A few random things of import:

  • Historical Lovecraft doesn’t yet have any reviews up on Amazon, and I haven’t seen any reviews around the intarwebs except for a nice one in Italian. If you’ve read it and have things to say about it (good things, I hope!) please consider taking the time to write something, somewhere, please! The Kindle edition is only $3.99, which is a ridiculously low price for as much as the anthology contains.
  • My friend, and co-worker at Fantasy, T.J. McIntyre, put together a charity anthology to help  support the Red Cross’s efforts to aid tornado-ravaged Alabama. You can purchase Southern Fried Weirdness: Reconstruction for $2.99 at SmashWords, or for the Kindle. It has 46 stories by writers such as An Owomoyela, Mari Ness, Darby Harn, and T.J. himself, so this is a good deal and an easy way of helping out.
  • Speaking of the VanderMeer, he interviewed my ace dawgg Jesse over at Omnivoracious about his latest, The Enterprise of Death. If you’re sitting on the fence about getting a copy, check it out, and then go and read the actual novel!

Anyways, in personal news, I’m still doing Sandra’s Virtual Boot Camp. Going to the gym was totally kicking my ass this week, but I still did everything. I’m sore and tired, and ready for a rest-day! More on such things as sweating next week.

In personal news, I’ve been. . . kind of maybe a little burned out on my novel lately. But, in the way of things, I took a little time off to write a short story this week, and I feel inspired again! Woo! So once I power through some things on my to-do list, I’m back to it. I’m actually excited to get to open the document, which is an improvement. We (the novel and I) have been fighting, and thus avoiding each other. I dunno why—I’m totally in the home stretch—but hey, it happens. I’m energized to get back to it, and all it took was writing a little bit of awfulness. It might even be good! I’m not sure yet.

How you doin?

x-posted to my LJ

First, I’d like to thank Molly Tanzer for hosting my guest-blogging effort on behalf of Historical Lovecraft: Tales of Horror Through Time, and editor Silvia Moreno-Garcia for arranging the guest-blogging exchange. And a more general thank-you to all the wonderful authors with whose works my story is sharing space in the pages of Historical Lovecraft for making it such a wonderfully frightening anthology.

When I think about discussing my short story “Red Star, Yellow Sign,” the first thing that comes to mind is how it wouldn’t even have been possible for me to write it a few years ago. In fact, it might be better to say it wouldn’t even have been thinkable to write it as I did, with Nikolai Yezhov as the protagonist and principal point-of-view character.

I originally studied Russian in the late 1980’s, when our knowledge of that period of the history of the Soviet Union was still fragmentary, and largely the product of either Soviet propaganda or the accounts of defectors. As a result, I got the standard view of the time, which portrayed Yezhov as a psychopathic monster who gleefully fabricated cases against people he knew to be innocent, motivated entirely by bloodlust reflective of a lifelong moral emptiness. After all, nothing much was known about him prior to his sudden appearance as the head of the NKVD (the Soviet secret police), so it was easy to assume the worst.

After the fall of the USSR, more information began to come out, including first-person accounts by people who knew him before the Terror, including Anna Larina, widow of Nikolai Bukharin. In spite of having suffered terribly as a result of her husband’s destruction in the Terror, and thus having every reason to hate Yezhov, in her autobiography This I Cannot Forget, Larina recalls him warmly, telling stories of how Yezhov and her late husband joked about having the same forename and patronymic, Nikolai Ivanovich, in the years prior to the Terror, when neither of them had any reason to expect they’d end up on opposite sides in a social cataclysm.

Then there was the story of Yezhov’s daughter, who after his fall from grace was sent to a hellish orphanage and subsequently has endured a lifetime of poverty and social rejection (she is as of this writing still alive, elderly, ailing, and crushingly poor). Generally the children of brutal killers recall their childhoods as being full of abuse, but she recalls Yezhov as a loving father, quite possibly the only person in her life who truly loved her. In the only English-language interview with Natalya, her steadfast love for him shines through the writer’s use of slanted language to portray her as a contemptible person (perhaps to justify his humiliation of her in her own home) and Yezhov’s ability to inspire such love in the face of overwhelming pressure to disavow him suggests that we need to take another look at the standard view of Yezhov as bloodthirsty killer devoid of any human qualities.

This was when I encountered two very significant scholarly works that changed my whole view of the Great Terror: The Road to Terror by J. Arch Getty and Oleg Naumov, and Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia, 1934-1941 by Robert Thurston. Suddenly I get an image of the Terror not as a systematic operation of mass murder directed from the top by Stalin (as frequent comparisons to Nazi Germany’s genocides suggest), but of a moral panic affecting all levels of society, more akin to the Salem witch trials, or what the McCarthy Era might have become if the US didn’t have due process protections to slow down the wheels of (in)justice long enough that Ed Murrow could get the truth out and people could calm down. Instead of the pathological mastermind of mass murder, Stalin’s role becomes more that of throwing gasoline on a fire that would have burned no matter who was at the top (so much for all those alternate histories in which Sergei Kirov outmaneuvers Stalin and the Terror is averted). Thus it became possible to see Yezhov not as a psychopathic monster, or as Stalin’s witless tool, but a sincere Soviet patriot in over his head, not realizing that his entire society has gone mad around him because it can’t name the Elephant in the Middle of the Living Room that is the abject failure of Communist theory in the disaster of forced collectivization.

However, the final link came not from history, scholarly or popular, but from science fiction: namely a story from Larry Niven’s Man-Kzin Wars anthology series. In Jerry Pournelle and S. M. Stirling’s “The Children’s Hour,” (which is reprinted in The Houses of the Kzinti), one of the characters claims that Communism was created as a self-limiting tyranny to control humanity’s self-destructive impulses. The idea of the tragedies of Communism being the result of a shadowy Illuminati-style conspiracy foisting Communism onto unsuspecting dupes who sincerely believed they were creating a better world really bothered me.

Thus, when I saw the call for submissions to Historical Lovecraft, I immediately saw a possibility in substituting Cthulhu’s minions for Pournelle and Stirling’s shadowy Illuminati-style conspirators. My original idea was to have a modern researcher discover evidence of the tampering, and come under fire for appearing to be exculpating Yezhov — but then the editors add a line in the guidelines that they do not want to see frame stories set in the present day. So now I’ve got a story written from Yezhov’s point of view — but how can I convey the manipulations of history by Cthulhu’s minions when Yezhov’s supposed to have only the most glancing idea of what he’s discovering?

