the two, though, is that humour is clearly Morph's defence mechanism. The worse his life gets, the more likely he is to play the fool. What may have began as an act of defiance against his father, and certainly becomes an act of defiance against the wishes of his superiors (and anyone else nearby) becomes defiance against life itself. Only on occasion, when he is attempting to comfort the one most important to him (Blink or Mariko, depending on which Morph we're talking about) does the mask slip, and tellingly, it works all the more for being an occasional event. The rest of the time, even as he enrages Rogue in order to prevent her giving up in despair, or has Rachel Summers call out to the Gods of Asgard, it's done with an irritating smile and a terrible pun.

It's this mixture of defiance and the attempt at all costs to pretend he doesn't actually notice or care how things have become that informs Changeling in our own world. It isn't entirely clear at what point he decides to betray the Mutant Master, but he certainly did it without knowing the extent of the Mutant Master's plan. For all Changeling's crowing over his upcoming vice-dominance of Planet Earth, it is likely that he is already planning his rebellion.

Soon after the Mutant Master crisis (and by soon, I mean two issues at most), Changeling approaches Xavier to tell him that he has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Rather than spend his remaining weeks continuing to live the life of a super-criminal, or transforming into Hugh Hefner and high-tailing it to the Playboy Mansion, Changeling resolves to go out fighting for the X-Men. Let the world decide that it doesn't want him in it. He'll spend his last days doing everything he can to help that shitty, pointless, uncaring world as much as possible before he punches his ticket. In the end, despite having started off as a would-be world conqueror, once life shafts him hard enough his default position is to become a hero. And yes, this is back in the day when ancillary characters leaped across the hero-villain line like borg-gazelles [1], but still worthy of some respect, I think.

Ultimately, Xavier makes use of him as a body-double, whilst unknown to the X-Men (excepting Jean) he hides in a psi-proof chamber and plans a defence against the alien Z'Nox. This state of affairs that lasts for at most three issues (I don't know whether or not the changeover occurred before the X-Men fought Frankenstein's Monster, and once again I am not remotely kidding) before Changeling sacrifices his life preventing the monster Grotesk from destroying the Earth. It is months before the X-Men discover the truth and years before we do. Changeling's only reward: a photograph alongside those of Thunderbird and Doug Ramsey on the Professor's desk, a reminder of the fallen.

Still, he did better than Petra or Sway, soon to be appearing in this series under the heading "Who the fuck are Petra and Sway?"
Next time, we consider the green-haired magnetism-wielding Polaris, and lament the fact that such a powerful female character ended up so mangled by various writers that there wasn't anything left but bitchy one-liners and the occasional attempt at mass-murder.

[1] Let's not forget the Mimic, who within his first four issues went from belligerent hood to boastful crime-fighter to flunky to a world-conquering super-villain to noble self-sacrificing hero. Final line: "Funny... It took an inhuman, emotionless thing like the Super-Adaptoid... to make me realise the true value of the emotion called... friendship! Even if the Mimic is gone forever it was worth it if Cal Rankin became... a man."

Monday, 27 October 2008

He Doesn't Really Deserve This

I considered delaying this video for three years as a cheap form of revenge, but ultimately decided I'd just wait until Big G let me use the internet again.

Here, then, in honour of Vomiting Mike's birthday yesterday, is a video dedicated to three of our favorite things: maths, the undead, and fucking.

Caution: some viewers may find the following video disturbing.

SpaceSquid vs. Hollywood No.2

Title: Licence to Licence to Kill

Hollywood Formula Pitch: (Office Space - Idiocracy) x The Living Daylights

Synopsis: Touching yet adrenaline-charged story of the quiet, unassuming British Intelligence operative Hugo Jobsworth, who alone amongst the Queen’s men is entrusted with stamping and signing those "licences to kill" that all those smug double-0 bastards seem to think get passed out like Cheetos. Day after day he sits quietly seething as Bond chats up the women in the department, in direct contravention of Civil Service regulations, and plots grabbing revenge by revoking the martini-slinging pretty-boy’s parking privileges. But once 007 shoots a Russian oligarch, and is thrown in a Siberian gulag because someone failed to fill out the relevant forms in triplicate, only one man can save him.

How will Bond cope with a situation too bureaucratic for him to bonk his way out of? Is Hugo man enough to swallow his pride and reach for the carbon paper? And will he insist on finishing his lunch break first?

Money shot: Watching Bond's furrowed Neanderthal brow attempt to wrestle with photocopying his own P2-G742 form.

Tagline: Killing is easy. Paperwork is murder.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

...But Fear Itself #3: Just Getting Stabbed, I Guess

Watching someone get stabbed is boring. Well, it's fairly boring on the screen, anyway, in real life is a bit more intense. But, wherever you want to stand on the argument that Hollywood is far too violent, and desensitises people to trauma, it certainly does seem to be the case that watching someone pretend to plunge a knife into human flesh no longer creates much of a response.

I've been trying to work out the appeal in horror films in which you don't have to deal with werewolves or underground cannibals or dead chicks stuffed down wells. There are so many brilliantly terrifying gribblies and ghoulies out there that it seems a terrible shame to just hand some bloke a knife and a mask and shove him into the unlit backstreets.

The best idea I can come up with it that it's something about "realism". People seem to have a thing about realism in fiction. I'm not sure I entirely understand it. Actually, it might be fairer to say that the word seems ill-applied by those that use it. I'm not at all sure that people do want their films to be realistic. The real world is pretty boring. Even when the interesting stuff comes down, then as far as I've been able to determine (and I freely confess I'm not a NAVY Seal, or anything) mostly it's just confusion and loud noises and a lot of pointless sitting around waiting for the other shoe to drop. It's going to the toilet X times a day. It's going into the kitchen and realising you've forgotten about why. It's sitting watching TV whilst your other half talks about how difficult work has been because a door got jammed and no-one could fix it.

I don't think people want realism. I think what people want is pseudo-realism. They want a story not shot through with illogical nonsense, and one in which the characters behave in what they consider a plausible manner. When people point at something and say "That's so real!" what they generally mean is "I recognise some of my own situation in this". So what? That isn't finding something real, it's finding something relatable. The two are not the same. [1]

Perhaps, though, in the context of horror, this nebulous idea of "realism" has a genuine purpose. Watching flesh-hungry zombies on the rampage may be fairly freaky at the time, but once we leave the cinema and return to the real world, the fear is mainly forgotten. Watching Wolf Creek or The Strangers, though, both with their "BASED ON REAL EVENTS" legends proudly displayed, and perhaps the unease is harder to shake. These things really do happen, on rare occasion. It doesn't mean that statistically speaking watching a car crash or someone pass away from cancer on screen should scare us more, the fact cannot be denied that there is a strictly positive probability that sooner or later our lives will terminate on the end of some psychotic's big old knife.

I give those two films as examples because they stand out from the pack. A worrying number of slasher films are just a permutation of Halloween or Friday the Thirteenth. An indestructible killer, some pretty teenagers, and a whole bunch of killings. Both Wolf Creek and The Strangers attempt to step back from the formula, not least in the fact that both films have a grand total of three characters who are potential knife-fodder. Without the standard tactic of simply upping the body count to its maximum feasible level, these films instead focus on the psychological and physical toll being stalked by a remorseless murderer must take upon you. Or might take upon you. Like I said, it is not realism that concerns me, but plausibility.

Trouble is, atmosphere and tension are hard, garroting a naked teenager with big tits (she has big tits, she isn't being garroted with them, though I think I may have hit upon the natural step on from torture porn) is easy. Certainly, the former relies on a degree of mystery and uncertainty difficult to carry through into a sequel. The alternative, senseless bloody rampages through suburban LA zip-codes, is far easier to extend for X further movies. Just get yourself a new permutation. Plus, obviously, more blood and/or breasts and/or killings. God knows, you'll need something to drag the punters in, and few things are harder to bring a fresh spin to than "Dude kills a whole mess of people".

