Did you know I thought I got rid of the Schlock hivemind? I’m sure you didn’t, but in any case its rumbling as it awoke from its aestivation got to me, and now I’m back at the POP CULTURE DESTRUCTION game. Some new faces get to join the fun – and Schlock-brand podcasts make a triumphant return with the POP CULTURE DESTRUCTCAST ! Together, we will destroy all pop culture!
Okay, one reason for this column’s hiatus, other than procrastination, is my being on holiday. I went to Japan for a couple of weeks! Yes, it was rather awesome, and all too short. Here, have some photos.
That is the view from the Mori Tower, Roppongi. The sprawl of Tokyo goes on and on, for miles and miles. That red tower in the distance is Tokyo Tower, by the way.
Here’s the entrance to that terrible nerd mecca, Akihabara.
In Kyoto, on the other hand, they post warnings on how animes are executed on sight. I know Japanese, trust me on that one (okay it’s just an advert for some public transport ticketing system or something)
Some might ask what cool shit I got from Japan. The short answer is not that much. I did spend a fair bit on plastic tat from Gachapon machines (all of which got immediately donated to my niece), and in any case most of my money went straight to my stomach, which was a good course of action as the food in Japan is amazing. However did get to buy a literal couple of books – the Rockin’ JellyBean artbook, which is one purchase I wanted to make for a long, long time, and the Redline Super Anime Album, which is exactly what it says on the label (you should recall I reviewed Redline in the very first Pop Culture Destruction!). Oh I did keep exactly one Gachapon prize – a Marco and Super Vehicle-001 from Metal Slug because, c’mon, one of the best games ever and a character sharing my name? That is totally my jam.
Speaking of Japan, here is the trailer to Yakuza Zero, a game about men breaking men in 1980’s Tokyo and Osaka. Pictured within: sharp suits, snakeskin boots, ugly dudes with skin like a Martian surface, casual sexism.
More games! Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain has been an all too long time coming, but here is why it’ll be worth the wait – Snake gets a puppy! Okay it’s a wolf, but still, doggy! With an eyepatch! I just can’t wait to feed him, and brush him, and love him, and get him permakilled on the battlefield… Wait what.
So recently I got paid by a local newspaper to review the latest Marvel film, Guardians of the Galaxy. I frankly don’t get why so many people loved it so much (beyond neeerds). Maybe I would have managed to care more about it if it looked like this illustration by Yeeebis.
I don’t know why this comics adaptation of Die Hard where John McClane is replaced by Homer Simpson exists, but I am kind of glad it does.
So I got to watch Jonathan Glazer’s first film in nearly ten years, Under the Skin. It is a film of great power and depth – so much so it had to be discussed, specifically with Schlock contributor and horror buff Lara Schembri. The below is our conversation; not one that is over in any means, but one had to cut a line somehow.
UNDER THE SKIN (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
Lara: Rarely do you walk out of the theatre with the feeling that a movie has unfurled on screen everything that could possibly be done within the parameters it sets out for itself. I have a thing for so-called ‘flawed masterpieces’, which are not flawed or failed at all. More likely, they lay bare their personal scope, which is always subject to embarrassment. More likely, failure brings them closer to the human experience of trying to make stories cohere while knee-deep in an endless reservoir of them. It made me think of the sprawling films of Richard Kelly – Southland Tales (2006) and The Box (2009) – straining to tie the most unlikely things together. Inevitably, we will inhale and say, with a condescending smirk, “It was almost there!” It’s already there, I believe, but in a different way, like a fondness for large noses and crooked teeth.
Marco: Initially Under the Skin left me somewhat confused, if on what I should feel about it – is it merely good or actually very, very good? As I thought more about it my opinion shifted; now I’d say it is, in fact, a masterpiece. It truly got under my skin, if you will (groan).
Lara: I felt that Under the Skin uses its baggage well. The pairing of body horror and interpersonal sci-fi makes for a disturbingly brutal dissection table – many implications meet in appropriately dark places. It’s about power and weakness, genre and gender, about film theory and history too – a cultural immersion so deep and engulfing, so ingrained into social relationships, that we’re lost in a deep, thick, unsettling syrup.
