"I Am Dracula!" (1931)

WILLIAM H.  He was a seclusive youngster who preferred to play alone; he did not care nor was he encouraged to associate with other children.  He, like his aunt, liked to read "deep books."  Without ever having had instruction in music, without being able to comprehend any rhythm, he liked for hours to discuss movies and operas, especially since the age of about ten years.  Since that age he seemed languid, complained often of being tired, was more preoccupied and irritable than he had been previously, and frequently amused himself by dressing himself in various costumes and singing and acting before the mirror.  He had always been considered as a "queer" and "different" child...

On July 25 (1931), he was strongly impressed by the moving picture, Son of India, which he had asked to see.  He returned home to see his mother on the same day.  He was not in any way unusual until July 28, when around midnight he woke his mother by a burst of crying and asked her: "Mother, is there a Heaven?  Do take me to a priest.  I want to do the right thing.  I want to be a singer.  I want opera, divine music."  He kept talking excitedly about music, religion, the Orient, and "the higher things in life."  During the next day he was very quiet, brooding, and looked sad and absorbed.  He was preoccupied with the problems of his parents.  In the following two nights, he acted as he had the night before.  He was admitted to the Clinic on July 31.  He was excited, overtalkative, his speech was poorly connected, vague, and full of abstractions.  "I will be a great singer, he said.  "I will help mankind; I am the Redeemer: I will die on the cross.  "I am Dracula!"

Leo Kanner. Child Psychiatry (Baltimore: Charles C. Thomas, 1935). p. 495. 

Apostle From Space (1978)

Gordon Harris
Logos International

Spaceman lands off coast of Florida and seeks refuge in a church, where he is taken in by the local minister.  Meanwhile, having been alerted to the arrival by radar, the government begins searching for the mysterious visitor, hypothesizing that he might actually be a Cuban spy.  Back at the church, the minister names the spaceman "Peter" and begins teaching him English.  The minister is especially excited because he has seen "Peter" the spaceman kneel before the cross in church and pray, thereby suggesting an intergalactic validity to Christianity. 

The government eventually figures out "Peter" is the real deal, and not a Cuban.  Big plans are made for "Peter" to address a joint session of Congress and the United Nations.  In the meantime, he tours our space facilities and rather politely lets us know we are idiots (our rockets, for example, still use "fuel" and "stages" rather than simply converting light into energy).  "Peter" also has some type of courtly love thing going with an earth girl.  We learn that Peter's planet also believes in a "Son of God" who died for the mortal world's sins.  They have no bible, but still hear the voice of God directly.  

At the big United Nations speech, "Peter" tells us his planet is smaller, more advanced, etc.  They only noticed us when we made a trip to the moon, and have sent "Peter" to find out if our intentions for space travel are hostile or peaceful.  We appear peaceful...for now--they'll keep watching.  "Peter" then "dissolves" as he walks down a corridor, apparently transported back to his home world.  He takes a Bible with him as a souvenir. 

Yogi, Boo Boo, and the 14th Amendment

In How to Read Donald Duck (1971), Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart examined how Disney comic books export imperialist ideology to the children of Latin America.  As befitting a Marxist analysis of a lowly comic title aimed at kids, much of their discussion focuses on curious displacements and troubling absences (like the fact that there are very few direct relatives in the Disney-verse, only endless cousins, nephews, uncles, etc.)  One feature of Duckland, however, is less than subtle in promoting First World dominion over the developing nations:  Scrooge McDuck, already the richest of all ducks, remains relentless in his pursuit to own everything of value in the entire world (apparently so that he might covert all his wealth to cash to stock his decadent ski-vault).  Often, McDuck's greed is the impulse that kicks off an adventure for Donald, Huey, Dewy, and Louie, sending them to some remote and more "primitive" part of the globe in search of diamonds, gold, oil, and other valuable commodities.  As Dorfman and Mattelart point out, these stories often take the form of McDuck simply swindling the local population, buying up rare and precious resources from the "natives" who have no idea how much these items are actually worthy.

More reasons to remain suspicious of Disney, a corporation that only this week coerced Hollywood to award Tinkerbell a star on the Walk of Fame, this despite the fact that Tinkerbell does not even exist, having been designed as pixie cheesecake to keep bored fathers awake in the 1953 version of Peter Pan. 

Remaining vigilant against the Disney empire is always good advice, especially now that they have seemingly perfected the dark art of breeding tweener pop stars to shuffle between TV, movies, and Radio Disney--a convergence jackpot that old-fashioned payola could never match even in its heyday of cramming pasty white singers into teenage consciousness. 

But there is a danger in remaining so exclusively fixated on Disney.  For example, no one has been paying sufficient attention to the equally questionable politics of Hanna-Barbera.

Case in point: A tiny book for kids titled Yogi Bear Goes Country & Western (1977), which I recently purchased for a dime at the local thrift emporium.  I will admit to being somewhat intrigued as to how the author(s) would handle melding a vision of country music as seen from Ventura boulevard with Yogi's traditional commitment to picnic terrorism.  At the very least, I thought there might be comical illustrations of Boo Boo learning to play the Dobro.

What I got instead is one of the most stridently unapologetic defenses of segregationist social policy ever to appear in print.

Like most stories set in Jellystone, this one begins with Yogi and Boo Boo waking up after the long winter hibernation (imagine how crushing this must be for Boo Boo, who emerges from slumber year after year only to discover he is still and will forever be merely a cub).  As he is wont to do, Ranger Smith then arrives to set the story in motion, telling the bears that a famous country music singer, Anna Briggs, is camping just down the trail.  "HOOTENANNY ANNIE?" interjects Boo Boo, who is apparently a big fan.  He and Yogi want to run over and say hello, but Ranger Smith observes, "I think you two forget that you're bears!  Some people might get a little upset, if two strange bears came dashing after them."  Ranger Smith then volunteers to accompany them to Annie's trailer, that is if the two bears will agree to remain "cool and calm" during the visit.  

The meeting goes well.  Honey is exchanged, and the conversation turns toward Annie's concert plans for the spring season.  Boo Boo has an epiphany.  Why not have a big televised concert from Jellystone Park?  Everyone agrees this is a swell idea.  Annie's manager even promises promises that Yogi and Boo Boo will get to sit in the front row.

Preparations begin immediately.  To clear the concert space, Ranger Smith asks Yogi to activate "UOJPBTCUTPAKIC," an acronym for Union of Jellystone Park Bears to Clean Up the Park and Keep it Clean.  The unionized bears of Jellystone work for days transforming the park into a picture-perfect concert venue for the live television simulcast.  Yes, things are looking pretty good for Yogi and his young ward, and they look forward to watching Annie from their choice seats in the front row.

Braggart that he is, Yogi has promised all the bears in Jellystone they can come to the show as well, but when Ranger Smith's supervisor arrives for a park inspection, he's not too sure that integrating humans and bears at the concert will work out.  Yogi pleads that his fellow bears will stay at the fringes of the audience, in the dark and "out of sight," but Commissioner Phudd is not convinced.  "What happens at intermission?" he asks, "the audience steps out for a breath of fresh air and sees themselves surrounded by 300 bears."  

Yogi gets up in Phudd's grill and rails against this injustice, but to no avail.  And it gets worse.  Even though the concert was Yogi and Boo Boo's idea, the Commissioner tells them that the sight of even just two bears strolling into the show and sitting in the front row would cause a panic.  Yogi gets as furious as an anthropomorphic bear can get in a comic book, saying, "Come on Boo Boo.  Seems as though we're fine for getting the concert here in the first place and breaking our backs to clean up the park and set up the chairs, but we frighten people."