When Randy points out in Scream 2 that the horror genre was destroyed by sequels, he knew what he was talking about. Even the Halloweens of this world, which at least started out with some sort of creative worth, had no chance of maintaining that quality as the sequels started rolling off the production line. There just isn't enough there. [2]

I didn't always feel this way. It was Scream and its first sequel that sucked me into horror in the first place. But it didn't take long for my interest in watching people stuck with knives started to fade. For a little while it was possible to keep me interested with going after people with fish-hooks, or putting their dogs in the microwave, but it was clearly becoming a losing battle. I guess my own tastes reflected the slasher genre's problem as a whole, how do you keep upping the stakes to stop people getting jaded? The recent controversy over torture porn is just the latest attempt to answer this question. Where we go to next is an interesting question, but I have little doubt that the next step will take us further still from the "realism" angle which is all the slasher flick has to recommend it over more fantastical horror films in the first place. We're already at the stage of positing secret Eastern European underground torture bunkers, which hardly captures the "it could be you" spirit that these films need to give them weight.

Frankly, I think I'll stick with dead chicks stuffed down wells.

[1] There's also the matter of dialogue to consider. "Realistic dialogue" is a phrase tossed around as something to be strived for in scripts. No-one, crucially, ever attempts it. "Real dialogue" would be filled with ums and ers, pauses for thought, needless repitition, spoonerisms, inaccurate relating of events, people calling each other the wrong name, mispronounciations, and all the rest of the mistakes we make when we talk because we weren't lucky enough to have our words written into a script for us in advance. Bollocks to realistic scripts. I don't want realism. I want, once again, logic and relatability. Aaron Sorkin's scripts are a perfect example. I doubt that anyone in the world ever has spoken like Toby Zeigler, and I don't care in the slightest, because what he says is smart, and it's funny, and it makes perfect sense (even if I don't necessarily agree), and it's relatable. Listening to him as he tries to process his ex-wife telling him that he is just "too sad" for her is heartbreaking.

[2] Even Saw, a clever little film (though arguably less a horror and more a jet-black thriller), packed with atmosphere, had to throw in a whole bunch of pointless grizzly deaths in the sequel, essentially to pass the time until the arrival of the obligatory trick ending.

Friday, 24 October 2008

The Enemy Of My Enemy

At long last Al Qaida has ended months of speculation and endorsed a candidate. It'll be a lot of fun watching the more rabid right-wingers flailing around trying to claim that this is reverse psychology, considering so many of them insisted that every endorsement by US opponents in favour of Obama (or Kerry before him) had to be taken at face value.

Obviously, catching members of the right engaging in blatant hypocrisy is hardly a difficult task, it's about as hard as catching a duck engaging in blatant quacking. There’s another point to be made here, though. A lot of people protested back when various South American socialists and Palestinians with ties to Hamas were stating preferences for Obama (or Kerry before him) that assuming a political opponent of the US must be telling the truth when discussing what they want to happen in States is ridiculous.

Which, y’know, is obviously true. That’s not really the way I would tackle it, though. Even if they are telling the truth, then who cares? I don’t get a mindset, even after 9/11, where the number one priority is to make sure your enemy doesn’t get what they want. Surely the objective of picking a leader is maximising your own utility, and not minimising that of your opponents. Sure, the two are linked, but international politics isn’t a zero-sum game. Taken to its conclusion, the best guy for the job would be that Senator from The Dead Zone, since I’ll bet none of the anti-US agents out there want the next occupant of the Oval to nuke the entire world.

It was true then, and it’s true now. Even if Al Qaida genuinely does want McCain in the White House, I don’t care. There are thousands of metrics on which to judge the next President (and McCain loses, like, 99.95% of them), and which of them would make the enemy smile is pretty far down the list.

So, yeah, obvious non-issue. It'll be fun to watch the wing-nuts scrabble to get out of the beds they made, though.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #7: A Poor Substitute

The difficulty in writing an article about the Mimic is that there is just so little to work on. I don't just mean his infrequent appearances (I can think of a grand total of seven issues of Uncanny X-Men or X-Men in which he shows up, three of them during the brief stint as an X-Man that earned him a place in this series), but the fact that there is almost nothing to his character. Across those occasional showings Calvin Rankin has gone from arrogant prick to mediocre hero to whining loser to, well, a guy whose wings fell off.

It can be argued that any problems that writers may have had pinning down Rankin's character can be explained by the fact that so many years pass between the times he surfaces. That, though, is to look at things from the wrong direction. The X-Universe is positively filled with ancillary characters that pop up again and again. Mystique has a seven page biography over at UXN, that's more than Iceman gets. I suspect the problem is not that his rare appearances make it impossible to pin his character down, but that he is so totally bereft of interesting aspects that no-one ever bothers to use him. The ability to copy someone else's mutant powers is an interesting idea (hence Rogue and Synch, to name just two characters with similar abilities), but it doesn't really make for much of a hook on its own.
Despite all that, though, there are certain things that can be surmised about Mimic. In part this is because Mimic is so close to a tried and tested character trope: the flawed hero. Even within the X-Men this template is applied repeatedly; Gambit's shadowy past; Wolverine's berserker rage; Maggott's relationship with, and debt to, Magneto (I miss Maggott).
What connects those X-Men, though, is that they fight to become and remain superheroes rather than super-villains, to employ their significant abilities on the side of the angels. Mimic, on the other hand, is fighting against against the fact that, in the final analysis, he just isn't any good at being a super-anything.

Rankin's main flaw is obvious from his very first appearance, way back in UXM 19. The first time we see him utilise his mutant power [1] we are distinctly underwhelmed since a) he replicates the talents of Iceman and Beast entirely by accident, and b) he tries to use them for the distinctly unimpressive task of trying to beat up Beast for taking out a woman he had his eye on. Moments later, when Mimic connects the dots and realises that (rather improbably) he has bumped into two X-Men, his immediate thought is that he can follow them to their secret base and bring about their downfall. Why? He doesn't seem to have any idea, it's just the first thought that pops into his head. By the time he's reached Xavier's mansion he's changed his plan: he's going to grab Jean Grey and hot-foot it back to the mine where he and his father once hid.

His ostensible motive for this is to force the X-Men to follow him out there, so that he can use Cyclops' optic blasts to dig out his father's last work, a machine that will allow him to absorb powers permanently. Which is a sound enough plan, I guess, (although renting a JCB might have been somewhat simpler), but it leaves an important question unanswered. Given he had already run into Jean Grey earlier in the day (again by chance; Stan Lee never being one to worry much about piling coincidence atop coincidence), why take the risk of confronting the X-Men in the mansion? Why not kidnap Grey immediately (an almost offensively simple task, this being an issue in which Jean spends her time reading Marvel comics and shopping for her vacation rather than acting like a superheroine) and phone Xavier with a ransom demand?
Rankin provides a clue to the answer in his (briefly) stated desire to crush the X-Men. He reveals more when talking to his captive, as he relates the story of his life. As the Mimic relates acquiring/discovering his powers, he unconsciously demonstrates both the ludicrously frivolous uses he puts it to (beating up people in school, cheating in tests) and, more importantly, his basic motivation: impressing others. Unfortunately for him, though, the more he uses his powers, the more his peers resent him for his sudden "talents" and unearned "accomplishments". Bitterly, Rankin decries them as jealous (though only to himself) and resolves to "show them". Crucially, though, he can only do that by stealing their own talents to use against them.

This puts Rankin in something of a bind. He is desperate to prove himself against others (it is implied that he was something of a loser in school before his got his powers), but he can only attempt that by copying their innate superiority. He finds no permanent satisfaction in what he does, because every act of mimicry becomes a confession that his opponent began the contest with an innate advantage. Even if Rankin wins, he has only done so by artificially levelling the playing field, and he knows it, even if he won't admit it to himself.

Unable to learn from this, though, he simply moves on to the next challenge, hoping this time that his victory will bring him the respect of others he mistakes for self-belief. Hence his rash decision to defeat the X-Men, and his pointless showboating whilst abducting Jean. It wasn't enough to obtain Cyclops' power to dig out his father's machine [2], Mimic has to prove that he can beat the X-Men single-handedly (whilst enjoying six separate mutant powers, of course, and even then once Xavier's students begin to work as a team, they turn the battle against him). It's all classic over-compensation for an inferiority complex, except that Mimic's power allows him to precisely assess his own shortcomings every time he uses it. Even he fact that he narrates his story to Jean entirely in the third person might even suggest some subconscious attempt to distance himself from his own inferiority and pettiness, though that would be an impressive level of thought in a script in which Cyclops shouts "But wait - what of the danger!" when Hank decides to navigate an obstacle course one-handed.

