Wednesday, May 10, 2006

 

Perfect For You

posted by Corey Reid

Actually kind of bursting with things to talk about: Conan, zombies, Alexander the Great, music, and the meaning of the Internet. Let's see what we can do about tying it all together in one nice neat package.

First off. It's Intuitively Obvious To The Most Casual Observer (IOTTMCO) that Conan the Destroyer is a better film than Oliver Stone's wretched Alexander the Great. In every possible way, really. Except that Rosario Dawson's bosoms are in fact larger and more ostentatiously displayed than young Olivia d'Abo's. But something is wrong when a twenty-year-old De Laurentiis quickie hack job shot in Mexico with a recycled score outperforms a multi-million-dollar star-laden production. I mean, Conan feels more authentic, for crying out loud. The sets and effects are BETTER. And it has Grace Jones!

Grace Jones, by the way, is a crazy woman. If you didn't know that, you haven't seen this movie. She's nutty. She's not perfect. But she's perfect for Dolph:

But number 82 on VH1's 100 Greatest Women In Rock And Roll, apparently. Not bad for a disco loony. Makes me wonder who the bottom 18 were.

(quick Google search)

Ouch. I bet that really burns Ani DiFranco's indignant little biscuits. But Gloria Estafan (number 81) sleeps well at night, thank the Good Lord. Let nothing disturb the slumber along Miami Sound Machine Boulevard. Although were I Ms. Estafan (a stranger mental image one might be hard-pressed to find), I think I might worry that the imperiously muscled Grace might seek out a more direct way to move herself up a rank on the list.

"Come on baby shake your body do that OH MY GOD PLEASE NO"

Crunch. And Gloria disappears behind the sculpted muscles of Grace Jones' gleaming torso.

I've heard Conan the Destroyer referred to as the best D&D movie ever made, and I agree with the assessment. You've got your party of adventurers, each with their own role, you've got your NPCs, you've got a dungeon or two and you've got your evil, slinky-outfit-wearing queen to stir up trouble. And you know what, it moves along okay, Arnie's hilarious, d'Abo can act and Grace Jones is, uh, COMPLETELY INSANE.

And it doesn't have these stupid flashbacks where we watch our hero (who we know will survive, since we've already watched the rest of his life) struggle with his mother (who we know will survive, since we've already watched HER in later days) in a life-or-death -- or rather a, um, completely unimportant and trivial battle. Steph suggested we send a copy of Conan the Destroyer to Oliver Stone as instructional material.

I thought Grace Jones should deliver it.

So Oliver, if there's a knock on your door and a COMPLETELY INSANE woman is standing there with a DVD case, don't ask her about Gloria Estafan. Just take the disc, watch it over and dude, stop TEACHING and start STORY-TELLING.

Simple example of what I mean: towards the end of the film, Alexander is consumed with the drive to conquer India, even in the face of mutiny from his troops. We get a flashback (this comes to us as no surprise, as we have endured similar flashbacks before -- indeed, the entire movie is actually a flashback) of the death of his father, Philip. Philip is portrayed as a stern man whose approval Alexander has never been able to acquire. He dies in Alexander's arms, victim of treachery, and we see that Alexander is deeply affected by this.

Cut to: Alexander trying to conquer India and nearly killing himself in the process.

You see the problem? Stone is EXPLAINING Alexander the Great to us. He's setting us up with first the strange behaviour on Alexander's part (conquer or die!), and then showing us the "explanation" for it (denial of his father's approval). Which is completely ass-backwards in cinematic story-telling. Because a movie is fundamentally driven by TENSION. And that tension must be visual. In Stone's little didactic effort, there is no tension, because he witholds from us the vital knowledge of our heroe's desire.

Tension comes from the audience knowing more than the characters. In a case like this, what we SHOULD know is that Alexander wants his father's approval. He doesn't know that -- if he did, he'd be able to deal with things in a slightly less, let us say, DRASTIC fashion. But the fact that we know that he is vainly trying to impress a dead man lends tension and pathos to his efforts. We're pulling for him to understand himself, and watching in agonized expectation because he doesn't.

But Stone takes all that away, by waiting until AFTER we've watched everything (without any context) to give us his little reason for why Alexander did what he did.

I mean, leaving aside the fact that suggesting a nation went on the warpath and conquered the entire known world just because one man wanted to impress Daddy is facile and obnoxious, it's the execution I'm really decrying.

In Conan the Destroyer, we know right from the get-go that the evil slinky-outfit-wearing queen is up to no good. So that throughout the film we're waiting for her evil hammer to fall on our unawares heroes. This is basic story-telling. But Stone eschews that practice in favour of, I don't know, trying to surprise us. Or as though he were afraid we wouldn't get HIS point, that we're not smart enough to figure out what HE wants us to think. As though it were important for us to know what he wants us to think.