As he leaves, Yogi confronts the Ranger with a veiled threat of civil disobedience.  "How do I explain to 319 bears that after all they've done, they can't even go near the place?  Some of them have a lot worse tempers than I have, and I wouldn't blame them one little bit if they went on a rampage tomorrow and tore up the park, including the auditorium.  Good night!"

At this point author Horace J. Elias had an important decision to make.  The stage is set: disaffected bear working class, marked as a terrifying Other by their human masters, facing a crisis of open exploitation and blatant discrimination.  How will they respond?  What lesson will Hanna-Barbera teach the youth of 1977 about social injustice? 

The next morning, on the day of the big concert, the bears adopt a measured plan of civil disobedience, blocking all the entrances to Jellystone Park.  But they will no longer listen to Yogi, dismissing him as some kind of "House Bear," mad that he talked them out of simply ripping up the park with riotous fury.  To make matters worse, a big storm is blowing in from the north threatening to litter the park with more debris.

Enter Hootenanny Annie, who asks to speak to Yogi in private.  When they return to the Ranger's cabin a few minutes later, Yogi appears to have had a major attitude adjustment.  He leaves and quickly returns with his 300 bear work force, ready to activate UOJPBTCUTPAKIC once again when the storm hits the park.  The humans are mystified.  What did Annie say to Yogi that suddenly turned the furiously aggrieved bears into such docile subjects?  

The big storm hits, and the bears fight valiantly--clearing rock slides, restringing television cables, keeping the roof from blowing off the amphitheater.  The show goes on as planned and is a huge success.  Afterwards, Ranger Smith muses, "It's just too bad that after what Yogi and Boo Boo and the rest of the bears did, they didn't even get to hear Annie sing one song."  Yes, everyone agrees, that's a shame. 

After the rangers and other humans are gone, Annie tells her manager to pack up the camper and have the band follow her.  An hour later, she performs a second concert exclusively for the bears.  This is the deal she struck with Yogi, making him the Homer Plessy to Jellystone's John Howard Ferguson.

And there you have it:  Hanna Barbera's solution to issues of difference and discrimination--SEPARATE BUT EQUAL.  Yogi and his kind are welcome to attend hootenanny jamborees, just so long as they do so in their "own" venue and apart from any frightened humans.  In fact, the story ends up suggesting everyone involved prefers it this way.  

Here's hoping there was a sequel in which Yogi takes up country singing and becomes the Charley Pride of the National Park Service.

Jailbait (2005)

Leslea Newman
Delacorte Books

Another book bought for the cover that turns out to be something else entirely.  What looks like a Fassbinder-like crime pulp is actually a story for teenage girls about self-esteem and sexual abuse.  15-year-old protagonist Andi Kaplan hates herself and high school in 1971 Long Island.  Soon an older guy in a car is honking at her each day as she walks to school.  Frank, who is 30, eventually gets her to accept a ride, and soon the two are involved in an increasingly intimate relationship.  They have awkward and (for Andi) disappointing sex on her 16th birthday, leading to a fight, a reconciliation, and then plans to run-away together to another town.  But Frank takes a powder and is never seen again.  Author Newman has made a name for herself by writing books meant to challenge school-boards and make red-state librarians nervous, her most famous title being Heather Has Two Mommies (1989)--a particularly flammable piece of kindling in the early 1990s culture wars.  Jailbait is, somewhat surprisingly, rather matter-of-fact and even banal in its account of statutory rape, an attempt on Newman's part, I suppose, to make the topic less incindiary. Frank doesn't get caught and Andi doesn't get pregnant and/or destroyed by the experience.  The book is so blasé about its topic, in fact, that it is difficult to know what teenagers who hate themselves and high school are supposed to take away in the end.

You and Your Hair (1978)

Elaine Budd
Scholastic Book Service

In which girls learn that their hair can be a faithful friend or their deadliest enemy.  The book is careful to reinforce notions of egalitarian hairism, repeating frequently that all forms of hair--straight/curly, dry/oily, blond/brunette/red, thick/thin--is equally beautiful if styled correctly, a notion that I'm sure most girls in 1978 recognized as absolute crap.  As The Shaggs once sang in Philosophy of the World

The girls with short hair want long hair
and the girls with long hair want short hair

How true.  Here the Shaggs shows us that desire is always elsewhere.  And so it is with hair, a feature with which no one ever appears truly satisfied.

Tips are also given here about how to use a blow dryer and behave in a salon.  As these books were ordered through the SBS in junior high school homerooms, there are also some rather straightforward guidelines as to what age certain hair experiments are appropriate.  16 years-old means you can "enrich" your color if you are "mousy." A 17 year-old has earned highlights.  But a 13 year-old with a "fake tiger streak" looks weird.  "And a 15 year-old who has piled sunshine on top of peroxide on top of salt water on top of a permanent or a straightner is living dangerously, if not actually courting disaster."  Details are not given as to what might happen here, but I suspect author Budd means such girls are more likely to get knocked up.

Final bit of advice: barrettes are both utilitarian and decorative.

The Atlanta Marriott, 1968

Like many other low-budget movies, Speed Lovers (1968) spends a great deal of time in and around a hotel, in this case the Atlanta Marriott. 

Time out for fun at the "Brave Falcon."

"Make me a drink, my transmission is draggin'"

Pool Party.  Portable record player with no discernible source of electricity. 

Back in the room for a "make out" session with Kitty.

Doing the "swim" in the Marriott lounge.

Sticks and Stones (1972)

Lynn Hall
Dell Publishing

When high-schooler Tom Naylor moves from Chicago to a small town in Iowa, he doesn't find many opportunities for making new friends.  Robert, the only other 16-year old in town, is too distracted by his own popularity to bother with the newcomer, and the only girls who take an interest in him are those deemed "undateable" within the school's social heirarchy.  One kid does want to be his friend, however, a habitual F-student described as "fat" and "smelly" named Floyd.  Finally Tom does meet someone worth hanging out with--Ward Alexander--a 20-year-old recently discharged from the military because of his asthma.  Thing is, there is a rumor in town that Ward was kicked out for being "fruity."  And when Tom shows more interest in playing classical piano than in seeing Floyd's collection of dirty girlie magazines, rumors begin to spread that Tom is also a "homosexual." 

To author Hall's credit, Tom doesn't completely freak out at being labelled gay, even when he's not allowed to take part in a State music competition he's sure to win.  Ward eventually confides in Tom that the rumors are true, he is gay and that's why he was discharged from the Army, but it only temporarily strains their friendship.  And in the novel's most surprisingly progressive moment, Tom stops to consider for a moment that he might actually be gay (he does like to play the piano, after all, and every girl in school seems to avoid him). 

Perhaps feeling fat and smelly Floyd deserves some form of retribution for starting the rumor, author Hall has him killed in a car wreck in the final pages.  A bit harsh, perhaps, but then again, the kid was a fat, smelly, homophobe.