Thus I developed the idea of a series of memos back and forth between R’lyeh and Cthulhu’s agents in Leningrad, interspersed through the narrative. This technique also had the benefit of rejecting any grandiose portrayal of Cthulhu and his minions, instead portraying their evil as utterly banal and bureaucratic. It’s rather appropriate when one considers that one of the failure modes of bureaucracy is a loss of the sense of personal responsibility for actions, such that people carry out terrible orders fully believing that they’re not just doing the right thing, but fulfilling a positive duty, and that failure mode has been such a major part of several of the worst horrors of the 20th century.

After that it was just a matter of actually pulling everything together into a finished story. I got some wonderful suggestions for that from some of my friends who are also writers, and some help from my husband on the final edits right when his computer had major problems and he needed me to get it working again.

I’m participating in the Blog Buddies contest for Historical Lovecraft, which means if you go here for the guidelines, read a few blog posts on how the stories in the anthology came to be, you could win cool stuff like an Innsmouth Free Press mug!

Today, you can find my post on what-all I poured into my novelette, “The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins” over in Leigh Kimmel’s blog. Tomorrow, you can read her guest post right here!

Fun times—hope you participate! And, if you have Historical Lovecraft, and liked it, please think about leaving a review on Goodreads or Amazon or on your blog.

It’s been waaaay too long since I’ve blogged. Holy crap. I need get in here more often and post stuff like I always vow I will (seriously, I’m going to write about Victorian pornography any day now), so my blogs aren’t all just “hey look at this stuff I did.” But I’ve left it too long, so whatevs. Here’s some stuff I did:

My very last Fantasy Magazine-hosted Films of High Adventure went up this morning! Sniff! Jesse and I decided to do Beetle Juice, because we both loved that film (still love it!), and we wanted to go out with a triumphant, fist-jabbing YES! Thanks for all the support, folks–we’ll get back into doing the column on our blogs once we both conquer a few deadlines.

The Crossed Genres Quarterly #1 is now available! It contains stories by Ken Liu, Christie Yant, Therese Arkenberg and myself, among others. I’m thrilled my work appears in such hallowed company. Yay!

I’ve had some recent good news, as well, in the form of hearing that I’ll have a few nonfiction pieces appearing soon around the interwebs. For Fantasy, I had the privilege to interview Edward Packard and Ellen Kushner about their experiences writing the Choose Your Own Adventure series, and talked to a lot of my friends about how much they enjoyed reading those books as a kid (as did I!). I’ll post a note when that goes up in April—I’m really happy about it, and many thanks to everyone who helped that piece along.

For Strange Horizons, I interviewed Jonathan L. Howard, and that will be going up in April, too. Howard is one of those authors who is just genuinely nice, pleasant to work with, and interesting. It was such fun to speak with him about things like role playing, horror cinema, and what the new Cabal novel will be about. Serious yay! In other  Cabal-related news, “The House of Gears,” a Cabal short, will be appearing in Fantasy in April, and since I was already interviewing him for SH, I conducted his Author Spotlight. Whew!

I think that’s about it! I’m mostly excited about the Fantasy relaunch, though–it’s going to be beautiful and chock-full of amazing fiction. While you wait for that, however, you should check out Fantasy‘s February issue. It’s been one of our most amazing months, with fiction by An Owomoyela, a co-authored Gio Clairval/Jeff VanderMeer piece, and a delicious bit of weirdness from Tamsyn Muir. Next Monday we’re publishing an outstanding story by Megan Arkenberg, so make sure to mark your calendars to save some time for “The Celebrated Carousel of the Margravine of Blois” because woahmifreakingod. It’s the jam.

cross-posted to my LJ

Jesse’s latest, The Enterprise of Death, is available for reviewers to check out! You can get an ebook arc here, or you can enter his contest to try to win one of three bound galleys! It’s a really fucking good book, and I’m not just saying that because my cat is a (minor) character.

Jeff VanderMeer’s short story collection, The Third Bear, was recently featured over at Largehearted Boy, for their Book Notes series. If you’re interested in such things as authors discussing how music and words interact and (potentially) enhance one another, you should check it out! It’s interesting stuff. There’s also  a free PDF of “The Quickening,” which was the only new story in the collection! Fun times–and if you like the story, consider buying the anthology. All royalties will go to funding the translation aspect of VanderMeer’s forthcoming Leviathan 5 anthology, which seems like an amazing, worthy undertaking.

The Innsmouth crew is doing a lot of cool stuff recently! They just posted the cover for their Historical Lovecraft anthology, which I have every confidence will be completely awesome (and it features an absolutely filthy novelette by yours truly). Currently they’re accepting submissions for their Candle in the Attic Window anthology, which will be Gothic fiction, and I hear they’re eager for shorter stuff, non-repulsive people, and mummies.

Also, I’ll be at World Horror this year, so that’s awesome! I’ve never been, and I’m looking forward to meeting new folks and seeing old friends. It should be a lot of fun! Thanks in advance to the con committee for all their hard work!

x-posted to my LJ

I’m sitting here eating Unfried Fried Rice from Appetite for Reduction, the low-fat cookbook I tested for last year, and it occurs to me that I should do one o’them end-of-year thingies I’ve been seeing all about the webz. It’s been a crazy year in general for me—as a writer, as an editor, as a daughter, and as a consumer of media, as well, so yeah. Some documentation seems in order:

As a writer:

2010 saw my first fiction sale ever, and then three others. In January I sold “In Sheep’s Clothing” to Running with the Pack, and the anthology—and my story in particular—got a bunch of really nice reviews and shout-outs. Then about midyear I heard “The Devil’s Bride” would be picked up by Palimpsest, and in October “The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins” was selected to be part of Innsmouth Free Press‘s forthcoming Historical Lovecraft anthology. Finally, Crossed Genres accepted “The Red Terror of Rose Hall” to be part of their subscriber’s content. I’m very proud of all of these!

