Why ‘Wizards’ is the Anti-Fascist Film We Need Right Now

(NOTE: This post will spoil a few things for you if you haven’t seen Wizards, particularly the ending.)

The events in Charlottesville, Virginia have sane people everywhere asking once again ‘How the fuck does this happen?’ Seeing Swastikas being borne down American streets is always a shocking sight. An estimated 60 million human beings died as a result of World War II. The actual number ranges from 50 to 80 million, but I think it’s safe to settle on the median figure. Six million of those were butchered in concentration camps at the hands of the Nazis, who committed an ungodly array of atrocities until they were decisively hammered by the combined forces of the Allied powers. The flag they marched under was the very same one we saw carried aloft by American National Socialists / Alt-Right / White Supremacist protesters this weekend. But you know all this. We are all painfully aware of the terrible acts perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II – so much so that seeing it being waved around as a symbol of pride by anyone (especially by Americans) is damn near existentially perverse.

And yet – they do.

Witnessing it happen, and the violence it begets, calls into question our ability as a society to bear the weight of history. Of course, Fascism never went away. It was always there, lurking in the shadows waiting for the right confluence of events to spring into existence like a metastasizing tumor. And like cancer it will surely rot us from within if not destroyed without mercy.

Fantasy, as a genre, is often painted as escapism. Not serious enough to tell us anything meaningful about the world we live in. I think that’s bullshit – although frankly, I think this has as much to do with the consumers of fantasy as anything else. All too often we are given what we demand…and I suspect we demand far too little from our culture to expect anything meaningful in return. Thankfully there are artists out there who reject the impulse to feed people what they want and sometimes give them what they need. Ralph Bakshi is one such artist.

A native of Israel whose family escaped persecution during the war by fleeing to the United States, Bakshi has for his entire career challenged and pushed the boundaries of animation. After working his way up the ladder in the traditional animation industry, Bakshi’s first feature film – Fritz the Cat – was a shot across the bow of anyone who considered animation as being strictly a child’s medium. Based on the work of underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, Fritz the Cat is raunchy and uncompromising…in other words, exactly what you’d expect from an animated film based on Crumb’s work.

Bakshi would follow his controversial debut with two more works, each increasingly savage and raw. Heavy Traffic was a slice-of-life drama set among the Jewish and Italian communities of New York City…something Bakshi, who grew up in some of the city’s roughest neighborhoods, knew well. His third film, Coonskin, was his most controversial yet. Often misinterpreted as a racially insensitive sideshow (which resulted in disruptive action from Al Sharpton and members of CORE), Coonskin is actually a mirror of American racial prejudice – taking the worst stereotypes of African-American culture and laying them bare…rubbing White America’s nose in its own shit, so to speak.

Therefore, it was a bit of a surprise when Bakshi’s next feature turned out to be a kids’ film. Originally titled War Wizards when pitched to 20th Century Fox (the name was eventually shortened to Wizards at the request of George Lucas, whose own debut was on the cusp of release at the time Wizards hit theaters), Wizards is a colorful Science-Fantasy film which takes place in a future Earth which has recovered from a devastating nuclear war. With the wane of 20th century technology magic once again reigns supreme, bringing with it Elves and Faeries – beings whose existence was presumably diminished by the rise of scientific advancement.

This is not a paradise, however. Many lands still burn with radiation and give rise to hideous mutants which, while terrifying, are also too inept to truly threaten their neighbors. Into this world are born two Wizards – brothers – one pure of heart…the other corrupt and scheming. The siblings feud and eventually the good Wizard (Avatar) defeats the evil Wizard (Blackwolf) in a magical duel, sending him into the world to lick his wounds and re-consider his demeanor. Of course, Blackwolf does no such thing. Instead, he spends a good long while trying to figure out a way to inspire his mutant minions. Blackwolf unearths an enormous amount of 20th century technology which his army of monsters can use to defeat their adversaries – but what really turns the tide is a trove of Nazi propaganda films which he uses to fire up his troops. Thus armed, Blackwolf stands to threaten the world and it is up to Avatar and his companions to put an end to him once and for all.

To tell this tale, Bakshi assembled a talented crew of animators and artists that included comic book legend Mike Ploog and illustrator Ian Miller (whose work will be instantly recognizable by anyone who has spent the last few decades playing Games Workshop stuff). The result is a visually distinct adventure yarn that has stood the test of time. While many who have discovered the film recently consider it to be a bit crude and rushed, I’d advise those who hold such an opinion to re-assess in the knowledge that Bakshi and his ragtag animation studio worked on a shoestring budget to assemble their vision, overcoming obstacles that would have deep-sixed many other studios. The oft-noted rotoscoping is one such shortcut that had to be undertaken when 20th Century Fox withheld much-needed resources to film the movie’s elaborate battle scenes. Faced with doom, Bakshi took to hand-reproducing hundreds of frames of stock footage, adding embellishments to create the film’s unique look. Anyone who accuses Bakshi of cutting corners would be well advised to consider the technique’s descendant – computer motion capture – without which many modern films could not be made.

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Taken on its’ own merits, Wizards has well-earned its reputation as a seminal classic of 70’s genre cinema. But with everything that’s happening in current US politics I can’t resist the urge to re-assess the film as a prescient warning siren about what happens if we become complacent about Fascism. After all, Blackwolf’s understanding of the potency of images is keen – and not one hair off the mark. People rally around symbols because they offer a simplification, and a symbol which both explains the world in stark black and white terms but also empowers those who fall under its’ sway is potent indeed. Such is the strength of Fascist symbols and ideology. They promise a bulwark against one’s enemies. Strength in unity, rallied against a common foe. The fascist marchers in Charlottesville – like Blackwolf’s armies – draw strength from the past, chanting ‘Blood and Soil’, a chilling reminder of the German fascists who chanted Blut un Boden, the rallying cry of pure blood and national pride. These are not merely a pack of White agitators who are acting out some Twitter-fed aggression. These are Nazis, pure and simple, marching down the streets of a modern American city without shame.

Bakshi’s film stands as a potent reminder of just how tenacious these beliefs are. We see Bakshi’s rage against the bootheel of militarized hate in a synagogue massacre, on a carcass hanging from a meathook branded with a Star of David. We see it in Blackwolf’s desire for a ‘pure’ child, in his rapidly growing war machine, in his mutant subordinates wearing SS uniforms.

But Bakshi also shows us how to properly deal with Fascists in the film’s final climactic showdown between Avatar and Blackwolf. There’s very little banter. No cleverness or fair play. No – when Avatar finally confronts his brother, rather than an elaborate magical duel, he simply produces a pistol and puts two rounds in him. Give them no quarter. Do not talk to them. Eradicate and destroy them without mercy.

I often find it remarkable that Wizards is Bakshi’s idea of a kids film. It’s packed with violence and suggestive sexuality, laden with ideology, and unapologetic displays of fascist aggression. But – it’s also brave film making. It’s the kind of kids film most are afraid to make these days. And it’s also the kind of kids film that doesn’t shy away from delivering a moral message.

Given the state we are in as a country, I can think of far worse things you might expose your children to.

RPG Retrospective: Five Reasons Why James Bond: 007 is One Of The Greatest RPG’s Ever Made

007rpgSee that book? The one with all the cover creases and taped, frayed spine? Of all the game books I own, this one has managed to stay in my collection the longest. 34 years, believe it or not – through multiple moves, from one end of the country to the other. To say that it is special to me is an understatement. I have other copies of this game, but this is the one that holds the most meaning.

