Monthly Archives: February 2012

Thrill Chill Kill – Coming Attractions

As a special present to all my loyal readers (I know you’re out there… I hope…) I have some more issuance from my brain-case. This writing though still has that new car smell, having been conceived and perpetrated within the last few hours. Its more or less a first chapter. There is more I want to do with it, and I’m thinking that if I get positive feedback that I may try and do weekly installments. To the phones!

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“Honest Ahab’s Surplus Halloween and Gardening Supplies? No. No way. This is ‘all’ of the bullshit.” We’re standing outside a graffiti-adorned strip mall somewhere in Tennessee. Lost track of where exactly in the blur of fireworks emporiums, adult bookstores, and megachurches that have been all we’ve seen for miles.
“I know, it boggles the mind right? The place is practically a mecca for hacks. I’ve heard rovers just about make pilgrimage here, and even the repeaters like to frequent the mail order catalog.” That’s Jack, my coworker. Officially he’s supposed to be my handler, but most of the time I feel like I’m the one taking care of him.
“How is this place even legal?” I won’t deny, it’s hard to wrap my head around.
“Well, there’s nothing wrong with selling these kinds of things. Not even with selling them in the same place at the same time. Ahab is not strictly responsible for the aftermarket applications of the products he stocks.” Jack isn’t a lawyer, but technically neither am I. Two years of law school and a nervous breakdown left me with a boatload of debt and no real direction. So here I am.
“Ahab keeps his head connected to his neck by not asking any questions, but he keeps his doors open by giving us his complete no-bullshit cooperation when we ask for it.” When Jack asks for things, he typically gets them. He’s not a big guy by any stretch, but those ridiculous shirts he insists on wearing do prominently display his freakish coils of muscle. Seriously, they’re kind of weird to look at. If that doesn’t convince people then he has other, more direct arguments. This is why he’s my handler.

Maybe I should back up. Officially I am what is described as an undercover asset. Unofficially, I’m a professional high school student. At last, a chance to use my degree. Why in the name of all that is holy are your tax dollars paying my college loans? Well, because of hacks. “Hack” is sort of trade slang for serial killers, I really shouldn’t have to explain why. More narrowly it refers to the worst of the worst. The kinds of people, if you can call them that, that would give nightmares to every last American if they knew they were real. So, if the monsters are under the bed, that’s where we go. I’ll be honest, I never really… “blossomed” shall we say, so pretending to be a confused teenager isn’t really a hard sell. That said, I’m on this particular case sans-cover. This rover, that’s a hack who likes the open road, doesn’t actually work the high school angle. No, “The Spider” prefers families. The more wholesome and white-picket the better. He watches them and learns their habits, their patterns. Then while they’re away he sneaks into the house and just holes up there, in the attic or crawlspace or even inside the walls. He watches them go about their lives with him just feet away. He sneaks out at night to watch them sleep and collect little trophies from them. He does this for days, sometimes weeks. Finally, he kills them. You don’t even want to know how they’re found. His nom-de-jure is appropriate, if disturbed. I don’t want to seem cold or clinical about this sort of thing, but… there has to be a level of detachment, or else you’re just another victim waiting to happen. That’s probably the hardest part. You’re always too late for the first ones.
“So if the Spider came this way, then Ahab almost certainly saw him.” I’ve been at this almost eighteen months and I’m finally starting to get a handle on the profile, or I might just be glad not to have to sit through another algebra class for a while.
“That’s the idea. Also I thought I’d grab some tools. Been meaning to do some landscaping.” Jack doesn’t garden, despite what his meticulously maintained tan might suggest. What he does do is improvise distressingly effective deadly implements from common household items. He has a litany of black belts, and his single favorite topic of discussion is the history of Okinawan weaponry, immediately followed in order of rank by obscure Myspace bands, Star Trek the Next Generation, and my boobs. The last would bother me more if he weren’t gay, and also in the habit of decapitating people who are trying to kill me. We’re partners, and if we’re lucky this strip mall pit stop might end up saving some lives…

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Dragon Bones

I’m on a revising spree apparently. Not a substitute for new material to be sure, but a productive exercise nonetheless. The following is a marginally-more-presentable draft of a piece I did based on the prompt to emulate the style of a particular writer. I will not deign to guess how well I succeeded, but I had some fun rolling it around.

