Saturday, February 28, 2009

Surviving the Game

The preceding moments were filled with trepidation. The DVD, held solidly in the hand, its contents a fog of ambiguity, returned the gaze I cast upon it. ‘What,’ I asked, ‘is this beast I’m about to watch?’ All this talk of survival, talk of games, words of promised action and forthcoming exhilaration, provided little in the way of answers. The central question, turning my senses wild with speculation, was the following: what game?

Monopoly rarely gives a man cause to fear death. Are we to expect some formula-tweak along the lines of Killer Monopoly? Is that what this is? Persons sit down to play the old property game only to find their rent being paid in blood? In the fashion of the finest Asian spook-fests, the curse of the Killer Monopoly, I presume, would circulate the area, an inner-city suburb, dealing death to a group of teenagers before falling into the hands of a young couple moving into their first home. What better way to break in a new abode than an exciting bout of Monopoly! But oh no, fun and games are not to be. A hotel on that square?! No, don’t do it, you don’t know what evil lurks beneath that red block! Don’t pick up that Community Chest; your husband’s already gone into anaphylactic shock, that’ll finish him!

Such were my expectations. These were the only answers I could summon forth from the bowels of the unknown. But to my great surprise, and also a painful blow to my skills of prediction, it turned out to be untrue. No menacing minutes spent glued to a board game, no city-sized strolls into Mouse Trap, no Scrabble modified to be playable with human organs. The game spoken by this DVD is a wholly different game.

Commiserate not, wise reader, for the games on display are of a quality equal to any flights of the imagination. I dare say not even the playful prose of Nabokov could concoct such an intriguing burst of ludic spirits. Surviving the Game is its own world of play – a sphere of gleeful competition peppered by faces both respected and adored.

All the board games have been retired, yet the logic remains. The screams of chess pieces taken with brutal rapidity echo in the background.

The words of the title imply a subject: who is doing this surviving? Surely the act of surviving cannot be bereft of a survivor, someone to enact the motions necessary to survive? With impeccable logic we discover cloaked in the drapery of survival a man called Ice T, or as his friends call him, Ice Motherfucking T. (No doubt Jacques Derrida devoted huge swathes of unpublished writing to Ice Motherfucking T, him and the metaphysical violence augured by he who is coerced into surviving, to survive, to be a survivor.)

Ice T is a hobo living down and out in the city. Downtrodden in the extreme, he can do nothing to prevent his dog being run over, his best friend dying in his sleep, or the memories of his dead wife and daughter returning to haunt him. One day, Rutger Hauer offers him a job. Ice T’s to lend his assistance to one of Hauer’s hunting trips, to act as a kind of rugged huntsman, someone to do the mundane chores Hauer and his buddies have no time for. So off he goes, flown by Rutger Airlines into the wilderness. Little does he know, they’re not about to hunt rabbits or deer – they’re about to hunt him.

Naturally this is where the film gets interesting. The slow beginning of Ice T’s introduction – the endless bereavements, the establishment of his a-man-with-nothing-to-lose character – fades out as quickly as the twangy guitars that underscore the scene where he’s in the bath. Soon the real meat is on show – the action unequivocally commences.

The bulk of the film is the following: Ice T gets chased through a forest by Rutger Hauer, F Murray Abraham, John C McGinley and Gary Busey.

Sounds like gold? That’s because it is!

Some genius actually thought of this scenario. What majesty of human creativity!

‘Get this, boys,’ the studio exec says. ‘A bunch of awesome actors from the realm of action fiasco and budgetless cinema run after Ice T…and we’ll throw in Charles S. Dutton, fresh off Alien 3…and we’ll give F Murray Abraham a whinny son to represent the liberal conscience; it’ll be magnificent!’

And magnificent it is. Straightaway bloodlust becomes mingled with strategy as each of the two parties attempts to outwit the other. Lit cigarettes are stuck in trees to create a false trail; cunningly-placed footprints do similar. Intellect and instinct run in unison. The hunters live in a dark patriarchal world in which the psyche’s most nefarious attributes are exhibited. Characteristics stigmatised by society are free to roam as colours shift hue from modernity to medieval times, the faces of Homo sapiens fade into those of former incarnations.