As for non-fiction (or is it?!?!) my interview with zombie polka band The Widow’s Bane went up at Strange Horizons. That was a hoot, and I’m so pleased it found such a great home. Also this year, Jesse Bullington and I embarked on a quest to re-watch old movies from our childhood and blog about them. Right now “Films of High Adventure” is on hiatus due to both of us being busy (though our review of Dungeons & Dragons went up on Fantasy last week and I failed to make a note of it here—it was such fun), but throughout the year it’s been an interesting project to say the least. A hoot and a holler, yes indeed.

Since this is a rare writerly update from me, I’ll also talk about what’s up with my novel. Last year I typed THE END on the MS, edited it, and sent it on its merry way to an agent. That agent contacted me, and we talked on the phone about the book. While she didn’t wish to represent it at the time, she did say that if I wanted to rewrite portions of the MS, and do some other stuff with it, she’d be willing to give it a second looksee. All her suggestions made sense—total sense, actually—and so that’s where I’m at right now with my big project. It’s been difficult, but I’m starting to see a new book emerge that’s, I think, a better book, and so even if a revised manuscript is all that comes out of this, I sense it will be a net gain.

As an editor:

Last year I was already on board with Fantasy Magazine at the year’s dawn, but toward the end of the year, things started to get wild. It began with some changes for Fantasy: the editor and fiction editor announced they’d both be stepping down, and that John Joseph Adams would be taking over full editorship in March of 2011. In the wake of this, I was asked to take on managerial duties for John’s (now) two magazines—Lightspeed and Fantasy.

So far, this has been a total pleasure. Working with John is a lot of fun, and the Lightspeed team as a whole are awesome folks! I anticipate good things for Fantasy as 2011 progresses and we remodel a bit.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t note a few of my favorite short stories this year, so in no particular order, my highlights for Fantasy (and a few from Lightspeed after I started) are:

At Fantasy:

And at Lightspeed:

As a daughter:

In the early months of 2010 my family found out that my dad was battling pancreatic cancer. This came as a shock to us all, as my dad is one seriously healthy dude. We had no idea just how much time we would have with him, but 2011 opens with my dad being healthier than he was this time last year, according to the doctors (I mean, as far as I understand it). His tumors, as of his last scan, were not particularly bioactive, meaning the hard-core chemo he was on did some damage to the cancer. He is working out, walking at least 10k steps every day, and eating healthy. It seems like he is baffling his oncologist and various other doctors with how well he is doing, so that’s awesome. I’m hoping 2011 holds even more remarkable health improvements for him. Big thanks to all who sent happy thoughts his way, in the form of prayer, well-wishes, emails, or anything else!

As a reader/movie-watcher/listener/video game player:

2010’s movie watching was largely “Films of High Adventure”-related, but there were a few others that rocked out and deserve a note. This year I actually saw a few movies that came out in 2010: Kick-Ass, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and, um. . . Splice, but since that movie caused my first-ever film walkout, I dunno if it counts. The others were good! I also watched Hero, which was awesome, A Town Called Panic, which I liked far more than I thought I would, Moon Warriors, Mr. Vampire 2 AKA Crazy Safari, and the two late-in-the-year standouts, The Draughtsman’s Contract and The Prestige. Good stuff. I’m certainly leaving out a few, but those are what I can recall off the top of my head.

As for books, I think my Best Book of 2010 (that, shockingly enough, came out in 2010) would absolutely be Johannes Cabal the Detective by Jonathan L. Howard. I also read the first in the series in 2010, Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, which was great—but I think Detective blows it out of the water. I actually participated in an inquisition of Herr Cabal around the time the book came out, which was a lot of fun, but the book stands on its own. It’s tremendous.

Also of note, I read Imaro by Charles Saunders in 2010, and that rocked my world, as did Elric of Melnibone and its sequel Sailor on the Seas of Fate. I also read Flora Segunda, which I loved, and a bunch of other stuff but I rearranged my books (read: put them on top of the bookshelf because I ran out of space) and now I can’t remember what I read this year. I’ll keep better notes in 2011.

I don’t ever listen to albums as they come out (I suck at keeping up with music) but omfg, Cee Lo Green’s The Ladykiller has been making doing the dishes actually fun.

And to round this out, as a gamer, motherfucking Cataclysm, nerds!

So that’s a year in review. I’m certainly neglecting things, like awesome new friendships made at World Fantasy and elsewhere, novels beta-read for my friends, things of note I’ll probably edit in later, and other stuff I’ve done/thought about/enjoyed/whatever (like, say, the fact that I actually typed THE END at the end of two manuscripts this year, but one will never-ever see the light of day), but I have to go to the bank to get quarters. It’s the first laundry day of 2011! Woo!

After next week’s post up at Fantasy, “Films of High Adventure” is going on hiatus for a while due to Jesse and myself needing to devote more time to other projects. But! This week we celebrate my dad’s birthday by watching one of the movies he showed me as a wee Tanz: it involves Mars, red money (Mars is red!), red dust, red blood spurting out of people, and a red-faced Austrian body builder as a secret agent who thinks he’s a construction worker who thinks he’s a secret agent. Maybe. What could it be?

Film: Total Recall (1990)

WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS??? Direction again by dirt-dog par excellence Paul Verhoeven (Starship Troopers, Basic Instinct), his follow-up to last week’s RoboCop. Final screenplay by half a dozen people after dozens of attempts (including one by Pier Anthony) to adapt a Philip K. Dick short story that featured very few gunfights and mutants—of those who penned the final version, most notable is Dan O’Bannon (Alien, Return of the Living Dead). Soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith (Pretty Much Every Cheesy Action Film From the Last Three Decades) and some decent special effects by frequent Verhoeven collaborator Rob Bottin (RoboCop, The Thing). “Acting” by Films of High Adventure All-Star Arnie Schwarz, Sharon Stone (so, so many turkeys), Rachel Ticotin (uh, Con Air), Ronny Cox (the main OCP baddie in RoboCop), Marshall Bell (the coach in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, Magistrate Claggett in Deadwood), and the dependably angry Michael Ironside (Scanners, Starship Troopers)

Quote: “You blabbed, Quaid! You blabbed about Mars!”