It was a Christmas present I received when I was 13. Bear in mind – when I was a kid, my parents handled Christmas presents a bit differently. My father would take myself and my brothers toy shopping a couple of months in advance and give us a budget. We would pick what we wanted and then my father would put everything on layaway.

I don’t recall now if I saw the game sitting on the store shelf (the mere thought that you could buy niche-y roleplaying games at a neighborhood toy store is pretty odd these days, now that I think about it) or read about it in Dragon Magazine…but regardless I enthusiastically added it to my stack of gifts for Christmas 1983 and endured the intervening weeks until I could tear into it.

The game blew my mind.

I’d been gaming at this point for five years. My introduction to roleplaying games was a stack of Dragon Magazines and some assorted 1st Edition AD&D adventures given to me in 1978 by a fellow my mom was dating. I remember being enthralled with the contents – clearly this was a form of gaming I had never experienced and the prospect of being able to engage in it somehow was magnetic. Not owning any of the books I ran a number of games for friends and my siblings by reverse engineering the rules from the adventures…I have no recollection of what those games were like, but I presume the sessions were something of a hot mess. But we had fun.

Eventually I got the books and learned how to play properly (well, as properly as anyone played 1st Edition at any rate) and as usually happens when the gaming bug bites I started consuming every single RPG I could get my hands on. Traveller was another big one – primarily because I’d read David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers and Traveller Book 4: Mercenary was my ticket to re-enacting all that hot military sci-fi action.

Until that point most roleplaying games were, for me, a means of escape into one kind of fantasy world or another. Anyone who’s seen Stranger Things at this point knows what I mean; having grown up in the early 80’s the sight of basement carpeting and wood paneled walls brings back fond memories of rolling dice with my friends until the early hours of the morning. We even dubbed my friend Bryan’s basement the Basement of Justice because surely we saved the world enough times down there for it to have earned the title. And I can say with some pride that many of those world-saving adventures featured the M.I.6 agents my friends and I cooked up for James Bond: 007.

Published in 1983 by Victory Games, a subdivision of wargame publisher Avalon Hill formed entirely of ex-SPI staff – including designer Chris Klug (who had previously worked on Universe and DragonQuest Second Edition) James Bond: 007 eventually spanned a core box set, 11 adventures, and several supplements – even a hex-and-chit wargame called Assault which allowed you to recreate some of the film series big action scenes, such as the volcano battle at the end of You Only Live Twice.

When asked about my favorite RPG of all time I never hesitate to gush over 007. It’s one of those designs that is so wonderful and elegant that you ache to run it the way Bond must feel behind the wheel of his Aston Martin DB-V. There are few games in history that have done such a wonderful job at creating the kind of experience you expect from its’ subject matter, in this case high-stakes espionage action in the mold of James Bond. And – it must be said – the game features what I consider to be, hands’ down, the greatest set of chase mechanics ever designed.
Fine, you’re saying – give us the skinny. What makes this game so damn good?

For starters, 007 features a wonderful core mechanic that – almost without fail – is used to resolve nearly every task in the game. While this is commonplace today, in the early 80’s that wasn’t necessarily the case. In 007 all actions rely on determining a percentile chance to succeed. This is found by multiplying a character’s Primary Chance (often associated with a Skill) by the Ease Factor, which is anywhere from 1 to 10. Lower Ease Factors are harder, while higher ones are easier. After you roll, if you succeed you compare your roll to a chart which reveals your Quality Rating (1 through 4, with 1 being best and 4 worst). That’s pretty much the system in a nutshell.

In Combat, better Quality Ratings means more damage. When using skills better Quality Ratings reduce the amount of time the attempt takes (useful when Safecracking, for instance). It determines how easily targets of Seduction resist your efforts. How much information you gain from interrogating captives.

While there are sub-mechanics for determining things like the aforementioned Seduction and Gambling, they all extend from the same core rules. If you grasp how to arrive at a Quality Rating, everything else is easy. While many get a little cross-eyed when presented with tables these days, I find that designer Chris Klug’s system is fast and efficient at the table – not something that could be said for a lot of games of this era.

Where does the ‘Bond’ feel come from in all this, however? What is it about this set of rules that makes it – in my estimation – one of the greatest examples of genre emulation in the history of roleplaying games? And what makes it worth playing over three decades after its’ release – and three decades after its’ demise?

To answer those questions, here are five things I absolutely love about the James Bond: 007 system.

Those Chase Rules

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Bond leaping over a hapless J.W. Pepper in ‘The Man With the Golden Gun’

Yes, I’m putting the chase mechanics front and center. And it’s the right thing to do because, even if all else about this game were forgotten, the chase mechanics are so gorgeous and clever that they’ve yet to be surpassed. And given the necessity for any good Bond game to feature a robust and dynamic set of chase mechanics, I think it can safely be said that James Bond: 007 nails this perfectly.

The heart of the chase system is the Bid mechanic. During a chase, each side bids the Ease Factor at which they want to attempt a maneuver, with each successive bid lowering the Ease Factor. This goes back and forth until one side or the other concedes. The winning side chooses which side goes first, maneuvers are chosen and resolved, then (if both sides are still in the chase) gameplay continues.

This is brilliant as it perfectly mirrors the way chase participants push each other towards ever-increasing mayhem. It’s tense, it keeps the players and GM on their toes, and best of all it’s easy. To represent the handling of various cars, boats, etc. each vehicle has a ‘Redline’ statistic which is the lowest Ease Factor you can safely bid while operating that vehicle. Bid lower and you automatically have to make a Mishap roll after your maneuver, whether you succeed or not. The GM is also encouraged to narrate the various events that occur during the chase on the fly. There are a small pair of tables to give the GM some ideas for various Obstacles, like a festival parade that suddenly blocks traffic, etc but any resourceful GM could conjure a host of suitable bits of narration. This keeps the action flowing without the need to refer to a map, figure out topography, and whatnot.

It’s worth mentioning that the chase mechanics, while built around Klug’s rock-solid foundation, were actually crafted by designer Greg Gorden who many will remember as the architect of the DC Heroes RPG for Mayfair Games, and thus what is called today MEGS – the Mayfair Exponential Game System. I don’t have the space to delve into a full-discussion of MEGS, suffice to say it’s clear that Gorden’s knack for elegant system design is on full display here.

Hero Points and Survival Points
These days roleplaying games which feature some kind of narrative currency through which the Player Characters can influence the plot are a dime-a-dozen. Bennies, Fate Points, whatever. James Bond: 007 was doing this in 1983. When you garner a Quality Rating of 1 for a roll (outside of combat) you are given a Hero Point. You can then use this Hero Point to affect the game in various ways; you can increase the Quality Rating of a roll by one, or decrease the Quality Rating of a GM roll if that AK-47 burst is about to cut you in half. You can also use Hero Points to directly affect the world around you, such as placing a piece of wire suitable for opening handcuffs within reach. As you increase in rank, and thus increase the chance of attaining Hero Points, you become a more heroic character – which models Bond’s crazy-good luck throughout the film series.

Likewise the GM has access to Survival Points, which provide the means to pull various strings to keep heavyweight baddies alive. How else does Blofeld keep showing up time and time again? Again – while games featuring currencies for narrative stuff are commonplace nowadays, they were were rare (if not non-existent – I’ve been trying to think of an earlier example of ‘bennies’ and am coming up empty) in 1983.

The Adventures

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Clue hand-outs for the ‘Goldfinger’ adventure.