Hauer’s feisty leader makes for a joyous villain. He loves the hunt and survival is a sport to him, but his sense of humour remains – he never fails to spit some teasing remarks Ice T’s way. Hauer’s the calm counterpoint to Busey’s frenetic psychologist. Busey explodes on-screen in a tirade of psychobabble, lyrically exposing man’s deepest primal urges. The debris of scattered blonde hair and giant white teeth barely has time to settle before Busey starts once more into another monologue. This time it’s a biographical tale: 8-year-old Busey, still only a child, is forced by his father to fight a bulldog. The mutt prevails for a long time, permanently scarring Busey in the process, before Busey is able to break its neck. For a long time after the story is told, the maniacal glint of Busey’s eyes remains spread across the screen, surviving long into the black of the fade out.

I have no doubt that Busey was just playing himself in this film.

To conclude: Surviving the Game’s slight leftist tendencies are a buoy to my enjoyment. A Wall Street man, a bourgeois psychologist, some CIA-affiliated goons, persist in exploiting a poor man who’s been cast out of society. They look down on him, sneer at his poverty and see in him nothing more than fodder for their games, that is to say, games to them, but to him life and death. Such a political reading is a nice adjunct to the film; however, it is surely the dynamic play of images and Busey that makes the film stand out as a highlight of mid-90s action, to be slotted somewhere between Hard Target and Judgement Night.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Three Days of the Condor

Rarely is the hero the one whose actions lie not in the realm of practice but in that of theory. Valour and strength typify the hero; physicality is the emblem of the hero. The champion protagonist is a protagonist of the body, a shifting somatic presence whose persona wrenches forth from the dynamic of the body. Shape and motion are inseparable from the tangible acts that the hero engages in.

Rarely is the hero the reader, that figure of mind not body. The routine of the reader is antithetical to that of the hero. The devourer of words is seen as passive, a spectator, a slave to the abstract manoeuvres of theory. The reader stands distinct from the kinetic picture of the hero. All of which is unjust, for not only is knowledge power, but words too have a power, a potency; words wield strengths wholly their own. The derisive expletive may be less effective than a kick in the ballbag, but a stream of torturous words does have the potential to be considerably more effecting and destructive than even that. Underestimate the power of the reader at your own peril.

It’s with this idea that we arrive at Three Days of the Condor, Sydney Pollack’s 1975 thriller starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway.

“I just read books,” confesses Redford’s protagonist Joseph Turner (codename: Condor). “We read everything that’s published in the world.”

Turner works for a secret subdivision of the CIA. This subdivision employs the clever and the wise to pour over books and magazines, searching out leaks and hidden codes, striving to derive new ideas and schemes. One day, while Turner completes his daily lunch run, a gang of armed men burst into the offices and shoot dead all of Turner’s colleagues. He returns to find the offices empty of all but cadavers and quickly escapes. Thus ensues three days of deception and murder, distrust and paranoia, as Turner slowly comes to see the sinister underside of his employers.

“That’s a very bright man,” says the gourmet at the local deli, pointing at Turner as he cuts a sandwich.

Turner is the reader, the theoretician. He lives in a place of observation, formulating analysis, creating theories. When chaos and confusion interrupt his life, he is forced into acting. The thinker becomes the man of action. Theory is thrust into practice, abruptly transitioning like Marxism into Leninism into Stalinism. Hopefully with fewer mistakes, it must be said, with less dire consequences. But that’s the thing about such a segue: it’s unpredictable, it’s its own test, its own experiment; the different ways it can evolve are myriad.

Turner’s unconventional hero must contend with his situation as best he can. Like Kurt Russell’s bookworm intelligence analyst in Executive Decision, Turner must adapt quickly, for he too is without Steven Seagal to help him.

The world is one of Kafka-esque bafflement. Layers upon layers of mystique hang over everything. Turner stumbles into a puzzling grid where only a few of the lines are discernable. A CIA boss remarks, “I don’t know, that’s what worries me.’ This is the void of knowledge that fills the film. Solace and comfort expire in the vacancy of information, and menace and danger take their place in the new, threatening reality. Turner is a man who usually does know, a man who usually does possess the facts. But for the first time he is sans knowledge. What he thought he knew is revealed as incomplete – the scope of his theory did not encompass everything. It was porous and failed to be comprehensive. Theory slides into powerlessness, turning insufficient, turning superfluous.