Famous Animals of the Studio Era

           Follow That Penguin! Largely forgotten today, "Oscar" the Penguin made headlines in 1931 after an unsuccessful attempt to avoid appearing opposite Miss Edna May Oliver in  The Penguin Pool Murder (1932).   A few days before shooting was to begin, the despondent Oscar escaped his handler's pen and fled 100 miles down the coast to La Jolla.   There he was found "perched disconsolately on some rocks off the shore.  A man swam out to him and Oscar presented every evidence of delight at renewing acquaintance with a human being.  One of his owners hastened to La Jolla and brought the wanderer back in time to fulfill his contract with the RKO studios" (146).  Outraged at the public snubbing, Oliver allegedly took every opportunity to feed Oscar dirty coins and small rocks between takes.
From Star to Stew Meat  Cruelly mocked as the "biggest" actress at MGM, "Mary" the Rhino is seen here in her only appearance on the silver screen.  Having made a mad dash at the higher-billed "Cheetah" in Tarzan and his Mate (1934), Mary suffers a brutal stabbing at the hands of Johnny Weissmuller.  Sadly, she never recovered from her wounds, dying only a week after this scene was shot.  Not all was lost, however, as studio head Louis B. Mayer authorized making Mary the "Blue Plate" special in the MGM commissary for November 18th, 1933.  Clark Gable famously observed that Mary "made a damn fine stew."

The "Mane" Attraction! Often confused with Leo the MGM lion, "Jackie" first appeared on screen when only a tiny cub.  "In this picture," recalls his trainer, "a man comes home late at night, opens the front door and stumbles over a cat.  Then he comes to Jackie, --a little larger animal, and in the next room he enters he finds an animal a bit bigger than Jackie.  The animals he encounters as he walks from one room into another keep growing bigger and bigger until he comes to the largest of them all, Duke, a big old lion we used to have here at the Zoo" (60).  Despite his appearance in this landmark conceptual gag (said to be a favorite of Jean Cocteau), Jackie is now best known for half-heartedly wrestling a series of doughy white men in a string of extremely racist jungle pictures.

Red Light Anna  Did you know an elephant is responsible for the stop light at Hollywood and Cherokee?  It's true!  When Anna May the elephant appeared for the premiere of her picture, Gabriel Over the White House (1933), a jolting car horn sent her stampeding down the sidewalk in front of the Egyptian theater.  As the panicked pachyderm made her way into the intersection at Cherokee, she was "T-boned" by director Rouben Mamoulian in his 1927 Studtz Bearcat.  Neither man nor elephant was seriously injured, but the collision was the last straw for city elders long concerned about this dangerous crossing.  After healing from some superficial flesh wounds, Anna May was invited back for the stop light's official dedication a month later.

Tragic Cougars "Jalmers" the Cougar comprised one half of a famous pair of Cougar twins in old Hollywood, the big cats starring either alone or together in over 400 motion pictures.  Jalmers career came to a tragic end, however, immediately after this publicity photo was taken in 1936. Apparently agitated by the whiny complaints of his child co-star ("Little Martha Marie," seen here to the left), Jalmers suddenly went berserk on set and bit off the index finger of the shoot's make-up artist.  Escaping briefly onto Gower street, Jalmers was beaten to death with a tire iron by an extra who just happened to be driving home from the set of Follow the Fleet (1936).  His twin, "Jockamo," apparently never recovered from the loss of his beloved brother and died two months later in his pen on the Paramount lot.  Fearing more scandals for the studio, incoming chief Barney Balaban blocked an official inquest into the matter, allegedly bribing the L.A. County Animal Coroner to list the cause of death as "natural causes." 

All citations from Wild Animal Actors (New York: Whitman and Co., 1937).

The Spawn of the Death Machine (1968)

Ted White
Warner Paperback Library

Man wakes up naked in an all-metal room.  A voice tells him it is time to go out into the world and gather "data."  And so he does.  The first people he encounters live as neolithic hunter-gathers.  He kills their leader and gets a "spouse" named Rifka in the process.  More wandering.  Rifka ditches him for another guy because he won't sleep with her.  More advanced communities discovered.  Lured by prostitute to stay in a small town that needs more residents.  Finds Rifka in jail after she ditched the other guy.  They escape and he at long last impregnates her.  One night he realizes he has the power to breath fire.  They arrive at a huge dome covering the remnants of New York City, which now houses 500 African-American men and 500 African-American women.  It is the only remaining outpost of the technologies and knowledge before the Chaos.  Tests are conducted that determine the man has a metal skeleton.  He remembers he was invented to cull the earth's population.  He is the Death Machine.  He goes back to where he started and the voice tells him to return to the metal room.  But the man says he has a wife and a kid now, so he'll stay outside thank you very much.  The computer says that's probably okay. 

I'll Trek When I'm Dead

The dead are a growth market.  Historically immune to the marketing ploys of the culture industries by virtue of having neither a pulse nor money, the deceased may soon become an important demographic in maintaining the profit trajectories of the major media conglomerates. 

Last week, for example, a company called Eternal Image unveiled the Star Trek Cremation Urn.  Made of “composite minerals and metals,” the urns go for $799 and feature a wholly “original” rendering of the Enterprise on the nameplate, a distinction that is bound to give the urn’s owner a proud sense of….well, nothing actually, as he or she will be dead.  Eternal Image also made a Star Trek casket at one point, although that option seems to no longer be available.

Of the new urn, Company CEO Clint Mytych observes, "We hope that it makes the process of picking out funeral products a little bit easier -- it's already a painful process to go through. Nothing seems to come close to 'Star Trek' in terms of staying power and worldwide appeal."   Mytych’s comments raise a number of interesting issues.  One, I’m not sure why the dead would be interested in the “staying power” and “worldwide appeal” of Paramount’s back catalogue, but maybe some individuals find comfort in leaving their remains under the imprint of a growing multinational entertainment brand rather than the decaying iconography of a traditional church.   Americans in particular want to go with a winner, even when they are dead it seems.

Mytych also appears to be suggesting that it will be the survivors, not the deceased, who will opt for the Trek urn during the “painful process” of making funeral arrangements.  I would think entrusting the eternal future of your ashy self to a particular television franchise would be an intensely personal decision, one probably best made, contracted, and notarized before you actually die.   What if your dopey relatives simply impose their own terrible taste on your final vessel?  After all, they are the ones who will have to look at it everyday.  Without pre-ordering your receptacle and hiring a good lawyer to execute your wishes, you might end up trapped forever in a Jag urn simply because it was on discount and better matched the drapes.  

There is also the terrifying possibility of being misheard on one’s deathbed.  Imagine the centuries of profound humiliation experienced by your ashes as generations of future geek-spawn pass by the mantel laughing at the folly of your Star GATE urn.   Or worse yet for the most faithful of Trekkies, imagine that distant moment in the future when Star Trek finally “comes true” (as you must know it will).  Using the Trek urns as a convenient guide, Spock employs Vulcan science to reconstitute and save all clearly identified believers from the past 4 centuries.  Star Gate and Battlestar fans, meanwhile, must continue roaming the shadow-lands of syndicated purgatory, waiting for a scientifically marvelous savior who will never come.   So, if you care enough to devote your afterlife to television, be sure to get those contracts signed well in advance of checking out to Sha Ka Ree.

That Trekkies should lead us all into the final frontier of corpse marketing is no surprise.  Science-fiction has long traded in fantasies of omnipotence and immortality, extending the “magical thinking” of infancy into the teenage years and beyond.  Star Trek in particular returns repeatedly to the fantasy of an ego imbued with such fantastical powers that it can somehow find a way to cheat death, from Spock regenerating himself though that crazy Genesis machine to the Crusher boy touching Indians and leaving our plane of existence for some type of intergalactic sweat lodge.  The whole notion of the ‘Q-Continuum’, meanwhile, implies that absolute power over all time and space is available to those species willing to continue watching Star Trek for the next million millennia.  Even the transporter beam, what with its endless conversions of energy and matter, becomes a quotidian index of reincarnate possibility—not to mention the parallel universes, time loops, cyborg implants, and other ruses that allow the tremulous ego to boldly go where it would rather not.