While the rules themselves are wonderful, the game was supported with a truly marvelous selection of adventures that give the players an opportunity to thwart evil plans across the globe. Most of these were adapted from existing movies / books, although a couple were wholly original (or rather, followups to previous adventures – namely Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice). Every time I take one of these off the shelf to give it a read-through, either in preparation to run it or just for pleasure, I’m taken aback with just how well constructed they are – delivering in spades on the promise contained in the game rules.

Most of the adventures, being based on well-known story lines, served a dual purpose – to provide an experience that feels like the source material while also providing a challenge to those who know it back and front. Goldfinger, for instance, gives players the opportunity to engage Auric Goldfinger in the centerpiece golf scene from the film – while also including a lengthy jaunt to South Africa to investigate one of Goldfinger’s mines. Indeed, players who try to mirror Bond’s footsteps would often trip themselves up, requiring them to play the adventure as if they knew nothing of the film or book. And yet – each one captures the spirit of Bond’s original adventures perfectly. One touch I was fond of: every adventure came with a manila envelope (thoughtfully stamped to warn that the contents are classified) stuffed with prop clues to be handed to the players at the appropriate time. These clues contained key information which could be used to direct them towards solving the mystery at hand and were always a pleasure to pass out. Not only did they reinforce the player’s sense that they were on the right track, they also were a source of great fun to try and figure out what information would guide them to the next clue. There’s even a solitaire adventure, based on the Lazenby film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I have yet to delve into that one but when I do I’ll be sure to blog about it here.

Fame
Remember that scene at the beginning of You Only Live Twice where Bond fakes his own death to throw off his adversaries’ continual interest? James Bond: 007 plays with this idea, giving each character a Fame score. Indeed, during character generation you can gain points back for being very attractive (thus increasing your initial Fame score) or paying extra points for being nondescript (thus lowering your Fame score). A character’s ongoing exploits will add to their Fame score, as will being scarred due to an injury. All those points add up, eventually, making it harder and harder for them to wander into an enemy-owned casino for a game of Baccarat or to not be recognized in a crowd. A character can attempt to use disguises to mask their identity, but eventually a character may want to lower their Fame, and the game provides a number of ways of doing so – including faking their own death or, in dire circumstances, retiring them from the field and making a new character. It’s a nice way of modeling the effect the character is having on the world around them, and is completely consistent with the way Bond is portrayed in the films. It’s not uncommon for him to approach his prey in full knowledge that they know who he is, often as a means of unsettling them.

Gear

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Ahhh – the PPSh41g…

While the main rulebook contains a solid selection of equipment players can use in the field, the Q-Manual is by far one of the coolest accessories ever written – 137 pages filled with exotic cars, explosive-filled watches, surveillance equipment, firearms, and more. Every entry is properly statted out for use, but the real kicker is Q’s commentary. Every single item is accompanied by a ‘Q Evaluation’ in which M.I.6’s acerbic quartermaster gives you the skinny. Take, for example, his description of the Japanese Taisho 14 pistol:

“A pistol which tested well against the Walther PPK, but rejected due to its heavier trigger pull and bulkier shape. 003, shot when trying to draw the weapon, would still be an active agent had he been using the easier drawing Walther PPK at the time – Q”

Honestly – the book is a total joy to read, and is worth owning even if you’re simply a fan of the movies or books. The Q-Manual is also liberally decorated with tons of lovely artwork, rendered in a technical yet descriptive manner. Again, Greg Gorden took the reins on this book, displaying an ample flair for translating Bond’s world into game mechanics.

Alas, despite all the quality of the game, James Bond: 007 lasted a mere four years with no subsequent revisions to the system. Largely the game is a fond memory for gamers who encountered it during its brief lifespan in the early to mid-80’s. Frankly I believe the game was incredibly innovative and deserves credit for many of its innovative features. Any nitpicks I have with the system are minor: being a point-buy system, character creation is a bit time consuming. And the game suffers a little from a lack of SPECTRE, the villainous organization that gave Bond so many runs for his money. The latter problem stemmed, of course, from Kevin McClory’s legal shenanigans regarding his hand in writing Thunderball and his running legal battle over ownership of SPECTRE. (It’s this same concern that would see Bond unceremoniously dumping Blofeld down a smokestack shaft at the beginning of For Your Eyes Only as kind of a fuck you to McClory.) I thought the replacement organization, TAROT, was kind of cool – but I sorely missed Blofeld and all his cronies.

I still play 007 now and then. Indeed, one of my all-time favorite gaming memories occurred about ten years ago while re-visiting the game with some friends. We were playing the Goldfinger adventure and the villainous Auric Goldfinger had captured the PC’s. He was threatening to kill one of them in the fashion you probably remember from the film (the bit where Sean Connery’s Bond is strapped to the laser table). The PC in question, being played by my friend Bryan (yes – this occurred in the aforementioned Basement of Justice), was trying to convince Goldfinger that they were better off as prisoners and he had to roll absurdly low to convince him – if I recall he had a roughly 10% chance to succeed. So Bryan rolled.

This anecdote is better if you know that the percentile dice Bryan was using were the kind that displays the tens as two digits on one die and the ones as a single digit on the other. You know what I mean – so a ‘33’ reads ‘03’ on one die and a ‘3’ on the other.The dice clattered on the table and…Bryan rolled a 7. A ‘00’ on the tens die and a ‘7’ on the singles die. With that ‘007’ roll Auric was convinced.

Do you blame him?

(A Couple of Notes: Mr. Klug was gracious enough to guest on my old podcast, Geeky and Genki, where we discussed his career and the 007 RPG at length. You can hear that episode here. It was an absolute blast to speak to Chris and I believe you’ll enjoy it.

Also – a retroclone of James Bond: 007 exists. Designed by Joseph Browning, Classified is available on RPG Now. If you can’t get your hands on the original game via the secondary market, Browning’s game is a wonderful re-creation of 007 and is recommended).

Film Review: Paterson

Brody-Paterson-1200Paterson is a unique piece of work. As I described to my girlfriend last evening it’s a movie that somehow manages to simultaneously be about nothing and everything. It’s a beautiful zen koan of a film in which nothing happens but the vast wonders of life emerge in the details. This is a very, very deeply Buddhist film – it is a meditation on mindfulness and being. It’s about art, creativity, love, despair – all the Big Issues…while remaining grounded in a simple plot revolving around the life of a city bus driver.

And it is absolutely wonderful.

The film takes place entirely in Paterson, New Jersey and follows the daily routine of a quiet, unassuming man (Adam Driver) similarly named Paterson (whether Paterson is his first or last name we never learn, and frankly it’s not relevant). Paterson has a routine life. He drives a bus. He lives with his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) – a sweet, creative woman with a strange artistic bent who can’t resist decorating everything in sight (including her clothes) with black and white patterns. He has a dog, Marvin, who like all dogs is demanding yet lovable. He also writes poetry.

Notice I didn’t say ‘he’s a poet’. This is not a film about classification. Like the zen koan about the pitcher Paterson is engaged in the act of writing poetry, but does not call himself a poet. He is. Contrast this against those around him – like the lovestruck actor pining after his childhood love in the bar, or even Paterson’s wife who spends several hundred dollars on a guitar because she wants to be a country singer…or the co-worker who is constantly wrapped up in his problems. These are all people projecting their desires into the future seeking happiness through things outside themselves. Paterson, however – just is.