Faced with the failure of theory (the killing of a character named Heidegger acts as a convenient piece of symbolism here), Turner is left to embrace practice. Fights ensue, men are shot: the act takes centre stage. His eyes may twitch with rumination, but with his decision to take Faye Dunaway hostage (to get off the street, to get some rest, to get some time to think) and his later intimacies with her, he has unequivocally moved into the realm of practice. It’s as if Schopenhauer had suddenly transformed into Rutger Hauer.

The newly-formed hero has to try and discover the truth behind the murder of his colleagues. He is plunged into a world of clandestine schemes and whispered plans. A place where interlocutors change language mid-conversion if anyone happens to pass by. A place where the only sound heard is the dead echo of the ringing phone not picked up. Turner must contend with this dark, urban space, bleak like Dunaway’s photographs of New York in winter, her images of black and white isolation.

Three Days of the Condor is another sublime entry in the canon of 70s paranoia thrillers. Like Alan Pakula’s loose trilogy, the film speaks of the disillusionment of the time, distrust of the establishment. The events of Vietnam and Watergate float ominously in the background. These are years that saw the death of free love, the death of emotion, expression, release, the utopian ideal – all crushed by Nixon, by war, by dirty political games. The Cold War became not a thing out there, not something occurring elsewhere, but something right here, something right in the heart of democracy and freedom. It dawned, thick and clear: those guys we elected – the guys living our space, breathing our air, one of us, part of us – are no better than those guys over there, the supposed enemy. Turner’s presumption that his superiors can be trusted is ruthlessly destroyed as he sees his friends killed, as he tries to avoid his own death. Friends are foes in this place where distrust becomes ubiquitous.

All the facets of this paranoid reality come to life in Pollack’s expert direction. The stilled cameras and heavy silences, the increasing tension as the narrative slowly discloses the truth. The sparse soundtrack adds the chilling ambience of isolation, underscoring the evocations of dread and claustrophobia. Three Days of the Condor is a perfect slice of miasmic cinema, murkily captivating.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Cavalera Conspiracy – Inflikted

‘Terrorize’ opens with a set of snorted declarations – notes about the self, notes for the self – Max Cavalera spitting bile-drenched epitaphs to the body:

‘I am the poison and cure,
I am the fire of doom,
I am the ghost and dust,
I am death from above.’

Uttered in venomous rapture, the lyrics subside and in strides a gargantuan riff. A chunky power groove, heaving with each beat blasted behind it. A simple, no-frills quake of guitars fills the lyric-less void before Cavalera’s noisome bark returns:

‘I am the jungle rot,
I am the sufferer,
I am the juggernaut,
I am death from below.’

A repeat of the former groove appears and then gives way to a melodic burst of shred-guitar backed by a rapidly firing rhythm sound. Song structures are cut up by quick alternation between growled syllables and thick eruptions of blistering guitars. The style is laid out on the first track, a mission statement written in an onslaught of metal. The remit is unambiguous: Your face will be torn in two, clawed off by a furious sonic attack. There is no resting place, there is no slowdown, forward motion is the only option, death to mediocrity, death to tranquillity – this is Inflikted.

It’s the big reunion of the Cavalera brothers, sibling gods brought together once more under the auspices of metal. The founders of Sepultura, having not spoken to each other in ten years, have finally seen fit to end their long dispute. Conversation killed at last the terrible familial rift that had separated them for such a time. The cure was talk, the aftermath is Cavalera Conspiracy. Joined by Marc Rizzo on lead guitar and Joe Duplantier on bass, the brothers got down to writing and recording new material, their first collaborative body of work since Roots in 1996.

Despite the happy melodrama that underpins the creation of Inflikted, the music here is angry. The mood powers forward in black, infuriation spilling out relentlessly from each song. Pissed off, enraged, an atmosphere drenched in anger acts as a foreground and a background.