What makes Star Trek particularly powerful in this regard is its ability to project science-fiction fantasies of immortality onto the franchise itself.  In other words, a single sci-fi novel might spin some regressive yarn about becoming “pure energy” or downloading one’s soul into a mainframe, but Star Trek as a 40-something franchise reassures believers that the show itself will survive long after individual viewers have become space dust.  Oddly, Roddenberry’s “sci-fi” religion is thus much more likely to survive into future millennia than Hubbard’s Scientology, no doubt because Trekkies are all allowed to work as their own theologists/cosmologists rather than simply submit to a diabolically expensive program of bio-feedback “clearance.” 

Who knows?  Perhaps if Hubbard had had enough sense to populate his origin story with more and better characters, there would be a growth industry in Thetan Blocking Capsules (TBC), millions the world over encasing their ashes in titanium spheres and having them tossed (for a price!) into an active volcano.

Personally, if I should die unexpectedly anytime soon, I am hereby requesting that my ashes be dropped from a helicopter to disrupt shooting on any future Ashton Kutcher projects.

Hounded by the Specter of Impending Crap

Look, let's make a deal.  Don't bother me and I won't bother you, okay?  I mean you guys look really cool and everything, walking down the middle of the road ready to mete out some tough justice, but I just don't have time for that right now.  You guys are, what?  Bounty hunters, right?  So, yeah, I'm sure blondie in the leather coat and rattlesnake boots looks really sexy kicking in doors to take scumbag meth king-pins back to stand trial and all that, but I just can't be bothered by that at present.  Your crew looks great, they really do, and I'm sure you probably have some smoldering on-again / off-again thing going with  Lurch in suede right behind you, but for real, I just don't have time for it right now.  Okay?  Thanks.

Oh...hey guys, sorry, but like I just told that last bunch of determined justice-fighters, I don't have time right now.  I really don't.  Where are you guys from?  Detroit?  Great set, by the way.  It evokes the gritty decay of the rust belt but also looks like some cool loft space where you could paint or play music or something. And I do appreciate that you went someplace where it's unlikely you'll have bikini-clad chicks oiling each other up in the opening credits, but really, I just can't get into it at present.  I wish you the best, Mr. Red Tie, keeping order on the hard streets of Motor City while also balancing the intrigues of your explosively diverse unit, but I really have to go.

Alright, look, I've tried to be polite, but I'm not kidding now.  I just can't deal with this.  Fall is coming and I have gutters to clean out, plus I should really change the oil in the car before the first frost.  Look, it's great that you all are standing in a field looking all wispy or earthy or whatever the hell it is you're trying to convey, but no, I can't.  I don't really even care why arms akimbo guy is the only one not wearing a tie and has two witches of Eastwick behind him in matching red frocks.  Please, I must ask you to leave.  And on your way out, don't try to hook me with some stupid supernatural power or brooding family secret, okay?   Been there, seen that.  Thank you.

Okay, this isn't funny anymore.  Look suits, get the hell out of here.  Lawyers, right?  Great...good luck beating that boring, dead litigious horse for a few 100 more episodes.  How long until two of you are doing the nasty but also representing clients on opposite sides of a case, but you can't recuse yourselves because no else at the firm knows about you two yet?  Is that the pilot maybe?  Or will one of you way over-identify with a defendant because of some personal trauma in your own life?  Pitch all the attitude you want, I'm not falling for it.  In fact now I'm beginning to feel actual enmity for your whole little dog-and-pony show.  Get out.  Get out, now.

F*#k me running, is there no getting away from you jackasses?  Ooh look, it's the spooky "Event" people, all dressed down in blacks and grays and trying to intrigue me in front of some enigmatic backdrop of metaphorical fog.  Drop dead.  No, first get the hell out of all my media platforms and then go drop dead.  I just don't have time to devote hours and hours of my life to some bogus conspiracy a couple of 20-somethings cooked up on a napkin at Jerry's Deli.  I'm sure you think you have some multi-season story arc of awesomeness planned, but you know and I know you don't...just endless meetings with the network trying to figure out how much padding it will take to get to 21 episodes and renewal for next season.  I don't have the time, the patience, or the will to suffer through more of this "what does it all mean" bullshit?  Wondering whether or not Ronnie or Snooki will be found dead in a pool of their own vomit is an infinitely more interesting and plausible storyline than any crap you guys have cooked up, I'm certain.  So, git, skedaddle, don't let the pixels hit your ass on the way out. 

Jesus H. Christ.  What is it with you people?  Is it the unbridled narcissism, the complete lack of any creative imagination, or just obstinate stupidity?  Doesn't anyone in Studio City have anything better to do than stand around all day posing for these ridiculous publicity shots?  The new Hawaii Five-0, right?  Well, how about Hawaii F*@k-Off?  I'm not a snowbird.  I'm not convinced that crime is inherently more exotic just because there are palm trees and coconuts around.  Loosening the bow tie does nothing for me either, pal, it really doesn't.  Really CBS, if your plan is to crawl back up the A-hole of your former glories, you really should have just outbid NBC to get Selleck back, maybe for a show where he drives around the Big Island trying to fill his prescriptions.

What Maisie Knew (1897)

Henry James
Vintage Books (2007)

Unsuspecting couple in 1890s gives birth to a demon child capable of dissolving marriages, destabilizing moral standards, and inspiring tortuously complicated sentence structures.  Like me, you may never know exactly what Maisie knew, but you will ask, in the words of Aretha Franklin, "who's zoomin' who?"  Be sure to bring a pad of paper to make character notes so that you can maintain some degree of coherence through the various name-changes and passing side-flirtations that complicate the otherwise simple premise of Maisie's biological parents dumping her in the care of her new stepmother and stepfather, who then fall into some horribly dysfunctional co-dependent relationship that eventually brings them to France.  In the end, having destroyed the lives of all those around her, Maisie  decides to go live with her frumpy governess, who somehow remains immune to the child's evil. 

Sci-Fi Kung Fu

Many complain today that Hollywood refuses to make any "quality" science-fiction films.  After a "golden-age" in the late 60s and early 70s, this theory maintains, Hollywood in the wake of Star Wars conceptualized "sci-fi" as just another iteration of the blockbuster mentality, making the genre not so much about "ideas" as about velocity, explosions, and (with CGI) things variously morphing into other things.

But this is elitist blather, I say.  Hollywood still makes some extraordinary science-fiction titles from time to time.  In evidence, I present to you the recent remake of The Karate Kid (2010), which I just had the pleasure of viewing while trapped for several hours in an airplane. 

Like all the best science-fiction, The Karate Kid takes place in a world that we can still reasonably recognize as our own, the "day-after-tomorrow" rather than centuries into the future.  As the story opens, Dre (a child of indeterminate age, somewhere between 8 and 13 in my estimation) must move with his mother to China.  Ostensibly, Mom has a new job, and as Detroit continues to bear the symbolic burden of America's collapse (signified here as a few shitty streets that pass by on the way to the airport), she has no choice but to uproot Dre and take him to Beijing.

Things do not go well for Dre when he first arrives in China.  As an African-American child somewhere between the ages of 8 and 13, he immediately finds himself suffering profound culture shock.  In a ritual of humiliation, he is utterly schooled by an old man in a game of ping pong.  Even more horrifying, he tosses up an "air ball" in a pick-up game of B-ball against Chinese opponents (yes, just ponder the true depths of that humiliation for a moment).  And when he tries to work his game on a cute Chinese girl in the park (who appears to be somewhere between 8 to 3 years older than him, depending on where we ultimately fix Dre's age), he gets his ass kicked kung-fu style by a local teen sociopath.

