2012: Kill Me, Kill Me Now

Clearly the United States wants to be dead.  Fifty years of necrotic consumerism have made almost everyone lazy, stupid, and greedy—most with extra cheese.  And now that the wheels have come off the cart, there seems to be little political will to enact the vast social engineering it would actually take to prevent the nation’s seemingly inexorable transformation into an abandoned strip mall. Most failed empires have accepted their decline with some degree of dignity (look at the U.K.—every year they graciously allow all their former colonial subjects to obliterate them in cricket).  But the U.S.A. will most certainly not go gently into that good night.  No, we will abdicate our power in a fit of infantile histrionics--we will make the world feel our pain--we will demand to remain the center of all attention no matter what—and if there really is an end to the “American Century,” we will take everyone out with us—at least on film.

Just look at 2012, currently rattling the lobby at a cinema near you.  Somehow planet-killer Roland Emmerich has churned out the greatest American political allegory of the new century (doubly impressive having just made 10,000 B.C, arguably the greatest prehistoric prison riot film ever made).  The 2012 ad campaign would have you believe the movie is about some imminent rendezvous with cosmic destruction predicted centuries ago by the Mayans, but don’t be fooled.  2012 is actually about the right now of 2009, and while the rest of the cosmos is involved to some degree, it is primarily a movie about America coming to terms with its own mortality.

Here’s all you need to know about the plot:  For 2.5 hours, panicked Americans flee from escalating disintegration…literally, that’s the entire movie.  Whether he knows it or not, Emmerich has masterfully translated the nation’s broken polity, economic despair, waning influence, environmental destruction, befuddled impotence, and general malaise into a single visual motif—cracking pavement.  For the first half of the film especially, rare is the moment when the central cast isn't fleeing by foot, by car, or by plane from ground that is literally disintegrating out from under them.  Earthquake movies used to be about falling head-first into great chasms, having your bright future tragically pre-empted by a fault-line of fate, but here the characteristic terror is spidery fissures and collapsing topsoil chasing you from behind--like a bad dream.  The entire vibe is like trying to get an overloaded Hummer out of a Walmart parking lot before it rolls back into a sinkhole full of rioting third-world factory workers and angry Chinese bankers.

Scientists generally agree that the end of the world will begin in Los Angeles—the epicenter of the American “look at me” industry--and 2012 does not disappoint in this regard.  After all, where else would the end of the world begin other than in the city that so loves to imagine what it would be like for the rest of the world to witness the singular tragedy of its demise?  Every time I see L.A. destroyed on film (which is constantly, it seems), an extra-textual drama appears to unfold as well: “See, this is what we who make the movies risk to bring you the movies.  The obstacles and hazards we face, like the pleasures and luxuries we enjoy, are like no other on earth.”  It’s a bit like having to show up to bear witness every time a hysterical teenager has a suicidal fantasy that demands a concerned audience for full catharsis.   

As pleasing as it is to see multi-million dollar CGI work dumping vast swaths of multi-million dollar real estate into the sea, I couldn’t help but think how much more interesting the movie could have been in reverse—the end of the world starting somewhere beyond the media horizon, rippling across the ocean and North American continent, imploding the Mojave, crashing through the Santa Monica range, moving down Sepulveda Boulevard ever closer toward a non-descript post-production house in the valley.  And then the final shot:  the shockwave blasts open the door to reveal a bunch of interns sitting around eating Koo-Koo-Roo and waiting for the now obligatory “there goes the big donut from Randy’s Donuts” sequence to finish rendering on the computer.  “Dude!  The world really is coming to an end?!,” exclaims a terrified animator just before the screen makes a shock-cut to blank white.  That would make 2012, not just the greatest political allegory of the century, but also the first truly great film about the cinema’s own apparent death wish.

But seriously, the unmoored "Randy’s Donut" joke has got to go—it’s like having every film about New York feature a stiff wind blowing down a Gray’s Papaya sign.  We get it…it’s a tacky place beloved by the locals for its tackiness (i.e. west side culture workers who have to pass by it on their way to airport).

Subsequent scenes of destruction are much less compelling.  A volcano goes off in Yellowstone, but that’s nature v. nature action, so no one really cares.  Washington D.C. is destroyed—but as D.C. is now more of a theme park than a real seat of power, seeing the Washington Monument collapse (it’s the Randy’s Donuts of D.C.) is really no different than seeing a demolition crew take down the Cyclone at Coney Island.  Molten lava pouring through the Mall of America would have been a much more effective and terrifying scene, reminding us all that the true “end of the world” for this nation is losing the ability to buy Chihuahua sweaters, personal desktop dehumidifiers, and vibrating slankets on credit.    

Here and elsewhere, Emmerich subscribes to the Michael Bay school of character development; specifically, if a character speaks five or more lines of dialogue without popping a kid’s balloon or drowning a kitten, it is presumed we are now intensely “invested” in that character’s fate.  Apparently Hollywood hasn’t yet worked out all the kinks in this program of affective compression, as 2012 seems to have endless scenes of people you don’t care about saying tearful goodbyes to other people you don’t care about.  George Segal?  Don’t care.  Old jazz musician father?  Equally unconcerned.  President of the United States?  So what.  Heroic Russian pilot?  Not really.  Son with Japanese wife and grandchild?  Nope.  Anonymous Chinese worker who might die if not released from the hydraulic gears?  Ditto.   In fact, I doubt anyone would be that broken up if John Cusak or Amanda Peet had bitten the magma.  Why filmmakers still feel the need to intercut awesome destructive spectacle with such perfunctory sentiment is beyond me.  If I wanted plot and characters with my fantasies of future annihilation, I’d read the Bible, thank you very much.

In fact, there is only one character in the entire movie for whom a tiny bubble of sympathy temporarily forms—the Russian concubine who had to sleep with Boris Repulsovich, take care of his obnoxious kids, and undergo unwanted breast augmentation.  And we only feel “sorry” for her because at one point in the film she saves her dog from certain death (and as all filmgoers know, kindness/cruelty to a dog counts for much more than kindness/cruelty to people).  So when she goes out Abyss/Poseidon Adventure style, there is a glimmer of almost approaching the distant threshold of possibly giving a shit. 