He wakes up every morning, shares a quiet moment with his wife Laura, drives his bus, writes his poetry, comes home from work, takes Marvin for a walk, has a beer at the bar, then goes home. We follow this routine for a week and in doing so are treated to an exercise in mindfulness…in being in the moment, experiencing the world through Paterson’s patient eyes. As he composes his poems, either at the bus depot, at a picturesque waterfall where he spends his lunch breaks, at home…we see the words scrawled across the screen and hear his voice intoning them. Sometimes we hear the poems several times as he hones in on the perfect phrasing, trying to capture his thoughts just so. His wife implores him to publish his work, despairing that these beautiful thoughts stay locked up in Paterson’s journal – but Paterson clearly doesn’t write poetry for the world. He writes poetry – just that. The act itself is what is important to Paterson. As he says to his wife late in the film ‘They’re just words – written in water…’ Indeed – his journal represents something of a sand mandala…ephemeral, impermanent beauty destined to be washed away by time.

The film is full of strange details – notice, for instance, the reoccurring twin motif. Or the black-and-white swirls and decorations that Laura obsesses over (suggesting duality, perhaps representing Paterson and Laura themselves). Paterson (the film, but I suppose also the man) is a strange little mystery – indeed, a koan in film form – which demands patience and attention…not unlike meditation.

Adam Driver’s performance is pitch-perfect. Understated and reserved, often enigmatic…while Iranian-born actress Golshifteh Farahani brings a wonderful energy to Laura, serving as something of a counterpoint to Driver’s contemplative calm.

Like Solaris and Wings of Desire, I believe Paterson is a film I will return to time and time again to remind me that the truly wonderful things life has to offer are less about the grand achievements but rather the simple pleasures inherent in the act of being alive.

Paterson is one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen in years and is highly, highly recommended.

Movie Review: The Void

the-void-movie-poster-2017-2-989839The last few years have been really good to fans of classic 80’s horror. Last year Netflix Studios’ Stranger Things turned E.T. on its’ head, delivering 8 solid hours of nerdy terror and now we have The Void, an unabashed homage to John Carpenter and the Hellraiser movies which features copious amounts of honest-to-satan practical monster and gore effects.

I’ve been hearing a lot of hype about The Void, most of it centered on the aforementioned effects work and thus my expectations for the film have been quite high. Luckily the film has been granted a limited release here in Seattle so I was able to catch a screening last evening.

Is it good? Yeah, it is. But before I delve into the movie itself I feel compelled to gush a little bit about the venue in which I saw The Void.

The Grand Illusion is a tiny little hole-in-the-wall theater located in the middle of Seattle’s U-District. When I say tiny, I mean it – the capacity can’t be more than 50 and the screen is probably no larger than your living room wall. That said, this really is a theater run by film lovers for film lovers. The Grand Illusion is entirely run by a staff of volunteers and operates as a non-profit – the upside being relatively cheap ticket prices (even cheaper if you spring for a membership) and a great selection of interesting films. I’ve scanned the showtimes in the past and seen lots and lots of terrific stuff – everything from trashy Japanese pinku eiga to highbrow documentaries. Honestly, if someone asked me to design a theater to my specifications it’d probably look and feel a lot like the Grand Illusion. The projection quality is decent – bright, hi definition digital image accompanied by better-than-expected sound. It’s not a ginormous IMAX experience but honestly the place feels like a labor of love and that’s something no widescreen spectacle will ever surpass in my opinion. If you love movies the way I do you really owe it to yourself to give the Grand Illusion a visit.

Anyway, about the movie.

void_4guide__large-e1474646262477The Void is everything I wanted it to be. It’s got gore, monsters, and surreal weirdness oozing out of its’ pores. It doesn’t waste any time, either – quickly escalating from a gruesome murder in the film’s opening minutes to an all-out siege scenario as a small-town hospital is surrounded by a flock of mysterious, hooded cultists.

What the cultists are up to is kind of a drawn-out affair – the filmmakers (Steven Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie, two Canadian chaps whose previous work apparently includes stuff like Manborg) play their cards close to their chest and when you do finally get an explanation it’s a tad underwhelming. That said the fun here is not in the brilliant plot but in the execution. Much has been made of the film’s reliance on old-school effects and I have to say they’re really effective. Peeled faces, tentacles, animated corpses, gore splattered mutant hellbeasts…it’s all here and it all looks terrific. A great deal of it is shrouded in gloom, preventing the audience from getting a clear look at anything – the cynic in me says this is possibly to hide some of the effects’ shortcomings but honestly it works. Nothing on display here looks cheap or half-assed.

I also loved some of The Void‘s more surreal moments, which echo the crazy reality-warping sequences in some of the Hellraiser and Phantasm movies. There’s an obvious Lovecraftian influence here, with references to ‘ancient things’ that pre-date mankind, etc. – and while paying lip-service to HPL is by no means groundbreaking (and hasn’t been for decades) it’s always fun to see someone wallowing in their influences to good effect.

The cast is uniformly good – genre fans will recognize Twin Peaks‘ Kenneth Welsh (who portrayed Windom Earle) and Ellen Wong (Knives Chau in Scott Pilgrim vs The World), but really there’s not a bad apple in the bunch. I found the lead a little annoying, but that’s no fault of actor Aaron Poole. He does a fine job as Officer Daniel ‘Worst Police Officer in the Known Universe’ Carter but honestly the character’s ineptitude and constant lack of initiative kept me on the verge of lunging at the screen and throttling him. I think that’s part of the character’s arc, though – numerous times it’s mentioned that he’s not half the cop his dad was and from moment one you realize that everyone who says it isn’t wrong.

Bad stuff? The plot, as I said, is complete nonsense. I won’t give anything away but suffice to say it’s pretty bog standard stuff…albeit goofy, batshit WTF bog standard stuff. But as the late, great Roger Ebert once said: “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” And that’s definitely true where The Void is concerned. The pacing is also a bit off. Really good horror films know how to build and release tension. There’s definitely an art to this sort of thing and Kostanski and Gillespie, as good as they are at crafting some terrifying visuals are not particularly adept at keeping you on the edge of your seat. They seem content to let the visuals do all the heavy lifting. I mean, look – remember Carpenter’s The Thing? (I guarantee you that Kostanski and Gillespie do.) That blood test scene is a fucking master class in how to do a good horror scene. Carpenter knows exactly how to prime an audience, make them shit their pants, and then laugh about it afterwards.

I don’t think there was a single scene in The Void that came close to this for me. It was cool to look at but I don’t think I was ever legitimately scared.

There’s also zero levity in The Void. None. I think there was a single amusing exchange at the beginning of the movie but after that it’s all hategoredeath from start to finish. That’s not always a bad thing. The Green Room was similarly unrelenting in its’ grimness but The Green Room gets a pass because it’s so much better at doing the tempo thing than The Void.

Okay – so, I’m kvetching a bit now. And I really shouldn’t. The Void is a solid piece of work. It’s not perfect – but if you go in with your expectations set accordingly it’ll deliver.

And by god, if you live near Seattle or plan to visit…go see something at The Grand Illusion. It’ll do your soul some good.

Why You Should Love Devo

(Note: This is yet another blog post recycled from the old website, but I felt a need to dredge it up thanks to a video posted by my friend Daniel Swensen…seriously just go watch that really quick then come back here…)

nnii0c6fih9iniiiAnyone who knows me will be well aware of my undying love of the 80’s weirdo mutant musical act Devo. Despite being known primarily (only?) for their strangely successful hit ‘Whip It’, Devo’s entire career – which continues to this day – was one of incredibly trenchant subversion.