‘My hostility,
My sanctuary.’

Hostility reigns. Sanctuary is the home, the container of each sonic attack compiled in the eleven track masterpiece. The riffs rip through everything, all lies numbed or shredded in their wake. The drums are a battery in constant blaze. Tracks scowl, move from fast to faster – trenchant displays of blinding rhythm attack.

Lyrics are so frequently a way to make political statements, to offer social critique, to polemise. They offer an avenue through which to dream, to implore, to eulogise. Lyrics are also implements of atmosphere. Cavalera’s vocal expectorate is but another notch of ambience alongside the wall of guitars and drums, a further level on the endless strata of generous musical punishment supplied by Inflikted. It’s the materiality of his growl that matters. Staccato screams of vicious words weave in and out of songs, adorning a web of intricate musicianship. Sure, meaning clings to the words, connotations are not absent, etymology is not dead. But form matters, as does style. What is spoken is the poetic void. Sounds as jagged and as splintered as the guitars are beckoned forth from Cavalera’s throat. They sweep forward in a wash of refusals, dancing in the rejection of any systematic poetics. ‘Nevertrust’ provides an inventory of persons and concepts we ought not to trust; to this we can add the signified, the fluff that the word points to. All I can hear is the unison of voice and instrument, the majestic venom of Inflikted.

The witness offers a reminder: one should not use such superfluous words in reviewing an album that is so anti-superfluity, so lacking in pointless digressions, so single-minded and determined in its mission to kill the needless. As the final song intones, ‘Must kill, must kill, must kill…’ Not an ounce of the prolix is to be found on Inflikted. No masturbatory descents into musical self-indulgence. Only the destruction of the gap between music and listener, only the angry aesthetics that flood the gap and bind music and listener together in grand bodily harmony – that is what Inflikted is.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Sudden Death

A week after the inauguration of President Obama, Charlie Brooker wrote of contrasting feelings he felt watching the event. On the one hand, inspiration, the new, the fresh; on the other, the fear that at any moment the president would be gunned down. So ingrained is the image of the foiled celebration, the presidential assassination, that the idea of hope crashing to the ground in a second of gunfire seemed all too possible. It’s no surprise, for a surfeit of fictional rehearsals for such an ending lie scattered across the mediascape. Real death, the promise of actual murder, hides behind each frame. The simulacrum has a shadow. As Denis Leary once said,

‘We watched Lee Harvey Oswald get shot live on TV one Sunday morning, we were afraid to change the fucking channel for the next thirty years.’

The catastrophe plagued Brooker in hypothetical tones. But what if Obama’s ceremony had been ruined by ne’er-do-wells? His brawn may have been ample to fend them off, to beat them into submission, perhaps. Spiderman’s already helped him, but who’s to say Peter Parker isn’t still wandering around taking pictures? On Obama’s back is one large shield constructed to deflect any number of Fox News wet dreams. The bullets will have a tough job, but one may still penetrate the shield, one gruesome nightmare of Coulter wishes and Limbaugh imploration.

What hero might fight this repulsive ‘what if’? Who will be the palliative delivered to this form of nauseating drivel, the ballads of talk radio and nonsense television? Who’s the destroyer of pernicious dreams? Who’s not only fit to stride into the hypothetical realm but to annihilate that very realm, to kill ideas best not thought?

The volunteers are many, as are the nominees, but only one is truly qualified for the task.

Jean Claude Van Damme, he is the legitimate heir to reality’s throne of decency. The man’s monopoly on virtue is surely enough to kill a few hastily-spoken words, to smash hate-filled hypocrisy. And as for any actual bullets, a swift kick would be enough to deflect them.

Van Damme has experience with this sort of thing. Important people assailed by the iniquitous, it’s merely something to do before lunch. His threshold for dealing with any swine attacking the Executive Branch is unlimited. Were his CV geared solely towards the attainment of such a job, one image would adorn it: the poster for Sudden Death.

