Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Important Lifestyle Advice

We live in a time of rapid and incredible progress, one in which we have more lifestyle options than ever before. As more and more people choose make their career or their personal interests the focus of their lives, the impulse to bring new life into the world, which for so much of human history has been paramount, has come to seem less and less pressing. I believe it's important to respect the choices made by the individual, especially on this important subject, and I acknowledge that everyone is different; nevertheless, I believe that a lot of people simply don't understand the bone-deep, fundamental joys of being impregnated by the millipedal spawn of Chitha'arkis the Devourer.

This has become a bone of contention in some ways, as those who flee the oviraptorous drones that throng the sky each lunar cycle often feel pressured by those of us who have chosen to offer up our orifices for the gestation of the insectile multitudes. I don't mean to judge anyone on this point; many believe it is their sacred duty to surrender their flesh to All-Consuming Chitha'arkis, that his offspring may cover the globe in a squirming carpet from pole to pole. I don't feel this way. Like many of my generation, I looked at those who had come before me, watched as one by one they had eggs deposited in their abdominal cavity by the chittering nightmares, and thought, that's never going to be me. I had a successful career and a loving girlfriend who felt the same way. I was young, I had lots of disposable income, and I loved the freedom of being able to drink all night, or drop everything and head out on a vacation at a moment's notice. Indeed, I didn't see any advantage whatsoever in becoming a sessile, bloated host for the multi-legged larvae of The Devourer.

Then me and Terri got careless, getting drunk and staying out too late in an Infestation Zone, and the next thing you know we're filled with eggs. Don't misunderstand me: becoming a host is not easy. You bloat up to three times your original size, your skin stretches, your veins pop, and you're permanently enmeshed in a cocoon of mucus. As a result you tend to lose touch with your friends, you stop being able to keep up with the latest pop culture, you're fed intravenously through the umbilical tendrils of the division brood-mother. There are a lot of sacrifices, and your life basically ends up revolving around the clutch of monsters gestating within you.

But the rewards are worth a thousand times the hardships. I never thought I could feel as fulfilled on a psychological--even spiritual--level as I did the first time the eggs hatched and I first felt the pitter-patter of tiny tarsomeres within me. To know that your body is providing sustenance for another being, that you're part of an ancient circle of life that was old when our sun was young...well, I know it's a cliché, but it's really the kind of fulfillment you just can't put into words. Mostly, though, it's the way the pleasure centers of your brain are stimulated by the chemicals released by the ever-growing larvae. That's what makes it all worthwhile.

Look, I know you've probably heard this before, from a lot of confirmed non-gestaters who have suddenly discovered the delights of Chitha'arkis and can't shut up about it. Like I say, I used to be one of those people. But there's a reason why, once they've gotten a little older and been dragged off screaming to the breeding hives, so many people come around to being willing hosts for the Devourer's endlessly churning brood. You just wake up one day, you've grown up, your outlook has changed, and you realize that the reason for your species' entire existence is to provide biological material for the enslaving armies of the Predecessors, who will be here long after our planet has been hollowed out and its rind cast into the sun.

Besides, if you hold out on the breeding thing, you're going to be eaten anyway by Chitha'arkis's exponentially multiplying hordes. Embrace your doom, and you'll be a better person for it. I know I am.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Fourth World Fridays: Mister Miracle #7--"The Apokolips Trap!!"


Partly because of the nature of the times, and partly due to the work itself, Kirby and Stan Lee’s comics started to garner a certain level of cachet with a more culturally discriminating crowd as the 60s wore on. College students and other cultural commentators began to focus their attention on Marvel’s superhero work, praising it for any number of reasons, and Lee was certainly happy to encourage them. This new gravitas they attributed to Kirby’s work seems to have made him more determined to lend depth and meaning to his comics, which is what helped spawn the Fourth World in the first place. Fortunately, Kirby never started taking himself so seriously that he forgot what had made people love his work in the first place; so when, for example, he started to incorporate literary references into his work, far from being pretentious, it was usually as delightfully insane and entertaining as anything else he did. (Well, OK, maybe it was a little pretentious.)

On the other hand, comics have been borrowing (and “borrowing”) from literature since they first began; The Hulk is just Dr. Jekyll crossed with Frankenstein’s monster, the Joker owes a huge debt to Victor Hugo’s “The Man Who Laughs”, and so on. So it didn’t have to be literary pretentions that inspired Kirby to use “Oliver Twist” as the basis for Mister Miracle, but that may be why Kirby felt the need to make the point more clearly in this and future installments, starting with a return to where Scott grew up: Granny Goodness’s Happiness Home on Apokolips.

On Apololips, an “Aero-carrier” discharges a load of frightened, miserable kids into the hands of a group of “Harassers”, who make it absolutely plain that the kids aren’t here on a field trip. “When the worms disembark, let ‘em know where they are!!” Bellows one meatheaded creep in unlovely close-up. “No Goddling!! No Faltering!!” screams another, though I’m kind of assuming he meant “coddling”. Proper spelling will not be tolerated on Apokolips!