It’s “Other” not only in the sense that it documents the trail of an alien perception stalking the streets of Glasgow, but also because it lets you inhabit a space that as film lovers we’d like to sink into: the mysterious Cinematic, the Filmic, the Skin of the Film, the Dark Womb of the Theatre! That thing we experience so vividly in Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) or grow squeamish at in Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006). At the same time, it feels like it ties up all its threads and implications, even when the plot – rather than the story or themes – remain obscure.
Marco: You mentioned Blade Runner in passing, and that actually makes for an interesting comparison. Both Under the Skin and Blade Runner are genre stories told in an “art house” fashion, both are superficially ambiguous, and both have to do with non-humans dealing with humanity. Blade Runner has its replicants; Under the Skin has Scarlet Johansson (whose superb performance I’ll simply describe as sexily disturbing (or disturbingly sexy) and leave it at that). Her unnamed protagonist is the “Other” in disguise as a human, one preying on a specific kind of lonely human male. Unlike the replicants she lacks even the comfort of knowing there’s others of her kind (maybe the mysterious motorcyclists are – not that it matters), and the more she is in contact with humanity it affects her. But she can never be human, even if on the outside she’s the ultimate in desirable, disarming woman – much like how a praying mantis in disguise as a flower can never become a flower – and her attempts to do so are what bring about her downfall. She’s somehow evolved (or made?) as the ultimate femme fatale, and that’s what she’s destined to be, forever roaming the urban landscape in a van, the vehicle of choice for predators everywhere (like everything in this film, even the choice of vehicle signifies something).
Talk about predatory films that entrap you in thick, dark fluid, eh?
Lara: I’m glad that your confusion was more about a general suspended judgment rather than about the implications the film makes. I felt that it makes its critique of power – especially about gender dynamics – unmistakable. When I say that the plot remains obscure, I mean that some details remain open to interpretation. But all interpretations would ultimately lend themselves to the same conclusions. Glazer’s film weaves an economical maze; the story threads are taut in all the right places. An example: are the mysterious henchmen collecting male punters for harvesting, or are they merely the cleaning crew for an intergalactic behavioural experiment? Their intentions at plot level don’t matter, because the conclusions are the same: men are less likely to question the advances of an attractive female because the world which human beings make and believe (the artificial rat maze taken for reality) has not conditioned males to suspect foul play as readily as socially conditioned females.
The same applies to the socially marginalized, as suggested by the scene were a physically disfigured youth is the only male to show more suspicion than bemused surprise at being offered sexual advances. This point is where we might assume that the alien intelligence has undergone some form of doubt or curiosity, stepping out of her ascribed role as lure only to learn what it means to be a human female in a world stalked by lonely, entitled human males. Controlled by the system when you’re predator, alone when you reject its protection.
Marco: I suppose most reviews missed on Under the Skin‘s commentary on gender dynamics – or, hell, its plot – simply because it’s not overt about it. There’s no expository opening, no scientist providing explanation, no Scarlett Johansson monologues. Mind, Johansson’s remarkable performance speaks volumes – she starts off charming and witty as she flirts her way with her first victims (and which man, desperately lonely or not, would resist her really? Although one wonders if it’s simply an act, a trick of evolution, or whether she was genuinely interested in these men), but once her very being is shattered in her encounter with the deformed young man she’s virtually monosyllabic, and the only dialogue comes from men who want their way with her. And to hammer this point down further the location changes – from the urban environs of Glasgow to chilly, rugged nature. And while the photography brings to mind Malick, neither seaside nor forest are bucolic reflections of god – a family is shattered by the sea, and the forest is where Johansson’s protagonist ends up near-raped before her death.
Lara: I suppose what surprises me is that it feels like a film for film critics – with very direct nods to film history, film theory, film genre and the overall mystique of ‘the Apparatus’ – yet the widespread reaction is that it’s not ‘overt’, that it is ‘obscure’. Many reviews have paused on the clever play on the star system: Johansson, a star, would literally be an alien on the streets of Glasgow. But I think there’s more to it than Johansson being perfectly cast as femme fatale – just like Nicole Kidman was previously perfectly cast in Glazer’s Birth, which I felt was a close study of Polanski’s Rosemary. Both films strike me as very intuitive and intimate readings of female character types which take place inside contexts of gendered power and control.