But back to the political allegory.  One charming aspect of the film is how the United States still thinks it is in control of everything--even as the world is coming to an end.  World leaders dutifully line up on monitors to hear what our President has to say, to see what he wants to do—a nostalgic throwback to the American fantasy that Ronald Reagan single-handedly lectured the Soviet politburo into submission and glared the Berlin Wall into rubble.  A more likely scenario here is that the United States will one day create the film’s central “neutrino” crisis by developing some particularly pungent form of granite-dissolving Body Spray, landing the Prez. in the Hague and forcing all other Americans to once again travel the world with Canadian backpacks until the molten lava at last breaks through the earth's mantle to put us out of our embarrassed misery.  

When not reveling in the U.S.A.’s misplaced sense of awesomeness, 2012 makes strange nods to the nation’s uncertain position in the new global economy.  Outsourced Indian labor makes the initial discovery that the earth is about to implode (by a character who returns half-way through the film with the rest of his photogenic family so that we might see them crushed by a tsunami.  Again, don’t care).   Boris Repulski (see above) vacillates, like Russia itself, between potential ally and ruthless backstabbing bastard (his main “crime,” other than being fat, would appear to be that he practices a cold, heartless post-glasnost form of capitalism, as opposed to the good old-fashioned empathetic capitalism of the USA).  We see the Queen of England and her Corgies skulking into the Survival Ark, once again coding England as America’s eccentric grandparent.   And then there is China.  Here the movie has a very specific and very pronounced political message:  the survival of the entire world depends on dislocating the people of Tibet and installing a program of forced Chinese labor.  “Only the Chinese,” says one character when he first sees the gleaming metallic arks that will save humanity’s elite—meaning only the Chinese could finish such a massive project on time and on budget.   It is a statement of grudging respect for the nation that has now stolen America’s Eisenhower fantasies, but also one of racist resentment that would pin our nation’s decline on the extreme and thus inhuman discipline exhibited by the teeming Asian hoards.

How much has the world changed since Michael Bay’s exemplar of the annihilation blockbuster, Armageddon (1998)?   In that film, only the can-do spirit of American cowboy-ism is up to the challenge of defeating an asteroid that would have the temerity to disrupt Bruce Willis’ freedom to pump oil and hit golf balls into the ocean.  In 2012, the U.S. not only has to depend on China to float our capital markets, but also to build the vessels that will save us to shop another day. 

There are so many other things to love/hate about 2012: its almost confrontationally hostile use of coincidence to throw certain characters together over and over again (“Look Dad!  Our grocery store is on TV!”); the humanistic blather of one guy thinking it’s worth endangering the entire future of humanity to let another .0000000001% of the remaining population onto the arks; the fact that the same .0000000001% manage to rush on to the arks at the very last second with (apparently) no one trampled to death (I mean, come on, 13 people died rushing the stage for a second-rate reincarnation of The Who); a brilliant scientist who uses his one bag of carry-on luggage to “save” a bunch of books for the future, when of course the entire Library of Congress has no doubt already been downloaded into the Ark’s mainframe; the insertion of not one, not two, not three, but four shout-outs to Wisconsin (most likely the screenwriter’s home state); and last but not least, the  “All-American but slightly broken family fixed by the eruption of extraordinary events” formula shamelessly lifted from Spielberg.

As a portrait of the earth’s physical destruction, 2012 is passable.  But as a symptom the continuing collapse of American popular cinema (alongside its economy and imagination), 2012 is truly terrifying.

If you really hunger to see how the world typically comes to an end, go see the Cohen Brothers' A Serious Man instead.  


My graduate seminar this quarter recently read a section of Baudrillard’s wildly ignored book of 1983, Fatal Strategies (appearing in English a decade later).  This inspired me to dust off a book of interviews with Baudrillard that has been languishing on the shelf unread since its purchase a few months back.  Edited by Mike Gane, Baudrillard Live (Routledge: 1993) collects interviews that appeared in various forums through the 1980s.  There are academic roundtables and more targeted discussions aimed at various magazine audiences (Art Press, Cinematographe, etc.).  An interview that appeared in On the Beach (winter/1984) is particularly interesting (and as always, rather prescient).  Interviewers Salvatore Mele and Mark Titmarsh ask JB to weigh in on the contemporary utility of Marshal McLuhan.  Specifically, they ask Baudrillard to elaborate on his passing remark that McLuhan was an “optimist.”  Baudrillard’s answer is below: 
People say, “Nowadays we are no longer in the mass media—today we are in ‘multi-media’, or ‘micro-media.’  The mass media are finished.  We’re not in a mass any more.  We are in the multiplications of the media.  Therefore the analyses of McLuhan no longer function.”
            But that is not true at all.  It is a little like Foucault’s analysis with reference to power.  That is, they conduct a similar analysis: ‘There is now a plurality of media.  Everyone will find their own autonomy again, so that small groups and individuals will be able to become ‘emitters’ of media, able to fabricate information.  They will be on cable TV, household telematics, etc.  So that changes everything.  And at the moment the analyses of McLuhan are not so valuable.  They are concerned with a previous époque, when there was a mass, when television was the great medium of the masses.  Now one has other things.  One has video, cable TV, etc.
            Well, I don’t think so.  But I don’t think that the problem of general information remains in the way McLuhan mapped it out: that is, general information, be it ‘global’ or ‘micro,” creates the mass.  The mass is definitely not something to do with the ‘millions of individuals’ and so on.  The mass is a form, a kind of inertia, a power of inertia, which is created by the circulation of information as it circulates at the level of national television, the level of local video, etc.  In this sense all information creates some mass.  Therefore, analyses of the media in terms of the mass are always good.  Quite simply there is no need to set up a definition of the masses as millions of assembled individuals.  The mass is something else.  It’s a mode of circulation and inertia.  In this sense it is the event of the modern world.  That is, we have to deal with, at the same time, a kind of acceleration of information, etc., and at the same time, in parallel, with a kind of indifference which grows and grows—a power of indifference.  That is the mass.  And it can be in any circuit, any medium.  So the fundamental problem of the mass—McLuhan didn’t analyze it exactly like this but it amounts to the same thing—the mass is ‘always’ increasingly present.  One must not believe that it is all resolved by smashing up the major media, by making the small media.  No, that has not changed the problematic as a whole.  Is information really information?  Or on the contrary (no, it’s not ‘the contrary’), will it produce a world of inertia?  Will it produce, by its very proliferation, the inverse of what it wants to?  Doesn’t it lead to a world, a universe in reverse, of resistance, inertia, circulation, silence and such like?  It is for this reason that it is fatal: it is by information that one is supposed to bring consciousness to the world, to inform and awaken the world, but it is this very information through its very media which produces the reverse effect. 
As this interview dates from 1984, Baudrillard was obviously responding to only the earliest stages in the fragmentation of the “mass media” through VCR and cable technologies. But his basic critique seems no less salient in the subsequent proliferation of digital media and the attending rise of market fragmentation, niche-casting, and that “emitter’s” forum extraordinaire--the blogosphere.  If anything, this migration to more targeted and potentially “interactive” platforms only redoubles this “inertia” of informational excrescence.  Information has never been more widespread, available, and useless, and it would only appear to grow increasingly so. 