Mark Mothersbaugh and his cohorts were no mere one-hit-wonder pop group; they were provocateurs of the first rank….serious-minded artists who used humor and wry intelligence to cast memetic molotov cocktails into American culture by way of the 80’s defining cultural artifact – the pop song. Mothersbaugh himself was and continues to be fascinated by the concept of mutation – the idea that unexpected change occurs within every system, no matter how rigidly controlled.

Devo exemplifies this concept – on the surface they look and sound like any number of oddball synth-pop bands of the era. The fact that they flew under the radar so well is actually a testament to how successfully they subverted the zeitgeist in which they thrived. Perfectly capable of churning out seemingly disposable, yet incredibly catchy, three-minute pop songs, Devo’s catalog is actually a full-on assault on the shallowness and banality of American culture.

Look at ‘Freedom of Choice’, for instance:

The opening lyrics suggest a world of endless possiblity…hey, you’ve got Freedom of Choice! You can do whatever you want!

A victim of collision on the open sea
Nobody ever said that life was free
Sank, swam, go down with the ship
But use your freedom of choice

I’ll say it again in the land of the free
Use your freedom of choice
Your freedom of choice

But it quickly descends into a cautionary tale about an uncomfortable truth of human nature: having Freedom is a burden…a burden most of us don’t really want.

In ancient Rome
There was a poem
About a dog
Who found two bones
He picked at one
He licked the other
He went in circles
He dropped dead

Freedom of choice
Is what you got
Freedom from choice
Is what you want

There’s a good chance most people who heard this song never gave the lyrics much thought, and sometimes that’s the danger in subversive art…when you get so good at the form that the function goes unnoticed. In some ways that may be Devo’s biggest crime…they were so goddamn good at writing pop music that most people just accepted what they did at face value.

Here’s another example – a bit more on the nose, but no less incisive.

Censorship sucks, m’kay? And by the way, you’re all fucking perverts – you just won’t admit to it.

Of course, this brings me around to the absolute zenith of Devo’s creative work, ‘Beautiful World’.

‘Beautiful World’ is perfectly written to mirror a pop song in structure and tone, but at every possible turn it subverts the very concept of a pop song – skewering the shallowness and pointless, useless cathartic-light sentiments typically sold as comfort or depth. It even has a hilariously perfunctory guitar solo 3/4 of the way through prefaced by Mothersbaugh intoning lamely (as one does in a pointless pop tune):

Hey you with the new clothes on
You can shake it to me all night long
Hey hey

I mean, here…just watch.

That bit at the end? ‘It’s a beautiful world. …for you. But not for me…’ That’s fucking savage – an absolutely perfect knife between the ribs of lame ‘It’s Morning in America‘ faux-optimism and in every way to the entirety of American popular culture.

And yet, they gain almost no recognition from the general public for this. Which, perhaps, does more to prove their point than any single message they could shove under anyone’s nose.

…but hey, look. Here’s a neat little artifact that might serve as a good coda to this weird reminiscence. In 1982 Devo was drafted to take part in a televised live performance – the hitch being that it was an experiment in 3D television. And, while the show was really fun the technical requirements and hoops Devo were required to jump through to participate were apparently pretty galling…so annoying, in fact, that the band chose to call out the program’s producers during their closing number…’Beautiful World’. Mothersbaugh, having adopted his Booji Boy stage persona, belts out the song with freakish gusto then proceeds to give the program runners a nice tongue lashing…all while maintaining his Booji Boy falsetto. It’s a wonderful example of watching some of the music world’s All Time Champion pranksters take a choice opportunity to bite the hand that feeds on live television.

…and, oddly…sometimes it really is a beautiful world…

The clip in question (which I shared on G+ last night sans context).

…and here’s the full performance, featuring opening act Wall of Voodoo.

 

Your humble narrator…and an energy dome.

12651303_144212719292692_4003850121983528637_n

Brain Games

I should be happy right now – ecstatic, really. Two big projects (Broodmother Sky Fortress for Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Mike Evans’ Hubris setting for Dungeon Crawl Classics) which I’ve sunk a combined four years of my life into are hitting store shelves in the very near future. Together they represent a big step forward for me as a professional in the RPG industry and yet – I can’t shake the feeling that I’m worthless and unskilled. That anyone looking at those two books will know what a shitty hack I am and that all my faults and failures will  be there on the printed page for all to see.

This shouldn’t be read as an indictment of either of those books from a quality standpoint. Everyone I’ve talked to says they really like what I did and that I should be proud of my work – and yet…I can’t.

I hate myself for feeling this way. Every time I go into a project all I can see are the myriad ways I’m going to stumble and make a hash of it. That I’ll forget some niggling technical detail or that my depression and anxiety will overwhelm me again. Or that my skills aren’t up to the task. Every endeavor I undertake is done so under a cloud of dread and sick anticipation of the failure that lies ahead.

I gave my contributor copies of the last big release I worked on, Towers Two, to friends. I couldn’t stand to look at it. Didn’t want it on my shelf telling me what a fuckup I am, and how much better it could have looked if I wasn’t a worthless piece of shit.

It becomes something of a feedback loop after a while. My brain is an echo chamber containing a perpetual motion machine that generates anxiety and self-loathing. I feel like I’m a second-rate character in a Daniel Clowes comic, bumbling through life…surfing on a crest of deep-seated anguish and at any moment I’ll collapse and drown.

wilson-p21I hate being like this. It’s not just about the freelance work…it rigidly defines everything about me, from the failure of my marriage to the flat career trajectory which keeps me stuck in a Groundhog Day of endless low-wage jobs.

Thing is – I know I’m not unique. We all face challenges in our lives. Some face the very same obstacles I do…and in some part I suppose that’s why I’m writing this.

I know quite a few people in this industry, and more than a handful share my problems. I know this because after I was diagnosed with depression and ADHD last year a good number of them opened up to me privately and publicly and frankly…I was astonished.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: working on RPG’s is largely a labor of love. Very few people who work in this business do it full time. A great many of them, mostly freelancers – but also some independent publishers – maintain day jobs because the money pool in RPG’s is very, very small. But they do it – in the evening hours after the kids have been put to bed or on the weekends when they could be doing a vast array of other things. Often squeezing time for gaming projects into every spare nook and cranny of their lives. They do it.

That’s why I do it. It’s why, despite the fear and nausea I feel at taking on work, despite all the voices in my head that tell me I’m a fuckup – that the next project will be shit and that it will be shit because of me – I keep at it. My love of games and the people who make them are what sustain me – even though I haven’t really played anything in nearly two years…my lifelong desire to be part of this weird culture keeps me going. And I’m not alone.

Keep that in mind the next time you sit down with your friends to create some stories.

On abysses…and why we need our noses periodically shoved into them. (Repost)

When I was in college in the early 90’s, I once took a weekend trip to Ohio University for their annual Halloween revelry. I’m not by nature much of a party animal, but some friends urged me to go and I had nothing better to do that weekend…so I said ‘Fuck it…’, rounded up a friend, and drove the four hours to Athens, Ohio. Unwisely (or perhaps wisely, depending on your frame of mind) the only music I’d remembered to bring was a cassette single of Beers, Steers, and Queers by The Revolting Cocks. Undaunted, my traveling companion and I listened to that sumbitch repeatedly for the entire eight-our round trip. That was fun.

Anyway, the weekend was spent dicking around setting powdered coffee creamer on fire and hanging out with a girl I met up there, the roommate of a friend. We kind of hit it off and by the time I left she gifted me with a CD she said she didn’t really care for but that she thought I’d like and a small handful of Psylocybin mushrooms. I never did the shrooms – I threw them in a sock drawer when I got home and basically forgot they were there until I cleaned out the drawer a year later and ended up throwing them out.