To me the mystery of Under the Skin felt much less obscure than that of Birth (Jonathan Glazer, 2004), which also nods heavily to silent film, intellectual montage and film theory. And that’s probably because Under the Skin casts its net much wider than the confines of an elite society and personal prison. It still retains a sense of suffocating personal drama, the idea of being trapped inside an alien body, of reincarnation, of endlessly repeating the same power struggles, of not being able to get to the root of a problem perfectly hidden beneath the pleasure of the images we know (there’s the skin of the film again). Under the Skin seems to take on a much wider political angle. Either way, watching women play such self-reflexive roles, rather than simply reproducing them, is exciting.
Marco: This brings to mind another film – Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013), another film unafraid to baffle its audience with a lack of exposition or overt explanation. It’s also thematically similar, from its lonely protagonists seeking solace in each other following traumatic experiences to its view on nature. Upstream Color is perhaps more “complicated” – it deals with the terrifyingly complex life cycles of parasites (nature makes anything fiction comes up with look trite and unimaginative) – whereas Under the Skin is about simpler hunter-prey relationships. But both are rather deterministic, if not fatalistic. Fight against your nature and you die, both films suggest – Scarlett Johansson’s struggle with her being is what dooms her, while Upstream Color’s conclusion suggests the parasite brought its victims back to the farm in order to continue its lifecycle.
Lara: I’m so glad that you mentioned Upstream Color, as the thought hadn’t occurred to me, but the contrasts/comparisons are very poignant. I’m not sure I’d agree about it being more “complicated”, but its structure did feel more obscure to me to be sure, perhaps because the point of view is less that of cultural documentary and more that of solidarity after personal trauma as you say. You mention Under the Skin’s seductive quality: when I was younger I found it very hard to accept that the femme fatale had no power, no autonomy of her own. After watching more noir, I can’t help but see that she is just a void of self-destruction, into which she recedes when the gumshoe has come out of his own swoon. That the film picks up on this major image of noir so literally is very exciting. It’s the mode of the political genre story. It lets us fictionally abstract an invisible thing. In this case it’s an ingrained biological determinism that is taught, learned and accepted as inevitable. And, it’s a system which turns around and bites itself in the ass by leaving in its wake legions of desperate, lonely, mildly depressed men who walk the quasi-apocalyptic streets of Glasgow.
Marco: We both bring about that noir staple, the femme fatale. In most films – including Under the Skin – she is the harbinger of her own doom, no matter how well thought her plans are, either by attraction to the all American hero (who despite his flaws is a paragon of rugged masculinity and therefore ‘Good’) or sheer hubris. One recent exception however is The Counselor (2013), a Ridley Scott-directed, Cormac McCarthy-penned jet-black neo-noir, a strange and beautiful film all too unfairly panned by the critics. There we meet Cameron Diaz’s Malkina, at face value a walking, talking caricature of the femme fatale, so cat-like she has jaguar spot tattoos and, get this, actually owns cheetahs. However Malkina is in no way a doomed protagonist. On the contrary, while the titular Counselor (Michael Fassbender) and his associates end up facing ironic, quasi-Biblical justice (the worst fate of all is faced by Laura (Penélope Cruz), the Counselor’s all too innocent lover and Malkina’s direct opposite), Malkina wins. Her plan to botch the Counselor’s drug deal works perfectly. She’s the one riding off into the sunset.
Lara: I haven’t watched The Counselor, but I will now. Also, thanks for linking me to Sarah Horrocks’ review of Under the Skin, which raises some very valid observations about race and the more mythical aspect of the politics we’ve discussed.
Part of the new Pop Culture Destruction mission statement is to give more space to outside contributions. Such as Schlock’s own Teodor Reljic, who by now is the closest I have to a regular contributor. Here he takes on Authority, the sequel to Annhilation, which you’ll surely recall I’ve reviewed a few months back. The finale to the Southern Reach trilogy is already out, and, yes, it will be reviewed. Watch this space!