For example, it seems apparent that the election of Barak Obama, far from being a transformative moment in aligning grassroots politics and the Net, was instead only the viral celebration of a compelling political meme.  How else can one explain the very real inertia—both social and political—that appears to have solidified since the televised ecstasy of the election a year ago?  Issues that were once seemingly a vital component in the political theater of Obama’s election—Iraq, universal health-care, global warming—have gradually slipped back into a procedural morass of non-activity.  Who right now does not feel that sense of deflation, a draining that can only be attributed to the media’s ability to produce, circulate, and amplify “information” on such a scale that the only possible result is a kind of mass paralysis?  The political process once again seems to be of another order, something that happens “on TV” and thus beyond the control of those who only 12 months ago gathered to celebrate “change we can believe in.”  Fittingly, most “political” media—whether originating from NBC news or a blogger’s back bedroom, have taken to engaging the “failures” of the administration’s first year as one of “messaging.”  The questions once again have little to do with policy and more with judging which side’s information machine appears better suited at generating its own reality.  

Was Obama-mania, in the end, a type of mass narcissism?  “We” (i.e. liberal lefties) enjoyed having so much attention and information invested in “us,” but now that the thrill of the campaign is over, now that we have yielded our secret and this narrative of triumph is complete, this “energy” has once again dissipated across the masses as a vast capacitor of impossibility.  Memes of angry wingnuts, spectacularly tragic ignorance, and (most irresponsibly) simmering insurrection now play better in heavy rotation than the cock-fight of race, gender, and age that animated the primaries and campaign.  In this respect, perhaps the conservatives were correct:  campaign-Obama was a figure of incredible fascination, a spectacle of race, redemption, and “revolution” so compelling as to generate, temporarily at least, the heat of apparent movement, a sense that the “political” might operate once again as something other than simulation.

But in the end, it would seem the story of politics remains more compelling than politics itself. Perhaps the “mass” can not be governed through representational democracy because, as Baudrillard argues, this mass is not an aggregation of individuals but is instead a structural force that simultaneously accelerates information even as it retards understanding/action.  Having staged the greatest simulation of earnest political transformation in our lifetimes, now it seems there is little for Obama to do but live in the very same “shadow of the silent majorities” that engulfed Bush over the past 8 years.  The very forces that elected Obama are once again collapsing into a dense body impervious to all “rational” engagement or mobilization, capable only of consuming (and potentially resisting) the hours and hours of commentary, analysis, and inquiry that attempt to give meaning to this void of indifference.  This “mass” apparently already understands quite well that “politics”—such as they are—do not happen in the Congress or White House anyway, but are the frisson produced when historical contingency and electronic signification hit the social as an immovable object.  

More Odd Advice for Girls

If you enjoyed Heart Throbs comics from a couple of weeks ago, here is another vector of girl propaganda from the early 1960s.  Calling All Girls was a subsidiary of Parents Magazine.  The magazine is full of "stories, comics, things to do."  As you might imagine about a girl-centric publication from "Parents" magazine in 1963, the stories and comics are all fairly banal: serialized mysteries about old lighthouses and strange new neighbors; comix about teen girls who drive their fathers crazy; diet/make-up/fashion advice.  What is strange, however, are the magazine's recurring "tips"--short sidebars added to kill white space when a feature story ran short.   If Heart Throbs taught slightly older girls that boy-attention is the force that moves the world, Calling All Girls apparently hoped to convince young ladies that the world is full of dirt and disorder, and that it is the responsibility of all females to fight the entropy of the universe.  Having a party?  Why not cut a plastic sheet to cover your bed so that your guests' coats do not pick up lint?  If you have plastic flowers in your room, apparently it's a good idea to hold them over steaming tea kettle once a week to "refresh" them.  More advice is available below--but I take no responsibility for any subsequent OCD symptoms you might develop after reading them.

I Have Seen "Love Me Deadly"

If you keep 100+ DVDs in your Netflix queue, shuffle them periodically, and then make a concerted effort NOT to read the descriptions on the sleeves when they arrive, occasionally you will receive a DVD that completely baffles you.  This is a good thing.  You now have the rare opportunity to screen something that you apparently thought at one time might be interesting, but can do so with absolutely no expectations as to what the film will actually be about.

Hot on the heels of The Sinful Dwarf, my queue coughed up another real corker this week in Love Me Deadly (1973).   Looking at the title (but not the year), I figured “Love Me Deadly” could belong to any number of genres: noir, neo-noir, thriller, Fatal Attraction knock-off, horror, etc.  Popping it into the player, a menu based on the poster to the left appeared.  As you can see, Love Me Deadly would seem to be a film about having sex with zombies.  Here we see a zombie with the good fortune to find a rather fetching young lady nude atop his grave, so one would have to assume the movie will narrate the ups-and-downs of their relationship in some way—perhaps they will both laugh a little, cry a little, and in the process discover the special quirks that make female and zombie psychology so different.  

