Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Given the sheer amount of stories concocted by the human mind – the epic narratives and romantic fables drawing fiction curlicues over history – it’s no surprise that there may appear some overlap. Traits rapidly become shared. Fleeting ideas ascend to the level of principle, conventions to be adopted thenceforth. Through Deconstructing Harry we catch glimpses of Wild Strawberries. Sight of Stardust Memories gives way to 8 1/2. Such is natural: images reveal other images, words disclose other words. Influence is unavoidable – traces of the past remain inscribed upon even the best of culture born anew.

For criticism there is no easier method by which to offer commentary than to say such-and-such reminds one of something else: this film reeks of another, this novel’s a mere semblance of another, this painting appears similar to another. It allows for a common point of reference and works considerably to fill up the required word count.

Opening a review with opaque remarks on how references permeate the edifice of fiction is ominous for the object of criticism. To say Doomsday is a shallow collage of film references would be too simplistic but not untrue. Scenes progress as transparent tributes to preceding films. Plot points and stylistic devices are brandished with no attempt to mask their source. Granted, in interviews Neil Marshall speaks openly about the films Doomsday pays homage to. The usual clatter of Mad Max and Escape From New York are present, proudly erected audiovisual prayers offered to the cinema gods. There is intention and that’s fine, what the film can’t be accused of is trying to conceal its nature. All is on show, all is exposed, all is honesty driven across the filmic.

Where the painful castigation must begin however is at the point where we attempt to look beyond the references. What is beheld, alas, is of little substance, a mixture of the trite and the tired, the dull and the dry. It’s especially painful as Neil Marshall was proving himself to be one of Britain’s top young directors. Dog Soldiers was a buoyant debut, a fun slice of werewolf carnage in the Scottish highlands. It gave smiles to bloodlust and signified great works to come. The potential was brilliantly realised with his follow-up, The Descent. Claustrophobia and menace mingled superbly in this tale of a group of women trapped down a cave populated by vicious humanoid creatures. Perhaps the best film released that year, it was enough to make the words Neil Marshall a selling point in themselves. Whether Doomsday is a hiccup or the harbinger of creativity’s demise, we’ll have to wait and see.

The film is set in the near future. A virus has descended on Scotland, killing much of the populace. The country is sealed off, use of air space is prohibited and a wall runs along the border with England. Anyone trying to escape south is shot on sight, trigger-happy patrols line the border wall. A few years later, the virus breaks out in London. The government, impelled to take action in the face of mass panic, assemble a military team to go into Scotland where a number of survivors still roam Glasgow. Amongst these survivors is a scientist who apparently has the cure for the virus. The team, led by Rhona Mitra, must track down the scientist and acquire the cure. In the process, they discover legions of loutish survivors intent on murder and pillage. Will they combat the nasty people and successfully requisition the formula they desire?

Sadly I was too distracted by the endless parade of cinematic references gracing the screen to care about that. When Mitra and co stampede into Glasgow in armoured vehicles, the locals that ambush them might as well be Giger’s aliens, for the scene feels like a complete reproduction of the bit in Aliens where the marines arrive on LV-426. The Glaswegian locals, I presume, are also big fans of Mad Max 3 – their mincing around wouldn’t seem out of place next to Mel Gibson. The fortress city, the nest of danger that Glasgow has become, could be New York or LA, targets for one of Snake Plissken’s infiltrations; the immoral postures of the officials that send Mitra and co on their mission only go to reinforce the comparison. Films like these worked on the back of their grit, a dirty low-budget atmosphere that gave texture and nuance to the plot. Doomsday’s carefully crafted visual sheen lacks even the faintest ounce of grit; it fails where its antecedents succeeded.

