Friday, September 19, 2014

Garbage is good

I remember when In The Mouth of Madness was playing at the local Super Saver Cinema. Early on in the movie there's a scene in which someone is dismembered with an axe. The most you see is the axe rising high above the victim, arcs of red-colored corn syrup slinging with every motion. A couple who were dressed as if they had just came from church stood and shouted, "This is garbage!"

How did they not know what they were in for? What did they expect from such a title? What did they expect from a poster which depicted a tortured face being stretched into a hellishly colored book? I'm pretty sure an axe murderer was front and center in all the TV spots, too. If the film had presented itself as the heartwarming tale of a lumberjack I would have shared some of their concern. But it hadn't. It was back when movies brought what they advertised. That movie gave us, particularly the young Fangoria readership, exactly what we were expecting. I sometimes think these people bought their tickets with the expectation to make a soap box out of the ordeal. Maybe they even asked for a refund after they had done what they came to do.


The problem isn't that the film wasn't those people's cup of tea. That's okay. Really. The problem was A) they couldn't keep their mouths shut in a fucking movie theater and B) "This is garbage" isn't really an opinion, it's just what attention seekers who have made a profession out of being "offended" like to say. 

I take criticism pretty seriously. Even a bad movie—especially a bad movie—can be a flowing font of conversation. I can write about something I disliked as much as something I liked. I can talk for hours about why this worked or why that didn't work in both good and bad movies. I feel like I grow in the process not just as a creative type, but as a person. I would much rather have these conversations with someone whose opinion differs, provided they're capable of intelligently vocalizing their opinion, because then you really learn something about yourself (or the person you're having the conversation with) and sometimes see things in an entirely different way.
This is all to say I shudder whenever I hear the usual complaint: "It was stupid." The italics indicate an obnoxious Valley Girl tone and it's aimed at the kind of person who's capable of buying a ticket and sitting through an entire movie with their eyes glued to the screen of a cellphone. If everything you have to say on any given subject can be communicated within the character limit of a Tweet, you have nothing to say in the first place. These are the people whose mantra is "that's just my opinion," as if that excuses them for being an uninteresting person and running their mouths anyway.

John Waters calls it filth... lovingly of course

"It was stupid" is the equivalent of plugging your ears and sticking out your tongue when a concerned supervisor constructively criticizes your work performance. "It was stupid" is a stupid criticism, for stupid people, even when it's used to dismiss the most stupid of movies. And that's exactly what the phrase is used for: to dismiss rather than engage. The kind of person who can go to a movie, no matter what that movie is, and sit there for two hours absolutely unengaged is the kind of person who needs an actual lobotomy in addition to their voluntary one.

Calling something garbage, too, is just as lazy. More so than the other discussed three-word-review, it carries the intent to dismiss the portion of the audience who likes that kind of stuff. "This is garbage" is meant to signify you're above this kind of material and anyone who doesn't agree is a lesser person and that's final. It's as superficial as speaking posh the second you hit two numbers on the Powerball.

what a wonderfully ambitious grade of garbage

The phrase does have the unintended effect of sending me running to get whatever the hell it is that's being called garbage, which includes everything from Troma films to The Human Centipede 2. When that couple walked out of In the Mouth of Madness, I discovered early on in life that I love the kind of stuff the easily offended call garbage. The expression pig in the mud works on more levels than one. Yes, I am a pig and yes, I love to flop around in said mud. At least I don't talk in movie theaters.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Rocky Point: a flash story

I submitted the following story to a couple of flash markets several years ago, but came up dry. Since then I completely forgot about it. I'm nothing if not a terrible record-keeper.

Rocky Point is a real place. The geography I wrote about is accurate.

Rocky Point
a short story by Grant Gougler

When the military blew the dam it flooded a lot of the communities around the lake. Rocky Point was one of the luckier ones, I guess, because the single road leading into it was flooded, but the rest of it remained high and dry.

Whenever I run out of food, I anchor my houseboat twenty yards from the shore and swim in. Each time I’m pleased to find Tommy's Grocery—part convenience store, part bait shop—hasn’t been completely looted yet. Most of the people who lived in the community were evacuated. Those who weren’t aren’t exactly interested in Doritos and corn flakes anymore.

Tommy is still lurking in the back of the store. He grunts and growls through the tiny window in the employees-only door, but I shoved a big display of soda cans in front of the door so he can make all the fuss he wants, he’s not gonna get me.