Dre takes a few more pummelings before Jackie Chan, disguised as the handy-man for Dre's apartment building, intercedes and--in a somewhat embarrassing spectacle--beats the crap out of the 4 or 5 teenage boys harassing Dre.  A bit more plot ensues, and before you know it, Dre is matched to fight the meanest of his tormentors at an upcoming Kung-Fu festival.

After this somewhat plausible and relatively naturalistic opening, the film then shifts hard into the science-fiction mode.  Rather brilliantly, the filmmakers announce up front that the final showdown between Dre and his bully is of no real consequence, that the impending "honor match" is just a pretext for the film's other ambitions.  We know this because the 8-to-13-year-old Dre, a stick-figure in dreadlocks, has absolutely no hope of defeating his opponent no matter how much kung fu he learns.  Simple physics make this an impossibility (unless of course Dre is actually a robot of some kind, but happily, the film avoids this more banal possibility).  Kick the bell all you want kid, fifty pounds in weight and muscle say you're going down.

So what is the film about then?  We soon discover that Jackie Chan is not actually a "handy man," but is in fact an agent of the Chinese government working on an incredibly ambitious program of international social engineering.  Understandably anxious about their massive investment in U.S. debt, China has decided to fly every single "at risk" child in America, one by one, to the People's Republic so that these kids may be re-educated as more productive workers for the global economy.  While Dre has yet to go full-on "gangsta," many of the signs are there: sassin' back to his Mom, dropping his jacket on the floor rather than hanging it up, a taste for the hip-hop music. Before things get worse, Chan is there to instill ancient Chinese values in the boy, such as unwavering discipline, respecting one's elders, and learning something about the local culture before you go hitting on the woman-folk. 

Having been beaten down repeatedly by his school's teenage thugs (also clearly working for the government), Dre is naturally eager to learn the kind of "heart-from-ribcage" kung fu he has seen on film and television.  But Chan has other plans.  Using Dre's own disrespectful jacket-hanging habits against him, he forces the boy to engage in days, maybe even weeks of a repetitive jacket-hanging drill.  "Pick up the jacket.  Hang up the jacket.  Put the jacket on.  Drop the jacket.  Pick up the jacket." And so on.  Speaking for the displaced fears of many white suburbanites back in the U.S., Chan also tells Dre he needs to change "his attitude" about the drudgery of this mindless task, to be happy for the opportunity to stand in the rain five hours a day repeatedly hanging a jacket on a peg.

This goes on for so long that finally Dre cracks and calls bullshit on the whole enterprise, whereupon Chan reveals that this simple repetitive exercise has in fact made Dre a kung fu master.  He is now ready for his showdown with his nemesis (who again, despite Dre's mastery of the martial arts, would still wipe the mat with him).

But as this is science-fiction rather than a "feel-good" redemption movie, we have to look at what has really been achieved here.  Drained of his "bad attitude," disrespect, and laziness, Dre is now perfectly honed through muscle-memory to return to Detroit and screw in dome-lights for the new automobiles required by China's emerging middle-class.  In effect, he has become "a robot," ready to work with reflexive commitment and discipline on the task at hand.  America's structural economic underclass is thus "saved" by basic tenants of Communist social administration and reasonable production targets. 

There is some mystical crap thrown in to disguise this perhaps unpleasant behaviorist truth,  Chan taking the kid to a mountain compound where he sees a woman standing on a craggy precipice staring down a cobra (which, admittedly, any 8-to-13-year-old boy would find awesome).  And, as Chan here must assume the role of the "absent black father," he also at one point pretends to break down and cry over his own lost family, thus concealing this rather radical program of social engineering within the "universal" bonds of familial humanism. 

So it's a win-win for everyone. America gets a more productive workforce, China gets their money back, and somewhat ironically, white Americans can rest easier having ceded their perceived "burden" onto a "free market" solution proffered by a "Communist" government.  And not a single laser-battle in the entire movie!

The Trembling Earth Contract (1969)

Philip Atlee
Fawcett Gold Medal

Joe Gall is one of the lesser known detective/action heroes of the 1960s.  This one caught my eye because of the incredible teaser line at the top: "Joe Gall masquerades as a soul brother in a secret army of assassins."  From the back cover: "All he needed was a few injections, an Afro wig, phony identification, a prison record--and presto!--Joe Gall, white secret agent became John Earle, black secret solider."

Gall wasn't the first white guy to go undercover as a black dude, and he certainly wasn't the last either.  What makes The Trembling Earth Contract particularly insulting is just how easy Gall/Atlee presume it would be to perform "blackness."  Easy and racist.  When he is called upon to infiltrate a radical African-American paramilitary group--led by college-educated blacks and staffed by recruits from prison--Gall realizes he'll need real street cred to get an invitation to join.  His plan (after the injections and Afro, of course)?  Get really, really drunk in the black section of Little Rock, Arkansas and then take a swing at a white cop.  It works!  Before you know it, Gall is in the toughest prison in Arkansas passing without suspicion as an embittered black veteran of 'Nam, ready to return fire on whitey.

Looking to compete with James Bond, Matt Helms and other dynamic male agents of the era, Gall is also quite the cocksman.  In one of the most over-the-top seduction sequences I've ever read, Gall (still white) hosts an attractive lady lawyer at his elegant man-cave somewhere in the hills of the Ozarks. The evening includes steaks and fine wine, a naked dip into Gall's steam room (behind a waterfall that feeds a pond of cold water for the Scandinavian after-steam plunge), and some time on the back porch watching Gall's family of imported white tigers emerge from the woods to eat horse meat! 

Of course, going to all the trouble of having "black person" injections and wearing an Afro wig wouldn't be worth it if you didn't also get to score some "brown sugar," and Gall most assuredly does that as well.

Despite the unexamined racism of the "undercover" device, author Atlee does express some sympathy for the historical plight of African-Americans in the U.S.  Even though Gall intentionally fires errantly when his team of black assassins executes a former KKK agent whom the state of Mississippi would not convict of an obvious murder, he certainly understands the impulse for justice that guides the group.  Later his black squeeze tells him that her little brother was shot dead by cops for protesting on a college campus up north, and Gall agrees that's a bum deal.  And then at the very end, reunited with his white skin and tiger-watching lover, Gall goes on a long political rant about how the right-wing will soon take over the country and, in its fear of black militancy, institute a form of apartheid worse than South Africa. The radical black male, he predicts, will go the way of the American Indian.

It seems the "Joe Gall" books constitute a true serial. At the very end, four black soldiers from the paramilitary compound storm Gall's oasis to get revenge for his infiltration and betrayal of the group.  As we leave Gall and his girlfriend, they are hiding behind the aforementioned waterfall, armed and ready for a show-down.  As there are many more books in the series, I assume they survive.

Transformative Mysteries II

After venting the old irony spleen on Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen a few days ago, an astute reader (thank you Bernard) pointed me toward another account of the film feigning similar stupefaction.  In her post  Michael Bay Finally Made an Art Film, Charlie Jane Anders deftly examines the movie as a blockbuster braiding of male anxiety and id-driven spectacle, framed by the longstanding avant-garde quest for the irrational sublime.  Anders' piece (written a year ago when the film first came out) starts from the basic premise that T2:ROTF is so horrifyingly bad that it must actually be secretly brilliant; moreover, this "brilliance" can only be gleaned through intensive analytical labor on the part of the critic.  Her reading opts for a bit more unity (at least critically) than mine, but basically they are very close in tone and voice.