It’s the final of the Stanley Cup. Van Damme, being a liker of the ice hockey, is there with his two kids. The Vice-President, being a liker of the ice hockey, is also there. A team of nasty terrorist-types, who may or may not be likers of the ice hockey, are there too. They take the VP and his party hostage, demanding grand sums of money or else murder and mayhem. And they have the arena wired to blow, with devices planted in every nook and cranny. Van Damme discovers this plot – then one of his kids gets kidnapped – then he decides to kill the bad guys and save the day. ‘Fuck you and fuck your kid,’ says one of the bad guys. Van Damme dons his hero coat and replies, ‘Now you die.’

Sudden Death? But how sudden? Not that sudden it turns out. It’s a good thirty-five minutes before Van Damme kicks anyone. I find it difficult to hide my disappointment, and words cannot possibly convey the hurt I feel over the misnomer, those lies that are spread in Van Damme’s name. Thankfully, lies soon transform into truth. Suddenness enters the present as Van Damme’s bouncy violence takes centre stage.

The tense hail of images proves effective, fun shifts in action creating a captivating feast for the eyes. Fights in kitchens, sharp one-liners, bones stabbed through the throat, all the proper ingredients are here. A bodily-armament montage segues into a tussle with a rogue agent. Early sacrifices in the name of plot exposition become forgotten as a film festooned with men sporting bullet holes in the head comes into focus. What was that guff about Van Damme taking his kids to the game? What boringly elaborate methods to capture the Vice President? All I see is Van Damme lighting a man on fire and throwing a helicopter into a big hole in the roof.

After a while, approaching the film’s thrilling denouement, I realised something: Van Damme already made this film. He made it seven years hitherto. It starred someone else and had a different name. In fact all the names were different. And it was set in an office building instead of an ice hockey arena. Die Hard is maybe the best film Van Damme’s made and not starred in, or had anything to do with.

Thus the writing begins before Van Damme. The words flow in anticipation. They pave a road leading to creation. The creation of what? Of Bruce Willis, of Alan Rickman, of scowling faces twisted, producing a wonderfully coruscating VHS reality. These are words sent from the present to the past. Every time Van Damme communicates with the authorities outside he is pumping words through a wormhole in time. Every time Van Damme tries to rescue his loved one he is slamming words into the abyss of the past.

It’s only in moments of real madness that he ceases the transmission of words. Such as the outlandish sequence where he joins the ice hockey game, makes the save of the year and then sentimentally gestures ‘I love you’ in sign language to his son in the crowd. I shit you not. If only John McClane had stopped for a moment to play skittles and then tap out ‘You complete me’ to his wife in Morse code.

Van Damme may have moved into the mould of self-deprecating art-house icon (and considering the quality of JCVD, we ought to be thankful), but his rich period of mid-90s action goodness remains a joy to come back to. The era of genuine Van Damage is forever accessible through the gifts he has given us.

Sunday, February 01, 2009


There is no energy left in Christopher Lambert. His words are tired, gestures weak, light hurts his eyes and cinema gives him heartburn. The glory avenues, the ones he used to walk, now lie in the past. Sighs are all he can muster, flatlined breaths toneless and hollow. Shame has descended and agitation grows from the disappointment. The latter we share, both he and us. The star’s light shrinks to a dim flicker.

What contrast, what change! The heights, we used to barely see them, such was their majesty. Now not even the memory stays: only the memory of the memory, remembrance of the heavenly heights, a few fleeting images retained during the plummet south. The horizon offers nothing – no Highlander, no Mortal Kombat, no Fortress. The Lambert laugh can’t be heard, nor can the cheeky grin be seen.

There was a time when brilliance sang from each pore, when each stride easily dazzled onlookers. Lambert was admired, worshipped even, a receptacle for compliments and well-wishes. He was officially France’s best export, replacing the Eiffel Tower as the country’s icon. He was born heir to the French intellectual tradition and lived as a successor to its erudite radicality. Lambert never called himself a Structuralist, nor did he ally himself with Marxism. He left the nouveau roman to itself and shunned Oulipo. Despite being only eleven years old at the time, he stood back during the tumult of May ’68 – ‘let others have the limelight,’ he said.