Frankly, I was a little disappointed with my selection and a bit surprised that I would have the bad taste to order a relatively recent zombie film.  In general, the zombie genre has become tiresomely repetitive, and I had a hard time believing I would have willingly added another pedestrian exercise in apocalyptic brain-eating to my queue.

But then the movie started.  A blond dressed in black sits at the back of a funeral service.  The family files past the coffin to pay their respects, but the blond remains behind.  Then, with the room finally empty, she makes her way toward the casket.  As she lifts her veil, a sensuous smile is on her lips.  She bends down toward the corpse, getting a little too close perhaps….holy shit, this is a movie about necrophilia!  A quick assessment of the hairstyles, costuming, and made-for-tv cinematography locates the film’s production as sometime in the early 1970s.  Oh happy day, it isn’t another boring zombie retread after all—it is a film about necrophilia made in the early 1970s.  A film about necrophilia from the early 1970s that I have never seen before and had completely forgotten about.  A film about necrophilia made before the invention of irony in the 1990s, and thus likely to be a “serious” attempt to exploit and/or understand the corpse-loving community.   

I won’t offer a full recap of Love Me Deadly here, as there are many sites devoted to humorously re-narrating bad movies that have already tackled this apparently overlooked excursion in sleaze (for a scene by scene dissection, go to http://mmmmmovies.blogspot.com/2008/10/love-me-deadly-1973-or-dead-man-is-good.html).  The film does raise a few noteworthy issues, however. 

1. Incredibly, Love Me Deadly has a theme song.  Even more oddly, the theme song is clearly and yet inappropriately performed in the signature style of a James Bond epic.

Love me deadly...kiss me deadly
This very special love can never be...
Touch me deadly...hold me deadly...
Look in my eyes and tell me what you see...

The lyrics raise a few interesting questions about the title.  Who exactly is engaged in the “deadly” loving here?  Can the dead motivate the use of adverbs modifying verbs they can no longer really enact?  Is the last line a rhetorical request?  

I imagine the decision to go “Bond” was made in pre-production, the idea being that if you are going to make a sleazy film about necrophilia for mass release, a “classy” theme song might go a long way toward making it all seem somewhat more respectable.  Oddly, it has the exact opposite effect, as does the entire score, which is so unbelievably inappropriate that it almost makes you mad to see necrophiliacs treated with so little respect. 

2.  The film was written and directed by Jacques Lacerte.  The obligatory stop at IMDB reveals Lacerte was born somewhere in Arkansas in 1928 and was at some point the drama instructor at Morningside High School in L.A.   Love Me Deadly is his one and only credit, both for writing and directing. Thus: Cajun born on the bayou moves to L.A., teaches acting to high school kids, and then writes and directs the one project burning within him—a film about necrophilia.  Obviously, a Lacerte bio-pic is the film that really needs to be made.

3.  I’m not sure exactly what causes someone to go “necro”—but if we are to believe Love Me Deadly, it would appear to have something to do with unresolved family issues. Specifically, if you remember vast segments of your childhood unfolding in sepia-toned slow-motion photography, chances are you might be a necrophile.  As in Psycho--the film Love Me Deadly wants so desperately to match in terms of "shock value"--director Lacerte offers a full psycho-pathological post-mortem toward the end of the story.  But who cares, really?  Hitchcock's decision to spend the last ten minutes of Psycho "diagnosing" Norman is the film's one stumble, and the device is even less convincing here.

4.  Narrative question:  If half your cast is dead and puts up little resistance to the typical emplotment of seduction and romance, where do you go to generate conflict?  Love Me Deadly has two solutions:

a).  Divide the necrophiles into two categories: "good" necros and "bad" necros.  Funeral-crashing Lindsey is a “good” necrophile in that there is a psychological trauma at the root of her perversion, so some hope remains that she might be cured and/or reformed.  In the process of following her warped desires, however, she comes in contact with the seedy world of “bad” necrophiles, who we learn are generally drawn from the ranks of Satanic morticians (they apparently do it more out of sport, really, and to appease Satan--who as the movies have taught us often demands his subjects engage in disgusting rituals of one kind or another).

Conflict results when the good “traumatized” necrophile wants out but the bad “I’m in it for occult kicks” necrophile doesn’t want to refund the fees associated with her morgue privileges.  We also know the leader of the bad necros is really bad because he isn’t content to simply wait for a new corpse to show up, but instead goes out searching for hustlers and hookers to transform into slab-worthy companions (kudos to actor William Quinn for tackling the substantial challenge in playing a hustler who is embalmed alive by this necro-John. Playing a convincing "embalmed alive" is probably not something typically covered in intro acting classes). No doubt this particularly ghoulish scene was added--not only to make Lindsey slightly more sympathetic as a necro-heroine--but also to prevent liberated, free-thinking, pot-smoking hippies of the early 1970s from regarding necrophilia as a “victimless crime.” 

b).  The second plot strategy is to have the “good” necrophile meet a romantic object who is actually still among the living, necessitating that she attempt to break free of her tormenting secret perversion so that she might have a future with pulse-boy.  Here the film falls back on the tried-and-true formula of the “love triangle,” albeit with the somewhat novel twist of casting one-third of the triangle as dead. 

5.  How much convincing does it take to agree to be in a movie about necrophilia?  Does your agent talk you into or out of such a career move?  What happens to people after having been in a movie about necrophilia?  In the case of Love Me Deadly, the answers are actually quite fascinating.  Lindsey is played by Mary Wilcox, who IMDB claims is now serving as an Anglican priest in Edmonton, Alberta.  But that’s not really all that weird, I guess, since she wasn’t actually a necrophile but only someone who found herself briefly sucked into the world of necrophiliac exploitation.  Her other credits are actually quite diverse:  Love American Style, Mannix, the blaxploitation classic Willie Dynamite.  But here’s the real shocker:  Mary Wilcox went on to be a writer for SCTV—an Emmy-award winning writer for SCTV no less (one win in 1981 plus 4 other nominations).  She even appeared in a few episodes as a supporting player.  From jaw-dropping exploitation oddity to the writing staff of perhaps the greatest single achievement in all of media history (and then on to the priesthood after that).  Not bad.  And it certainly goes a long way toward making her performance in Love Me Deadly that much funnier (did this ever play on "Dr. Tongue," for example?)