Alternate quote: “YOU BLEW MAH COVAH!!!”

Alternate alternate quote: Two weeks.”

First viewing by Molly: I have no idea. Young, young, young. My dad got really excited when it came out, and so it was one of the rare grown-up sci-fi action movies I saw as a kid.

First viewing by Jesse: Elementary school—another one my dear, departed grandmother showed me.

Most recent viewing by both: A couple of weeks ago.

Impact on Molly’s childhood development: I thought it was pretty fucking cool, that’s for sure. I was never a huge Arnold fan—I found him alarming as a child, and still do, honestly—but I remember being impressed by the things that impress children inclined towards mutants, three-tittied hookers, psychically-implanted memories, and x-rays that show guns, too.

Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: Decent. I generally preferred fantasy to sci-fi but this one had mutants and ultra-violence, so it was alright by me. I remember not understanding that atmospheric pressure affected the human body and thought the reason Arnie et al inflated on the surface of Mars was that the red sand was poisonous or something. That shit freaked me right the hell out:

Random youtube clip that hasn’t been taken down for copyright infringement:

Molly’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Pretty excited. My dad’s birthday was the 16th of November, and I wanted to do this review this week in celebration of his enthusiasm for science fiction and fantasy that was so formative for me. I didn’t recall (oh ho!) much of the film other than the asphyxiation sequence at the end and the three-tittied whore, quite frankly  [Jesse says: also, dude, three-tittied whore is not the preferred nomenclature. Tri-breasted sex worker, please].

Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Cautiously intrigued, as I am with most Verhoeven screenings these days. That he has talent is undeniable; that he uses said talent in the service of vicious, intentionally trashy indulgences of his nihilism is equally undeniable. Yet I seem to remember this one having an honest-to-goodness, no-strings attached happy ending. . . which of course made me think I must have missed something the first time around.

Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: I feel like there’s a whip-smart sci-fi action movie lurking behind the façade of Total Recall. By this I mean that the film could have spent a lot more time exploring the nature of memory and subjective reality, but chose instead to over-rely on chest-thumping and man-worship. That said, it’s still fucking awesome in the way only big-budget sci-fi action movies can be: loud and bullet-riddled, and filled with questionably-futuristic technology, hot babes, awesome dudes, evil corporations, and cool stuff.

I think I prefer RoboCop of these two films simply because it manages to be (1) gorier, (2) smarter, (3) populated with more interesting characters, (4) more violent, and (5) less misogynistic all at the same time. That’s no small feat, but it’s true. That said. . . Total Recall will always have a place in my heart, like Legend, in that even though they’re both questionably good, I saw them at a young enough age that they were utterly mesmerizing and highly educational. Also, Total Recall is obviously the forerunner of Tank Girl, which I didn’t realize until this re-watch. Really! Tank Girl substitutes post-apocalyptic earth for Mars and a suit-wearing corporate grey-haired water lord for a suit-wearing corporate grey-haired air lord. Psychic mutants become warrior-kangaroo-men, and hey! Presto! A script! Sort of [Jesse says: think I still prefer Tank Girl, though—Ronny Cox is good, but he is no Malcolm McDowell, and Arnie sure as shootin’ ain’t half the thespian Lori Petty is].

Anyways, there’s apparently a remake in the works, and it’ll be interesting to see what a 21st century overhaul of this film might look like [Jesse says: maybe with Colin Farrell! I have no idea what his career did to make him hate it so. . .]. I really like Verhoeven’s grimy futures as seen in Total Recall and RoboCop, and if the new film is all shiny and Mac store-looking, I can’t imagine it will be as good. I like that these two films look like they could be our real future; that they could be the near-future that will one day be the far-future of Wall-E. Verhoeven is far too cynical to make near-future films where somehow the world has, I dunno, decided all of a sudden that polluting rivers, littering, strip mining, and overproducing unnecessary commodities so we can all enjoy the planet’s resources is Not Cool Anymore, since. . . well. Yeah. The evidence for that happening anytime soon is not particularly compelling. But in the true Verhoeven style, what we get is all that in the background, for the nerds to ponder. For everyone else, there’s explosions and boobies and one-liners! Thanks, Mr. Verhoeven, for giving us what we want and then sneering at us for wanting it, as you laugh all the way to the fucking bank. It’s what you do best.

Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: Molly’s summation directly above is pretty much the most accurate description of his Hollywood output that I’ve ever read, and she also managed to connect Mr. Showgirls himself to Wall-E, no mean feat. For my money, Total Recall is decent viewing both by Schwarzie and Verhoeven movie standards, with many a well-executed effect, action scene, and bit of tawdry silliness to help grease the rails. The movie, as Molly pointed out, isn’t nearly as clever as it should have been, and compared to the superficially simpler but surprisingly nuanced RoboCop it’s fairly one-dimensional. Of course, that one dimension has mutants and nudity and mutant nudity and guns guns guns and fights fights fights, so it’s not as bad as it sounds.

The scenes where the film strains to be more than a simple action movie and almost succeeds are easily the most interesting, such as when Sharon Stone and the doctor from Rekall try to persuade Arnie to take the red pill to wake up from his artificial reality (and no, I don’t know why we didn’t cover The Matrix for this month, either, other than neither of us could bear re-watching it anytime soon). Although the scene in question quickly devolves into grunting and punching and shooting, it’s interesting to note that everything the doctor predicts comes to pass in the course of the film, which leads to the possible interpretation that Total Recall really is about a construction worker going crazy from a virtual vacation and not, as is usually thought, about a secret agent rediscovering his identity only to reject it for a nobler one.

The concept is never again overtly referenced in the film, but in the commentary Verhoeven somewhat gleefully offers that the fade to white that concludes the happy ending could be Arnie’s character finally being lobotomized following the hallucinations that have made up the bulk of the film. Given the director’s bleak track record, it’s easy to hypothesize which version of events he favors. So much for that happy ending—thanks for another bedtime story about the human race, Uncle Paul.

High Points: All the classy moments, from Arnie using an innocent bystander as a human shield to just about any scene with Sharon Stone—such as when Arnie greases her and says “considah that a divorce.” The part where Arnie takes the bug out of his nose. Definitely not Arnie’s acting. Johnny cabs, which are an infinitely cooler method of knowing where you are than Garmin or Magellan:

Final Verdict: ARGHHHHHH!!!!!!! But, you know, in a good way.