Stone's just another autocrat trying to tell people how they SHOULD behave. Worried that if folks act like individuals, they'll just ruin everything.

Which brings us to zombies.

We watched Resident Evil: Apocalypse last night. We're on a bit of a cheese bender these days (hence Alexander and Conan The Destroyer) and while the first Resident Evil film left us both cold and bored, we decided to give this one a shot.

And you know, it's better than the first one. There's a story here, a pretty straightforward one (good), and it moves REAL FAST (also good). There's some deeply stupid disappointing bits, and the fight scenes are overcut like they always are these days (folks, go watch the masters. Watch Jackie and HK John Woo and Peckinpah and heck, watch some friggin' Buster Keaton, will ya?), but Milla delivers the Milla-thing and Oded Fehr is in it. We love Oded Fehr.

Look him up, you. I'm not doing ALL the thinking here.

Anyway, while washing dishes, I ruminated on the mainstreaming of the zombie film that we've seen over the past few years, and I realised that zombie films are about individualism -- about defending your individuality from the faceless hordes that want (literally) to devour you. Of course there's more to zombies than just that (otherwise they'd be dull tropes), but I found that one particularly powerful. I think it explains why the zombie film has perpetuated beyond the taboo-breaking point of Romero's early work.

Night of the Living Dead is about total breakdown of social norms, and remains one of the greatest and gruesomest horror films ever made. Weird that people get all squiffy these days about Saw -- come on folks, remember the little girl eating her mother with a trowel? Maybe it's just me thinks that's bad news. But the zombie movie is no longer about the grue. Resident Evil: Apocalpyse isn't even Restricted. The zombie is moving into pure symbology, I think, much like the vampire and werewolf have done. Which is interesting to watch happen, because they're such a recent invention. George Romero watches Carnival of Souls and says to himself "The bits with all the dead people chasing her are kinda scary -- could I make a whole film out of that bit?"

And now we have a wonderful symbol of life in the modern world, where our fear of becoming lost in the sea of bodies manifests itself in the violent struggles that usually take place in these films. Although perhaps the reduction of gore nowadays means that the fear is not so overwhelming anymore. Maybe we're working out our ideas as to how we all get along in the post-industrial world.

Like maybe we make our own movies:

A Swarm of Angels

I hope everyone contributes to it. Not so much because I think the final product will be great, though I have a feeling it will be. But because this is an important moment in the internet, it seems to me. This is a big project, and a project that's happening entirely outside the "mainstream" channels. It's stuff like this that the recording industry, the broadcasters, the movie studios, seem to be completely missing out on. While they're worrying about kids on LimeWire, THIS is the stuff that is really undermining their hold on their industries.

Which is cool. Says me. Because it's about people doing what they love and what they're good at it, and getting better and making that fit with what's needed. No matter what you're good at, I think the Internet is starting to show us, there exists a market for it. And with the increased ability to act as our own broadcasters, and to select through and filter the mass of material coming at us, it's getting easier and easier to find that market.

We're realising that the masses of the world AREN'T zombies, that we don't have make headshot after headshot to hold on to ourselves. In fact, lately, in my life, anyway, there seems to be more celebration of individual effort and personality than ever.

A couple of folks at work are enthusiastic musician-types. Like myself. Only, unlike myself, some of those people actually have considerable talent. So a bunch of folks brought in their musical instruments and set them up -- an electronic drumkit, an impressive Korg keyboard, a couple of guitars, a bass, even a mandolin (?!). And there's been some futzing about, learning songs, having fun.

HUGE amounts of fun. Playing music is a very great joy. Especially with other folks, listening to each other and trying to contribute to the overall effort -- it's one of my favourite things. And it turns out I'm not alone. It turns out nearly everyone on our team has either talent or enthusiasm -- often both. Friday afternoon, the beers come out around 5:00 and suddenly the whole team is hanging around the instruments, taking turns playing, futzing or just banging on beer bottles (okay, that was me). It was amazing how many people can actually play -- and it made me wonder what we do when we're teaching kids music that makes us not do it EVERY FRICKIN DAY. Hateful piano lessons, dreary band practices -- most of us, even if we grew up playing music, play very little in our adult lives, and it seems such a shame.

Why listen to professionals play music for you when you can do it yourself? With beer and friends?

We're back to that whole doing what you love and what you're good at. Or at least, getting better at, let's say. And not worrying about CREATING something formal and "important". The joy of futzing is a powerful one, I find, of just enjoying the moment for what it is.

I'm reading about Open Space Technology and finding it utterly fascinating and exciting. It embodies so many ideas I subscribe to: simplicity, intelligence, respect for all, getting shit done, and having fun. Dying to run an Open Space event right now.

RIGHT NOW.

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