Eventually Calvin makes some limited progress with his repressed feelings of inadequacy. Rather than try to go it alone, he resolves to join the X-Men, so as to find his place within a team. Of course, rather than attempt to earn a place in their ranks, he simply blackmails them, threatening to reveal their dual identities if he is not made deputy leader. Upon being grudgingly accepted, he immediately begins insulting his team-mates and constantly trying to out-do them. Not a fist can be thrown or an eye-beam zarked without him telling all those in earshot about how wonderful he is. In essence, although he truly does want to do the right thing, all that has really changed for Mimic is that he is using the powers of mutants A,B and C to fight mutants X, Y and Z. He may no longer be attempting to fight people using their own skills, but his abilities are still only on loan.

There is one brief moment of self-realisation, when Rankin confesses to himself that
"I'm sentenced forever to live only in the shadow of other men's powers... other men's abilities! Nothing is truly... mine!"
But this is a short-lived revelation, it doesn't take. Perhaps Mimic hopes that stealing enough powers from enough mutants will eventually make him worth something. Certainly, that seems the plan when he is finally expelled from the school for his defiance and gets the choice to join forces with the Super Adaptoid. Once he realises the villain has "Destroy humanity" near the top of his to-do list, though (right after "Enslave Mimic"), Rankin fights back. It costs him his powers, but he defeats the Adaptoid, and he does it not by relying on the talents of others, but by outsmarting his adversary. In what appears to be his final act as a super-being, Rankin finally proves himself.
Ultimately, though, as is so often the case, it is the failures and the humiliations that stay with Calvin, not his one success. Once Rankin reappears (many years later) he simply throws his lot in with the Brotherhood of Mutants in its various incarnations. Less corrupt and conniving than Mystique, less brutal and unthinking than the Blob, Mimic nevertheless follows their lead, apparently because he can think of nothing better to do. The idea of going it alone has long since been abandoned. Within the Brotherhood he seems more comfortable, and less combative. The same problems still exist, though, they are simply expressed in different ways. Now, rather than piling on the bravado and loudly proclaiming himself superior, Rankin works to persuade others and himself that his enemy is too strong, too tough, too well-armoured. There's a brief exchange in UXM 364 between Mimic and Wolverine as they battle Cerebrite Beta in the ruins of Alcatraz which illustrates this:
"I can't seem to penetrate its hide no matter what I do!"
"What? In case you forgot, Mimic, you got the flamin' powers o'
all five original X-Men! Don't tell me you've run outta options already!"

Thus, rather than trying to hide his inferiority behind bluster, Rankin is now attempting to mitigate it by building up the challenge. After all, how can he be blamed for being beaten when the foe was so mighty?
The exchange between Rankin and Logan raises another interesting question. Why does Mimic retain the powers of the first five X-Men anyway? In that particular fight, he could have called upon the powers of Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Shadowcat, Marrow, Post, the Blob, or even Toad, if he felt like a challenge [3]. Why stick so doggedly with the first super-powers he ever acquired?

I may have missed something in his back-story (he made three or four other appearances in the wider Marvel Universe that I haven't read), and he may not have any choice about it. If that's true, it's a shame, because the idea that he is deliberately hanging on to that specific power set is a nice one. Perhaps for all his failures and his flaws, for all his excuses and his denials, he still wants one day to be worthy of the title "hero" once again, and he knows that, if he has any chance to succeed, that it will be because of what he has learned from the X-Men.

Next time: I continue to ask the tough questions as we ponder why a shape-shifter would deliberately construct the most retarded helmet in all of Christendom.

[1] Assuming he is a mutant. His back-story suggests he gained his power by fiddling around with his father's chemistry experiments, though Scott Lobdell at least has insisted that this simply unlocked Rankin's latent mutant powers.

[2] Which turned out to actually remove his powers, not augment them. Apparently even his father was less than impressed by Calvin's application of his ability. You have to wonder about a father-son dynamic in which the former intends to strip the latter of his super power whilst pretending he will make that power all the greater.

[3] Admittedly, Post is a terribly shitty character, and Davis' Toad is embarrassing both in his uselessness and how poorly the writer researched the character. "The bouncing Toad goes over the top! Bop bop!" Sheesh.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Radio Durham

Watching Scream 2 with Big G yesterday reminded me of how much I like "She Said" by Collective Soul.

With typical incompetence, i-Tunes offers two versions of this song, but neither of them have the nice jangly guitar or harmonies. Bastards.

Can Sarah Palin See This From Her Window?

At long last we can reveal the reasons behind Putin's increasing aggression of late:

It's all a plot to return the Tsars to the throne of Imperial Russia. All hail Tsar SpaceSquid!

Which reminds me, time I sorted out a costume for next week's Halloween Seminar. You can't write a talk entitled "The Imprecise Haunting of Markov Mansion" (in which penguins and pies have been replaced by spirits and salt-loaded shotguns) and not look the part.

Any suggestions for cheap and easily-assembled costumes? I've been leery of such things ever since I made that Edward Scissorhands costume for Halloween 2001, which took forever to put together and rendered me totally unable to grasp my pint.
h/t to Big G for the rather disturbing photo-work.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

SpaceSquid's Intertubes Awards #1

The winner of today's "Bitchy Political Snark" award goes to Attaturk of Rising Hegemon.
The Republican presidential nominee from Arizona landed at the Columbia Regional Airport around 12:30 p.m. As McCain disembarked from the plane, a man yelled, "Go get 'em, John."...

A crowd of about 15 people assembled outside the airport's fence to see him descend from the plane.
First of all, you don't report a crowd of "about 15", when there are 15 people there, you've got time to count.
Well deserved, I think you'll agree.

Honorable mention: Dave Noon of Lawyers, Guns and Money.
On the tarmac, Palin also referred to robocalls as “inside baseball,” suggesting it was not her call for the campaign to randomly call voters with negative attacks on Obama. “If I called all the shots, and if I could wave a magic wand, I would be sitting at a kitchen table with more and more Americans … and not having to rely on the old conventional ways of campaigning that includes those robocalls and includes spending so much money on the television ads that I think is kinda draining out there in terms of Americans' attention span,” she said.
Speaking merely for myself, I've never heard a stronger rationale for eliminating the very idea of a kitchen.
Next week, an award for the most imaginative use of the word "fuck" whilst describing the credit-crunch.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Sleeping With The Enemy (Metaphorically Speaking)

Based on the entirely sensible theory that one shouldn't only read those one agrees with, and based on the quality of this post (which expresses perfectly the point that the Republican's aren't evil because they're conservative, but because they are intolerable douchebags), I'm adding the right-leaning Eunomia to my list of "the competition". Obviously I use that phrase with as much irony as I would if I were to describe Hemingway as "a fellow writer".

Now get yourselves over there and explain why he's wrong about everything.

Update: Actually, the more posts I read on Eunomia, the more I feel sympathy for Dan Larison. He's clearly a very smart conservative, but he feels compelled to spend all his time eloquently decrying the vapid freakshow that his party has become, rather than actually getting on with the more important business of arguing with the other side.

Update II: Having been reading Larison for some days now, I should point out that I was incorrect to refer to the GOP as "his party". He's a conservative independent, who voted for Chuck Baldwin this year. I never even realised he was running.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

...But Fear Itself #2: Didn't That Used To Be My Wife?

The more time I spend on this earth, the more terrified I am of psychoanalysis. By this stage my expansive collection of tics and neuroses and phobias has become so astonishing that I'm afraid any attempt to unravel it will take me with it, leaving me an empty shell, a walking corpse with a caffeine addiction.