Next Time: We conclude Memory, Humanity, and Dystopia Month with Blade Runner over at Fantasy Magazine.

Memory, Humanity, and Dystopia Month continues today with a film about a robotic police officer. I wonder what it could be?

Film: RoboCop (1987)

WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS??? Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall, Basic Instinct), perhaps the nastiest, most cynical director of the modern age. Screenplay by Edward Neumeir (who later “adapted” Heinlein’s Starship Troopers for Verhoeven) and Michael Miner, both of whom would probably rather be remembered for this collaboration than their sophomore pairing, Anacondas: Hunt for the Blood Orchid. Suitably epic soundtrack by Basil Poledouris (Conan the Barbarian) and impressive special effects by Rob Bottin (The Thing). Acting by Peter Weller (Naked Lunch, Buckaroo Bonzai) Nancy Allen (Carrie, Dressed to Kill), Kurtwood Smith (the dad from That 70s Show causing the same sort of alarming OMG-it’s-that-guy reaction that Paul Riser evokes in Aliens), Ronny Cox (Total Recall), Robert DoQui (Coffy, Nashville), and Twin Peaks alum Ray Wise (Leland Palmer), Miguel Ferrer (Special Agent Albert Rosenfeld), and Dan O’Herlihy (Andrew Packard) as scumbags of various stripes.

Quote: “Excuse me, I have to go. Somewhere there is a crime happening.”

Alternate quote: “I’d buy that for a dollar!”

First viewing by Molly: Last week.

First viewing by Jesse: In the fourth grade, at this kid Nathan Fisher’s house.

Most recent viewing by both: Last week.

Impact on Molly’s childhood development: Very little. I remember it being on the TV at my friend Amanda’s house (Amanda had not one but two older brothers and parents who didn’t give a crap if their kids watched R- or X-rated movies) and being vaguely intrigued. I remember inquiring of one of these aforementioned older brothers, “is RoboCop human inside the suit?” and the answer being “No, he is a robot.” Being a mere child, I did not realize that robots, too, could have feelings and experience angst (thank god the internet was created to teach us such lessons—link NSFW, but worth your time if you like robots and ruffly underpants), and thus figured I would not care about RoboCop’s fate. How wrong I was.

Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: High. I remember being totally unprepared for the wanton violence, and, of course, totally impressed by it. The toxic waste scene freaked me out more than just about anything else from my childhood—I’d seen The Toxic Avenger, so I knew these things were plausible.

Random youtube clip that hasn’t been taken down for copyright infringement:

Molly’s thoughts prior to watching: Uneasy. I don’t really like Paul Verhoeven’s movies in general. I mean—the ending of Starship Troopers, where a haz-mat besuitted scientist gives an unsolicited gynecological exam to an alien still troubles me (around the 3:30 mark), and Verhoeven also directed the only movie I genuinely wish I could un-see: Flesh and Blood. Even Ladyhawke had some moments I didn’t loathe—not so with Flesh and Blood, which made me actively wish I had never been born so I would not have then grown up into a person who was watching Flesh and Blood. Christ. BUT N-E-WAYZ Paul Verhoeven also directed Total Recall, which is pretty awesome, and Jesse assured me that RoboCop was more in the TR mold than F&B. . . even though he also mentioned that it was “a movie that would probably make me hate everything.” With that sort of endorsement, what could go wrong?

Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Wary. Verhoeven’s mean-spirited, bleak view of humanity has depressed Molly before, and though the pleasure I take in Molly’s reactions to some of these turkeys may appear to be sadistic, I don’t actually like making her unhappy—at least not in the way that Paul Verhoeven makes her unhappy. For one thing, it’s hard to tell if he’s misogynistic or simply nihilistic to the point of hating everyone regardless of their gender. His tendency to cater to the lowest common denominator while simultaneously mocking said denominator for being so low and common is something that puts as many people off as it wins over, and though I enjoy a good-natured torture session along the lines of a Yor: The Hunter from the Future or a Beastmaster I’m not so keen on making her genuinely miserable with the screenings I select.

Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: Man, was I ever surprised by RoboCop! It’s really good! Who knew, besides everybody but me?

Jesse’s review pretty much encapsulates my feelings on the film, but I have to say, I was impressed for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I was amazed by the ridiculous amount of violence of the film—wowza. I mean, I’ve seen enough movies to know something bad was going to happen to the dude who trained the gun on the ED-209, but I was surprised by the sheer number of bullets pumped into that poor bastard. Same goes for the scene where the dad from That 70s Show and his assorted thugs kill Murphy—that shotgun blast to the hand was pretty agonizing to watch, as was the rest of that scene. And oh god oh god where the ginger-bearded bad guy drives a truck into a silo of toxic waste and survives long enough to melt and wheeze in a completely nauseating manner. . . I am going to stop thinking about that right now.

I was also impressed by how merciless and accurate the depiction of a privatized future America was, too. Interestingly enough, Jesse and I watched this the night of the overwhelmingly depressing mid-term elections, as America was voting tea baggers and other sundry assholes into office. Though it feels ridiculous to even type the words, I’mma say it: RoboCop hit a little too close to home for me that night. The fact that an overwrought parable like RoboCop (fucking RoboCop, man) made me so uneasy is both a testament to the state of America in 2010 as well as the overall quality screenwriting and directing of the film.

It’s obvious that the team that brought RoboCop to fruition love their dystopian novels about the dangers of capitalism and what treating people as commodities does to the world, and were intelligent enough to update the old warhorse of Brave New World into relevance. The early shout-out to Henry Ford Hospital pleased me immensely, but then later when a Lee Iacocca Elementary School is referenced. . . that’s brilliant. It’s those little flourishes—as well as updating the shiny bright nobody-has-feelings-but-at-least-they-have-bread-and-circuses of BNW into the more reasonable if ickier future of environmental pollution, lowered standards of living for disposable segments of the population, and general public despair and dilapidation as the rich get richer—that make RoboCop a much better film than Verhoeven’s Total Recall, which I felt had a smart movie lurking somewhere inside of it. Alas, with Arnold in the lead, couldn’t really rise above anything more than him shooting Sharon Stone and saying “considaaah this a divorce” or whatever the fuck happens in that moment. RoboCop, by contrast, is much smarter, much more pointed in its critiques, much better.