Wilcox’s (living) co-star and love interest is an even more bizarre story.  The man who tempts Lindsey to abandon her life of romancing cadavers is none other than Lyle Waggoner.  His credits are also a diverse sampling of famous television franchises across the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, but he is probably best known for appearing in the cast of The Carol Burnett Show between 1967 and 1974.  In fact, that was his steady gig during the time he made Love Me Deadly.  So if you’re playing the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" game, that’s only two degrees from Tim Conway’s “Dorf” to Waggoner finding his wife nude in the company of Satanists as she compels a new stiff to "love her deadly."  Astonishing, really.  One can only imagine the conversations backstage at Television City after the Burnett show’s summer hiatus that year.  What did you do over the break?  Conway: “I shot World’s Greatest Athlete over at Disney.”  Waggoner: “I made a quickie about a chick who f*#ks corpses…oh wait, here comes Carol and Harvey.”  Turns out 1973 was a busy year for Waggoner.  He also appeared as the celebrity hunk in the first ever issue of Playgirl.  

God bless you, Netflix.  Sadly, once streaming on demand completely replaces movies in the mail, the thrill of being ambushed by such unknown titles and unexpected histories will be yet another cinephilic pleasure lost to the ages.  Point and click may be more convenient, but a mysterious DVD in the mailbox still holds the greatest potential for eliciting the coveted  WTF?-factor.   

Does a Bear Wipe Its Ass in the Woods?

Honest to God, when will this ad campaign end? How much longer are we expected to encounter --with absolutely no advance warning--the abject spectacle of bear dingleberries on television?  Which is more horrifying: bear dingleberries themselves or their use to motivate such anthropomorphisized treacle in an ad campaign?  If we're going to turn this nation into a socialist hellscape, shouldn't we begin by first rounding up the captains of consciousness that would have me smile sweetly to myself over the plight of a cute little bear with toilet paper stuck to his ass?  Wouldn't we all benefit from the nationalization of the toilet paper industry?  Wouldn't you rather pick up a month's supply at the post-office or some other governmental dispensary rather than be confronted with the nightmare of contemplating this disgusting collision of bear fur and bear shit?  How is it that we created a world where it is still generally taboo to say "shit" on television, and yet we have no problem with televised animation that pretends to displace this scatology only to render it all the more real through the cloying excess of the displacement?

On the mayonnaise front, meanwhile, Miracle Whip bought time in every commercial block of The Colbert Report last night to "fight back" against Colbert ripping on their campaign to make Miracle Whip "cool" to twenty-somethings who have lost a taste for this long-standing symptom of Protestant repression.  "We are Miracle Whip, and we will not tone it down," says their douche-dude annoucer as this hipster girl thrusts the product into our as always "behind-the-curve" faces.

The (faux) irony spiral here is truly vertiginous.  Boring old product pretends it is being suppressed by some Footloose-like alliance of abstracted adult authority so that it might reposition itself in a mass Jedi mind-trick as the crucial ingrediant for spicing up a grafitti flashmob or boho gallery opening--met with inevitable ridicule by television's foremost practitioner of ironic reversal--resulting in a type of "integrated" advertising (Colbert acknowledged the ad buy in his opening bit last night) that pretends to be "disintegrated" by directly addressing Colbert himself in the hopes that his "nation" will find it cool that Miracle Whip has a kid on staff who "gets the joke" and can turn this potential setback into a positive--unable to grasp, apparently, that the demo they seek, the demo watching Colbert, will never put itself in a position to side with Miracle Whip over Colbert as a hip commodity, that the very effort to make itself hip by feigning allegiance to Colbert's sensibility through ironic combat can only result in ever-escalating ridicule.

St. Paul (1979)

These images are from a book titled Wheels and Deals, published in 1979 by an educational company based in St. Paul, Minnesota.  The book was designed as a reader for students taking English as a second language, and tells the story of "Dick's" decision to buy a car.  It's a strange read in that it narrates this ritual of adult responsibility in elementary school prose: "Dick wishes he had a car. He would like to drive his car to the factory. He could go to the factory early. He could stay late at the factory. He could visit his friends right after work. He needs a car to go many places. He wishes that he could take his girlfriend Judy out in his car.  He likes to go to the drive-in with her. He always has to go with other people. He would like to go there alone with Judy."

We never find out if Dick is successful in his quest for a hand-job, but we do get these particularly striking photographs that illustrate Dick's journey toward car ownership.  They appear to be the result of a single day shooting, each image staged to communicate a particular point in the process of buying a car.  The photos seem (maybe as the result of historical distance) to be teetering on that borderline between staged professionalism and candid actuality.  They illustrate the buying of a car, but they are also a particularly vivid window onto a single winter day in 1979 in St. Paul, Minnesota. 

 The car dealer gets in for the test drive.  Note the characteristic architecture of the upper midwest in the background.

Dick discusses buying a car with a friend.  Young bearded men and their decor, circa 1979.  

A great American land-barge on a rundown car lot.  In the background is the "Great Bear" (which looks to be a bar). 

Dick and his friend check out the car lot.  Gravel, chain-link fences, bare trees, and down coats. Avis rent-a-car and Kool cigarette ads are in the background.

Dick and his friend check out the price on a used car--Burger King in the background. Note also the hard winter light--these guys are clearly facing north. 

I Have Seen "The Sinful Dwarf"

For cinephiles, few things are as tragic as a “lost film.”  Historically, otherwise reasonable individuals have driven through landscapes of heartrending destitution and poverty to attend a screening of Greed, more upset about Greed’s missing reels than the junkies, prostitutes, and soot-encrusted guttersnipes that hinder access to the theater’s adjacent coffee bar.  I can’t say for sure, but I would imagine such concern over the fate of a missing pre-war Columbia B-film afflicts men more profoundly than women.  Unfortunate toilet-training regimes are probably at fault.  If every film in the world could be found, saved, and cataloged, perhaps then I wouldn’t have to check and see if I turned off the stove seven times each morning before leaving the house.  I’m sure there are also probably missing paste-ups of old Archie comic books and misplaced color plates for sad-eyed Keane prints, but as these do not possess the hallowed cultural value of a cinematic offering like Ma and Pa Kettle’s Rocket to Venus (1958—assumed lost), no one seems much concerned about them.  As always, the cinema is special and different. 