AUTHORITY (Jeff Vandermeer, 2014)
Jeff VanderMeer returns to the mysterious “Area X” for the second instalment of his Southern Reach trilogy, which concludes with Acceptance.
Picking up some years after the events of the first book (Annihilation), Authority plunges readers into a paranoid landscape – both literal and figurative – which could be described as “weird espionage”.
Our protagonist John Rodriguez (aka “Control”) is charged with investigating just what happened during the doomed expedition detailed in the first book, where an all-female crew appeared to be bested by Area X, a piece of unspoilt land shrouded in mystery and prone to strange occurrences.
The way the Southern Reach novels walk a tightrope between the strange and the accessible may just be their winning formula, on all fronts. Neither weird-for-weird’s sake, nor a disingenuous (and desperate) bid to appeal to the masses, Annihilation and Authority create suspenseful narratives that allow just enough ambiguity and strangeness to keep us reading.
Where its predecessor, Annihilation, was an expedition-thriller told from the point of view of a troubled protagonist, Authority continues the story but switches both character and genre.
This time, not only does the novel do away with Annihilation’s claustrophobic first-person perspective in favour of a (nonetheless closely-focused) third person narration… it also shifts generic gears, going for a John le Carre-inspired espionage structure.
Having a protagonist going by “Control” is both appropriate and ironic here. Originally a family nickname that disquietingly morphed into a professional handle, Control points to the fact that, actually, John doesn’t really have any, as becomes increasingly more evident the deeper he wades into the scattershot history of the doomed expedition he’s meant to be investigating.
But it also happens to be an economical way of describing VanderMeer’s hold of his ongoing story so far. More intriguing for what it omits than what it actually shows, both books have managed to create a consistent sense of slowly building dread and disquiet, without resorting to any sensationalism or convenient plot twists.
This is a testament to VanderMeer’s firm grip on his story, which also validates another recent project of his: the inspiring and beautifully illustrated Wonderbook – a guide to creative writing that takes into account the organic process involved while also pinpointing key concerns for up-and-coming writers.
Authority certainly indicates that he practices what he preaches. It’s a crisp-and-brisk read despite being, at the surface, little more than an analysis of what happened in Annihilation. For the longest part of the novel, Control is mainly office-bound, parsing through files and footage of the previous expedition. But far from being monotonous, this creates a necessary build-up of suspense, and VanderMeer rewards the reader’s patience once he reaches the central ‘what-the-fuck?’ moment of the book (I won’t give away any explicit spoilers, but the clue is in the cover illustration).
Authority is also a novel that gets weird behind our own backs. Undermining its title as well as its protagonist’s nickname, it gradually shows us that the Southern Reach project is a doomed – and possibly corrupt – endeavour that is threatening to collapse under its own weight. We witness the rot gradually: not in any dramatic displays of indignation and collapse but through administrative confusion. It could be that Control’s attempts at getting to the truth are sidelined due to some insidious purpose. But it’s equally possible that the whole project was compromised due to endemic incompetence.
There is also a dysfunctional family dynamic at play that keeps Control on his already overworked toes, and injects a personal touch amidst all the Kafkaesque intrigue. But far from softening the confusion with a humanising touch, even this feels somewhat off-kilter. When even your nearest and dearest are swallowed up by an insidious system, it’s no surprise that true paranoia is quick to blossom.
Taking place largely in offices and interrogation rooms – Control’s uneasy interviews with Annihilation’s narrator, the traumatised and resentful ‘biologist’, are at the core of the novel – Authority also allows a (typically restrained) peek into the natural landscape that appears to be the true protagonist of the series. This element is a crucial part of the Southern Reach endeavour, and it may even be the series’ key identifying marker. Though VanderMeer has shown himself to be an illusionist of the highest calibre when it comes to playing around with genres (a fact that is evident even in his back catalogue), it’s his detailed and thoroughly unsentimental representation of the natural landscape that wraps around and propels this story that really gives it an edge.