In the end, RoboCop is a really weird movie, and watching it for the first time at age 29 is a pretty weird experience, too. I do wonder what I would have thought of it had I seen it at a significantly younger age. I don’t think I would have been able to handle it as a child at all. . . I mean, I had nightmares for quite literally weeks after watching the tequila- and monster-fueled rape scene in Poltergeist II. In high school I probably would’ve resisted the core message of the film due to my objectivist leanings at the time (or re-framed it into a parable about how Man’s Greatness Shines Through and blamed the corruptness of the individual corporate bad guys instead of capitalism as a system). In college I. . . I dunno. Might have become enraged, as that was my default mode? Probably. But as a seasoned adult (or something) I must say: RoboCop is a damn fine movie.

Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: Hey, very nice! And by very nice I mean incredibly dark and nihilistic and devoid of any sort of catharsis, but by Verhoeven standards this is positively charming. I pretty much agree with Molly’s take on his work in general and this film in particular, although I’m perhaps less turned off by the filmmaker’s unrelenting pessimism.

Verhoeven may be subtle as sledgehammer, but he’s also archly subversive, and certain scenes carry far more weight and gravitas than one would expect from an action movie about a robotic police officer. When RoboCop/Murphy and his partner Lewis are all kinds of fucked up following the penultimate shoot-out and lie bleeding to death in a lake of polluted sludge, Robo reassures Lewis that OCP, the corrupt corporation responsible for the events of the film, “will fix everything. They fix everything.” Murphy may have rediscovered his humanity but he’s still a literal tool of OCP, and though all the Hollywood villains are dispatched by the time the credits roll nothing has really changed—the status quo has been protected, and OCP can continue with business as usual.

For being a movie about a moralistic cyborg cop cleaning up corruption, RoboCop studiously avoids buying into the chest-thumping and flag-waving of most 80s action movies. On the contrary, part of what makes it such a fascinating film is how Verhoeven rejects these conventions of the genre and instead fashions a cautionary tale of the dangers of unfettered capitalism—the privatization of the public sector is nothing short of catastrophic in Verhoeven’s universe, and has led to tv addiction, public apathy, desensitization to violence, environmental collapse, and general misery for the majority of the population. That Verhoeven’s film satirizing America’s desensitization to violence was so bloody its initial cut was rated X plays into what we were talking about earlier regarding the director’s tendency to simultaneously give the audience what they want even as he mocks them for enjoying it. He may be a nasty man with a mean sense of humor and utter contempt for humanity, but at least he’s interesting.

High Points: All the weird Korean commercials it spawned. The effects, which hold up incredibly well and kick the shit out of most CGI nonsense. That such a nihilistic “hey, fuck you dumb Americans” movie spawned a stereotypically American kid-friendly franchise complete with toned-down sequels, action figures, video games, comic books, and cartoons. The mingling of ultra-violence with blacker-than-the-chambers-of-a-dead-nun’s-heart humor, such as this early scene:

Final Verdict: Pretty awesome.

Next Time: We continue Memory, Humanity, and Dystopia Month with Total Recall.

When Jesse and I realized we’d watched Total Recall and Dark City in quick succession, we decided to appoint November as Memory, Humanity, and Dystopia Month. So, cool! Theme months. Be warned, though–I was cranky and tired when I wrote this week’s review, so it’s probably more unfair than usual. . . but I also tend to get more riled by near misses than epic failures, just because I hate to see a good thing ruined. And after a very strong, compelling start, Dark City was ruined for me by a third act fumble of epic proportions, in that involved Heavy Exposition, The World’s Crappiest CGI Battle, Space Aliens, and a Conclusion that is Morally Questionable But Goes Internally Unquestioned. Woo! Onward:

The Film: Dark City (1998)

WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS??? Mostly Alex Proyas (The Crow, Knowing), who directed and co-wrote with screenwriters David S. Goyer (the Blade series) and Lem Dobbs (the Gary Busey classic Hider in the House). Soundtrack by Trevor Jones (From Hell), with some help from Anita Kelsey and Echo and the Bunnymen. Starring Rufus Sewell (A Knight’s Tale, The Illusionist), Jennifer Connolly (Labyrinth, Requiem for a Dream), William Hurt (A History of Violence, the Dune miniseries), Ian Richardson (Brazil), Richard O’Brien (The Rocky Horror Picture Show), and a bizzaro version of Kiefer Sutherland (Jason Patric and the Coreys versus the Dreamy Living Dead).

Quote: “Remember, John, never talk to strangers!”

Alternate quote: “No more Mr. Quick. Mr. Quick, dead, yes.”

First viewing by Molly: A couple of weeks ago.

First viewing by Jesse: In the theatre, so mid-high school.

Most recent viewing by both: A couple of weeks ago.

Impact on Molly’s childhood development: None. Never heard of it.

Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: Slight. I recall appreciating the aesthetic but thinking it aped a bit from City of Lost Children, stylistically. Like any teenager worth their weight in angst and mix-tapes, I was fiercely defensive of things I enjoyed and convinced everyone was out to take cools things and make them not cool via the dread mainstream.

Random youtube clip that hasn’t been taken down for copyright infringement:

Molly’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Our local video store is currently selling off stock, and when Jesse saw it on the rack he said something like “LOL DARK CITY” but in real-life speech. I was like “What the heck is Dark City?” and he replied “Oh, man. We should do that for Films of High Adventure,” but due to his refusal to tell anyone anything about a movie before watching it, wouldn’t say more.

Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Intrigued. I had only seen it the once, when it came out, and remembered thinking it was good if not great. I really couldn’t remember much about the movie, other than being dissatisfied with the finale and thinking wonky-ass Kiefer Sutherland was about the coolest thing ever.

Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: I’m still recovering from WFC so I’m just warning you—this is going to be disjointed and ranty.