I stock up mostly on meats and vegetables, in order of the stuff that’s got the shortest shelf life. The next time I come in I’ll probably have to start taking the packaged stuff exclusively. The meats in the deli case are beginning to develop a rainbow-colored sheen that worries me. The box of potatoes are growing appendages. Typically I’m starving to death by the time I work up the courage to go back to land. But the second I step foot into the store the smell of dead worms and minnows turns me off of eating food for a few hours. I’m beginning to smell Tommy, too. Fortunately, I’m used to the smell of human rot.

I load my take into a picnic basket which I float back to the boat on a lifesaver. I’m always chilled when I get out of the water. Instead of toweling off, I go inside and wrap myself up in the bed. This time I take a nap. When I wake up I crack open a warm beer and smoke a cigarette for the first time in my life. I don’t like the taste of the cigarette, can’t imagine anyone could, but I plan to smoke the rest of the pack later. I watch the sun set and then I pull anchor. I drive on to the floating gas station in Taylor Ferry and fill up my tanks. No telling how much gas is left in the pumps, so I stock up on all I can carry.

Funny thing about the electricity. It’s occurred to me more than once that someone must be at the power station, making sure the grid doesn’t go down. But never has it occurred to me to seek him out, not until now. I know where the power station is—it’s that solitary light out there on that cliff. Squint and you can probably see it if the diminishing sliver of sunlight doesn’t get in your eyes. I’m still thinking about introducing myself to whoever’s out there, even as I drive farther away from it. It’s a nice thought, but he doesn’t want to meet me and I don’t want to meet him. It’s going to be a while before people can trust each other again, even the living ones.

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Monday, September 8, 2014

Cosmic Megastructures @ Popular Mechanics

I love cosmic megastructures or, as some call them: big dumb objects. Larry Niven's Ringworld and The Ringworld Engineers are two of my favorite examples of the genre (I regretfully never got through the third book in the series, as the quality took an inexplicable nosedive). The first time I ever played Halo, I did an awful lot of sight-seeing in between battles—the scale of that original game was like nothing we had ever seen.

my copy of Ringworld

Right now, Popular Mechanics is running a series on these kinds of big science fiction ideas. These articles serve more as primers than in-depth analyses, but it's still a decent batch of reading material. Here's a list of the ones I've checked out so far:
There might be others, so keep an eye out for them. In the meantime, here's a picture of Niven's Puppeteers, who initially seem to be a cowardly race of aliens, but they turn out to be one of science fiction's most interesting creations:

I see Barlowe's Guide at second hand stores all the time, but it's worth the price for a new copy.

* * *

On an unrelated note, I don't read fantasy nearly as much as I read science fiction, but David Gemmell's Legend is kicking all kinds of ass for me. It's a light read that's half about the circumstances leading up to the inevitable castle siege, and half about the siege itself. Fun, fast-paced, and gloriously violent. I also have a soft spot for aging warriors, especially if they have a reputation to live up to, and the main character Druss is certainly that. Considering his age and physical flaws in this novel, I'm not sure how Gemmell went on to write more books with the character, not if they're as action-packed as this.

Which reminds me: we need more fun books. I've been reading so much dour shit lately I can't see straight. I liked Accelerando as much as anyone, but singularity fiction is getting capital-B Boring, much like the devout transhumanists who consistently barge into serious threads on futurism forums and bark about how the A.I. revolution is upon us. No, the technological singularity is not a given. If it does happen, what we've speculated so far is going to be as innaccurate as the Jetsons' view of the future. More importantly, stories set in the future don't have to be about the singularity, nor do they even need to mention why it did not occur.

For fuck's sake, I just want to see humans cruising around the galaxy in rocket ships again. Throw in some sword fights and pirates just for the hell of it. Too much to ask for?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Adam Savage empties his pockets on Tested

When I sit down with a sandwich and feel like watching TV while I eat, I tend to turn it to the Tested channel on YouTube before anything else. In this video, Adam Savage shows us what's in his pockets. And even that's interesting despite the fact that, most of the time, I don't even care what's in my own pockets. I must say I was surprised to find he doesn't carry a Leatherman, especially having seen him build a custom case for one in this video.

I think I've figured out the appeal to Savage's appearances on the channel. The Mythbuster is obsessed with objects and the stories behind them. Naturally, that enthusiasm translates to the viewers. For people who work with their hands, he's like the male version of Martha Stewart. Hear him talk about the subject during a TED talk:

Friday, August 22, 2014

Zardoz: The gun is good. The penis is evil.