The CD, on the other hand, was much more interesting to me. It was a copy of Coil’s second full-length album, Horse Rotorvator. And – damn if she wasn’t right. I listened to that thing several dozen times over the following week and essentially fell in love with Coil. (I kind of fell in love with the girl who gave me the CD, too – but I never saw her again. That’s kind of how my life works, if you haven’t noticed…)

One track in particular really stuck with me however, and still does to this day. If you’re familiar with the album you probably already know which one I’m talking about.

At the time, I had no idea really what the song was about…the lyrics were kind of impenetrable, but they embodied a sort of vague mysticism that appealed to me in ways I couldn’t quite grasp then. Even the title ‘Ostia (The Death of Pasolini)‘ was alluring and strange. What the fuck is an Ostia? And who the hell is Pasolini?

SALO, O LE 120 GIORNATE DI SODOMA - Italian Poster 1I’d known of Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final work,  for a while at that point – but I didn’t know the name of the director. I hadn’t actually seen the film then – I was only vaguely aware of its’ reputation as a nasty piece of cinematic grand guignol. You know ‘…it’s the movie about a bunch of kids being raped, tortured, forced to eat feces, and finally murdered…’

Grim stuff, right? Who would watch such a thing? It would be another ten years before I finally saw Salò and while I won’t say I fell in love with it, I certainly fell in love with the sheer fearlessness of the thing. That it existed at all was kind of remarkable to me. I mean, it’s relentlessly dark. And not just because of the content; Pasolini allows the story (a rough adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom) to just unfold before you without judgement or commentary. He lays out his tapestry of misery and death the way one would set out Thanksgiving dinner and say ‘Here, enjoy!’

I think it’s this lack of fucks given in the delivery that shocks so many people. Pasolini never for a second dwells on the victims – the children – in any meaningful way. We never really enter their world to find out what they think of their plight. Pasolini never attempts to build a bridge between their suffering and our empathy. It’s almost like unceremoniously handing someone a manila folder full of autopsy photos and then walking away without explanation. We never really even penetrate the minds of the monsters perpetrating the atrocities. Yes, we have private moments with them – we hear their conversations and ruminations from time to time, but there’s never a moment where they reflect or consider the source of their impulses. We watch their mania unfold and listen to them talk about how much fun they’re having and what they plan to do the next day.

So yeah – it’s rough stuff.

I was kind of fascinated by the film at this point, so I dug up what information I could and learned quite a bit about Pasolini. And…it clicked. That song, the one on that CD given to me years ago…the lyrics started making more sense.

And the car
reverses over
The body in the basin
In the shallow
sea-plane basin.
And the car
reverses over
And his body rolls over
Crushed
from the shoulder
You can hear the
Bones humming

Pasolini was murdered in November 1975 in a rather unpleasant and violent fashion; he’d been run over repeatedly with his own vehicle, his testicles crushed by a blunt object, and his body burned. Initially the murder was attributed to Giuseppe Pelosi, a male prostitute who claimed that Pasolini took him for a meal and subsequently attempted to sexually assault him. Pelosi was convicted of the murder and sent to prison. Despite the confession, however, rumors swarmed that Pelosi wasn’t the actual perpetrator – that Pasolini had been killed by members of the Mafia or that he’d been killed by an extortionist holding stolen reels of Salo for ransom.

Whatever the case, it was clear Pasolini had a lot of enemies and did not suffer a deficit of people who would have been happy to put him in an early grave. Pasolini was active in left-wing politics and a lot of his work took aim at those in power (sometimes even those who shared his own political leanings). Throughout his career Pasolini found himself running afoul of the authorities for his art, being charged with obscenity for his novels and films.

His final work, Salò, was a pointed political commentary on the dangers of fascism. Seen now, divorced from some of the immediate political context, the film seems a bit crass. Perhaps even pointlessly vile (although, anyone who thinks Salò is vile really should delve into the original work – if anything, Pasolini went to some lengths to tone down the horror and wretchedness of de Sade’s work).  But in art, context is everything. The political power structure in Italy at the time Pasolini produced Salò was filled with remnants of Benito Mussolini’s WWII fascist government.

Now, I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on post-War Italian politics…most of what I’ve been able to dig up is the stuff you’d find on Wikipedia and whatnot, but one thing is clear: Pasolini’s film was intended to vilify and shed light on the activities and legacy of a number of Italian fascists and right-wing elements who still held positions of power in Italy in 1975.

Say what you want about the content of the film, but I’d say that’s about as noble a purpose as you could ever want for a piece of art…to uncover and expunge elements of real suffering and misery, to bring them unwanted publicity and cast an eye on their crimes.

So – yeah. It’s not surprising that a lot of people thought (and still do) that Pasolini was murdered to silence him. Because his art was dangerous.

Looking now at that song, it’s clear that Coil were commenting on this very fact. Ostia (The Death of Pasolini) places the director’s murder in the context of a ritualized assassination, committed to protect the State and its’ interests.

You can hear the
Bones humming
Singing like
a puncture
Killed to keep
the world turning
Throw his bones over
The White Cliffs
of Dover
Into the sea
The Sea of Rome
And the bloodstained coast
Of Ostia

Killed to keep the world turning…”.  That’s pretty fucking chilling, when you get right down to it. Push the State too far and it will do whatever is necessary to protect its’ interests. That’s not conspiracy, that’s math.

quote-William-S.-Burroughs-artists-to-my-mind-are-the-real-92710Killed. Killed for art. Because art is powerful shit. Art gives power to the powerless. It allows those without a seat in the houses of power to have a voice – to speak truth to power, and inflict wounds on an enemy in a way that no amount of bullets and bombs can achieve. I know I’ve spoken unkindly of propaganda in the past, that art isn’t about certainties, it’s about creating uncertainty. But weaponized Art, wielded properly, has the ability to create tremendous change. This doesn’t mean that art produced for the purpose of political action is inherently good. The Nazis were incredibly adept at using imagery and ideas to motivate people to all kinds of terrible ends. But just as a hammer can be used to bludgeon someone to death, so it can be used to build shelters for the homeless.

I’ve long held the opinion that terrorists would go much farther in achieving their aims if they relied on wit and cleverness rather than blunt violence. I don’t expect any of them to relinquish their tools of death to take up my methodology, but I think they’d do well to consider it.

So – Salò. Much ink has been spilled over it’s value as a work of art, mostly because of its content. But I think such arguments miss the forest for the trees. Salò does indeed have value, for all the reasons I’ve outlined above. The fact of the matter is, art can sometimes be ugly. It can be downright vile. This is the price we pay for staring into the abyss. But it’s a price worth paying. Art isn’t always about beauty and light – often it has to reflect the worst aspects of our nature. You can’t comment on terrible things without reflecting terrible things…and if we as a society want to confront the monsters in our midst, we must occasionally be willing to see them for what they are.

So yes, Salò has value. It has value. It doesn’t make it an easy viewing experience, or the kind of art you turn to for reassurance. But it does make it a thing which should exist.

Arguing anything less is craven and misguided.

Just another nigger.

Yeah, I used the n-word up there. Nigger. NIGGER. Because I’m a pissed motherfucker right now in the wake of two more black men murdered in cold blood by this nation’s law enforcement community. Just a couple more niggers, right? Because the way cops in this country keep racking them up – that’s the way it starts to feel.