Would that this malady could be pinned entirely on the art-film crowd, but sadly, craphounds seem equally obsessed by this futile pursuit to make the cinema whole again.  And so we have The Sinful Dwarf, a Danish sleazer that went missing shortly after soiling the screens of Europe in 1973.  It should give us all no small degree of anxiety to realize there are actually people in the world who would notice The Sinful Dwarf had disappeared in the first place, and that they would be so actively concerned about its absence.  Happily (for them at least), a print of the film was recently unearthed in a janitor’s closet at the Danish Film Institute.  First thought: perverted janitor.  But upon further reflection, I’d like to believe a janitor from long ago was simply doing his part to fulfill the DFI charter by hiding this national embarrassment from the rest of the civilized world.  Of course, now that it has been found, The Sinful Dwarf has quickly made its way to DVD so that those haunted by the film’s 30-year absence might at last find peace.  I have seen this DVD.

The Sinful Dwarf is about a sinful dwarf…and his disfigured mother who was at one time a cabaret star.  Together they run a seedy boarding house complete with a brothel of heroin-addicted sex slaves in the attic.  “Olaf the Dwarf” (Torben Bille) appears to be in charge of finding new girls for the operation while his Mom (Clara Keller) punctuates the film with three Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? production numbers in the parlor (inserted, it would seem, so that we might have a few brief moments respite from Olaf’s relentless commitment to sinning).  When an aspiring British writer and his sexy wife move into the house, we assume (correctly) that the film will ultimately revolve around whether or not Olaf and his mom can find a way to add Posh Blondington to their stable (like so many exploitation films, the truly awful acting of Tony Eades and Anne Sparrow as the British   newlyweds becomes infinitely more interesting here than any of the sinful spectacle proffered for view.  Imagine if Diane (Shelley Long) from Cheers were cast to play an upper-crust London newlywed forced to live in a decaying boarding house with a leering dwarf—and that she had no time to rehearse beforehand—then you will have an idea of the tenor of Sparrow’s performance).

Just how sinful is this dwarf, and by extension, the minds that conceived this film?  The movie opens with a mentally disabled young woman playing hopscotch (and as this is a sexploitation title, her caretakers have encouraged her to do so without a bra). Up wanders Olaf—sin in his heart—with a mechanical plush toy that he uses to lure the woman back to the brothel (with the promise of yet more toys).  You have to figure that would cost you at least 50 millennia in hell, but Olaf makes things worse for himself by also administering the brothel’s extensive heroin regimen.  Every other scene, it seems, he is off to the attic to inject the girls with their daily fix, all in an effort to keep them docile and compliant for the parade of pale, skinny Danes and Brits that come along to indulge—not so much in the world’s oldest profession—but in raping comatose drug addicts.

My theory is this entire film was conceived in a single, monumental misreading of a key scene in John Waters’ Pink Flamingoes, which had appeared to great notoriety the year before.  In Waters’ film, a couple bidding for the honor of “filthiest people alive” run a lesbian adoption service that depends on their gay butler inseminating kidnapped runaways.  The kidnapped girls live a life of horror and deprivation atop a couple of soiled mattresses in the basement, their conditions and (female) bodies so abject that the gay butler finds he would ultimately prefer impregnating them with a syringe.  It is my belief that Harlan Asquith, screenwriter of The Sinful Dwarf, saw this scene in Waters’ film and—it being the confusing ‘70s and all—found it strangely erotic rather than hilariously offensive.  Waters’ queer satirical excess thus finds itself rather horrifically recast here as straight sleaze played as straight.  While most hetero-men would probably still have enough sense to keep secret their fantasies of stocking the attic with a bevy of nude junkie sex slaves ripe for daily “injections,” Asquith seems to have made the more embarrassing decision to displace his own childhood sexual psychodramas onto the figure of a dwarf.

And make no mistake about it, this is precisely “Olaf the Dwarf’s” function in the film.  His  “sinning” is purely primal and voyeuristic, concerned more with spying on the sexual escapades of the posh Brit couple occupying a rented room (complete with pre-drilled peephole, Psycho-style).   Cabaret Mom occasionally tells Olaf not to mess with the girls when he’s upstairs giving them their smack, but you sense this really isn’t much of an option since Olaf appears to find the preparation of a hypodermic needle the most erotic act on earth.  In fact, there are very few scenes in the film where Olaf is not displaying a lustful leer of some kind, suggesting—as one might expect of a “sinful” dwarf—that all of existence constitutes his own perverted playground.

As this is “euro” exploitation rather than garden-variety American smut, The Sinful Dwarf unfortunately aspires to be something slightly more artistic than simply a film about running a rape factory out of your attic.  We know this because director Vidal Raski (in this his only known work—seems like at least HE would have kept a copy) interweaves a recurring visual motif equating Olaf with the many mechanical toys he collects.  When he’s not using them to lure the mentally challenged into his lair, Olaf arranges the toys in various copulation scenarios.  Turns out he is also using cuddly teddy bears to smuggle heroin back to the house (from a dealer named “Santa Claus” no less).  This toy/dwarf motif culminates with Olaf falling to his death (oops…spoiler alert) where--through a strange combo of fast-motion photography and clicking tongue movements—actor Torban Bille attempts to simulate a wind-up toy grinding to a halt.  This gives pathos and psychological nuance to the previous 90 minutes they otherwise would not have, although I’m not exactly sure what those nuances are.  He thought he was a toy?  He was his mother’s toy?  He was an actual toy?  We’re all toys?  In the end, of course, the “sin” of the sinful dwarf is that he is a “dwarf.”  The film’s entire conceptualization works around the idea of little people as fundamentally uncanny—childlike automatons that the film has no problem amplifying through this rather unsubtle toy fixation.