Those familiar with Greg Taylor's excellent book Artists in the Audience will recognize this gesture.  Feigning ignorance and bafflement in the face of the terrible has been a staple of what Taylor calls "vanguard criticism" since the 1950s.  Reading Anders' case for the "art film" status of T2:ROTF right after my own attempts to riff on the movie's "philosophical complexity" served as another personal reminder of how "film criticism" works in genres every bit as conventional as the cinema itself (with all kudos to Anders--her piece is much better written, two days after seeing the film in an actual theater no less. I would have still been soaking my eyeballs in saline).  But the similarity between the two pieces also made me think about why the films of Michael Bay in particular inspire such loathing within a certain formation of "film culture."  Moreover, what is it about the "Bay aesthetic" that makes ironic mystification such an attractive critical response?  In other words, why is it so fun to argue (ironically, of course) that Bay's films are somehow "brilliant" when clearly, painfully, they are not.

Hollywood grinds out several "bad" movies every year, some of them appallingly so. Within this vast and admittedly subjective grouping, most critics will further distinguish between the "good/bad" and the "bad/bad."  For example, while I feel T2: ROTF is truly an abomination, I have real affection for Roland Emmerich's 10,000 BC (2008)--a film that is arguably just as ridiculous and made by a director commonly linked with Bay in alarmist accounts of the popular cinema's ongoing descent into becoming little more than direct stimulation of the brain stem.  Perhaps it is simply a matter of nostalgia, an appreciation that Emmerich chose to resurrect one of the cinema's most patently absurd genres, and did so long after everyone else had realized that movies set in the Neolithic era are inevitably and instantaneously hilarious. Bay's films don't really look backward, which is perhaps what makes them so threatening to critics. They may not be THE future of the cinema, but clearly they speak to certain dominating aspects of that future.  At some point Bay's film's may be more accessible as "camp," but for now they feel so cinematically "Other" as to seem vaguely evil--"ahead of their time" perhaps, but a "time" that many would prefer not visit (an era when T7: Megatron and the Chamber of Infinite Explosions is playing next to Ass, the mythical Oscar-winning comedy featured in Mike Judge's sadly prescient Idiocracy).  For many cinephiles (myself included, I guess), Bay's films are the Decepticons of the cinema--seemingly ordinary movies that in fact conceal the very forces that will ultimately conquer and destroy everything that once made the movies enjoyable.   

Why has Bay in particular been singled out for such scorn?  The background in advertising certainly doesn't help, either in terms of his reputation or as an actual influence on his strategies as a filmmaker.  For most lefty aesthetes (which comprise the largest pool of film critics), advertising is the ne plus ultra of artistic whoredom.  While many will make allowances for someone like Michael Gondry in that his ad-work is "groundbreaking" and "edgy" (almost as if they are art experiments that just happen to help move products; or more to the point, they move products by selling an affiliation with the taste of the ad's aesthetic), Bay's work is more in the "shock and awe" school of radical mystification, the kind of spots that seem to take "commodity fetishism" as a blueprint rather than as a critique.  His Chevy "Car Carrier" ad is exemplary in this respect, demonstrating also that Bay is much more talented at directing objects than he is subjects.  No wonder The Transformers films have taken over his creative life.

When applied to feature filmmaking, Bay's emphasis on the fast-moving "hard sell" typical of advertising has had a profound impact on the look and pacing of his films.  Consider, for example, the first shot of Megan Fox in T2: ROTF.  Understanding that Fox is to supply the film's sex appeal for adolescents of all ages who love cars and chicks (and especially chicks in proximity to cars), Bay introduces his leading lady sprawled across a motorcycle wearing a tank-top, cut-off shorts, and cowboy boots. In case we still don't get the message that Fox is SEXY, SEXY, SEXY, Bay has her thrust her ass up in the air to signify that either she or the bike is about to get mounted (and given the premise of the series, who's to say what will fuck whom?  Here I think we have to proceed from Freud's assertion that all dreams of machinery are ultimately about the genitalia--a point elaborated on by his student Victor Tausk, who speculated that boyhood fascination with magical machinery is linked to the somewhat uncanny hydraulic mysteries of the erection.  Actually, we need go no further than the logic of the Transformers franchise itself to understand that she's giving some lucky Bot here a Prince Albert or a Henna tattoo on his shiny metal glans).

One reason most "tasteful" critics find Bay appalling is that his "style" is so exceedingly obvious.  The introduction of Fox's character here unfolds much like a late-night spot for the Sham-Wow, so hysterically overloaded with signifiers of sex appeal as to become laughable (all that's missing is some form of testimonial, perhaps a cutaway to a guy's eyeballs popping out a la Tex Avery). The "objectification" of Fox is in itself extremely obvious.  But this "objectification" goes beyond simply making her a slab of meat on display (I mean, really, who would care about that anymore?); it also renders her--like every other "character" in T2:ROTF--a functional object, or perhaps more accurately, a cog that simply takes its place in the overall schematic of the story.  As befitting a director who makes movies about trucks that turn into robots and robots into trucks--all rendered with a clean, hypervisible attention to each detail of the transformation--Bay's movies do little to disguise, nuance, or even delay the functionality of each individual "part."  Establish that Megan Fox is the sexy girlfriend.  Check.  Moving on.  

Again, many directors can be rather ham-handed when it comes to supplying story information (especially "exposition," which as many critics have lamented appears to be a lost art in Hollywood).  But Bay further inflames critics, I think, by linking this exceedingly obvious narrative style to an equally transparent ideological agenda.  Early in T2:ROTF, for example, a government weasel arrives at the military base that houses the heroic Autobots.  He brings a warning: Perhaps the Autobots have outlived their usefulness on earth.  Perhaps the Autobot program will have to be shut down.  Orders from the President.  In effect, he arrives on scene to indulge the conservative fantasy of the bureaucratic liberal wussy, one hopelessly out-of-touch with the tremendous sacrifices made by our military and their awesome robot friends (later he gets thrown rudely out of an airplane with only minimal advice on how to use his parachute).  Annoying, but not inexcusable--after all that's just one of the many stupid stereotypes Hollywood occasionally trades in to generate some semblance of narrative conflict.  But what makes this character particularly egregious is our later discovery that he serves, not a "fake" President or even a thinly disguised Presidential type, but President Barack Hussein Obama himself.  Imagine: you've just paid ten bucks to see Optimus Prime kick Decepticon ass, but apparently the socialist leader of Kenya does not want you to have that pleasure.  Sorry kids.  Just more reasons to vote GOP.

There is little doubt, meanwhile, that historians looking to understand the debacle of the Bush administration will turn to Armageddon (1998) as a key text for unpacking the delusional ideology of conservatism at the threshold of the 21st century.  From Bruce Willis hitting golf balls at environmentalists from atop a deep sea oil rig to his clutching an American flag as he "defeats" the evil-doing asteroid, Armageddon is nothing less than the final hallucination of American exceptionalism, perhaps the only post-9/11 film to be made before 9/11. 

Which leads to another question that haunts the critical class.  Is Bay's excessive obviousness as a director a sign of "incompetence," or is it instead a more sinister strategy of right-wing cynicism?  Staying with Armageddon for a moment, one of the astronauts selected for the dangerous task of asteroid destruction is "Chick" (Will Patton).  Shortly before leaving on his secret mission, he visits his ex to let her know he might be gone for a while.  A small boy comes out on the porch.  It's Chick's son, but the boy doesn't know it.  The ex tells Chick he needs to stay away for the boy's sake.  A single scene, no more than a couple of minutes in length.  Needless to say, this "story line" vanishes once everyone is in space looking to blow up the asteroid.  Cut to the final scene.  The surviving astronauts return home victorious.  Everyone has a loved one to meet them...except for the lonely Chick, who looks around the tarmac wistfully.  But then, from behind a pick-up truck (!), out dashes his son--an American flag emblazoned across his chest--running to meet the man who he now knows is his Dad. Chick's ex is there too--a family restored.