Like I already remarked, references are inevitable hallmarks of cinema. The best directors don’t balk at the looming figure of influence, such impossible wishes are needless. But when surface is all there is, when all we have is a collection of references inserted sans content, then we’re left with a bland and disappointing film that can only argue its ‘watchability’ with silence. The concept of the infectious virus spreading and causing havoc has long drifted into cliché (cf. The Omega Man, 28 Days Later, Resident Evil, etc). Early shots of London look like and shots of a crowded bridge look like Children of MenCloverfield. John Carpenter-worship assumes a new low when the rioting of Glaswegian ne’er-do-wells sparks memories of Ghosts of Mars. This is not to say that the action sequences are not competently shot and choreographed, they are, but this is not enough. Where oh where has dynamic originality absconded to! Marshall seems to be asking “what if all my favourite flicks was set in Scotland, wouldn’t that be cool?” Well not even the shades of Mad Max meets Trainspotting can enable to me to answer yes to that.

Any characterisation is senselessly mauled from the off by the dire quality of the dialogue. Mitra, still clearly playing Lara Croft, is the stoic leader, a badass with a goal. But in ways similar to how Doomsday transposes gritty narrative tropes into a glossy visual feast, in turn heralding its failure, Mitra prompts disinterest and indifference, for she is not the terminator. Drab characters mumble awkward lines of dialogue throughout the film. Even Malcolm McDowell’s cheesy Shakespearian villain, who sits in his Scottish castle brooding, isn’t enough to salvage the film. (Thoughts on Sean Pertwee will remain unsaid.)

The polished visuals, as well as negating the very elements that made Assault on Precinct 13 and its ilk so great, frequently work make the film look like an advertisement. Fittingly perhaps, because adverts are also assemblages of images with no content, all signifiers with no signified. Airborne shots of Mitra ploughing through the Highland countryside in a sports car bear a likeness to an ad for Nissan or Hyundai. Again competent, but the mix of gritty plot and glistening cinematography does not work. No glorious amalgam, no interesting juxtaposition, it just does not work.

The final car chase sequence aspires to be fun, a throwback to the ethos of Dog Soldiers. Exaggerated vehicular madness, crashes, explosions, all run to the tune of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes”. The light-heartedness and the clear revelry in violence make the sequence enjoyable, but the straight-faced tedium that preceded it is not forgotten. It’s a shame that this is where Marshall has gone to, all we are left with is hope that his next venture will be an improvement. A task that shouldn’t be too difficult, for in Doomsday he has created the Underworld of virus movies.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Johnny 2.0 (Starring Jeff Fahey)

Coaxed gently out of its shell comes another film signed Jeff Fahey. Already the screams of hyperbole can be heard humming whimsy over the forgotten silence. The seconds sweep past bearing Fahey’s autograph, yawning into moments tailored to hold Fahey’s filmic image. His channels of cinematic hunger turned image are containers born to carry Fahey’s essence. Odourless and soundless, the vacuum has spilled into it coursing streams of artistry and erudition, malt froth bubbling insight, a wash of glistening texture.

From the kilns that mark his skin and drip through time on a carpet of wild blonde, films are given existence. The true, scientifically-verifiable nature of the process will never be fully known to us – Fahey discloses only through his art. The power of metaphor is the one tool we have to capture the process. To represent the genesis we must cast eyes into a lightless deep now alive in light, lit by blue flames that drive away the pitch past. The names differ upon each new notch pierced through the ether; this one calls itself Johnny 2.0.

It’s been said that snakes see in heat. Jeff Fahey sees in social commentary. His eye for topicality is clearly on show here and it bats admonitory lashes at both the few and the many. Never has Fahey had room for complacency – one time he met complacency for a drink but that was only because it promised him a part in a Stephen King miniseries. Complacency hangs not to Fahey, for it is the target for which he aims, one of the numberless targets that flee when the light of Fahey is turned on.

Fahey is Johnny Dalton, a scientist, who has perfected the technique of cloning. While celebrating the success of his research, industrial terrorists bust into his lab. They destroy equipment and set animals free, leaving the lab in flames. In the inevitable confrontation Fahey gets a whack on the head and is taken to receive medical treatment. Next thing, he wakes up twenty years thence. (The white walls are enough to know it’s the future – doubtless it won’t be until 2010 before some visionary finally invents those things.)