So, there you have it, The Sinful Dwarf is back in circulation. While I can’t really recommend it to anyone beyond those who have probably already seen it, I guess it is good to have it back in the catalog as an historical document if nothing else.  And if the last print of The Sinful Dwarf and the negative of the new Jim Carrey A Christmas Carol were somehow both trapped in the janitor’s closet of a burning building, I am absolutely certain I would rescue The Sinful Dwarf first (who am I kidding—I’d never go back in for A Christmas Carol—in fact, I’d be a good suspect for lighting the fire in the first place).

See it with someone you’d like to dominate through narcotics. 

That Was That

There’s something heartening in the fact that the two top grossing movies last week were Michael Jackson in This is It and that incredibly cheap movie about ghosts attacking people with their own bed sheets (surely this must be an homage to the only other known paranormal bed clothing attack in the cinema, H.G. Lewis’ Something Weird [1968]).   As most people know, This Is It consists primarily of rather cursory rehearsal footage probably intended for a DVD bonus feature, so its “budget” was minimal (if we exclude it from the overall budget of MJ’s doomed gig at the O2 arena).  Meanwhile, if you check the box office stats, you can have the thrill of seeing Paranormal Activity’s budget presented as “$0.015” (expressed in millions).  Surrogates, meanwhile, is sucking wind at 30 million—so all and all it was a good week for those hoping to see a different cost to suckitude ratio emerge in Hollywood.

Beyond the miniscule budgets, This is It and Paranormal are also thematically related in that each purports to be a documentary about a ghost.  Paranormal does this Blair-Witch style through a low-res home video look, demonstrating that the mise-en-scene of the domestic haunting has finally completed its transition from Victorian shadow to suburban night-vision.  This is It, meanwhile, produces its uncanny by focusing on Jackson as a living dead man, or as the inevitable headline reads in several reviews: “Dead man Moonwalking.”

If more proof were actually needed, This is It demonstrates just how impossible it is to distinguish “text” and “context.”  If MJ were still alive, the film would be an insult.  With MJ dead, it becomes “haunting” in various senses of the word.  Much is being made about the film’s ability to reveal the “real” MJ as the consummate professional dedicated to his craft.  There is some of that in the movie, to be sure.  We get to see MJ coaching his dancers on their routines, debating the music director about tempo, and telling his guitarist (“with love”) that his read on Billy Jean isn’t quite funky enough yet.  We also get to see a seriously miffed Jackson complaining about his monitor mix (although there is the suspicion that he’s simply tired of having to make the obligatory run through the old Jackson 5 medley).   Of course it’s impossible to watch the film and not keep thinking that MJ would be dead in just a matter of weeks, or that he was going home after these rehearsals to visit the sweet oblivion provided by Propofol on tap.

This is It is certainly worth seeing if you have any interest in the whole MJ saga, or if you are curious to witness perhaps the most extraordinary talent ever to commit himself so completely to a life of kitsch (at one point he emerges from a giant mechanical spider…I kid you not).  But the film pales in comparison to an earlier take on “dead” MJ by artist Slater Bradley.  In his Doppelganger Trilogy (2005), Bradley staged three extraordinarily convincing “fake” performances: Ian Curtis leading Joy Division in what looks to be a crowded underground club; Kurt Cobain and Nirvana at an outdoor music festival; and Michael Jackson rehearsing alone and in silence on a dimly lit stage (all three icons played by Bradley’s own “doppelganger,” Benjamin Brock).  Each is impressive in capturing, not just the material look of the performer and his era, but also the variants of doom, tragedy, and melancholy that have become so central to the cultural memory of these fallen pop stars.  There is a sick joke here as well: two of the performers are already dead, while Jackson (circa 2005) might as well be.  One might call Bradley’s piece “prescient,” but then again, who actually thought MJ could or would live much longer?  This is what makes Bradley’s portrait of him so spooky.  Displayed alongside the dead Curtis and Cobain, MJ’s distant pantomime of his characteristic dance moves on a deserted stage is a reminder that the King of Pop checked out long, long ago. 

Heart Throbbed

A detailed analysis of an issue of Heart Throbs Comics (No. 130: March 1971) has produced a rather stunning revelation: adolescent girls of the 1960s and 70s have somehow survived into adulthood despite a ruthless program of social engineering geared toward the psychic implantation of crippling shame, guilt, and suspicion.  This particular issue, which we must assume is relatively representative of the entire Heart Throbs product line, contains four stories of gynocentric romance—each designed to teach young girls that they must never say what they mean or mean what they say.  Further analysis indicates that securing a “boy” is to be the supreme objective of a girl’s life, but this must be accomplished through elaborate strategies of secrecy and denial that allow the harmony of daily social life to remain undisturbed.   Finally, Heart Throbs would appear to comfort girls that “romance” always works out in the end--but this success will simply “happen” without any actual agency on the part of the girl.  Also, it would appear that when girls are sad they frequently run into the woods for a good cry (who knew?  I mean, what boys knew this?).  

Heart Throb: Case #1

The issue opens strong with “Life Father…Like Daughter!”  Cindy and her Mom move to a new town where Cindy’s good looks immediately attract the attention of the local boys.  But something is wrong with Cindy—she and Mom remain aloof within the community, and Mom keeps making cryptic comments to Cindy about once again “getting thrown out of town.”  Equally puzzling--dad is nowhere to be seen, although the reader suspects that Mom and Cindy’s weekly train trips somehow involve Cindy’s missing father.  Secrets abound. 

One day, when the locals begin to pry too deeply into her past, Cindy runs off into the woods to cry.  There she meets Ted, and before you know it, they’re dating and cutting the rug at a local teen party (where a fruggin’ beatnik helpfully notes that Cindy actually looks “relaxed” for a change).  But when Cindy meets Ted’s parents a few weeks later, she is so overwhelmed by the guilt of her secret that she again runs off into the woods to cry.   Ted chases after and convinces her to confess her secret shame:  Cindy’s missing father lives in a mental institution!  But that changes nothing for Ted, and he assures Cindy his parents will feel the same.  Dad, after all, is the President of the University’s Board of Trustees, and prides himself on having overcome the “generation gap.”   