Just another nigger.

I know – this blog is supposed to be happyfuntimes with elfgames and metal music. But right now I’m not feeling it. It’s fucking open season on black people in this country and as the parent of four black children (yes, they’re bi-racial, but you know how that shit works. It only takes one drop for your kids to be called niggers by certain segments of this population) this has put me in a bit of a mood.

What’s it going to take? Another riot? A straight up uprising? How many more graves will be dug before people start taking this shit seriously? I can’t even begin to wrap my head around the gun control debate when the cops themselves are putting black folk down like it’s pest control.

Look – I have cops in my family. I know the score. Not all cops. I get it. There are good men and women on the street and if I was being assaulted you can bet your ass I’d be happy for a black and white to roll up on that scene and save my ass.

Feel free to call me a hypocrite if it makes you feel better – but right now I’m sitting here replaying the video of 37-year-old Alton Sterling in my head, his arm twitching as his lifeblood drains out the bulletholes in his chest and all I can think is that somehow the shitheels who did that to him are going to walk. Because they always walk.

Oh, there’ll be administrative leave. And an investigation. Maybe even a trial. But we know how that shit goes. I could go on and on and on about the School to Prison Pipeline, The TalkGhettos-by-Design, the Civil fucking War, blah blah blah and none of it would make one bit of difference because we live in a country where a black person’s life can be taken with impunity as long as you have a fucking badge.

Because what does one more nigger matter in the grand scheme of things?

Not a whole hell of a lot, it seems.

I will say this: to those who aid and abet this system, who support the pillars of institutionalized racism…you really should sort this out at some point. Because eventually someone’s going to sort it out for you. I don’t really need to spell that out for you, do I?

Maybe black folk in this country need to start Open Carrying the way redneck militia types love to do. Start packing AR-15’s when they hit the grocery store. Sure it’ll be uncomfortable for a while. But let’s face it – there is an oppressed group of people in the U.S. who should have a real, imminent fear of oppression and it’s not a bunch of right-wing survivalist types in Oklahoma.

And it won’t be much longer before Just Another Nigger becomes one too many.

UPDATE: Well, imagine that. As usual, violence begets violence.

 

(Not) A Review: The Glowing Man

swans-the-glowing-man-560x560I say ‘not’ a review because I just don’t do that sort of thing these days. I can’t remember the last time I felt compelled to review an album of any sort (although I do recall time I reviewed the Zeni Geva / Steve Albini disc All Right You Little Bastards and the album’s engineer emailed me to express his admiration for the writeup…that was nice.). But seeing as this will be my last opportunity to weigh on a new Swans album for a good long while, I figure why the hell not?

Anyway, I spent a good am0unt of time with the latest (last?) Swans release The Glowing Man this weekend and I gotta say – it’s a seriously heavy piece of work. Which is probably no surprise if you’re familiar with Swans. Gira and his rotating cast of collaborators have long been one of rock’s most legendarily uncompromising acts, and with The Glowing Man – which reportedly will be Gira’s last outing with his current stable – Swans are reaching back to levels of darkness and despair I’ve not seen from the band since their early days. In fact, I’d go so far as to say The Glowing Man reminds me of a more polished iteration of Filth, which is itself a seething monolith of anger and spite which to this day has few rivals.

Polished is a relative term, however – this isn’t Dream of the Blue Turtles-polished, but rather honed. If Filth was a sledgehammer, The Glowing Man is a straight razor. One thing is clear – after nearly forty years, Gira’s just as capable of turning darknesss into sound as he ever was. The tools might be a bit different, but they’re just as effective. Maybe moreso.

I’m trying hard not to mention the cloud surrounding this album’s release. If you Google Gira’s name you’ll see what I’m talking about. I have my own opinions about the subject which I’ll refrain from addressing – suffice to say it’s hard not to intertwine the allegations levied at Mr. Gira and the content of The Glowing Man…an album which speaks at length  about power, domination, and the violence that results from power imbalances.

His hands are on my throat / My key is in his eye / I’m splayed here on some curb / 
Shards of glass / A starry night / When will this pig-man stop? / His stink is like a dog” Gira’s wife Jennifer intones on ‘When Will I Return?’, a tune penned by Gira about his wife’s own experience with sexual predation. It’s harrowing and powerful.

At five-and-a-half minutes, it also happens to be one of the album’s shorter tracks. The latest iteration of the band has become known for crafting lengthy swirling soundscapes that start calm and build to a hurricane of fury and thunder. The Glowing Man doesn’t deviate from this pattern  – the album’s first two tracks, a pair of songs called ‘Cloud of Forgetting’ and ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ (described by Gira as ‘hymns’) end just short of the forty-minute mark.with the latter clocking in at a hair over 25 minutes.

There’s something remarkable about the Swans and Gira’s dedication to his singular musical vision. I’ve been listening to them avidly since the mid 80’s and I can think of few bands whose sound has changed so dramatically and yet, at the same time, stayed as true to their idiom as Swans. Even the Bill Laswell-produced The Burning World was, in its’ own weird way, a suitable addition to the fabric of Swans artistic tapestry (though Gira himself would probably blanche at the notion, having publicly disowned the work on multiple occasions. Also, I note with some amusement that the first two tracks of The Glowing Man are nearly as long as the entirety of The Burning World).

That said – if The Glowing Man represents a wake of sorts for the band’s current incarnation, it’s one hell of a high point to go out on. As I stated at the outset, there’s a fury to this thing that is iridescent – a white-hot rage that reminds me of the band’s early days. Norman Westberg, who was part of the band’s Filth lineup (and every lineup through 1995’s The Great Annihilator), certainly does his part to maintain the cacophony…but it’s not just the rattle and noise. The Glowing Man often descends into quiet, brooding malice – which is good, because Swans’ particular brand of noise works by being every bit as beautiful as it is ugly.

It’s interesting that – after 90+ minutes of seesawing between quiet anger and skull-hammering rage the album lands on its’ cathartic final note – the sparkling, beautiful ‘Finally, Peace’. It’s not unfamiliar territory – Gira has explored the lighter side of things before…but it’s nice to come up for air after nearly two solid hours of sonic anguish. And, as the final sound we’ll hear from this particular iteration of Swans, it’s perfectly fitting.

I hope this new period of torpor doesn’t last as long as the last one – I’d rather not wait 13 years for a new Swans album again. But if it does – or if this is the last we ever hear of them – I think I can safely say they left us on a high note.

Fuck Art, Let’s Kill

5727943_6226e57ac6_zIn case you hadn’t seen it, this blog post has been making the rounds lately – and like all such diatribes which call people to task people have been lining up on both sides of the equation.

The post in question is a scathing indictment of geekdom’s penchant for outrage, specifically the kind of outrage spurred when creative types make unpopular decisions regarding the things fans love. At heart is the question of whether or not fan entitlement has become an issue.

A point was raised to me yesterday regarding the degree to which we should accept the fringes of fan behavior as representative of the whole. While I’m willing to concede that it’s probably not wise to use the death-threat crowd as the yardstick by which you measure any given demographic, we need not go that far to see the degree to which fans of genre fiction feel a sense of ownership over the things they love.

Entire swathes of fandom have arisen out of a sense of entitlement regarding various intellectual properties. Fanfic is probably the one that most easily comes to mind. For decades (even longer, actually, when you think about it) fans of various genre properties have been wallowing in other people’s imaginations to spin original tales about Star Trek, Star Wars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Doctor Who, Firefly, etc. See also: Fan Films, cosplay, filking…and a myriad of other forms of artistic expression fandom use to express admiration for their various obsessions.