From the perspective of basic narrative competence, the film has come nowhere near "earning" this moment of overblown emotional theatrics.  Bookending set-up and payoff in single takes may work well in comedy, but we typically require a more sustained engagement of "dramatic" issues in order to feel adequately "vested," making this "story line" either unbelievably underdeveloped or, worse, horrifyingly cynical (and here we can drag in the film's screenwriters as well, including J.J. Abrams!). Here too is a source of critical exasperation with Bay.  In allowing this farcical reunion to reach the screen, does he not know what he's doing?  Or, more disturbingly, does he know exactly what's he's doing?  Does he understand that American consumer-viewers in particular will uncritically fall for sentimentalized horseshit every time, no matter how threadbare, craven, and yes, OBVIOUS its presentation? 

Which returns us, finally, to the question of irony.  Why do so many critics feign stupefaction in response to Bay's films, sarcastically hailing them as avant-garde art or as enigmatic philosophy?  Perhaps it's because most critics (again, of the lefty intellectual variety) feel so profoundly alienated from Bay's sensibility--both at the level of form and content--that they genuinely ARE stupefied by his movies, and so they cloak that utter disbelief in the nervously disaffected laughter of irony.  For me, T2: ROTF  is so confused and confusing as to join the ranks of those films that "fail" so spectacularly in terms of conventional filmmaking that I can only suspect it is succeeding at something else.  Just what that something else is remains anyone's guess. Which makes me extremely nervous, and thus sarcastic. 

Consider the alarming facts:  The Transformers began 25 years ago as a cartoon series specifically developed to sell toy action figures to ten-year-old boys.  As of 2011, there will be three motion pictures costing over 600 million dollars bringing this "world" (and its more ineffable "worldview") to the screen in live action form. That reality in and of itself may be the most terrifyingly dystopic science-fiction premise I have ever encountered.

I certainly don't understand how a terrible movie based on the sadistic fantasy life of prepubescent boys made over $400 million dollars.  Do you?

Whatever the ultimate explanation, it can't be good, either for the cinema or for whatever world cinephiles think they still live in. 


Mindfogger (1973)

Michael Rogers
Dell Books

Niles Spindrift has been a genius at electronics since he was a child.  Now a hippie in the early 1970s, he is constantly on the run from a former employer that feels he is on the verge a major technological breakthrough.  And he is...the Mindfogger!  When activated, the "mindfogger" basically gets everyone around it pleasantly stoned, a power Spindrift tests by shutting down the production line at a battery factory for two weeks (it's an anti-war statement: the batteries go to the military which go to Vietnam).  Like a surprising amount of sci-fi from this era, there seems to be little actual "science" in the story other than the vague notion that electronics might be used to control the brain.  Mostly, Mindfogger is about Spindrift and his old lady trying to live a small desert town while he works on his device, culminating in 30 or so pages that read like Gun Crazy.

Transformative Mysteries

Of late I have found myself greatly troubled by Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen (henceforth: T2:ROTF, or as some wags would have it, T2:ROTFL).  Like an ancient curse or a prophetic dream, it keeps worming its way back into my consciousness, mysteriously commandeering my cable feed so that I must bear witness to its metallic majesty, even when I have ambitions no higher than relaxing with a light comedy.  But to what end?  What does T2:ROTF want of me, of us?  Straining to see past its chimerical walls of light and metal, one suspects some profound enigma awaits behind, drawing us ever closer to either a revelation or reckoning.   But then, just as we are about to glimpse this riddle, submitting at last to a logic that the story itself wills into existence through the very act of beating us senseless, our brains begin to melt away and, like Icarus of yore, we are cast down once again, wretched, onto the shores of incomprehension. 
I know what you are probably thinking.  Here’s another snarky snotball taking cheap shots at Michael Bay, a director who has nobly sacrificed nearly a decade of his life and millions upon millions of dollars to tell us of the struggle between Autobot and Decepticon, two proud tribes of mechanical warriors capable of assuming the forms of everyday appliances and high-end motor vehicles.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  More narcissistic directors, like say Ingmar Bergman, have created long, tedious trilogies that merely chronicle a personal crisis of faith or solipsistic anxiety over their own mortality.  Others have doubled-down on the trilogy structure to infect whole new generations with the blather of a “timeless” mythology of good, evil, and some supernatural “force” that gives order to a universe of cretinous philosophy.   But only Bay has been so generous as to devote much of his adult life to asking the harsh and sometimes ugly philosophical questions that shape our era, a sacrifice that is all the more courageous in that so many would dismiss The Transformers as merely an insignificant children’s cartoon series of the 1980s, or worse yet, a venal attempt by the Hasbro Corporation to exploit Reagen-era deregulation of the rules banning direct marketing of toys to children within cartoon programming.  In theory, Bay could do any project he wants.  He chooses to do the Transformers.  I think that speaks volumes.

And what does it mean to say Bay “directed” The Transformers movies anyway? In truth, the mysteries of T2:ROTF are so deeply perplexing that I do not believe they can be said to issue from a single mortal man.  It is but a convenience of language, much as we attribute the deep historical genesis of the Odyssey to a “being” called Homer.  Better to say that the lessons of Cybertron speak through Bay and his team, calling us to answer for the character of our age and the destiny of our future.  No, I would no more mock Bay and The Transformers trilogy than I would piss on the Necronomicon in a graveyard at midnight. 

But before we ponder the mysteries that have been put before us, I must admit up front to being only a neophyte in the ways of Autobot and Decepticon, and that I have yet to make it all the way through T2:ROTF.   At present, my path toward enlightenment has ended just before the one they call the Shy Beef and his Lady Fox are about to sprinkle some pixie dust on Optimus Prime in an attempt to resurrect this worthy warrior for righteous battle.  But, though I have yet to see this plan enacted, it is unthinkable that this gambit would not work, for the prospect of the noble Optimus set atop a flaming barge and cast down the Nile, his fellow Autobots tossing cans of motor oil and tins of Turtle Wax atop the pyre in remembrance, is just too melancholy a fate to imagine.  

Some might object that one who has yet to ponder the mythos of the T2:ROTF in its entirety should not speak to its deeper mysteries.  To this I say, no one can ever be said to “master” the great works of philosophy and scripture, and we all partake of the world’s collective wisdom from differing and often partial perspectives.  As a famous philosopher probably once said, the excited flame of the impassioned novice can at times illuminate the cave of reason more brilliantly than the weary lantern of the aged acolyte.

And so let us begin.

Enigma 1: Optimus in Flames

From what I do understand of Transformer lore, both Autobot and Decepticon are robot-beings that came to earth long ago in some type of “Ark” searching for something called the “AllSpark,” which legend tells us is a cube that has the power to transform mechanical devices into sentient beings.  Of course, like all forms of religious doctrine, this merely kicks questions of consciousness and ensoulment down the road by forcing us to wonder who exactly created the AllSpark.  But luckily, this bromidic obsession of western metaphysics is not the major question posed by T2:ROTF.  More importantly, the story forces us to contend, not with fairy tales of some great junkyard in the sky, but with more embodied issues of subjectivity and identity in the here and now.