The point is made ad nauseum over the course of four pages, as the Harassers sneer cruelly and begin marshalling their pathetic charges across the plain, beneath the ominous shadow of Darkseid’s statue, and into the waiting arms of Granny Goodness. No opportunity is spared to dole out a punitive whack, and of course there’s much talk of molding them from quaking little wussies into disciplined soldiers. Granny herself, of course, provides both the carrot and the stick, offering cooing, sarcastic words of encouragement to the kiddies right before encouraging her lieutenants to boot them in the behind. She spends a moment chatting with her right-hand man, Hoogin, who we learn was once much higher-ranked but has been busted down—seems he was the leader of a squadron that was home to a certain mister Scott Free, and accepted responsibility for his escape, hence his demotion. Nevertheless, he’s itching to get his hands on Scott once more, an opportunity Granny assures him he will soon have.

Meanwhile, back at Casa Del Free, we’re witnessing a tearful scene as Scott and Barda make plans to return to Apokolips, following up their decision of last issue. As usual for this series, the motivations are a little vague, but the idea seems to be that Scott’s prior escape was somehow bending the rules, whereas if he goes back and escapes again in full view of everyone, he’ll have earned his freedom under these Apokoliptian codes of conduct we keep hearing about, and they’ll have to leave him alone. Or something. Look, don’t ask me—I think that being able to escape from an incredibly hostile and well-guarded fortress-planet in another dimension ought to count as an achievement no matter the circumstances under which it’s done. But apparently Scott, and for that matter Darkseid, don’t see it that way.

Oberon is, predictably, giving Scott a hard time about this decision. “Don’t fill this room with sentimental slop!” sneers Barda. “Just say good-bye—and blow!!” There follows one of those scenes you always get in buddy movies, where the two characters are insulting each other to mask the fact that they really care about each other. It ends with Obie and Barda hugging while Obie calls her a “loudmouthed, military, man-killing harpy” and Barda stutters, “Oh, shut-up!-- or I’ll—I’ll—" 

Anyway, Barda and Scott whisk themselves away to Grayborders, while Oberon suffers a last-minute attack of nerves or something and goes running into the room, screaming at them not to go, as they fade from view. “Oberon eyes the wisp of vapor where his friends have been! --And knows that he’s truly--alone!” Yeah, laying it on a bit thick there, aren’t you, Kirby?

I mentioned “Grayborders”, the region of Apokolips to which the pair are headed—but it’s not the same area in which the Orphanage is located—that would be “Night-Time”. I think the idea is that part of Apokolips is constantly in daylight and part in shadow—presumably, the part that faces New Genesis is the “light” area. Though obviously that would make for a pretty inhospitable environment. More inhospitable than it already is, I mean.

Anyway, Barda has taken them to the border instead of the actual Orphanage region because…wait, why?


Oh, it’s because Barda is insane.

Seriously, she literally materializes them right under a patrol. I guess she couldn’t control that part of it, but she was literally cackling about “fighting their way” to the orphanage as they faded out, and when the patrol orders them to stay put, she starts barking at them that she wants to commandeer their vehicle. “You recognize an officer’s uniform—don’t you?” she bellows. Given that the Female Furies don’t seem to wear anything resembling a consistent uniform, this seems more than a little like picking a fight. Which it is. Barda brings a column down on the hapless patrolmen (Shouting “Run a check on this, you clod!!!”) to which Scott calmly replies, “Well—as they say—in the standard cliché—the fat’s in the fire!!” “Sure! I like it that way!!” responds Barda, and proceeds to hijack a car and ride it into downtown Apokalips. It’s like Grand Theft Auto: Apokolips Edition.

As the two of them blast down the “Long-Shadow” road to Night-Time, their car is suddenly brought to a grinding halt by a saboteur’s blast, and it is here that Scott meets his latest opponent: Kanto the Weapon-Master.

Despite looking like a guy who the Renfest nerds beat up, Kanto’s able to overcome Barda with her own Mega-Rod, prompting Scott’s surrender. And if you guessed that he’s about to put him in an elaborate deathtrap from which Scott will escape using some heretofore-unseen gadget, give yourself a gold star!

In this case, the trap is strapping Scott into a metronome that moves back and forth against a target, while Kanto’s men take shots at him.

The escape involves, literally, deploying an airbag. No, I’m not kidding.

Geez, I could laugh death in the face too, if I had a giant inflatable cocoon that I could deploy every time things looked hot. To hell with it, I could use something like that anyway. “Hey, Adam, did you finish that TPS report?” WHOMP! “Damn, I thought I saw him in here, but the room is empty except for a gigantic cocoon of some sort.”

Scott traps Kanto in another cocoon, while leaping free of his own, but is quickly ensnared by Kanto’s men again (prompting the hilarious “horseplay” line at the top of this post). They rope his boot and start dragging him around in an Aero-cycle, but Scott escapes by—no, not unwinding the cable from his leg, but by sending an electrical charge from his shoe up the wire to the vehicle, causing it to explode. Hey, here’s an idea, Kanto: take Scott’s damn boots off. Then we’ll see who’s mister fancy-pants escapist.