I have seen the bones of dragons. They litter the culling fields of my childhood home like a parliament of gargoyles. The big house, the capitol of our Louisiana barony, is the skull. Its many eyes lidless yet unseeing, shuttered by bleached cataracts. This place, this land, is a great corpse. A vast tract of carrion. Its sinews and humors have been pulled apart and strewn all o’er. Cats feral as to have never beheld so strange a thing as man crawl over the groves and fields thick as maggots on an overripe fruit. Chestnut groves of which tall tales yet linger on the fattened, dusty tongues of old men, lie arthritic and sickly as those same heralds. They twist and groan, afflicted of a terrible blight. The end of their race. The flesh of their bark blisters and lesions without dignity, exposing meat yellow like tobacco-spittle. The old slave quarters, later a shantytown of sharecroppers, now nothing but broken wooden teeth through which the wind whistles in ominous chords. Adjoining this city of the dead is the true necropolis, the mausoleums and tombs of my kinsmen, freestanding yet lashed to the very earth by cloying vines of kudzu. They are stoic, defying me silently to uproot them, as if the shallow dirt should itself rise up to inveigh me.

That is why I am here. I am an undertaker. It is my business to swaddle the dead as once they were babes and then return them to the ground from which the lord God did first draw them. I am also the last of my line, our family tree now another blighted chestnut. It falls to me to pay the ferryman, to reap the final stalk. I was not the first choice for this task, nor the second, nor should I have been chosen at all, save that I am now unique. In my blood swims a curse of darkness. It makes itself known in different ways through my clan; a tinge of copper, a twilight cast. I however bear it in uncommon abundance. An octoroon, a man and yet not a man. I bear the shame of ancient sin, a walking monument to my family’s inequity. Mother would often warn of retrieving Old Man Jed, our former overseer, to whip the darkness from me. In my fledgling years, I was weaned on tales of the old ways. A Greek chorus of widows and spinsters would fashion stories of forgotten chivalry and gentility. To hear them speak of it, the coming of the Yankeeman was a plague worthy of Moses.

Theirs were not the only stories I knew though. Mammie, a titanic black shape like a storm cloud, had as much hand in raising me to manhood as did my mother, some might say even more. She too had stories, very different stories. Whenever mother would threaten me with Jed, Mammie would never fail to repeat the tale of how the toothless old overseer had whipped her brother straight to death. Mother always thought this was added encouragement for me to behave, but more than once I saw a fire in Mammie’s eye as she told it. Mother was too proper a lady to look a servant in the eye, so she never caught Mammie damning Old Jed. She also spun more fantastical stories, which never failed to delight me as I grew. Ghosts and ghouls and the devil himself filled our heavy evenings. Most of all I remember dragons’ bones. If a man could find a cache of this sacred marrow, he could perform feats both mighty and phantasmagorical. I heard Mammie attribute everything from headache remedies to the resurrection of Christ to these miraculous pieces of carrion. I would find old chicken bones and run shouting to Mammie about my spectacular find, and she would dutifully play along. I always imagined one day finding the true thing, making myself a famous juju-man with their secrets. Now, looking across the wasted land, I know that I have indeed found them. There is nothing miraculous about these bones, however. They are vast in proportion, but like all bones, like my bones, they will someday crumble to dust.

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Hand of Glory

Trying to get back on the writing wagon. Polished an older piece a little bit ago. It is yet still more other bad poetry, but I’m not subjecting you to another Minutes entry for the time being. This one is still simplistic but has the benefit of time and revision over the purposefully raw Minutes. Presented for your consumption, the third part of the cycle begun by the earlier XIII. Where is the second part? Well if somebody asks nicely I may post it as well. Its just that its an early effort that still needs a little refurbishing. Now, without further procrastination…

Hit the pavement
On the ground, start to run
Urban jungle
You’re the blood on the stone
You’re an outlaw
Force your way on your own
Cloak and dagger
Know that you’re not alone

In the thieves’ world
In the sinister alliance
Another bloody block
Another crime of defiance
Knives in the dark
Etch the lines of my story
See by the light
Of my hand of glory

Hear the music
Fists like thunder
Black symphony
Tear the world asunder
Razor edge
Eyes wide with wonder
In the shadows
Feel it pull you under

In the thieves’ world
In the sinister alliance
Another bloody block
Another crime of defiance
Knives in the dark
Etch the lines of my story
See by the light
Of my hand of glory

And in the candlelight
Hear the silence of the dead
I will not be afraid to fight
Beneath the moon baleful and red
And in the whispers of the damned
See the faces of your sins
In your shallow grave you stand
Witness how the devil grins

Running faster
From the man with your fate
Pound of flesh
Repaying your debt of hate
Breath your last
Feel the black pall’s crushing weight
See the reaper
And you know its too late

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Indian Country

So,  Scalped. Oh Scalped. Where do I even start? I’ve been promising to do this for a while, and I’ve been excited to do so. It hasn’t really come though. Why? Well, at the end of the day its hard for me to review things I like, and its even harder for me to review things I love. I’m trained to critique, to find flaws. Expressing in concrete terms what I actually like about something has always been difficult. That said, being as I’m fond of referring to Scalped in statements like “Scalped is the best comic book being written today” and “All human beings who are not already reading Scalped must begin doing so upon finishing this sentence” I feel like maybe I should qualify these opinions.