Of course, as disturbing as the idea might be to me, I imagine the thought of wading into my mass of psychoses would be terrifying enough to keep any self-respecting therapist up at night. I mean, I'm sure they appreciate a challenge, but probably one more along the lines of "Complete the Great North Run" or "Eat a doughnut without licking your lips" rather than "Repaint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel using only your forehead, whilst drunk and blindfolded". Psychiatrists tell their children to eat their vegetables so that SpaceSquid doesn't come in the night and demand to know why he's afraid of towels.

This is all by way of saying that sometimes, I don't know why certain things appeal to me as much as they do, and often that inability to understand myself bothers me. So it is with the sub-genre of horror with which this post concerns itself. Is it a coincidence, I wonder, that two of my favourite films are Day of the Dead and Aliens (not strictly a resident of Horror house, but certainly a frequent guest who looks after the place whilst the Horrors go on holiday), two movies in which death isn't the worst-case scenario anymore, it's becoming, one way or another, one of them. My DVD collection is filled with this sort of stuff, from 28 Days Later to The Ring (which, admittedly, is only really an example in the original novels, and the Korean film The Ring Virus).

Clearly, I'm not the only one with a morbid fascination for this stuff. The ideas of possession and loss of self have been big business for Hollywood for a while now, so much so that the idea of a "zombie film" has emerged, a category so loose that admission apparently only requires the presence of a condition that is passed by contact and makes you attack other people. Hell, you could include From Dusk Til Dawn on that basis. The idea seems to becoming increasingly common, and that's before you start thinking about the implicit use of this theme in countless films featuring ghosts and spirits. After all, once the dead have killed you, what do you become?

Maybe on some level that's the point. Zombies and Rage-sufferers and aliens that have half-inched your DNA are all in some sense continuations of the self once it's shuffled off the mortal coil. Without wishing to sound pretentious about all this (shut the hell up), it's perhaps a suggestion that yes, there is an afterlife, but it'll suck big-time. We won't even get to be ourselves anymore, just shambling creatures devoid of rationality, operating entirely on instinct.

Certainly that's the idea behind Shivers, which itself shares certain elements of the "zombie film", albeit with zombies that can talk and prefer shagging to cannibalism (and who doesn't?). Rather than painting pictures or composing operas or, I don't know, brushing their teeth or something, all the parasite victims can do is infect others, and bonk them senseless. Interestingly, Cronenberg seems to be suggesting that this is a fate that mankind in some sense deserves, or at least one which would have definite up-sides. Watching Dr St. Luc so embroiled in a business call that he doesn't notice his devoted and gorgeous nurse taking off all her clothes right in front of him makes you think that maybe he has a point after all. Perhaps we are all so busy we're not stopping to smell the flowers any more. Of course, it does not follow that the best way to deal with this is to superglue ourselves and our loved ones to the nearest rose bush. Whilst I, like 99.9% of the population, wholeheartedly endorse the idea that I could do with more sweet, sweet lovin', the idea of totally surrendering myself to that urge constantly, rather than being able to write and eat at restaurants and maybe catch the occasional movie, is not really much more enticing than becoming one of Romero's "stenches". Instinct has its place, but not at the total expense of rationality.

Anyway, the fear of death and what follows is one possible reason as to why these ideas and stories scare some of us so much. There are other possibilities, too. Whilst the concept of becoming what stalks us is a very, very old one, it's worth noting that at least in the two most obvious examples, vampires and werewolves, their ability to pass on their condition is only one small part of their mythology. Yes, a bite from a werewolf will infect a person (and it has been suggested that this idea might very well stem from attacks by rabid wolves), but so too would eating part of a cow killed by a wolf, or drinking from puddles made by a wolf's footsteps (though surely anyone desperate enough to do that has bigger problems on their hands). Likewise, there are many ways one could become a vampire, besides being bitten by one. The "turning" of Lucy and then Mina is an important part of Dracula, of course, but, perhaps not surprisingly considering when it was written, they are seen more as possessions Dracula is attempting to steal than characters whose plight is to be considered and sympathised with. Mina's fear of what she will become is only touched upon, almost as an afterthought.

The exact point at which the fear of being taken over became the focal point of such tales is, naturally, hard to pin down. Based on my own experience I would suggest Invaders From Mars as a possible starting point. This film was released in 1953, while McCarthy was at the height of his power, and "the Red under the bed" was a much-trumpeted threat to the West. It is perhaps at this stage that for the first time the idea of loss of self as a person met loss of self as a culture (which ties in to my first post on the subject of fear). The Americans had been threatened with invasion several times in the past, both as colonials and their own independent nation, but the idea of the quiet corruption of their own civilisation by a radically different one was something new.

It's thus no surprise that Invaders... is pretty obviously the anti-Communist fantasy that many people suggest Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is. The case for the former film deserving the crown is far more compelling, though. Where ...Snatchers focuses on individuals desperately trying to outrun change, and ends with the implicit suggestion that such flight is hopeless, Invaders finishes up with good ol' Uncle Sam's Army heading into the alien saucer and fucking up the Martians' shit. Well, actually it ends with it all being a prescient dream, but while usually such an ending is rightfully lambasted, it makes a weird sort of sense here. Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom, as the old (mis-)quote goes. Defeat one red menace (is it coincidence that Mars is red? Well, probably yes, but still), and there's another one waiting for a dose of American whup-ass. Eventually, though, each one will be defeated by US power and defiance. It reads as nothing so much as a faintly scary lullaby to the American subconscious; "We got yer back, but still; watch out."

...Snatchers, though, is a very different beast. By the time it was released in 1956 McCarthy's star was very much in decline. Whilst it is possible to see the film as an Invaders... style warning of a silent take-over of America, it's just as easy to see the pod-people (quiet, unobtrusive, unemotional, the very opposite of the infected in Shivers) as McCarthy's vision of the perfect Americans. Don't make noise, don't make a fuss. Carry on about your business. It's the individuals, the different, those that don't fit in that we are after. Which works as a metaphor for a totalitarian state, but works just as well for the witch-hunts of McCarthyism.

Richard Matheson's I Am Legend might be considered an honorary member of the horror-as-Communist-analogy club. Certainly the familiar elements of losing your loved ones and your own self to some barely-understood phenomenon is present and correct. Crucially, though, the book ends with Neville wondering whether the fact that "vampire" society has so completely replaced his own means that it should be their laws which take precedence, rather than his own attempts at self-preservation. Perhaps here the implication is that Communism should only be fought until a given point, that once a given critical mass in a society demands a certain change, then perhaps that change should be implemented. It's not an idea without its problems, and its attendant risks, but it's an interesting point, one missing from all three adaptions of the book to celluloid. The first of these, The Last Man On Earth, is perhaps most historically important since it inspired Romero to write and film Night Of The Living Dead, which along with its first sequel is probably one of the most influential horror films of all time. Certainly many of the films that employ the "replacement" trick are in its debt.

By the time the fear of Communism began to wane, AIDS was rising to replace it as the major bogeyman of our times. It's explicit affect on horror cinema is not easy to judge. The Fly is about the only obvious example of its influence that I can think of, which Cronenberg denied existed anyway (the influence, not AIDS). In general, though, the hypothetical template for a horror movie informed by AIDS would be very similar to the template for a horror movie informed by anti-Communist paranoia (not to mention the degree to which horror films from the eighties onwards just swipe stuff from Romero, rather than any real-world situation). That's an interesting realisation in itself, but then it probably shouldn't come as any surprise, both fears after all are rooted in the notion that the enemy is simultaneously everywhere, and that they look just like us! It doesn't matter that we convince ourselves it could never happen to us personally (the level of society-wide denial over the AIDS epidemic was truly extraordinary, with hindsight), it could happen to everyone around us and we'd never no until it was too late. No man is an island; if civilisation itself falls prey to such sickness, it's canned food and shotguns from here on out.

I guess what I'm trying to say is how surprising it is that the loss of self theme is so intrinsically linked with the end of civilisation film. There are exceptions, of course. I've already mentioned The Fly, and Ginger Snaps is another. Alien is a third, after a fashion. Interestingly, all three of those films involve themselves with very different themes, the loss of self is incidental. These are films more about change than loss specifically, though in the case of The Fly that's not really too relevant a distinction. With Alien, though, which is arguably about a woman's fear of rape and a man's fear of pregnancy, and with Ginger Snaps, which is quite unarguably about reaching puberty (the subtext is very much text, as they say), these are films about biology, violation, and how the two may not always be distinguishable.