After all that, Kanto just hauls Scott up and points Barda’s Mega-Rod at him point blank…but Scott’s able to talk his way out of it, mostly because Kanto’s grown bored with trying to kill him, and because Scott knows how to pour on the flattery. Kanto laughs and lets them proceed onwards to the Orphanage, where Scott has a really anticlimactic encounter with Hoogin, basically marching up and demanding that he challenge Granny to trial by combat. Granny orders Scott sent out to “Section Zero” to face one of Kirby’s most bizarre creations: The Lump.

So now I’m wondering why Oliver Twist didn’t end with the hero battling a glob of pink protoplasm in a mental arena. To hell with literary references, Kirby outdid the classics.

Thursday, January 15, 2015


                When we call something “Cronenbergian” we’re usually referring to body horror. But there’s another aesthetic I associate with Cronenberg, at least his early flicks: a fascination with the place where science, (or at least pseudo-science) and the fringey counterculture mindset intersect. We might call it “hippie science”, this image of New Age ideologies and crackpot fringe theories being taken seriously enough to merit study in well-funded, superficially respectable institutes. It had its heyday right when Cronenberg was first making a name for himself as a filmmaker, and it pops up repeatedly in most of his early work. I don’t know if there were ever actually private institutions devoted to studying “Psycho-plasmics” or Cathode Ray Missions for allowing homeless people access to media signals, but this kind of thing was everywhere in pop culture for a while; it’s actually become part of our collective memory of the era, typified most memorably in Lost’s Dharma initiative with its synth music-backed videos and straight-faced statements about the betterment of humanity. Despite the memorably era-specific coat of paint, though, it’s really just a front for our old pal Meddling In God’s Domain.
                The Arboria Institute of Beyond the Black Rainbow may as well be the Dharma Institute under another name. The movie even begins with a similarly trippy propaganda video filled with bold proclamations on the part of its founder, “Mercurio Arboria” (I’m guessing that’s not the name he was born with). Dr. Arboria (Scott Hylands) is, predictably enough, a pop science guru whose specialty is pharmaceuticals, and whose institute is devoted to the usual blather about how tripping balls will usher in the next phase of human consciousness. Back in the 60s he performed some radical experiments in chemistry on himself and his inner circle, including his wife and his protégé Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers). The result of this, or one of the results, was the birth of a child, Helena, who seems to have superhuman powers. I think Helena is Mercurio’s daughter, but to be honest it’s a little hard to tell what the hell is going on in the flashback to 1966 due to heavily blown-out, high-contrast cinematography.
                The rest of the movie, set in 1983, is less impenetrable visually but still somewhat opaque narratively; we eventually learn that Dr. Arboria is clinging to a grotesque parody of life somewhere in an inner chamber while Nyle runs the institute, a job that largely consists of studying and psycholanalyzing the imprisoned Helena (the strikingly elfin Eva Allen). Unfortunately, in the proud tradition of movie psychiatrists everywhere, Nyle’s kind of a dick…well, no, actually, “kind of a dick” is  putting it mildly, though we don’t understand how mildly until the movie’s most of the way to act three.
                Beyond The Black Rainbow is not for everyone. It’s way too languid and artsy for people who prefer mainstream thrills and chills, and while ultimately a horror film it’s not in a hurry to announce itself as such. Of course, the movie also makes no bones about being a head film, starting with the title, so hopefully anyone who stumbles across it on Netflix will enter into it with the proper expectation that it’s a sensory experience first and a narrative second. The lush colours and warbly ambient soundscape are carefully constructed to draw you in in a way few movies bother with these days; Kubrick is obviously a touchstone, as is Mario Bava. In terms of mise en scene, though, it leans more to pre-Star Wars 70s SF, hence my evoking Cronenberg earlier.
                What’s most intriguing about the movie to me, though, is how it uses the genre trappings of the era it’s examining to comment on it seemingly without even trying. The movie presents a SF re-enactment of the death of the hippie dream, Hunter S. Thompson’s high water mark embodied in the shift of pop culture tropes over two decades. Begun with earnest ambition to make a better world, the Arboria Institute has become a house of horrors, its gurus detached from humanity, the chemicals meant to enhance lives become a withering addiction. Even the movie’s structural veer from portentious thoughtfulness to slasher flick echoes this decline.
                Setting out deliberately to make a “cult film” is usually a bad idea in the same way that a movie intended as “Oscar bait” spells trouble; you can’t force people to feel a certain way about your film just by using certain signifiers. But while I won’t claim that you can’t sometimes see Black Rainbow trying to deliberately weird you out, director Panos Cosmatos clearly has something to say behind his posturing. It’s definitely notable that I found this movie worthwhile, even though it’s the kind of thing I usually find to be a slog.