Fahey opens his eyes and meets the future. But it’s not Fahey, oh no, it’s a clone. His corporate paymasters have recreated him from the MRI scan he received after the knock on the head. So, poor Johnny Dalton died that night and it’s taken them two decades to complete his research and enable the cloning of a human being? Not quite. Dalton lived and continued his games with the double helix. The future not being too removed from the present, industrial terrorists are once again causing problems. They’ve kidnapped Fahey, leaving only one course of action for the company: build a new Fahey to find the old Fahey.

It’s an astoundingly brilliant scenario, one that’ll be appreciated by even those fools resistant to the charms of Fahey. Naysayers will crumble as the world of Johnny 2.0 flashes into view. A dystopia, swelling with Demolition Man jaggedness, where the nation state is no more, replaced by the corporations that run private police forces serving their needs, this is perfect terrain for Fahey the Second to find Fahey the First. Reluctance to the mission is soon dealt death as the sneaky money goons make it so Fahey cannot decline: a genetic defect in the clones means they die after a period of time, but Original Fahey has the solution to the problem. A race against time is what Cloned Fahey enters into, the motive foisted upon him unwillingly.

Best thing about this whole set up is Missing Fahey. Aged by many years, he wears a head of long silver hair with a beard similarly silver. His is the face of the hippy recluse, a character who should have starred in a Dennis Hopper film, who should have rode through America on the back of a Llama singing hymns to India. Fahey wore a hat in Ghost Rock, but his Johnny 2.0 guise, one of them, proves a new height in the field of Items that Fahey Wears on his Head. No amount of Stetsons can surpass the silver wizard hair that flows from atop Fahey’s skull.

In 1996, the first mammal was cloned. Her name was Dolly the Sheep. The news spread fast as media coverage was extensive. Discussion and debate raged, questions of ethics were raised, sheer curiosity mingled with uncertainty and hesitation. Fahey pondered this issue and then came out with Johnny 2.0 in 1998. Fahey’s conclusions, as suggested by the film, were that the power should not be in the hands of those bodies inclined to misuse it (big corporate powers), that lust for scientific exploration could potentially be supplanted by megalomaniacal urges for more power (and immortality), that clones should be the recipients of empathy (not gunfire), and that cloning should be a sacrosanct process functioning to assist the species (and not causing Fahey plot difficulties).

Fahey’s commenting eyes have winked words on technology and science in the past. The Lawnmower Man addressed virtual reality. Absolute Zero global warming. Scorpius Gigantus the manipulation of genetic materials. Fahey uses his art as implements with which to poke and prod the world, wealthy blue scrutinising the micro and the macro, the general and the particular. A vibrant web of meaning is created. Even his handle of choice provokes one into rumination: Dalton. The same Dalton who once graced the screen as James Bond? The Dalton of Licence to Kill, the finest film ever to emerge from the series? Perhaps. We don’t know. Fahey persists in always injecting some modicum of ambiguity into his work, just enough to stimulate our minds. Fahey’s grand matrix of commentary stretches far, one thing signifying another in an everlasting cluster of signification.

Johnny 2.0’s main gift to us is the multitude of Faheys. Two Faheys let loose to flame onscreen in dreamscapes turned real. The animosity of one Fahey towards another prompts a moment or two of Fighting Faheys. Fahey already fought his own limbs in Body Parts, but this is the first time he’s fought an entire self. It is truly as impressive as it sounds. And even after they form an uneasy truce, the tension between the two is enchanting. Fahey and his double – the double and his Fahey. The answerless question of autonomy is inscribed upon the fear of the double: am I the one or is it he? The singularity that defines the self is attacked by doubt in the dust of unsanctioned fragmentation. Bisected Fahey must make do with his own multiplicity, gain a new sense of identity and mourn his own lack of wizard locks.