So there's a lot going on here. We worry where we go when we die, what happens when a society dies and we're right in the middle of it, and what we will become when the world, other people, or even our own bodies arbitrarily decide to throw a spanner in the works. At heart, it's more than just the fear we will lose ourselves, it's a more general fear of change, of upsetting the boat and the status quo. Not that being turned into a flesh-crazed corpse isn't scary enough, obviously.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

In Truth, It Was Mainly For The Wine

Last night I went to my first Liberal Democrat fundraising dinner. It's odd to think of myself as a donor to a political party, up until now I've always preferred just sniping at people from the sidelines. I'm still not sure I actually want to sign up yet, though since my biggest problem with the Liberal Democrats is that they're insufficiently liberal, it's not immediately clear what plausible alternative I have, short of moving to Scandinavia. Given T's meteoric rise through the party ranks, though, and continuing in my totally self-appointed role of Jiminy Cricket.

It's probably worth mentioning that Menzies Campbell is a good deal more engaging in real life than he is on television. Speaking to a crowd is very different to speaking to TV viewers, and he was obviously much more comfortable with the former (of course, it probably helps that he knew we all more or less agree with him to begin with, to the extent to which any group of liberals ever agree about anything ever).

Thinking back, it occurs to me that this was my first ever experience of a political speech from outside the US (other than watching Tony Blair's farewell to the nation, which was more the oratorical equivalent of a smug group hug than anything else). Truth be told, I was less than impressed. In the main, all the speech consisted of (and I acknowledge that this was an after-dinner speech and not the Gettysburg Address) was a reminder that Labour are in trouble, particularly over the credit crunch [1], and that the Tories are "A mile wide and an inch deep" (a much more lyrical way of saying "Still run by turds no matter what the pudgy-faced monkey at the front keeps saying") and that's all good for us [2]. Not exactly the fiery rhetoric of the a lifelong liberal that I was hoping for.

In all honesty, I'm not sure what else I was expecting. There are two reasons I could never manage a career in politics. The first is that I'm basically psychologically incapable of not telling people when their political opinions aren't desperately stupid. The more important reason, though, is that I could never put up with all the banal hand-shaking vacant-grinning bullshit I would have to wade through in order to get to the point where I could actually make any difference to anyone at all. Telling a room filled with liberals that Labour and the Tories are, like, really bad and junk definitely comes under that heading. Maybe I've just spent so long defending my corner against the centrists and the right-leaning that I didn't realise that hanging out with large groups of liberals would be so... sedate.

I actually had a chance to challenge Campbell about this later in the evening (he was kind enough to allow Dr L and I to grill him for a few minutes, which inevitably led to a discussion about American politics, I really should seek help for my addiction). I was a little drunk at the time (if you can believe that) so my usual razor-sharp skills of debate and verbiage were somewhat blunted, but my question essentially boiled down to how he makes the choice between extolling the virtues of his own stall, as oppose to pointing out that all the other stalls are shit and smell of shit. [3]

"Political experience," he replied. Can't argue with that, I guess.

So, I have now wormed my way into the political establishment in the most useless way possible. Campbell also said he'd introduce me to Senator Lieberman, if we were ever in the same room together (which one assumes is a fairly remote possibility), so one day I can take over the States as well. Join the revolution, my friends. First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.

[1] And given they aren't to blame for that and are actually dealing with it pretty well, as far as I can tell (and I acknowledge that I know very little about economics), exhorting liberals to take advantage of it, whilst an eminently sensible political strategy, did make me feel a little like a circling vulture.

[2] Though bad for a lot of other people, potentially including the country as a whole, since as always we're more likely to get smallpox than we are to get a majority.

[3] I also had to correct him on referring to the Isles of Scilly as the "Scilly Isles". It was for his own good; if he tried pulling that shit in Cornwall they would beat him to death with pasties.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Make Your Own Fun

Nothing terribly complex from me today, I'm afraid. I spent most of the day arguing with a mook about the American press, and fully intend to spend the remainder of it reliving my childhood.

You can come too, if you like. Rebelstar II is one of the best games the Spectrum produced (which is a more impressive accolade than you might remember). It was the forerunner to the much more well known Lords of Chaos, in which you played a wizard who used magically summoned creatures to beat the mystical shit out of other wizards, apparently just for a laugh. Which may have been awesome, but also failed to include the sight of watching Dan Dare attempt to insert a lightsabre up the jacksie of one of those drooling things off of Aliens. That's progress, I guess.

Update: Full marks to this emulator for not altering Rebelstar II to fit in with today's programming philosophy that it should be even remotely plausible to beat a video game. My first attempt saw me beaten like a red-headed step-child. The second almost ended in a draw, but due to a pair of hasty button presses (no Undo Move or Are You Sure? features here, my friends) saw me go down in flames.

My third game saw me beating the shit out of the enemy right up until the game froze. They've coded in the freezing when losing feature! That's some dedication, right there.

Update II: I should have hat-tipped trollface for the link above. Very remiss of me.

Damn thing's still freezing every time I catch a whiff of victory...

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

It's Funny Because It's Terrifying

A horrifying insight into a Palin Presidency. Make sure you have your sound on.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

...But Fear Itself #1: Everyone's Dead, Dave

I spent some time today deciding how one might divide up the horror genre into bite-sized chunks. Gooder and I tossed around the idea of doing it by the various different styles and waves that the genre has gone through since its beginnings, but I ultimately rejected this because it's a) too hard, and b) not weird enough.

Instead, I decided to spend a bit of time chopping up horror cinema into the various fears they play upon. Never one to start with a whimper, then, we begin the process with considering my own personal favourite horror theme: the apocalyptic clusterfuck.

This particular division can be further broken down. In some horror films the "end of the world" (whether it be the literal destruction of Earth in End Of Days, the destruction of human society in In The Mouth Of Madness, or even the alteration of humanity into something entirely different, as in Shivers) is an ongoing process, something the heroes struggle to stop. The odds may be stacked against them, their chances of success might be slim, but this is Hollywood, and stranger things have happened. There always exists the chance that Armageddon can be averted.

The nature of the fear here is fairly obvious: all things being equal, we'd much rather that our friends and family didn't end up on the business end of a zombie apocalypse. Losing our own lives isn't really a particularly palatable option, but the idea that everyone else is going to cark it too makes things much, much worse. Humanity itself becomes under threat, and once that happens you and I are just tiny cells in a much larger body, statistics that no-one is even likely to look at whilst they try not to get their throats ripped out. If our heroes fail, then we won't have anyone else to turn to. If a serial killer escapes and comes to our neighbourhood, then at least we can call the police, or run for shelter in a friend's house, or what have you. Once we get to this level, though, all help is gone. It no longer becomes about surviving long enough to find a working phone box and dialling 999. There will be no help coming, ever.

Those are the stakes, then. That's what's coming. You can put together a perfectly serviceable horror film that way, though you're going to need either a very strong theme, or a lot of immediate scares as you go, because whilst the ideas I mentioned above are certainly plenty horrifying, as long as the protagonists continue to struggle against the oncoming storm, it's a possibility to be considered, rather than a reality to be faced, and that's not as scary. You can stick in as many maniacs with knives jumping out from behind doors or mutilated corpses showing up in bathtubs as you want, but that's a distraction from The Big Idea, not a reinforcement of it.

The American remake of The Ring is a good example of all this [1]. The Japanese original contains comparatively little in the way of scares for much of the film (it has more important things on its mind). The atmosphere slowly builds to an impressive level, and there are a good number of weird happenings (Ryugi's implicit telepathic powers, for instance, entirely missing in the US version), but actual scares? Not so much. It doesn't need them, the central supernatural mystery and the absolutely terrifying pay-off (Charlie Brooker once said it almost made him shit his head through his arse, and frankly he underplayed it) combined with the human drama (I can't believe I just wrote that) is more than enough to sustain the film. Obviously, this wouldn't do for Hollywood, so any number of totally irrelevant ancillary scares (some cribbed from Dark Water, another Japanese horror film directed by Nakata) were bolted on. Some of them, to be fair, were pretty stylish (the faces of the dead are just hideous), but they still didn't do anything beyond mark time until all was revealed (and, to be fair, the ending is just as horrifying in the remake as the original, though it's worth noting that the original stole it from Videodrome in the first place).