Lambert channelled his polemics into his art, brandishing heady ideas on the nexus of art and life. Thorns were driven into archaic doctrines, philosophies got ripped in two. He created a dialectical shitstorm from which emerged the truth of Lambert’s vision: a world shorn of needless ideas, needless fussing, needless restriction, a world of open paths and open minds. Yet, like Baudrillard and his despair at the exhaustion of ideas, Lambert took needlessness too far.

All was well up to a point, monies and kudos flowed from success. Highlander exemplified the period. But then a shocking event: there stood Lambert, fly undone, pissing all over everything. His determination to destroy the needless led him to destroy the things we needed, and these things ended up being soaked in his piss.

Unable to live with himself, Lambert threw himself down the stairs, an act which we now call Absolon.

EXCURSUS: Geneticists have for years been trying to track and isolate the Lambert gene. Its existence has been a rumour since the time of Galen, who saw in Lambert and the four humours an odd harmony. In 1962, Watson, Crick and Wilkins, the men who discovered the structure of DNA, failed to show up in Stockholm to collect the Noble Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Later it turned out that they were busy working on the Lambert gene. But finally, in 1999, scientists cracked it. While working on a blood sample taken from a llama, Dr. Callisto Burton observed that a particular gene the llama possessed had almost all the traits of the Lambert gene. Further study proved conclusively that this was the case. A report called ‘The Lambert Gene: Why Christopher Lambert can now mate with llamas’ was later published in the journal Genetic Research.

Absolon presents for our examination a picture of the future. The prelude informs us of a catastrophe: a new disease has emerged and killed most of the planet’s population. That’s a bad thing. Luckily, a scientist creates a drug that nullifies the symptoms, enabling the users to continue to live providing they keep taking the drug. That’s a good thing. Sadly, the owner of this drug is an evil corporation who uses it for power and domination. That’s a bad thing. Thankfully, the scientist creates a proper cure to wipe out the disease forever. That’s a good thing. Then he gets killed. Bad. But Lambert’s on the case. Good. But Lambert’s shite. Bad.

And so goes the story. A nasty Sci-Fi Channel-type tyranny led by Ron Perlman is the villain. A cop investigating the murder played by the skin of Christopher Lambert is the hero. A buxom lady scientist played by Kelly Brook is the Daily Star wank fodder.

At some point in the narrative, after being tricked into drinking a bubbling solution in a beaker (always a bad idea), Lambert learns he now has the cure in him. Unfortunately the cure comes in two parts and he only has the first. Thus begins a race against time to get the sequel, and without it the only thing on the menu is death. Run Lambert, run.

Absolon is a mess of swishing HBO cameras, incongruous leaps into action and dreary reused sets. There is, however, one positive element here, one upbeat comment to be made: every now and then Lou Diamond Phillips appears. He plays the badass employee of the corporation charged with tracking Lambert. Revelling in every hammy moment, he runs around gun in hand, anger erupting in his eyes, a sour face ready to turn the goodies to mulch. Throughout the film, he roams the lands in search of our hero, taking the occasional minute to report to Hellboy. He’s the film’s unequivocal highlight: Absolon’s cardboard scenes have only Lou Diamond Phillips to carry the mantle of quality. He’s the beacon of light, but Lambert can’t see him, for his eyes are blind – he’s lost in the fog of cinema.

Lambert’s voice is a whisper, his face pallid, legs unsteady, he’s a man in need of a power ballad. The pain he feels must be gargantuan, the sting of his many adversaries. Not only Lou Diamond Phillips, not only Time, but also the script and memories of a better past. Lambert crawls through the film, refusing to show the slightest ounce of excitement or energy. Nothing is worn on his face except boredom. At one point, the plot has him raped by Kelly Brook (I think maybe she got him confused with Jean Reno). Now, would this change a man? Would this have the vigour return to Lambert?

Nope. If anything he seems even more lethargic after that.

Let us not waste anymore time. The true fact evident for all to see is that Lambert can’t be arsed. He’s given in, yielded to tiredness, he’s stuck in the web of the weary. Ready for his eulogy, he can barely be fucked to stand and his ears don’t work. Scream all you can but it makes no difference, the words’ll never penetrate his skull – Lambert’s decrepit body fades corroded by the juices of Absolon.