Again though, where do I even start? Picking up the first trade was like tumbling down the rabbit hole into a gritty wonderland that grabbed me by the balls and still hasn’t let go. The series is like quicksand, working on so many levels of theme and characterization that its easy to be pulled under by it, never to return. Every character is like a diamond in the rough. Dirty, flawed, but compelling in all their many varied facets.

I’ve opted to pick up the series solely in trade paperback format. This may seem a strange choice for a series I love so much, particularly a niche series for which individual issue sales tend to be the foremost determinant of its continued publication. The fact is though I feel that trade really is the best possible way to experience the story. Each book feels like I’m watching an episode of an HBO miniseries. Equal parts western and crime drama, with just a sprinkling of hallucinogenic fantasy for flavor. You will love, hate, and love to hate every player in this sordid epic.

   

What I think puts Scalped a league ahead of the other entrants in the field is its explicit and powerful portrayals of poverty, addiction, and identity politics. The Prairie Rose Reservation is fictional, and its wasted physical and personal landscape is accentuated to achieve a sense of place, but this kind of crushing dystopian poverty does exist, hidden away in the forgotten closets of the American Dream. Rarely has it been brought to life so starkly as it is here by Jason Aaron’s uncompromising voice and R. M. Guerra’s peerless art. Substance abuse is a current that runs throughout the narrative of Scalped, and the self-destruction it facilitates is treated no less softly than the poverty which precipitated it. So endemic is it that I honestly cannot think of a single character who is left completely untouched by its consequences. I’ll be honest, it can be hard to read. No less of a minefield but navigated with equal nuance are the issues of racism and cultural politics. It would be easy for Scalped simply to be preachy about Native American history, both in centuries past and in more recent decades. To be sure, it hits all the right beats, and with uncommon intellectual impact, but by choosing to deal with all of its uncomfortable complexities, Scalped succeeds in making its points penetrate even deeper than it might have otherwise.

Scalped only has ten more issues remaining in its run, intending to wrap up with its sixtieth sequential entry. A good run, all told. Nevertheless, I will be sorry to see it go. Scalped was a story that can only have been told in a comic book. Any other medium simply would not have done it justice. Yet, I feel Scalped in many ways transcends the narrative art that contains it. Scalped is a book I pitch to people who don’t even read comic books, and thus far nobody has told me they’ve been disappointed. In the years after Scalped has finally drawn to a close I strongly feel it will come to be regarded not merely as a masterwork of the comic book medium, but as a masterwork of literature in its own right.

The denizens of Prairie Rose are bound together by their inability to escape. For hardcore fans of the series I believe Scalped has bound us to a similar fate. Long after the sun sets on Prairie Rose for the last time, part of us will never leave “The Rez.”

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Starkiller ’75

So this week I’m going to engage in one of those inevitable nostalgia-fueled exercises in recidivism, the retrospective review. While dredging through the vaults it occurred to me that this presented a perfect opportunity to further illuminate a personal favorite, if perhaps somewhat less well known, film. This particular cult science-fiction piece was a poorly understood and largely unappreciated labor of love by a visionary director and in many ways an incubator for future industry talent. I am speaking of course about Legend of Starkiller.

Starkiller could probably best be described as a samurai film set in space. All the tropes are there (in fact it borrows more than a few beats more or less directly from Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress and Bodyguard), just the set dressing is altered. In that respect it has been debated endlessly whether or not Starkiller can properly be qualified as science fiction at all. It is true that the movie lacks the cynical, cerebral quality present in most other contemporary science fiction works, but I would argue that Starkiller prefers to harken back to an earlier brand of what might almost be called “science fantasy,” having more in common with Flash Gordon or John Carter of Mars. Moreover, if Starkiller is not science fiction, then The Magnificent Seven is not a western. The latter film has the same relationship with Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai that the former has with its own source material, and I highly doubt anyone will try to argue against Seven‘s genre chops.

The film’s debt to the pulpy movie serials of director George Lucas’ youth is apparent withing the first fifteen seconds. It’s receding crawl opening narration immediately imprints the celluloid with a distinctive and evocative style that it maintains for its duration. This same crawl asserts the film to be “Episode I – The Star Wars,” strongly implying the intent for a potential series of films. Part pulp serial part mythic saga. This makes it all the more unfortunate that Starkiller was the only film in this vein to have been produced.