Dark City is a case of squandered potential. I mean, it’s a movie that would be infinitely better without the lead actors’ characters being part of the plot. Yeah, I know, “what?” But it’s true. And just think about that for a second. I’m trying to think of another movie where I wished so continuously that the male and female leads would just go away so I could hang out with the supporting cast, but I’m coming up empty, because most movies where I despise the leads, I also am pretty eh about the supporting actors as well [Jesse says: uh, didn’t we just try to watch The Frighteners? I would watch maybe a thousand movies about Jeffrey Combs’ FBI agent character]. Not so here, where had Rufus Sewell and Jennifer Connolly been totally absent, it would’ve been a much, much better film, even with the goddamn space aliens in the third act.

I simply cannot wrap my head around why on earth the scriptwriters thought milquetoast monomyth nothing-master Sewell and Bland Love Interest Connolly were even remotely as engaging as twitchy mad scientist Kiefer Sutherland and angsty detective William Hurt. Then again, the scriptwriters thought that “space aliens create a large film noir-styled spaceship, populate it with human subjects, and use a scary syringe to switch up memories in people in order to search for what makes the human soul oh-so-precious and unique (?)” was an okay plot, so perhaps I’m just caring about this a bit too much [Jesse says: you’re right, it’s not an okay plot—it’s a great plot!]. After all, the space aliens hire Kiefer Sutherland’s “psychologist” character to go around switching up people’s memories because he. . . is an artist of the mind? Or something? ORLY? Is that what psychologists are? What? Jesus fucking Christ.

It’s just—argh. I just think Dark City had so much to offer, so much interesting stuff that (omg a sports metaphor?) is just sitting on the sidelines. Nay, languishing. Every good character, every engaging concept is benched (woo) in the name of that style of plot wherein a generic white male (with telekinesis!) will save the human race because he is a generic white male (with telekinesis!) and thus must overcome adversity for all our sakes in the form (this time) of the world’s lamest CGI battle.

In the end, Dark City begs no deeper question of its audience than “why should we care?” Sewell brings no depth to his role, but he’s not given much to work with other than a character description that was probably written down somewhere as ‘He is a generic white man who evolves telekinesis and shall save the world,” and indeed, is scripted in such a way that he comes off as kind of a d-bag at the end (more on that later). Jennifer Connolly is only worthy of our interest because she is pretty [Jesse says: and dresses nice and has a lovely singing voice (dubbed over her own)—what on earth more do you want from a female lead?!]. Of the only two interesting characters, one disappears into the shadows by way of resolving his plotline, the other is. . . sucked. . . out. . . into. . . space. Nice tidy ending there, especially because that character had more chemistry with Connolly than Sewell, so out he goes! Yeesh.

For a film that tries to be all moody and dark and emotional, it evokes zero pathos because there is no real substance, and like I said, anything interesting is just ignored. To wit: why did Sewell in particular evolve telekinesis? Why, if the detective had his memories of being a detective implanted, is he so good at noticing stuff? Why is Sewell convinced Connolly actually likes him, when he knows perfectly well that she had her love for him implanted in her skull, just like her memory of cheating on him [Jesse says: because you can’t fake love, Molly, the movie told us that multiple times, REMEMBER?!]? Why does he choose to believe one lie and not the other? (Because she’s pretty.) Why are there spirals everywhere? Does Kiefer Sutherland regret his decision to work for the space aliens? Did he retain any of his own memories? Does RiffRaff’s character yearn to be human and that’s why he chooses to have human memories implanted, or did he have a different reason to volunteer? WHO CARES! CGI BATTLE! IT’S-ALL-OK ENDING! CREDITS!

I dunno. I could go on, but it’s just one of those things where I can’t care any more, so I’ll just put the cap on this bottle of haterade by saying that Dark City’s ending is a perfect synecdoche for the entire film. Basically, at some point, the space aliens re-implant Connolly’s memories, giving her amnesia; Sewell retains his memories. After saving the world and then being given the power to re-shape it however he wants—and he just, like, does it because he’s apparently fully confident that he should be Lord of All and A God Amongst Men—he meets her on a weird little pier and pretends he’s seeing her for the first time, and they go off to presumably have a relationship. THIS IS PROBLEMATIC. Right? Who cares—he gets the girl! That’s it. I’m done.

Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: I actually thought it was better than I remembered. Although I’ll agree with Molly’s assessment of a third act fumble, plot-wise, it bothered me way less the second time around, probably because I was vaguely expecting it and was thus prepared for it. I also appreciate now that it’s much more of its own thing than I’d previously given it credit—although the City of Lost Children touches are obvious, they’re not nearly as prevalent as I had remembered. The Jeunet and Caro film is one of my all time favorites, hence my protectiveness of it, but coming at it from a more experienced position, cinematically speaking, I see now that it’s just one of many sources of inspiration, and I would never begrudge anyone for loving the same works as myself.

So it’s a bit of a mess, and I agree that Hurt and Sutherland’s characters are more interesting than our actual focal points, but it’s so damn pretty I’m willing to forgive a lot. And I don’t have quite the aversion to aliens of the space variety that Molly does, though I’ll allow that I too was disappointed with the revelation the first time around. This is an unusual case of actually liking a film a bit more the second time around—being forewarned of its failings, I was better equipped to appreciate its successes. Other than that, I think Molly really covered all the bases (sports reference!) so I’ll leave off by saying that while she is technically correct about everything, it doesn’t make this movie any less cool looking, nor does it make Mr. Young Guns any less twitchy.

High Points: Kiefer Sutherland tweaking out. RiffRaff rocking the bald look. The hand-wringing of the creepy-ass strangers:

Low Points: When one gets to the point in the movie that should be titled Kiefer Sutherland Explains the Movie.

Final Verdict: A gorgeous, stylish thriller that trips over its CGI-enhanced feet in the third act.

Next Time: We continue Memory, Humanity, and Dystopia Month with either Robocop or Total Recall.

Jesse Bullington and Molly Tanzer have decided to embark upon a quest: watching “classic” adventure movies that informed one or both of their childhoods. These columns will run every Wednesday on their blogs, excluding the last post of each month, which will appear over at Fantasy Magazine. This week, as they prepare to go out of town for a conference, they asked us, their respective spouses Raechel and John, to take over for them. Sure, we said. We’ll take great care of your column. We’ll treat it like our own. Hey, it’s October. How about a classic Halloween film? Something classy and intelligent, yet terrifying. Leave it to us. Really, don’t worry about a thing. Have fun at the conference!