Fahey’s journey in search of himself doesn’t consist of some lame Wild Strawberries-esque delving into the mind, a trip through memory and neuroses. Fahey has no time for that. His voyage of self-discovery has him set out to find his actual self, the man who has his face, his timbre of voice, his beaming blue, his mumbling lips of discourse – the man they call Jeff Fahey.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Night of the Lepus

Bugs Bunny has killed Elmer Fudd. Killed him dead. Wrenched the life from right out his body. Mauling and gnashing; an insatiable bloodlust tearing into pieces a Fudd shocked and dying. Teeth and claws wielded with vicious intent, ripping flesh from bone, the sound of screaming fading as the seconds tick past. It’s a nightmare vision belonging to a world where Chuck Jones, homicidal glint in his eyes, murders his friends and family. It’s a genre defying leap into the mad and the perplexing. Why would a Bugs Bunny, mischievous as he is, proceed down such a violent avenue? To whom are we supposed to grant the moral high ground if Bugs is to revel in the degeneracy of crimson reprisal? Where are we left and what tools do we hold to deal with the blackening void in our social soul?

Elmer Fudd was not killed by Bugs Bunny. But he could have been, given the pathways opened up by Night of the Lepus. Potential acts in the realm of the cartoon are disclosed by the film, selflessly brandishing myriad methods by which we can alter, mentally and physically, the images that mark our childhood. Corrupt forces perhaps, but dashes of colour to be added to nostalgic thoughts discoloured by time. The colour proffered by Night of the Lepus? A glowing red oozing in time with the dirge of Merzbow and the juddered acumen of Artaud. Let it shift the mind into new dimensions, kicking creativity into perverse forms. No other result is to be permitted, the light cast by the killer bunny rabbit yields no options but one: imagine Bugs Bunny killing Elmer Fudd.

But hang on – killer bunny rabbits? I once saw a giant worm chase Kevin Bacon, but killer bunny rabbits? Surely my eyes and ears deceive. The spokes on the wheels of my mind must be bust. Yet it’s true. Bemused faces may radiate bemused looks at the idea but the truth remains as it is. Stretches the suspension of disbelief, sure, but we can’t ignore it: the bunnies are out to get us. Forget your sharks and your crocodiles, their carnivorousness is crude and uninteresting. Cute and furry, these are the traits of the killer in our contemporary society – and when I say contemporary I mean 1972, when the film was made.

Origins are sometimes interesting, sometimes not. Killers are shaped by different forces. Ichi was bullied. Lecter was hungry. Bateman was bored. The bunnies? Ah, isn’t it another case of science gone wrong? Pretend Brundle never got cocky, pretend West didn’t forgo ethics in the name of ambition and we might be surprised. But it’s not to be. Science’s festering underside is revealed to us once again.

Night of the Lepus opens with a short public information film, an alarming report on the growing population of rabbits and the negative effects to accompany it. Farmers’ crops are shown destroyed by scurrying hordes of rabbits. Economic stability finds itself undercut by mammals whose only crime is plenitude. Instinctual consumption brands the enemy, its rapid reproduction elevating it to the status of demon beast, a figurative monster holding sway over rural commerce. We are slowly brought into the fold by seeing the real dangers posed by rabbits. We lower our guard while simultaneously entertaining the concept of rabbits being pricks.

The narrative dramatises what the documentary footage introduced. A community is plagued by an excessive number of rabbits. A zoologist is called in to come up with a solution, something that will diminish the population without having to resort to shotguns and shaking safari lust. He, with wife and kid in tow, captures a few rabbits and transports them to his university lab where he hopes to create a formula that will effect a bloodless cull. In the middle of the experimentation his daughter removes a test subject, an endearing little critter she’s become rather attached to, and lets it loose in the countryside. Big mistake, for that rabbit has been injected with a serum that doesn’t prevent reproduction – as was the aim – but instead turns the creatures into giant flesh-eating killers.

The freed rabbit consequently infects all his brothers and sisters, they too turning a dark shade of ferocious. Dead bodies, limbs torn off torsos, terrified eyes blinking disbelief, these are the products of the enlarged bunnies as they go on nightly rampages through the community. The figurative monster of the intro gives way to the literal monster of the narrative. The bunnies are significantly changed, transformed into a demented counter-image, touched by nocturnal urges that impel them to feast on human flesh. And why are they nocturnal? I can’t say, a reason for this is never offered – I can only assume it to be a personal preference.