The protagonists of the film are the brother’s Deak and Luke Starkiller. Which brother the film is supposed to be the “Legend” of is not made explicitly clear. Presumably another idea for the unproduced sequels to explore. Luke Starkiller is played with confident if somewhat stiff bravado by Robert Englund, probably more familiar to most movie goers as the sinister Fred Kruger from the Nightmare on Elm Street films of the following decade. Deak Starkiller by contrast feels much more comfortable in the hands of Mark Hamill, whose portrayal clearly foreruns his eventual success in the lead of Lucas’ more popular Flash Gordon adaptation seven years later. Continuing the who’s-who of eventual breakouts Chris Walken plays the part of Han Solo, an appropriately rakish space pirate who throws in with the Starkillers’ motley band.

On the other end of the spectrum Lucas also had success wrangling a pair of established stars, albeit ones who’s careers were already on the decline, to shepherd his cast of relative unknowns. Toshiro Mifune is right at home in the samurai drama surrounding him as the enigmatic Obi Wan Kenobi, while the inimitable Orson Welles gnaws the scenery with every line as the voice of the evil Darth Vader.

All that being said, while the casting is great, the chemistry is a bit… off. Englund and Walken play off eachother more naturally than the rest of the cast, but the two are on screen together for only a small percentage of the movie. The most memorable interactions by far are the much needed comic relief provided by Anthony Daniels and Stan Freburg as bumbling android bureaucrats. By the same token, the shared history between Kenobi and Vader doesn’t really come across in Mifune and Welles’ rather stilted interactions. What does work between them though is the spectacular lightsword battle at the end of the second act. The thrumming sound effect of the lightswords is not difficult to associate with Buddhist chanting given the surreal, Zen-like quality to the duel. The yin and yang of Jedi-Bendu versus Sith Warrior is perfectly captured by Lucas’ direction and the combined stage combat pedigree of Mifune and Vader stunt double Bob Anderson really sells it. By contrast, the climactic lightsword fight between Vader and Deak just doesn’t come off nearly as polished. Editing is part of the problem here. The action keeps cutting back and forth between this scene and Luke’s starfighter assault on Alderan, the Imperial stronghold. Both action sequences are highly detailed and serve as a good third act set piece, but the tension each builds is undermined by the rough, jerky transitions between them. Normally this sort of editing is among Lucas’ strengths, but with the project overbudget and out of time it is rumored Lucas suffered a nervous breakdown in the final weeks, leaving editing of the latter scenes to rookie collaborator Richard Chew with some uncredited assistance from Orson Welles, a favor for which Lucas helped lobby funding in later years for Welles’ unfinished opus The Other Side of the Wind, still tragically in limbo at the time of the actor’s death.

These aren’t the movie’s only problems certainly, but frankly almost all are forgivable in light of the film’s compelling visual narrative. Lucas was far from the first to attempt to transform the American southwest into an alien landscape, but I would argue he was the most successful at it, even if funding restrictions precluded his initially more ambitious Tunisian shooting set. From these sweeping desert pans on the desolate planet of Tatooine to the impressively rendered cloudscapes around the floating city of Alderan, Starkiller communicates a sense of place and a sense of wonder like few other movies before or since. It’s B-movie material executed with all the scope and grandeur of a golden age Selznick piece.

That combination of artistic panache, exotic sensibility, and good old feeling of adventure could have made science fiction ‘the’ genre of the emerging Hollywood blockbuster. However, it was not to be. In 1972 Lucas had a film deal with United Artists to produce Starkiller and another film entitled American Graffiti, a kind of drive-in paean to the youthful rebellion of the 50’s and another promising project which never saw the light of day. Initially Lucas was to direct the more modest Graffiti and then move on to the riskier genre film dependent upon the former’s success. Unexpectedly though, United Artists chose to option Starkiller first, despite the project still being in its nascence.  Lucas initially balked, but was persuaded to pursue this dream film after being convinced that this was a now-or-never opportunity being offered by Artists. So, Starkiller was run through a rapid gauntlet of screenplay drafts and then rushed into production. Trouble began almost from the outset when United Artists initially proposed filming Starkiller on the budget which had been greenlit for Graffiti, a scanty seven hundred thousand. Lucas balked again and after much negotiation a budget of two million was agreed upon, though still substantially less than what had been hoped for. Because of this, Starkiller accrued frequent cost overruns and at one point United Artists is rumored to have considered firing Lucas from his own movie. This acrimony between Lucas and the studio only intensified over time, and has been blamed by some in large part for why sequels were never produced, despite critical acclaim and a respectable if underwhelming box office take.

It wasn’t the end of the world, either for the cast or for Lucas. Most of the leads went on to prolific and popular careers, and Lucas’ auteur talent was not unrecognized by all. His aforementioned 1982 Flash Gordon picture for Paramount feels in many ways like a spiritual successor to Starkiller, and was better rewarded by general audiences. Starkiller remains however a stillborn pet project, consigned forever to well regarded cult status. The status is not undeserved, but it is difficult to escape the feeling that it was a missed opportunity, something which could have been so much more.

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