On the other hand, it's entirely possible to chart the progress of the end of humanity in such a way as to make it absolutely terrifying, without having to resort to cheap shocks. Many times, this involves making the apocalypse a gradual process. Often this is done by the tried and tested "Make us into them" idea, which will get a post all to itself, but obviously includes such films as Night Of The Living Dead and The Faculty. Each casualty taken is a new soldier for the other side, which is scary for several reasons, but for now the most important one is that it reinforces the hopelessness of the situation. How do you defeat an enemy that recruits from your own side? More than that, what happens when they recruit your wife, or your child, or your best friend?

There are other ways to intimately link your mid-game scares with the overall picture, of course. One brilliant example of this is Kairo (remade in the States as Pulse, which starred that pretty boy the writers killed off in Lost because he never did anything ever). The film is set in Tokyo, which is becoming both infested with ghosts and simultaneously emptied of people. The ghosts in the film serve a very specific purpose, far beyond just simply appearing at random just as the frantic cellos cut out. The spirits have returned (via the Internet, which might sound stupid but it feeds directly into the overarching theme of people's increasing isolation) to inform humanity that death is "the ultimate loneliness"; that there is nothing beyond the veil of death but an eternity of solitary confinement. Miserable beyond measure at this message, thousands immediately commit suicide (not really the best plan considering what they've learnt, but people can be painfully stupid). You get the best of both worlds (for a specific definition of "best", obviously), since various ghostly hi-jinks are not just designed to scare you at that exact moment, but also tie into the more genera idea that if death is going to be an endless road of total isolation, we should probably think twice about cutting ourselves off in this life too (hence the use of the Internet as ghost-summoner, although anyone who thinks the web prevents you from achieving human contact simply isn't doing it right).

In the second type of ACF horror, though, everything has already gone wrong, and our luckless protagonists are just trying desperately not to get eaten, or infected, or whatever. The best case scenario is now nothing more than living long enough to die of natural causes, which is pretty damn bleak. At this point the fears I described above, of not only being beyond help now but recognising that you will be beyond help forever, come into play. Which is not only scary, but really rather depressing as well, which is a nice one-two punch to the gut that doesn't get used enough in horror. [2]

The great advantage to this second kind of film is that the mystery has already been "solved". Or, at least, if it hasn't been, then its incomprehensibility has been accepted by the heroes, who are far too busy just staying alive to ask philosophical questions about how they got to this point. Without that mystery, the film-makers have to find themselves something else to fill the gap. There has to be something more than just "They all try not to die, and some of them fail". At least, there should be.

Romero's zombie films are one of the best examples of what I'm talking about here, and Day of the Dead most of all. By this point, the ghouls/dumb-fucks/stenches have taken over the world. They outnumber the survivors by tens of thousands to one. The film concentrates on the various ways the characters (soldiers and scientists, drunks and evangelicals) process the fact that humanity's time is passed.

If anything, the film is the Kubler-Ross model (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) applied to celluloid, only the one dying isn't a person, it's a civilisation at best and a species at worst. Logan is denial, convinced that he has a way to keep humanity alive, even though it's obvious to everyone else that it cannot possibly work (how exactly he expects to millions of zombies tamed by constantly feeding them human flesh is a question best left answered, although it does feed my pet theory by being the bargaining part of the equation, "Have this food and don't eat me, please!"). Rhodes and most of his men are anger, blaming the scientists for their predicament and their losses, determined to "blow the piss" out of the enemy even though they know they don't have enough bullets, let alone men, to do the job. Salazar, fairly obviously, is depression, and for much of the film, so is Sarah. She might be more level-headed than anyone else (with the possible exception of Fisher), but she's still massively strung-out, still lamenting the loss of what she personally and humanity in general had, and terrified that what little she has left (including her lover) is about to be lost too.

As the film continues though, she begins to reach acceptance, helped out by William and John, who are already there, and are determined to simply live out their lives finding what comfort they can.

In fact, Day... is an even more poignant example of the accompanying sadness I mentioned before, because it focuses on the exact moment the first type of apocalypse film (the sky is falling!) turns into the second (the sky has fallen, and we ain't getting it back up again). The characters have to make a conscious choice to let go of the hope they've held since the crisis began, and find something else to cling to instead. These films are generally about acceptance to some extent, but what makes Day... unique is that it focuses on acceptance by those who were tasked with affecting change. Viewed from this angle, the fear of losing the support of society becomes instead the fear of being forced to change, to re-write one's internal assumptions and certainties.

Also, you might get eaten by a zombie. Wouldn't want that.

Fears of loneliness and helplessness, of change and hopelessness, and the horror of one day becoming someone who doesn't really mind any of those things anymore. Not bad for movies that are sold on the grounds that ghosts and zombies are going to freak the crap out of you, I would argue. Next time, I'll go into greater detail regarding the fear that we won't just be killed by whatever it is that stalks us in the darkness, but that we will become it, as well.

[1] I include The Ring in the ACF bracket mainly because the books make it clear that Sadako's ultimate aim is to replace humanity with endless clones of herself. This isn't really followed through in the films, though since the logical extension of the tape's influence is to end up with everyone in the world having either seen it or died from it, I think we can place it in the category of "approaching apocalypse".

[2] It may say something rather tragic about me that I consider fear and sadness to be so closely interlinked. You can probably add love in there as well, frankly, and thus create the trifecta of intolerable modern life.

Monday, 13 October 2008

'Tis The Season

With Halloween fast approaching, it might be appropriate to spend some time considering horror films in detail. A more structured set of articles will appear soon (and no, I haven't forgotten SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men, I just need more time to research Mimic, I can't read more than three pages without passing out with boredom), but since I'm short of time this evening we'll dip our toes into the water with the following question: why do I like horror in the first place?

Much of this post was born out of arguing with Gooder (I expect he'll appear pretty quickly in the comments section to tell me everything I've said is wrong and that I've totally misrepresented his position), who is simultaneously the go-to guy on any given film question, and almost totally disinterested in horror as a genre. He has on several occasions described horror as a roller-coaster ride, and there's certainly some truth to that analogy. If films are designed to do anything, they're intended to instill emotion in the viewer, and horror movies are based around the build-up of apprehension, stepping up to fear (hopefully, if the film-makers are any good) which then explodes in a sudden (or perhaps not quite so sudden) shock, followed by release. Not too dissimilar from a fairground ride.

Of course, while the analogy may not be inaccurate (and I do like roller coaster rides, or would do if my general cynicism didn't make me sure that every one I get on will inevitably collapse and then burst into flames), it also doesn't go far enough, any more than likening Some Like It Hot to a joke book would. There is much, much more to the genre than that.

Uniquely amongst cinema genres, horror films are sold on the quality of their antagonists [1]. There are two levels to this. Most obviously, there are any number of films where the villains themselves are the immediate draw. The various horror franchises are clear examples of this. Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, the Tall Man, on and on and on and on and on. In almost every other movie franchise I can think of, villains can come and go but the heroes stay the same (until they jump ship, anyway). With horror films, though, the heroes are almost entirely incidental. I literally cannot remember the name of a single character from the Nightmare..., Friday... or Halloween series (Phantasm is an important exception, though Reggie the sex-pest is hardly what one would call heroic) other than the indestructible killer. Whilst it is true that once a franchise reaches a certain point each new installment becomes less of a story and more of an exercise in box-ticking, it is still of interest that in this case the boxes are entirely based around the actions of the villains (well, there probably has to be tits in it as well, in fairness). Interesting antagonists often vastly improve a movie, and can even save one entirely (see Die Hard and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, respectively, both of which owe a massive debt to Alan Rickman), but in horror the villain is the starting point. Adversary, then plot, then hero, if there's time. Many trailers spend some time setting up the situation the protagonists have found themselves in, but it isn't often outside of horror movies that much time is spent plugging specific villains (unless they're being played by someone famous).