Dodgy overdubs and static acting help orientate us to watch Night of the Lepus. We know from the outset that an enjoyable horror movie is going to unravel before our spectatorial faces. A dose of blood, some teased scuttling in the darkness and devil driven waves of oversized rabbits bounding into town. Spooked or confused, such is the reaction by the populace, with a few exceptions. The protagonist, as is his scientific wont, keeps objective distance, spurred into curiosity by the situation and not once assailed by guilt. His pal, none other than Dr McCoy, also delves into the twists and turns of biological mutation without so much as a gasp. Cool-headedness rules supreme. Luckily, Janet Leigh arrives to satisfy the scream quota. Her and her daughter add needed ingredients of the human to our protagonist and permit themselves to get into peril just so he can rescue them.

Extreme close-ups guide our sight of the mutated rabbits. Sprints over dirt are recorded by cameras positioned only a small distance away, the zoom function exploited to the fullest. Scale models let us see the rabbits looting a convenience store and roaming past houses and over bridges. This is a technique barely concealed. Only the most suspended disbelief could fail to notice the use of miniatures. Perhaps it’s a commentary on scale or our sense of spatial perception – or it could just be crappy production values.

What I know even less is why every shot has the rabbits running in slow motion. Was there such a dearth of footage that they needed to slow down every sequence to meet the running time? The bats in Bats needed no extra time to flutter, so I don’t see why the rabbits insisted upon such a plodding march.

Night of the Lepus is fun. Corny but fun. It’s not on par with the quality of The Killer Shrews, nor does it match the rat lunacy of The Graveyard Shift, but as far as the concept of ruthless, man-eating bunny rabbits goes, it’s a winner. Short of seeing Elmer Fudd’s headless body lying beside the road, this film will be charged with satisfying every inch of our leporid bloodlust for a long time to come.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Music as Opposition: Akercocke’s Voyage into Northern Ireland

In May 2007, English extreme metal band Akercocke appeared on BBC One Northern Ireland’s Nolan Live, a weekly late night talk show. They were on the show to discuss their impending gig in Belfast, an event that was courting controversy amongst Christian activists in the area who were aghast at the band’s explicit Satanism. The televised debate had host Stephen Nolan conduct questions and exchanges between two members of the band, beamed by satellite link into the studio, and two Christian representatives sitting in the studio. The ensuing debate acts as a microcosm of Northern Irish values, a snapshot of contemporary woes that see one generation attempt to succeed another, and the ethos of modernity striving to break free from the shackles of outdated traditions and revolting dichotomies.

There are no surprises in watching the debate. From the beginning Akercocke are vilified and framed as a danger to the morals of the country. An introductory clip mixes shots of the band playing background to a leather-clad maiden dancing seductively with live footage showing vocalist Jason Mendonca screeching death metal under waves of crimson lighting. Nolan’s first question asks whether the band is indeed intent on summoning the Antichrist to Belfast, self-importance resting unconcealed on each spoken syllable. Akercocke thankfully choose to focus on the real reason for their visit: the fans. They proceed to compliment Northern Ireland’s metal community and the excellent welcome they received on their last visit to Belfast.

Committed to maintaining the idea that the band is an evil virus come to infect the innocent youth of the nation, Nolan flippantly asks, “what’s so great about the Antichrist?” They reply with feigned befuddlement and bemoan the abstract nature of the question. Even when Nolan gets riled up, Akercocke hold their calm demeanour. They are well aware that such a show can’t be taken seriously, that they are the outsiders, that the limits imposed by the televisual sphere will not facilitate them a proper voice, that the only route to take is to demonstrate intelligence and sobriety in the face of spiteful and erroneous preconceptions.

The studio guests express arguments over-rehearsed and long overused, trite words that attack lyrics and imagery, that gesture towards censorship, that wobble haphazardly in tones of moral outrage, vituperation warning of young minds being corrupted by anything that isn’t Christian dogma. Nolan privileges the religious duo, while Akercocke are consigned to the background, left to be spoken over and baselessly accused of iniquitous deeds. The nadir is hit when the prosecuting triumvirate of Nolan and co start injecting spousal violence and racial hatred into the mix, conflating genuine moral issues with puritanical sensationalism and consequently demeaning the former.