Film: Ernest Scared Stupid (1991)

WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS??? Jim Varney and the gentle hand of a loving God. Mostly Jim Varney (Ernest Goes to Camp, Ernest Goes to Jail, Ernest Rides Again, and The Beverly Hillbillies) as Ernest, of course. Written and directed by John R. Cherry III (Ernest Goes to Camp, Ernest Goes to Jail, Ernest Rides Again, and shockingly enough not The Beverly Hillbillies). Child acting by a bunch of children who went on to do literally nothing else (with the notable exception of Shay Astar, who rockets from the success of this film right into your nightmares as the “imaginary” friend Isabella in a terrible early episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.) The voice of Ernie Fosselius as the voice of Trantor the Troll! (Who’s Ernie Fosselius? Only the director of Hardware Wars, the greatest Star Wars parody ever made! Also, apparently, the voice of most of the “ack-ack” noises in Mars Attacks!)  Oh, and Eartha Kitt (classic Catwoman, of course) setting this film apart from all other Ernest films by actually acting and being awesome in that way that only Eartha Kitt could.

Quote: “You’re the seventh son of the seventh son, you’re the baby, you’re the boy. . . you are the great redneck hope!”

Alternate quote: “You don’t want to fight me. . . I know tai chi, kung fu, chow mein, and. . . I saw Hulkamania three times, once in slow-mo!”

Alternate alternate quote: “Oh! I sure hope you’re from Keebler!”

And one more for good measure: “Well, nobody’s home! I guess they’re out robbing graves or biting the heads off of chickens or whatever’s in voodoo vogue.”

First viewing by John: The moment it came out on video. I’m guessing ’92, making it pretty much the perfect end to the Reagan/Bush years. I imagine W watched this at least a million times while he was supposed to be running his father’s re-election campaign.

First viewing by Raechel: Same here. Also, I’m pretty sure this movie was the cause of my dad’s dramatic breakup with Blockbuster. Upon returning Ernest Scared Stupid for what must have been the hundredth time, he incurred yet another $4/day late fee and finally snapped.

Most recent viewing by both: Too long ago, that’s for sure. Two weeks ago? Maybe more. Too long.

Impact on John’s childhood development: Huge. Ernest Goes to Camp was the Ernest film that kicked my childhood in the nuts (Molly says: wait, what? What does that even mean? Is that a good thing, or a bad thing? How did it come to pass that I married you?), but I only saw it once, at a friend’s house. Scared Stupid came out when my younger brothers were coming of age, and someone gave it to us as a gift, so it was screened in my living room pretty much every day between its release and the release of Major Payne. If I wasn’t watching Ernest I was hearing him in the background or listening to my brothers quote him. Sometimes when I listen to the rain I hear it tap out a soft, whispering “knowhatimean” on the rooftop.

Impact on Raechel’s childhood development: Like John, I was hooked on Ernest after seeing Ernest Goes to Camp, and really, how could one not be? Scared Stupid is the first cinematic masterpiece I ever watched, and I watched it over and over and over.

Random youtube clip that hasn’t been taken down for copyright infringement:

John’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Hells yeah! It’s like Christmas in October!

Raechel’s thoughts prior to re-watching: What the fuck is wrong with Molly and Jesse? Who wouldn’t want to watch this!? Whatever, they’re probably watching some period piece about ladies who die of sadness and people who live off of accrued interest. (Editorial note: Molly believes at least the latter half of that was actually true at the time.)

John’s thoughts post-viewing: God, this movie is even better than I remembered! Seeing Jim Varney and Eartha Kitt in a movie together is like watching a ninja make love to a supernova. It takes your breath away, but it leaves you with a feeling of deep, untarnished joy (Raechel says: this is perhaps the only time I have ever agreed with John’s assessment of a movie). Ernest Scared Stupid has everything that a movie should have: Ernest, Eartha Kitt, a troll named Trantor, an ancient prophecy, Jim Varney playing Ernest’s great-great-etc. grandfather, Ernest driving a garbage truck, a dog. . . everything!  And it’s only an hour and a half!  You can watch it twice in the time that it takes to watch a lot of movies that have neither Jim Varney nor Eartha Kitt! This movie is perfection.

Raechel’s thoughts post-viewing: Okay, confession time: I developed a severe allergy to slapstick and potty humor quite early in life. I hate most things that can be described as “silly,” and of all the silly things in the world, one of my least favorites is the category of Halloween movies that aren’t about people being gruesomely murdered (Jesse says: someday you’ll have to fess up to owning the Criterion Collection dvd of Hocus Pocus. . .). In short, if I must suffer a Halloween movie that is not rated R for “graphic horror violence and gore,” it’d better be a damn good one. Ernest Scared Stupid is just that. In truth, I was a little worried about re-watching this one because it prominently features children, which I dislike almost as much as slapstick. But in the end, it didn’t matter because Eartha Kitt screaming at Jim Varney while wielding a motherfucking flamethrower is pretty much the best thing ever to grace the big screen. Also, the main troll’s name is Trantor. Oh, and I’m glad I didn’t watch this film with Jesse because I cried when Ernest’s tiny dog, Rimshot, was transformed into a wooden doll, and while John at least tried to comfort me, Jesse is dogscriminatory and would have laughed at my tears. (Molly says: I just asked John “Is the dog really named Rimshot? Like. . . the thing that happens in a bad comedy routine?” John replied: “Yes, it is a joke about humor.” Oh my god.)

High Points: Jim Varney as Ernest. Jim Varney as a dozen other characters. Eartha Kitt. Eartha Kitt screaming and brandishing a flamethrower. The opening credits, which feature Jim Varney making silly faces interspersed with clips from old horror movies. Also, for all you history buffs out there, Ernest’s take on the Ottoman Empire’s attempts to expand into south Africa:

Low Points: The sad, sad fact that it does, no matter how hard you wish it wouldn’t, end.

Final Verdict: Watch it every October and you will achieve enlightenment.

Next Time: Who knows? Probably not an Ernest movie, so who cares?

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