Obviously, sometimes this is sheer name recognition; Dracula, Frankenstein [2], Nosferatu (again, though, how many non-horror films are named after the bad guy?). On other occasions, though, individual monstrosities are less important than the overall genus. Marauding zombies (Romero class, natch), vicious werewolves, radioactive mutants; even starting with such basic templates, often the individual traits of the "heroes" are quickly overwhelmed. That's not to say that the protagonists are necessarily particularly poorly written (although they often are), simply that the enemy always seems to hog all the attention. Who remembers anything the Carter family did in The Hills Have Eyes remake other than end up on the crappy end of a bunch of radioactively-scarred hillbillies? I can remember exactly two moments from Wrong Turn, and both of them involve a particularly grim death at the hands of an outraged genetic deviant. Even in the cleverest horror films (The Last Broadcast, Ring, the original Day Of The Dead), the most iconic scenes involve the opposition, with the protagonist(s) essentially reduced to cannon-fodder.

There is a second way that these films often take shape around their villains. Many of the best horror films combine a monstrous protagonist with an interesting mystery. Science fiction and fantasy often manage this as well, as (obviously) do thrillers, though the necessarily prosaic puzzles of the last category mean they are of less interest to me. What makes these enigmas particularly fascinating in the case of horror is, in part, that one is invited to solve them without being sure which of the established laws of the universe actually apply in this case. It's an exercise in lateral thinking. As I say, this often applies to science fiction and fantasy as well (though less frequently), but what makes horror unique in this regard is that the process of gathering together the threads goes on at the exact same time as your brain is being distracted by swells of sinister music and mutilated corpses are falling out of wardrobes. You're trying to engage your cortex whilst your reptile brain keeps screaming for attention. It's like trying to sit an A-level French paper inside a burning building.

That's why so many of these films revolve around "Who is the killer?", or "What is inside the puzzle box?" or "Why is it that before you die, you see the ring?". At least, that's what the best of them do [3]. Even the comparatively straightforward examples of the genre contain something along these lines, mainly because horror by its very nature demands it. It can be as simple an idea as "What's on the other side of that door?" or "What is it with all these undead cannibals, Barbara?", but horror thrives on that sense of unknown. It's the unknown that's scary, after all. In a crime drama, when the FBI agent pulls a gun on a Mafia Capo, we know the criminal might escape, or disarm the Fed, or have reinforcements waiting in the wings, but him turning into a giant cockroach or making his enemy's head explode with mind-bullets are possibilities we generally discount.

So that's my case. Horror films rely on fear where most other genres at most reference it from time to time. They focus on the machinations and/or the nature of their antagonists in a way that sets them apart from other films. They can promote deductive reasoning at the very same time as they desperately attempt to rob us of it. Last, but not least, they rely on plumbing the depths of the unknown, which appeals to my sense of monkey curiosity, and I'd wager I'm not alone in that.

That's how I see it all, anyway. Puzzles and monsters and the darkness over the next hill that you know you shouldn't go to look at, but you just can't help yourself.

Sleep well.

[1] Obviously there are individual films that are sold on the villain (though as my esteemed flatmate points out, in this case they are often referred to as anti-heroes), but these are rarities in any genre beyond horror.

[2] OK, so Frankenstein himself is technically the protagonist (though it would be a stretch to call him the hero). Note though how many people think it's the name of the monster. Still, if you want to be pedantic about it, you could always replace Frankenstein with King Kong if you want. And don't tell me King Kong isn't horror, it's original incarnation is a fairly par-for-the-course creature feature, albeit one with more class than most.

[3] I'd be careful about pigeon-holing it as horror, though there would be some logic in doing so, but Dark City (absent the cheat-code initial voice-over, obviously) is one of the best examples I've ever seen of attempting to piece together a complex puzzle whilst avoiding being distracted by all the crazy shenanigans (in this case brightly-coloured energy-spiders and a bunch of murdered hookers. And Richard O'Brien). Shallow Ground and (especially) The Last Broadcast (which if you haven't seen, you must see now, alone and in the dark, because I did and it almost killed me and I dare you to prove your worth!) boast a similarly intricate jigsaw, but with a somewhat greater degree of OH HOLY SHIT WHAT WAS THAT!?!

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Friday, 10 October 2008

Missing The Point

It may no longer be at its best (or, in truth, particularly near to its best), but XKCD has been good to us over the years. Last year Vomiting Mike was kind enough to buy me one of their t-shirts as a birthday present (well, actually as three combined birthday presents, because the man is an idiot) based on this particular strip:

Much as I love the shirt, though, it can lead to complications whenever I wear it around the department.

Big Dave: What the Hell is that on your t-shirt?

SS: It's XKCD merchandise. I think the idea behind it is-

BD: Bollocks to the idea behind it, equation 4 is bullshit and chips.

SS: What?

BD: Look at it, Squid; you're multiplying the identity matrix by heart!

SS: So?

BD: So that must equal heart. Not question mark; that's just retarded.

SS: You're assuming a compatible matrix.

BD: What?

SS: Well, what if heart has a non-compatible dimension. 4x5, say.

BD: Then the expression itself is meaningless.

SS: The question mark represents meaningless, you fool, it's a maudlin statement on how
love can't be-

BD: And what's that supposed to be, a probability integral? This is the least mathematically viable piece of clothing I've ever seen.

SS: Christ, Dave, you need one of these t-shirts more than I do.

I love my job.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Funny 'Cos It's True

I've been idly wondering for a while whether there will be a parallel between the way the Conservatives reacted to the '97 Labour Landslide and the manner in which the GOP will respond to their now almost inevitable defeat at the start of November. It seemed that anyone with any real brains realised that a moderate centrist was the only viable choice this time around, but there are a great number of conservatives convinced that they should have chosen someone less wishy-washy. It's the usual refusal to accept any given evidence could possibly count against conservatism as an idea. Bush was a bad president because he was too neo-conservative, McCain is losing because he isn't neo-con enough. It's at least possible, and I would say likely, that these elements of the Republican base will make it horribly difficult for another moderate candidate to get anywhere in the primaries (and let's not forget that McCain was a moderate candidate, although at this point he'd promise to blow up the planet if he found out the Martians wanted it and had 270 electoral votes in their pocket-equivalents), and that until the Republican's allow their brand to become more moderate, the voters won't touch them.

I'll admit that it isn't beyond the possibility that another Bush would get traction, because of the nature of American politics. Even so, we potentially stand on the brink of a situation similar to that suffered by the Tories for eight or so years, with the hardliners repeatedly nixing any attempt at large-scale change and leaving Hague, Duncan-Smith and Howard all bleating on about small changes to reflect current events, whilst Labour kept pointing out that the Tories used to be all kinds of shit and haven't bothered altering that fact. It's been obvious for years that they needed their own version of Tony Blair, and in Cameron they finally sort of have it (I say "sort of" for a number of reasons, but mainly because nothing he has done since taking control gives me any confidence that he isn't still bound to the hardliners, and just better at hiding it than Howard et al).

Turns out Kevin Drum is thinking along similar lines:
...[T]he GOP is going to be riven by factional warfare for years, with moderates unable to get a purchase on the party apparatus because of the McCain albatross hanging around their necks. Eventually, like Britain's Labor Party in the 80s, they'll find their Tony Blair, but in the meantime they're likely to double down on the most strident possible social conservatism, convinced that the heartland will respond if only they regain the true faith. Ronald Reagan, who was more pragmatic about these things than any of them ever give him credit for, will be rolling in his grave. And Democrats, at least for a while, will go from strength to strength.

I'm not sure that I'd have chosen Labour as my analogy, but I don't really remember that period too well, and it's entirely possible that Labour were as divided between change and stasis, and I just didn't notice. Regardless, it makes far more sense (especially on an American blog) to name-check Blair rather than Cameron, so I guess it doesn't really make that much difference.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

None More Black

Warning: the following post contains a discussion of potential implicit racism in a tabletop war-game. If that isn't for you (and let's be honest, who could blame you), then I'd recommend tuning back in tomorrow, when hopefully I'll be spouting off about a more relevant issue.