Given such a deft manipulation of moods and styles, it’s to VanderMeer’s credit that we’re looking forward to the final instalment – not only to find out what will happen, but how it will be detailed…
THE MULTIVERSITY #1 (Grant Morrison, Ivan Reis et al, 2014)
Noticed that audio player there? Now is a good time to click it, as my good friend and sometime Schlock contributor Robert Iveniuk joins me in a chat on the first issue of Grant Morrison’s latest DC Comics opus, The Multiversity. Discussed within – Grant Morrison’s previous DC work, namely Final Crisis, Seven Soldiers, All Star Superman, JLA, Doom Patrol and Flex Mentallo, as well as the real-life power of superheroes, ethnic representation in superhero and genre fiction, and comics about comics about comics.
Robert has a piece in the Long Hidden, an anthology “from the margins of speculative history,” and you should check that out over here.
Pop Culture Destruction theme comes courtesy of Friend of Schlock Thom Chuschieri
DOCTOR WHO season 8, episodes 1-5 (2014)
Let’s get the more obvious of openings out of the way – no, Malcolm Tucker is NOT the new Doctor Who. Sure, the most furious of eyebrows might be present, as are the Scots accent and generally shouty demeanor, but the 12th Doctor is pretty much his own character. As played by Peter Capaldi he’s genial, cranky and just a bit confused by the world he’s found himself in. Basically he’s me, as I’m watching this latest season of this most venerable of time-travel based TV shows.
I’ll admit, I’m not much of a Doctor Who fan. Sure, I’d watched a first couple of seasons of the 2005 revival – the ones starring Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant as the Doctor specifically – but I fell off the loop soon enough, and by the time Matt Smith took the protagonist mantle I wasn’t too arsed with catching up with the damn thing. Add the show’s wildly wobbly standard of quality and infuriating insistence on continuity, and I was more than glad to keep the show firmly on ignore. But Capaldi does bear the promise of a fresh start, and opinions relatively unmarred by knowledge of past seasons I just had to at least give it another try. And, say what you will, the very concept behind Doctor Who is brilliant. It’s beautiful in its simplicity – an immortal and a young companion travel through time and space in a magic box! It allows for an infinite variety of stories, and in another great touch the titular protagonist has the power of “regeneration” – meaning once the lead actor is tired of the show or whatever he can simply be replaced with a new guy, and all can be waved off in the name of plot. Again, genius.
That said, the first episode (“Deep Breath”) could have done a better job at introducing Capaldi’s Doctor, as it has him doing little than running around in Victorian London while being upset over becoming Malcolm Tucker and the “murder” of an unconvincing CG dinosaur that somehow joined the TARDIS in crash landing in that particular time/space combination. In the meantime companion Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) joins up some oddballs from a previous episode I’d failed to watch (a lizard lady, her maid and a dumpy alien soldier of some sorts, a trio entertaining deserving of an own show) before she and the Doctor learn that a clutch of creepy clockwork robots are hidden beneath London together with their time travelling spaceship – one that also bears a reference to yet another previous episode. Continuity, ew.
From the five episodes seen so far the best are those that work as standalone stories, really. “The Robot of Sherwood” is a fun enough take on the Robin Hood mythos, one bolstered immensely by Tom Riley’s Errol Flynn-esque Robin of Locksley. And that’s despite a particularly dumb plot starring some rubbish robots in a gold-powered spaceship (then again one has to remember this is a show for children, and seen as such it all works). My favourite episode is the fifth, “Time Heist”, mostly because it involves some of my favourite things – cyberpunk stylings, weird aliens, a high concept heist, Jenna Coleman in a suit. Sure its relevations are telegraphed from miles away (go on, guess who the heist-planning “Architect” is!) but it’s a pacy genre piece, and features one-shot characters one hopes will do a return. “Listen” is also a nice little horror story, but it’s shat on in the end with the threat of continuity with future episodes, as well as the companion’s syrupy romantic plot. Because lord forbid the one female character not falling for some hunk, right?
Still, so far at least Doctor Who appears to has made a return to the watchable. Or at least I’ll continue following it, unless it takes a sudden turn towards the deeply shitty (or even shittier?). After all, I’ve no time machine to get back the minutes wasted watching nonsense…