So we must wonder: Where did Optimus Prime, in vehicular truck form, get those awesome "flame" decals?

If we consult more ancient scripture (the story bible of the cartoon series), we discover that the Autobots first took vehicular form in the mid-1980s.  Here I must quote from the book of wiki.

In the Earth year 1984, the volcano housing the Ark erupted, reawakening the ship's computer, Teletraan I, which then set out a probe to scan Earth life, and modified the Transformers so as to give them alternate modes that could blend in on Earth, but the probe did not recognize carbon-based life, and instead chose vehicles like a truck for Prime and F-15 Eagles for 3 Decepticons.

Putting aside for a moment the fact that this mythology is unnervingly close to that of Scientology, we see here that a "computer" calculated that Optimus could best “blend in” as an extended-cab model 379 Peterbilt truck.  Of course, reason dictates that the odds of any extraterrestrial Autobot or Decepticon perfectly conforming to the exact specs of a mid-1980s earth vehicle are remote at best.  So here, I think, we must assume we are in the presence of a Vitalist allegory.  Was Optimus fated to take the form of an extended-cab model 379 Peterbilt truck (even before arriving on earth and even before knowing he would one day need to assume a vehicular disguise), or was this “truck-body” merely the most “convenient” identity foisted upon him by a “computer” entrusted with the social management of Autobot life?  In other words, if Optimus exerted a bit more will and determination, could he assume the form of a GMC semi-trailer, a Caterpillar Earth mover, or perhaps even a psychedelic school bus?  Moreover, if he had landed on another planet, could he have assumed the form of a vehicle indigenous to that civilization?  Or, at an even more cosmic level, does a T76-Aqua Spanner on the planet Voltron look just like an extended cab model 379 Peterbilt truck on earth, thereby confirming long-held geek cosmologies of parallel development across the universe? 

Wisely, T2:ROTF does not speak to these larger and perhaps unknowable mysteries, but instead uses the Autobots to interrogate a particularly human concern: Is mecho-biology mecho-destiny?  Are we simply fated to be who we are, or are we “shaped” by the demands of our own societal “computers” to assume certain forms? 

The flames adorning Optimus Prime’s fenders provide a significant clue here in that they are, one would think, a needless adornment on his otherwise trim and efficient vehicular body (seeing as there is no corresponding flame motif on Optimus Prime himself).  In fact, rather than help Optimus-as-truck better “blend-in” with his surroundings, they mark him as a rather remarkable and even “badass” ride, one sure to garner the attention of anyone who sees him pass on the freeway.  

Even more perplexing, this exuberant flamage seems to go against the very nature of Optimus’ “true” personality, in effect opening up a certain dissonance between his binary identities as military Bot and long-distance cargo hauler.  For example, when Optimus is in his ambulatory fighting Bot mode, he is the very essence of sobriety, reason, control, and authority.  He instantly takes command of the situation, focused on the larger task of preserving both human and Autobot civilization.  In doing so, he must keep the more “playful” and mischievous bots in order, for he is OPTIMUS PRIME, a divide made all the more palpable in that his fellow bots all speak in a strange ethnic patois of cholo, ebonics, Brooklyn-ese, and other less than “prime” languages.  Optimus, meanwhile, has the voice of an ATM at the biggest bank in the richest subdivision of Whitey Town.

Now, some might think it is racist to project earth dialectics onto extraterrestrial robots in such a way as to suggest Optimus has taken on the “white robot’s burden.”  But I think his flame decals challenge this assumption.  Yes, the so-called “computer” determined that Optimus must assume the form of an extremely utilitarian truck, one that looks to be hauling Wonder Bread and Mayonnaise across the country.  But deep in his heart, perhaps Optimus bristles at this arbitrary confinement of his desire and identity, and so he manifests his flaming decals as an expression of his secret fantasy life, signaling a world where Bots are not predestined or even just pressured into hiding within certain stereotypical “normative” forms (i.e. forced to speak like a cheap imitation of Chris Tucker, as is the case with another Bot), but are free to “transform” and "be" however they so desire.  Perhaps Optimus, by taking up the flame, signals solidarity with a truck running moonshine in Tennessee, a low-rider in East L.A., a land-speed cruiser on the Great Salt Flats, or the sound truck for the Pussycat Dolls.  Who knows what life and identity Optimus will assume once the Decepticon threat is vanquished?

Clearly, T2:ROTF demands that we ask these same questions of ourselves, forcing us to account for the “forms” we assume in a technocratic order that seeks to crush all opportunities for true freedom and happiness.  Who am “I” and how did “I” come to be?  What is the great “computer” that chose my destiny?  Through the example of their constantly reversible binaries, the Autobots rehearse this prison of modern subjectivity for us, and yet also speak—in the very act of transformation—to unimagined third terms, identities that might still yet come into being.  The lever in this process, the wedge for derailing the closed logic of the subject machine, might be as simple as sporting a little flame on your fender. 

Related to this hope, Optimus teaches us an important lesson at the beginning of the story.  Working with the U.S. military, the Autobots deploy to Shanghai to confront a giant Decepticon unicycle wheel rolling through the city.  When the lesser bots cannot stop this adversary, they must call upon Optimus to put an end to the destruction.  A C-130 cargo plane flies over with Optimus—still in the form of an extended-cab P379 Peterbilt truck—waiting in the payload.  Optimus as truck then dramatically drives out the back of the plane and begins his free-fall, heavy-metal death from above.  He transforms as he plummets toward the earth so that upon reaching the ground, he is now Optimus Prime in all his humanoid glory—ready for combat.

Now, basic logic and military tactics dictate that Optimus would be much better served by transforming before he leaves the airplane, seeing as this is the form he must take to land properly and engage the Shanghai death wheel in battle.  After all, if there were a “glitch,” God forbid, in his mid-air transformation, both Optimus and the mission would be greatly endangered. By driving out the back end of the cargo plane and dropping like a multi-ton brick, Optimus is—as they say in the sports world-- “hot dogging” it.   Who could deny, then, that we are called here to witness the sheer exhilaration of “becoming-Optimus,” invited to imagine the thrill of shedding the “dead weight” of the socially territorialized body so that a new magnificent self--Optimus in his Prime, leader of Bots, kicker of metal ass--might take its place in a celebration of pure transformative power. 

Of course, this suggests that the Autobots in some way resent their vehicular forms.  But I think T2:ROTF is much more subtle in its thinking than simply accepting this binary as is.  For example, there is a scene early in the film where a U.S. soldier tells a superior that the Autobots are “waiting in their hanger.”  We cut to a static shot of all the Bots in vehicular form—cars, planes, pick-ups, and of course Optimus as Peterbilt truck.  It is an extremely uncanny moment.  We know, as does the solider, that these are in fact sentient beings.  And yet here they sit mute and immobile, maintaining a mysterious aloofness from their comrades.  After all, in one of the story’s most poetic lines, a human solider notes that man and Bot have shed “much blood and oil together” in their battles against the Decepticon menace.  And yet despite now being a “band of brothers,” the Autobots choose to remain remote and distant in this “showroom” mode—even though there is no need for such secrecy within the safe confines of their military hanger.   They are “among friends,” so to speak, and yet choose to perform their more secretive identities—perhaps as a bond among themselves.  Are they saying, in essence, this is what your (human) world has forced us to become, and so we find solidarity, perhaps even comfort, in maintaining this masquerade? 

It is all very curious.

Well, I see that contemplating this first enigma has taken much more space than I had anticipated.  Such are the haunting complexities of T2:ROTF.  So I will save the other enigmas for later this week.