For a while it seems like Ted’s parents really don’t care; in fact, they seem almost overly supportive of Cindy’s “burden.” But that all changes when Ted and Cindy announce their engagement.  Now Ted’s parents spring into action to break up the couple--their son simply cannot be allowed to marry into a family with a history of insanity.  And then Cindy’s mom lays another bombshell on her—Cindy can never have children because her father’s insanity is hereditary!

Mom suggests they take a long trip to Europe to forget about Ted.  But in the end Cindy discovers that it was all a plot cooked up by her Mom and Ted’s parents.  Afraid she would lose Cindy just after having “lost” her husband, Mom has accepted $5000 from Ted’s parents to get out of town.  Ted and Cindy reunite—lecturing their parents on the value of “true love” and then disappearing into the woods to embark on their new life together.

Lessons learned: (1). Mental illness is so shameful that it demands immediate relocation of the entire family; (2). Revealing your secrets will most likely result in secret plots against you; (3). No matter how “progressive” adults seem—they will still fuck you over; (4). All potential relationships must be evaluated through the lens of “reproductive futurism”: (5) Widowed, divorced, and otherwise “separated” moms most likely want you to grow up and be a miserable “spinster.” 

Heart Throb: Case #2

In “Guilty Heart,” Pam dares her cousin Roy to dive from the high-board at the local swimming pool.  Pam’s best friend Enid (who is in love with Roy) is frightened and doesn’t want Roy to do it.  But Roy goes ahead anyway and promptly breaks his neck.  Roy is dead.  Enid is devastated and Pam is overwhelmed with guilt (not so much for “killing” her cousin as for ruining Enid’s romance). 

A year or so passes and things gradually return to normal.  One night a cute guy named Charles seeks Pam out at a party—he’s a young hotshot newspaper editor who has been told by Pam’s old schoolmate that he would really like Pam.  And he does!  They have a great date and make plans for many more.  But then the next day, when Pam and Enid are at the malt shop, Pam notices that Enid finally seems to be getting over the tragic loss of Roy.  After hearing about Charles, Enid admits he sounds great.  And then the “guilty heart” kicks in.  If Enid sees me with a great new boy, Pam reasons, she will slip back into depression.  Solution: Pam must renounce Charles and set him up with Enid instead.

Before you know it, everyone in town is saying Charles and Enid are “almost engaged.”  Pam passes her time in the woods crying and writing Charles’ name in the dirt with a stick.  Finally, she reluctantly accepts an invitation to a BBQ pool party.  Looking up at the diving board, she sees Charles about to make the same dive that killed Roy!  She screams out for Charles to stop and then promptly faints.  When she wakes up, she finds herself once again in Charles’ arms—her spontaneous cry of fear has proven to all that she still loves Charles, and Charles is still in love with Pam.  Enid, on the other hand, is doubly screwed and will now probably end up with a gut full of bourbon and Seconal (although, thankfully, Heart Throbs leaves this to our imagination).  

Lessons learned: (1).  Girls are mentally responsible for the stupid stunts performed by moronic teenage boys; (2). Boys are so dumb and unaware that girls can trade them like marbles; (3). If you “kill” your BFF’s boyfriend, you owe her a replacement, even if the entire triangle is based on a foundation of secrets and lies; (4).  “True boy-love” is more important than the emotional stability and mental welfare of all your girlfriends; (5).  Many comic book writers of the 1970s have seen Vertigo.

Heart Throb: Case #3

Story three (“My Heart, My Enemy!”) explores that special bond between sisters.  Phyllis is about to go out with Phil on her very first date.  That’s fine, says her older sister Nina, so long as Phyllis remembers that Phil will inevitably dump her just as soon as he spots someone more attractive. After all, that’s what happened to Nina with her first boyfriend.  The best plan, Nina says, is to dump him first and then play the field—never getting too attached to any one guy.  That’s what Nina does, and she couldn’t be happier (or so it seems).  So, even though Phil seems like a swell guy who really likes Phyllis, she tells him to back off after their first and only date.  Phyllis tries to date another guy, but all she can think about is Phil.  Why did she listen to Nina?  She goes out into the woods to cry by the pond.  Happily, Phil finds her there and professes his love.  Nina, we presume, will continue sleeping with every guy in town until she is a bitter old crone sautéing in her own bile.   

Lessons learned: (1). At a certain age your older sister will begin to hate you because you now represent competition for boy attention; (2). Boys will always ditch Jennifer Aniston for Angelina Jolie; (3). If you do decide to date several guys, it is probably a symptom of earlier emotional trauma--"good" girls deserve love, "bad" girls are emotionally dysfunctional.  

Heart Throb: Case #4

Happily, after so much crying in the woods, Heart Throbs comes to an end with a comic piece about the hazards of computer dating—a practice apparently already in wide enough circulation by the early 1970s to motivate a plot for adolescents.  Girl runs her own dating agency.  She interviews a cute guy and then instructs her “computer expert” (who looks more like a retired Vegas blackjack dealer) to manipulate the cute guy’s card so that it matches her own.  The cute guy sure seems surprised when his computer-selected date turns out to be the girl who runs the dating agency.  But then the cute boy has a confession: he also asked the old “computer expert” to manipulate the data so that they would be a match.  At first this seems great, but then the girl—remembering she has a business to run—decides she has to reprimand her computer expert for allowing a customer to manipulate him so easily.  But the computer expert has the last laugh—curious that both boy and girl wanted him to manipulate the data for a date, he went ahead and ran their cards “as is.”  Turns out they were a “perfect match” already—no data shenanigans necessary.
Lessons learned: (1) True love can be calculated and verified empirically; (2). Relationships founded on subterfuge and lying are nevertheless still worth having; 3). There are higher forces in the universe that make sure that everything will work out in the end, especially when it comes to “true love.”    

All in all it was a chilling read, like science-fiction from a parallel universe that seems strangely familiar yet at the same time wholly alien. Were all the girls in my junior high school really running into the woods every other day to cry?  What did the city girls do when there were no woods nearby for emotional refuge?  Did or do girls really hate each other this much?  On behalf of patriarchy, I apologize to any and all women who were hopelessly scarred by consuming such horseshit.  I think I finally have some minor insight now into what creates a world-class “cutter.”