For the rest of you, let me tell you a story.

Subbuteo is rubbish. It always has been rubbish, and it always will be rubbish, unless at some point the game is tweaked to allow tanks, air-strikes, or possibly a referee with a flamethrower. Part of its crapness can be accounted for by the fact that football itself is a feeble excuse for an activity, both dull on its own merits and responsible for the idolising of any number of selfish unthinking thugs whose complete inability to live within the confines of society is tolerated as long as they can kick something at a net with more accuracy than most. This is not to say all footballers are scum, just that the ones that are should be more clearly labelled. Possibly with gravestones.

In addition, the game mechanics of Subbuteo are pretty poor, sort of a cross between marbles and tiddlywinks, only at, like, seven thousand times the cost (give me Blood Bowl any day, at least that way vampires can get in on the action). The only time this wretched pastime has been of any interest in the entire history of its miserable, static-generating existence was when at some point during the early nineties someone accused it of being racist.

The argument was pretty simple; every single player was white, even in teams which were entirely black in the real world. Hasbro's defence, if memory served, was simple economics; cheaper to buy pink paint in bulk. Whatever the outcome of that particular spat, these days Subbuteo is a veritable explosion of ethnicity, so everyone got to live happily ever after.

My point in all this? Sometimes people offend by omission in the strangest ways. Also, painting is a serious business.

Let's talk about something else. One of the most interesting aspects of stories set in the future, to me at least, is how they deal with the question of race. Whatever criticisms you can level at the second two Matrix films (and God knows, there are plenty of options), I really liked the fact that every natural born human was some shade of brown. It made sense to me that decades of interbreeding between the only 250,000 humans left free would leave my pasty Caucasian complexion several rungs behind on the evolutionary ladder [1]. Peter F. Hamilton's Night's Dawn trilogy imagined an interstellar human civilisation in which most planets boast populations almost entirely made up from people of one former Earth country. Simmon's Hyperion Cantos (yes, back to that again) works along similar lines, the idea being (though this is much more explicit with Hamilton) that with all the other things a colonial population will have to deal with on an unknown and potentially hostile world, it doesn't make a lot of sense adding ethnic strife to the pot as well.

Warhammer 40,000 (hooray! I approach my point) has a similar idea for different reasons. At least, probably for different reasons. By the 41st Millenium so much history has been lost that it's anyone's guess as to how the first colonies were put together, but certainly the march of the centuries has led to increasing homogeneity across the population of each human world. Which is all fine and dandy, in theory, but in practice it seems like every planet in the Imperium is crammed full of white boys. Cadia, Catachan, Mordian, Armageddon, the survivors of Caliban, not one of them looks like they can dance worth a damn. The Blood Angels have names that invoke Italy, the Crimson Fists (arguably) a Hispanic culture, on and on and on. A certain amount of effort went into using the Mongols as templates for the Attilans and the White Scars, in that they have long hair and/or silly hats (plus they ride about the place, how ironic), but in general, it's all so depressingly monochrome, Subbuteo mixed with Aliens.

The only real evidence that the galaxy wasn't colonised entirely by the Klan used to be the brothers of the Salamander Space Marines (see here, for example). OK, so they had an odd habit of dyeing their hair blonde, which made them look upsettingly like Wesley Snipes in Demolition Man, but still, they were unrepentantly non-Caucasian, and the universe was the more interesting for it.

So what do Games Workshop do? They take the only ethnic variant population in the whole damn galaxy and they mutate them the fuck up. No longer are they the latest generation of the original tribes of humanity, now they all have jet black skin and shiny red eyes. These days, apparently, you're either white or you're a grotesque deviant. It doesn't even make any sense, frankly. The 40K universe is renowned for the fact that an army's name and symbolism reflects their nature as well. The Space Wolves are Viking-like and unruly (and occasionally werewolves, or something), the Blood Angels are violent vampires, the Dark Angels are taciturn and brooding, etc. What's with this, though? Is it really just that the Salamanders are big fans of flame weapons (that, at least, makes sense) and flame, like, makes things black? They're supposed to look like they've been hit with their own weapons? That's like having an army of chainsaw wielding lunatics who are all missing limbs. Or is it just that they come from a moon that is always dark, and black is really, really dark?

It annoys me, is all I'm saying.

[1] One thing that always got me about The Matrix was that your residual self-image more or less looks like you. But then if you look like your parents in the Matrix, then the only possible explanation is that the machines have robots whose job it is to ensure that the right semen gets to the right pod. "What do you mean Stan and Sarah Elliot just got it on? They're eight thousand miles apart out in the fucking Real! I have sixty-three other copulating couples to get through tonight!".

I don't want that guy's job.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Thanks For The Memories (I'm Too Tired For Originality Today)

So the Guardian has up a thread on songs about memory. Specifically the nature of memory, and the tricks it plays, rather than "Remember that time I screwed that chick? That was awesome!", which I would guess invalidates about 98% of songs which deal with the topic.

Rather than join in the debate over there (which by this point is probably an argument about Muslim immigrants anyway) I thought I'd slap together my top five memory-related songs and display them here.

1. Avalanche - Ryan Adams

In which our alt-country hero finds a picture of a former girlfriend and realises that he can't actually recall who she is. "I can't remember you, remember us, or anything." He's built up so many memories over the years that they've begun to obscure one another, or run together. "She comes apart in the avalanche/ Fades out like a dance". It's a rather depressing reminder that even the people we think are most important to us right now sometimes just fade away given enough time apart.

2. Pictures of You - The Cure

"I've been looking so long at these pictures of you/ That I almost believe that they're real/ I've been living so long with these pictures of you/ That I almost believe that the pictures are all I can feel." At what point have you stopped loving someone, and have just started loving the memory of when you did?

3. My Selective Memory - The Eels

No video for this one, which is a shame as it's a beautiful song (anyone who's heard Fresh Feeling off of the Scrubs soundtrack will already know the string part, E has never been above a spot of "self-sampling"). It's also ridiculously depressing. When the singer sleeps, he has a vision of himself as a baby in the park, whilst someone (perhaps his mother, perhaps his sister) is next to him in a polka-dot dress. She leans in and whispers something in his ear, something that to this day he is sure is "Everything I need to hear". Every time he wakes, though, he can no longer remember what it was. "I wish I could remember/ But my selective memory won't let me." It's the use of the word selective that gets me. Is his memory deliberately hiding what was said? Why? Because it's bound to be a disappointment? Because it might make things worse? Or is his brain just perversely conspiring against him in the way they so often seem to?

4. Hard Candy - Counting Crows

A song about the benefits and perils of memory. On the one hand, whenever the character in the song is dissatisfied, he can reach into his mind and pull out memories of one extraordinary woman he once knew. He can't be sure of the specifics anymore, but that isn't really important anymore. On the other hand, whilst he sleeps he visits his dead mother, only to find that those memories are fading, and with it the comfort they used to bring.

Of course, whilst the specific images may not last forever, the combined effect still lasts, which is why waking in the morning with the sun shining on your face still makes him feel content. His emotional responses still carry memories that his brain has begun to let slip away.

Also, I should note that the album version of this song is somewhat less mental.

5. Chelsea Hotel #2 - Leonard Cohen

I may be cheating a little here, since this is a little closer to a threnody for the departed than a true discussion of memory, but it's my blog and I make the rules. Also, this is probably one of Cohen's best songs, which is really saying something. I guess I can sneak it in on the grounds that Cohen goes into incredible detail about this one memory, the conversation, the location, the (ahem) fellatio, works it all into his usual poetry about the nature of things, and then confesses at the the end that that's really all he remembers about their time together, on the rare occasions that he thinks about it at all. I like the idea that people tend to some up their entire past relationships with just one or two of the most beautiful memories, whilst all the more more mundane or even unpleasant surroundings fade into the distance.

Anyway, those are my picks. Any other suggestions?