As I was watching John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China recently, I was struck by the familiarity of the material. I felt I had seen it before, but in some other context. Confined, mazelike, and windowless environments; various tricks and traps the heroes must overcome; goons, monsters, and the bosses that control them, etc. And there it is. Big Trouble in Little China plays like a videogame. Considering it was released in 1986, before videogames became complex enough to compare, does that mean John Carpenter was breaking new ground, that Big Trouble in Little China is ahead of its time? No. It just reaffirms that the pacing and storytelling of today’s videogames are derivative of cinema. There are plenty of other films from around the same time that are akin to videogames (Aliens, Commando, and Total Recall all come immediately to mind, among many others). Continue reading “The Empty Balcony: Big Trouble in Little China”
Blame the undecideds. Blame the dunderheads who, after the longest presidential election in history is nearing its close, still can’t figure out who they want to vote for. They are the reason we continue to suffer through such a disheartening election. All the nastiness, spin, and lies polluting American politics before November 4th is directed towards these people, in an effort to sway their loyalties one way or the other. The closer we get to the election, the greater the distortions. In effect, those of us who decided who to vote for long ago are at the mercy of those who are basing their choice on the desperate words and deeds of frantic candidates. Unbelievable. Continue reading “Oval Office Thunderdome: Had Enough Yet?”
Back before the great wave of gentrification began to hit American cities in the mid-1990s, there was the 1980s, an era when the distressed environment of the cities bottomed out. Long decades of neglect, strained local budgets, and rising crime left our cities veritable war zones. The inner cities were voids of hopelessness, abject poverty, and filth. Even affluent neighborhoods were just dangerous enough to breed well-heeled residents with canny street smarts, always looking over their shoulders for the dark figure hiding behind a tree or in an alley. This kind of palpable fear of urban environments is contagious, and it entered into our lore. We could envision no bright future for the American city because we had seen decay extend its grip for so long. Today’s cities have not fully recovered, and they remain always on the brink, ready to slide back as soon as people’s cares turn elsewhere, but it’s hard to picture just how bad things got unless one were a witness.
There are a few films here and there where our urban legacy is on full display. Wolfen had major scenes, some visually stunning, filmed among the devastation of the South Bronx. The classic film The French Connection was a study in browns — rust and dirt every bit as important a character as Popeye Doyle. Fort Apache, The Bronx was a caricature of the inner city, sometimes offensive, but it came from somewhere real. The Warriors has attained mythical status as New York’s ultimate cult film of the night, playing on our fears of a city gone out of control, at the mercy of costumed thugs. At times laughable, the film still wallowed in very real grit, a symptom of the disease that had befallen the city. Continue reading “The Empty Balcony: Escape from New York”
Last week saw a unique event in film. Four John Carpenter films landed in Brooklyn as part of a mini-retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). The featured films were Big Trouble in Little China, The Thing, They Live, and Escape from New York. All unique films from a unique filmmaker. B-movie schlock artist or perennially misunderstood genius, depending upon who’s doing the watching, Carpenter is a knowledgeable director who draws on his education, talents, and the best aspects of low-grade cinema to craft films that are unmistakably his. As soon as the opening credits roll, one enters Carpenter’s world. Viewer hears music (usually) from Carpenter’s own synthesizer, and the credits themselves are all the same white serif font on a black background, no matter which of his films is playing. Anamorphic lens effects and dark lighting cross among his works. Finally there is the thematic distrust of authority as a conceptual continuity throughout. All of this makes Carpenter’s films easily recognizable to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of his oeuvre. Continue reading “October Horrorshow, Retroactive: The Thing”
Much has been written and said the last few days regarding the Georgian crisis from an American perspective, including on this site. Political junkies are rapturous over this fresh event. Veterans of the Cold War have reached back into themselves beyond nostalgia, and have burst forth with condemnations, strangely reassured that world tensions have suddenly returned to a realm they know and understand, a place where America was unequivocal in its righteousness. The consensus from these groups, along with so many others, is that we are watching Russia once again act the part of shameless, ruthless aggressor, punishing Georgia beyond cause, possibly beyond any reasoning beyond that of bold, naked intimidation. From where we sit, here in the United States, the crisis in Georgia exists in black and white, with little nuance. Whereas so much damage has been wrought by such uncomplicated reasoning, here is a situation where the starkness of our perceptions and the starkness of reality are not that far apart. Continue reading “An Aggressive Russia”
Three incredible things happened Sunday night. One: the Russian military pursued a defeated foe out of South Ossetia, demanding the surrender of an army defending a democratic nation. Two: China began to pull away from the rest of the world in the gold medal count at the Olympics. Three: The United States was shown to be powerless to stop either of these things. Continue reading “Gold Medals and Lead Bullets”
Patrick O’Brian published twenty complete Aubrey-Maturin novels in his lifetime, with an unfinished twenty-first published posthumously. The novels are writ large with swashbuckling tales of life in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Thick with naval terminology and period slang, O’Brian is quite effective at transporting reader far away from what comfortable chambers they find themselves and placing them smack on the quarterdeck of a ship of war. O’Brian’s novels are far from high-minded and haughty literary endeavor. They succeed as great historical novels through the skill of O’Brian’s narratives, not the cleverness of his prose. Like a true saltwater-in-the-veins sailor, they lose direction slightly when characters find themselves on land for extended periods, but pages fly when O’Brian throws his characters into pitched battles with superior foes (as he always does — O’Brian treats his sailors savagely, always requiring them to beat tremendous odds). Continue reading “The Empty Balcony: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”
You don’t actually have to use a computer to understand how it shapes the country.
— Mark Soohoo, aide to John McCain
You actually do.
— Tracy Russo, Democratic blogger
The information revolution has left a mark on the country and the world every bit as indelible as that of the Industrial Revolution two centuries ago. And while no world leader of the time could have been expected to have an industrial-sized loom or steam engine in their offices, today’s leaders should have more than just a passing knowledge of computers and the internet. Continue reading “Oval Office Thunderdome: The Technology Vote”
Pundits and scholars made bold predictions in the early ’90’s concerning the new World Wide Web’s ability to disseminate information to the masses, and while they all underestimated what the internet would become, there rose a clamor over the information itself. Good versus bad. Culture versus trash. News versus punditry. We all know which side is winning the battle for hearts and minds. This vast repository we have created for information also has an appetite of its own, craving volume to eternally build the noise to some crescendo that, at this point, remains in the far distance. Along with the opposing sides of quality and worth, there exists the obscure — information that would have been lost to time and degrading videotapes were it not for digitization. Look in any video section on any random humor website, and they are there, somewhere: excerpts from foreign, low-budget schlock cinema that has little regard for cinematic excellence or American trademark law. These inept productions laughably maul such cherished personas of pop Americana as Superman, or blatantly insert footage from Star Wars to beef up otherwise weak productions. Never meant to have much life, these turkeys were turned out for quick cash, and were it not for the great information void of the internet, would have remained in obscurity, instead of rising to the slightly more respectable level of kitsch. Continue reading “Film in the Tubes: The Italian Spiderman Movie”
Excessive weather must be experienced firsthand to understand the true abstractness of the phenomena. Using words to describe the urgency of such moments is difficult, especially in conveying the thin line our psyches walk, knowing that bad decisions, or merely being unprepared, could lead to disaster. What we call normal becomes so through repetition, and does not just encompass things we do, places we see, people we meet, etc. It’s also the environment in which we live. Quick shifts that push the boundaries of our experiences with that environment can leave a person stunned, if only momentarily. Continue reading “Bright Light, Big Valley”