I have my issues with some of this stuff (which are probably more well-suited for a different blog post) – but on balance I think most of it is at best a nice playground for people to express themselves creatively and at worst a Mermaid’s lure for those who have more passion than talent. Fundamentally I think it’s healthy that these things exist.

However – I also think that as of late we’ve seen a disturbing trend towards a sense of ownership regarding the intellectual property of others. I’m not saying that this is entirely bad – it’s often wonderful to see people iterate on the ideas of others and create new things from them. However, what I find troublesome is when fans feel they should have a say in the direction of other people’s artistic expression.

The Misery example is a potent one. While the murderous rage directed at Misery‘s protagonist is certainly over the top, as an allegory of the demands fans place on creators I think it’s fairly apt (and if anyone would know, I suspect it would be Stephen King).

In a sense, I get it. As fans we pour so much of our energy and passion into enjoying the things we love that when the a creator makes a decision that doesn’t sit well with us it can feel akin to a betrayal. But it isn’t, really. We should have zero expectations that the things we love are crafted with us in mind.

Mona_Lisa,_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci,_from_C2RMF_retouchedI think, however, what’s really at play here is the idea of patronage. Back in the day – an artist would be lucky to find a wealthy patron who was willing to pony up sums of money and privileges to fund their bohemian lifestyle. What the patron got out of it was prestige, a filter to ‘cleanse’ their wealth by funding works of beauty, and sometimes they got a little bit of propaganda out of the deal. You know, a flattering portrait, or a commission to celebrate a specific cause or ideal.

Patronage still happens, of course. And as the commodification of art – and lets face it, nearly every single genre property or IP ever created is the result of ‘art as a commodity’ – has proliferated, those who enjoy such things view themselves as patrons in some small manner. ‘I help you put food on your table by purchasing (x), therefore you own me a little something in return…’. It’s not an explicit relationship, but when the chips are down and fans start grumbling in numbers about a thing…the petitions start flying, and people start talking about stuff like ‘voting with their wallets’. Cha-ching! ‘Give me what I want or I’m going to withdraw my patronage.’

Of course, many of these things are the products of corporate interests. Fans are something of a secondary patron…the real patron is the corporation who wants to reap the creative seed being offered by the artist in return for which they’ll peddle it to the masses and (hopefully) be rewarded for funding the right creative type.

It still boils down to the same question, though. As a fan/consumer – what right do you have to make demands of the creator in this equation? Yes, you have the power to withhold your money for things you find displeasing. That’s a straightforward consumerist choice – I don’t buy products that don’t work for me. It’s as true for Star Wars as it is for Windex. You also have the power to criticize – and you should criticize, when you feel you have something to say about a thing which you feel passionate about and want to express your ideas about what didn’t work for you.

What you don’t have the right to do – and I can’t express this harshly enough – is to tell creative types what they should do with their ideas. Seriously. You may own every fucking Star Wars toy, bedspread, and tchochke ever invented…but that investment of time and money gives you zero say in what Disney or the various creative types they’ve hired do with the stories they want to tell. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

I know that’s a hard pill to swallow, but it’s true. You may own the Sideshow Collectibles Sixth-Scale Han Solo figure, but you have zero ownership over what Gareth Edwards wants to do with Rogue One. It ain’t your film, brah. It’s his film. And if it doesn’t do what you want, or if he kills your favorite character – too bad, so sad. Write a blog post and express your displeasure all you want – the fact is, it ain’t yours. Never was.

Now, you might pluck away at your own Star Wars thing…and if you do it long enough, and develop some skill and get to know the right people, maybe Disney will give you money to make your own Star Wars movie. And maybe you’ll take all that passion for Star Wars, all that hard-won knowledge, and spend two or three years bringing that vision to life. And maybe a bunch of people on the internet will take issue with your thing and tell you how wrong you are and how it doesn’t represent their idea of what Star Wars is, etc. And you know what the correct response to that is?

‘Go fuck yourself.’

Seriously, you owe nobody anything on that account. But maybe Disney will get a little weak-kneed because a bunch of the fans are causing a ruckus over a decision you made…even though they haven’t even seen the fucking movie. Maybe they saw something in the trailer that sticks in their craw. And, inevitable Twitter death threats aside, the mounting criticism reaches the point where Disney comes to you and says ‘Hey, we know you’re passionate about this thing, but a bunch of the fans are screaming blue murder about it…why not take another couple million bucks and re-shoot that bit that everyone is complaining about…’

That’s bullshit, right? But that’s what happens when art is a commodity and when the people who consume it know it’s a commodity and that if they shout long and hard enough they can shape the thing to their desires, because…really…it’s all about putting asses in seats, right? It’s not about your vision, or your ideas. It’s about lining someone’s pocket. And fans can leverage that to get what they want – to protect their biased ideas about what makes good Star Wars, or Star Trek, or whatever.

The confluence of art and money is always fraught with danger, and art almost always loses in the end. That isn’t to say that nothing good ever came from patronage – I’d be straight up lying if I said that. The world is littered with amazing art, much of it because of patronage.

But we’ve moved beyond a situation where an artist creates a thing, and the people who view the thing interpret it and express their thoughts. We are now living in a culture where people feel they have the power and the privilege to vent their spleen at all stages of the creative process.

The trailer for the Ghostbusters remake is particularly telling. Misogynist subtext aside, an enormous amount of vitriol has been cast at this film – a film which hasn’t even been released yet – based on a single trailer.It’s patently silly. Especially for a franchise which consists of one beloved film and a fairly wretched sequel. I don’t care what anyone says, this new movie would have to be pretty awful to rate lower than Ghostbusters 2. But the fact remains – almost nobody knows whether or not this film is going to be good or bad. The trailer is not the film. It’s some marketing person’s idea of what they think will get people to put their ass in a theater seat. That’s it. And yet, people have been going after this movie with pitchforks and torches for months.

It’s ridiculous. And yet, it’s how the internet – and people on the internet – do everything anymore. Nobody is content to just wait until they see the finished product – they have to kvetch and bellyache about it forever and a day – and in all likelihood, it’s having a detrimental effect on the production side. There’s a reason why American cinema is littered with middle-of-the-road unambitious garbage for the most part…because film executives have learned to pitch hard for the middle-ground. That’s where they think they can make the most people happy…by producing films of low risk in the hope they can maximize their profits. The Force Awakens was a perfect example of this. It’s a weird, bloated reanimated corpse of a Star Wars film. It has the face and mannerisms of the one we love but the heart isn’t beating any longer. All our favorite characters are back, and we get some new ones – but…it’s paint-by-numbers. It hits all the narrative beats we expect from a Star Wars film, but it doesn’t really do anything we haven’t seen before.

Now we get word that studio executives are ‘terrified’ about Gareth Edwards’ new Star Wars film, and that Disney is calling for expensive re-shoots. Knowing what I know about Edwards, this probably means he turned in a really good film with measured pacing and Disney is freaking out because his movie doesn’t beat the audience over the head with an endless repetition of effects shots and OH FUCK moments. And probably everyone dies. Which would be awesome, and appropriate. And Disney is probably worried that the same fans that drove Abrams to turn in a shockingly vanilla (yet successful) Star Wars film will pillory Edwards’ work.

Ultimately, who knows. But if money is in the driver’s seat for these things, then fans know with alarming clarity how to get exactly what they want. The death threats aren’t the issue here. The problem is, in fact, entitlement.