I'm accused of liking bad movies, but this isn't true. Last night I tried watching Ice Pirates for the first time in two decades and just couldn't get past the scene in the castration factory. That's a bad movie. What makes Ice Pirates bad and the eighties version of Flash Gordon good is simple to define: one's a Star Wars cash-in which tries too hard to be funny and the other is a genuine love letter to its source material. Can you imagine a Flash Gordon reboot today? I'm guessing it'd have dubstep and loads of unnecessary CGI. Zardoz is in the same camp as Flash Gordon. Casual moviegoers may snicker, but then again casual moviegoers are the reason Katherine Heigl still has a career.

The 70s was the absolute best era for movies. Filmmakers were consistently dragging their cameras out of the studios and onto real locations. Realistic portrayals (and consequences) of sex and violence emerged. Movies were made for adults rather than teenagers. Not only that, but the film stock itself just looked better than it does today—it's the difference between a painting on canvas and a painting on copy paper. I want film grain back, damn it.

"Big budget" back then meant maybe a million or two million dollars. Filmmakers had to get creative with problems rather than simply throw money at them. This is the decade that gave us The French Connection, A Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Godfather, The Deer Hunter, Rocky... are you beginning to see why it's my favorite era of film? Woody Allen was in his prime, Scorsese was at his most visceral, and Richard Donner gave us the definitive, most enjoyable film version of Superman.

Director John Boorman was right at home in the era. Hell, he still makes movies reminiscent of the 70s style. I immediately think of two movies whenever I hear Boorman's name: Deliverance and Zardoz. He's made other kick-ass films that I admire very much, but Deliverance is the one I think about every time I go on a float trip and Zardoz is the one I like a little more every time I see it.

Zardoz is pulp fiction at its finest. It's 2001: A Space Odyssey if directed by Fellini. It's colorful, ambitious, blasphemous, and equal parts pessimistic and optimistic. Speaking of Kubrick's 2001, cameraman Geoffrey Unsworth turns in cinematography here that could've, no should've, won an Oscar. Besides all that, where else are you going to see a movie star of Sean Connery's stature in a red diaper and knee-high boots? (Before Connery signed on, the role was supposed to be played by Burt Reynolds, but he got sick.)

The only problem with Zardoz? A lot of people didn't get it. This is painfully obvious in the scene tacked on to the very the beginning of the film, which basically has a principle character explain to the audience what they're about to see in a showy, William Castle-esque intro. Boorman admits they added it in an attempt to clear the confusion after initial audiences scratched their heads. He also admits the scene "didn't work."

The year is 2293. Sean Connery plays Zed who's part of a post-apocalyptic group of barbarians who worship a floating head statue called Zardoz. Zardoz shows up from time to time and commands Zed's group to rape and kill the peasants who live on the countryside. The god even supplies the weapons and ammunition in exchange for sacrifices. This goes on for several decades until, one day, Zardoz commands them to start agriculture. The Brutals begin to question their god, so Zed smuggles himself aboard the floating head to get answers. He then finds himself within The Vortex, a domed city where the Immortals live.

Then things get weird. Well, weirder. The Immortals don't like life so much. It turns out that after you've lived for an inhuman amount of time, life gets rather boring. As their advanced machines have eliminated the need—and subsequently the desire—for sex, one can easily see why they're so bored. Most of them are thrilled to find Zed has infiltrated their compound. It's the only exciting thing that's happened in ages. At one point the more academic of Immortals decide to test exactly what kind of stimuli gives Zed an erection. The scene is nothing short of hilarious.

Immortals, by the way, don't have policemen or prisons. Criminals are aged by way of telepathy, and repeat offenders end up in a the senile home. Which reminds me: this is some of the best aging effects I've ever seen in movies. I've seen movies with a thousand times the budget that couldn't age an actor worth a damn. Zardoz, which cost less than two million to produce, manages to age half a man's face more convincingly than most films.

To explain the plot any further, which doesn't unfold sequentially, would be ruining a good deal of the fun. It's a hell of an entertaining picture, one that John Boorman felt that he had to make. The result is apparent. Maybe the people who made it weren't stoned out of their minds, but it sure makes the audience feel as if they are.

In the last month, I've rewatched both Logan's Run and The Omega Man, but Zardoz sits high above them. It's not so bad it's good, it really is good. Silly? Sort of. But isn't the future already looking a bit silly in real life, too? Boorman's vision of the future is no less legitimate than any other we've ever seen. Who says everyone won't be wearing colorful towels on their heads while speaking telepathically? It's better than trying to have a conversation with someone whose face is glued to a phone screen.