But it’s obvious that Akercocke are not going to be hailed as equals on a television show of this type. The formal restrictions that accompany the medium mean that opposing views are disadvantaged: as Noam Chomsky has stated, new ideas require time to explain, to fully disseminate, and the tight time constraints that structure mainstream media, especially television, prevent that process taking place. Fresh viewpoints must battle with consensus, with dominant ideology. It’s an incredibly difficult task to introduce original ideas into the mainstream – immediate dismissal is often the only act precipitated by such ideas. Akercocke receive little chance to combat the conservative invective being spit in their direction, a type of invective already well-known to all who might watch the show.

The most negative representation to come from the show is that the Northern Irish are a group of close-minded, evangelical idiots. One of the studio guests, the fellow in the “Jesus” t-shirt, refers to “Northern Ireland people” as if he speaks for a homogeneous group. The assumption is that “Northern Ireland people” not only wish for Akercocke to stay away from this tiny outcrop of land lying astride the Atlantic Ocean, but that they even care enough to oppose some people playing music in front of some other people who incidentally love that music. Perhaps this idiocy is best exemplified by Joanne from Armagh who calls in to comment. She begins her opinion with the words, “I think the band should not come to Northern Ireland because…” and then ums and ahs as she tries to formulate an argument, ending with the very learned observation that the band members are “evil-lookin’.”

The stereotype of God-fearing ants controlled by church authority and holy text is as untrue as the assertion that Akercocke are going to ignite satanic longings in the heads all who listen to them. Northern Ireland is a heterogeneous society comprised of different people with different tastes and different beliefs. To speak of a single “Northern Ireland people” remains only a testament to the stupidity of the utterer.

The province is subject to divisions, but not between Catholics and Protestants. An internal gulf separates a caste of mindless traditionalists who persist in elevating the slightest of religious difference to a political doctrine and those who see these divisions of religion as meaningless. It’s encouraging to see the birth of mindsets that run counter to the traditional establishment, persons who can avoid being dominated by old ideologies and fears.

The problem, however, lies in the fact that political power rests in the hands of puritanical parties intent on perpetuating antiquated divisions. Just observe the remarks of Iris Robinson – Member of Parliament and wife of current First Minister Peter Robinson – who recently defined homosexuality as an abomination and morally homologous to paedophilia, remarks that she continues to defend even after a slew of negative publicity. It’s atop this protuberance of ignorance and myopia on which Northern Irish politics is hoisted. Sure there are parties fighting the status quo, but real political power is gripped by extreme corners.

Akercocke did play Belfast in May 2007, despite protests from locals incited by the appearance on Nolan Live. The visit permitted the band a look at two sides of Northern Ireland: the side aligned with religious fundamentalism, slowly retching its last dying cries, and a side untainted by indoctrination into twisted moral absolutes. The metal community is a space for distancing oneself from the old guard, of refusing to accept an identity based on the arbitrary dictate of the religion into which one is born. I don’t want to generalise too much – total uniformity is never present in any sort of subculture – but Northern Ireland’s metal community is commonly populated by people who don’t think Catholics and Protestants are eternal enemies, who don’t place importance on whether certain people can march in certain locations.

The power structure of Northern Ireland alienates people, it seems backwards, entrenched in orthodoxies that mean nothing in a cosmopolitan society that communicates with the world on a continuous basis. Such estrangement breeds the adoption of niche identities. Metal is a domain for creative exploration and solidarity along aesthetic lines. The fans of Belfast were able to enjoy Akercocke’s blend of aching brutality and dulcet melody on that date, undeterred by the seething protests typified by Stephen Nolan and his guests.

A final voice from the audience at the close of the show speaks of respecting difference, enjoying the band if you are inclined to do so and ignoring the band if otherwise. Sanity pierces Northern Ireland’s improving physiognomy at times, and does so more and more, but work still remains, we must slice away the ties of sectarianism and religious obduracy. If it means freedom for bands of the quality of Akercocke to come and play without restriction, then it’s all the more urgent that action happens now.