Monthly Archives: May 2010

Saturday Theme Songs: Power Rangers

Granted, it’s Sunday, but the point is the same. This is the opening from the first season of the original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, which ran from 1993-95. By buying tons of footage from Japanese tokusatsu shows, Saban Entertainment (which had a very bizarre logo) was able to brand a new product – one which was aimed directly at the American youth market of the mid-’90s. Embedded in the Power Rangers opening in a strange saga of cultural appropriation, national differences, and how to win over kids with awesomeness. It’s also a warning to those who would spell gerunds with no “g” and no apostrophe. But hell, it was still part of my early childhood.

Here’s a challenge: watch the Power Rangers opening side by side with the one for Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger, the show from which it stole most of its fights and special effects. Now look at the significant changes in the Japan-to-America transition. Every weird Japanese touch has been left out, from the lifelike dinosaurs to any distinctly Japanese shooting locations to the traditional costumes and weapons of the original rangers. Saban strips away any non-American cultural specifics. Power Rangers begins with blunt exposition wherein comical hag/villain Rita Repulsa (formerly the Japanese “Bandora”) sets her sights on a really low-rent rendition of “earth,” and the wise face Zordon tells his robot buddy to “recruit a team of teenagers with attitude.” Ah, attitude, that ’90s zeitgeist.

One major difference between the Japanese and American iterations is the pace of the editing. Whereas the Japanese version, especially toward the end, has a relatively leisurely pace, Power Rangers takes its lightning bolt logo to heart. The characters are introduced in very brief snapshots, even using split-screen to get more information across faster. At times, shots go by so fast you can barely perceive them on anything but a subliminal level, as they cram in as many special effects as possible per second. Kenta Satō’s Japanese theme song is relaxed and triumphant; Ron Wasserman’s quasi-metal theme is far more repetitive and urgent. (Wasserman notably composed theme songs for other Saban series, like X-Men.) Lightning really is emblematic of what this opening is trying to do – it’s a sensory overload, striking kids with hyperactive music and flashing lights while emphasizing the Zords’ abilities to transform and unify.

So the transition from Japan to America is manifested not just in the language and the characters’ national identities, but also in the visual iconography and style. Zyuranger is another entry in a long-standing tradition of Japanese television; Power Rangers is the consummate American kids’ show, with attitude. As many have observed since the show began, Power Rangers‘ cast is a hilariously unsubtle attempt to recreate the American melting pot within a California suburb, including the likes of Trini Kwan, the generically Asian-American Yellow Ranger, to Kimberley Hart, the ultra-feminine Pink Ranger. It’s a curious collision between an America that’s supposedly beyond race and the need for extremely legible characters in such a fast-paced show. In the end, though, the individual Zords merge to form the Megazord. So maybe, in Saban’s America, an individual’s race is transcended by the awesomeness of the group.

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One Hour Mark: Häxan

During the witchcraft era it was dangerous to be old and ugly, but it was not safe to be young and pretty either.

Horror can be a powerful tool in the hands of the right director. Take Benjamin Christensen’s bizarre Häxan (1922), aka Witchcraft Through the Ages, which was probably 50-60 years ahead of its time. Using all manner of grotesque iconography, Christensen makes his film simultaneously a collection of vignettes, a documentary, a twisted satire, and one hell of a spectacle. This is an image from 1:00:00 into the film, as the nameless sister of Anna, wife of the late printer, crouches by the table. It’s far removed from the film’s infamous shots of gore, torture, and taboo-splattering debauchery, yet it’s still seeping with creepy potency. It still speaks the film’s dark messages about religion, sexuality, and ignorance. It’s rife with the same real-world horrors that are unveiled in Christensen’s more explicitly demented fantasies.

When I showed Ashley this picture, she was quiet at first; when I mentioned, “There’s a person in the lower right,” she immediately cried, “Eww!” and had to stop looking at it. Taken as a still, there’s definitely something off about it – how Anna’s sister is so far from the center and so low to the floor, almost hidden behind the table and its contents. She’s just witnessed the inquisitors hauling off her sister and mother, who are merely the latest casualties in an ongoing cycle of small-town treachery. (They had earlier named their accuser, Maria the weaver, as a witch.) She herself has been shoved to the floor, and will momentarily rise, only to faint. So this scene is of a 15th century Danish household in crisis, with all of its matriarchs about to be interrogated and killed; this imminent catastrophe is embodied in the maiden’s anomalous position within the frame.

There’s subtle irony in this particular framing as well. Christensen uses shots identical to this one several times earlier in the film to present the activity in Anna’s house through long, static takes. It’s through this perspective that we’re introduced to her family, and this is how we see Maria the weaver dragged away by the inquisitors. Using the same angle to view the abduction of Anna and her mother, and her sister’s subsequent anguish, links the series of events both causally and morally, but also connects the family’s downfall to its earlier complacency. After all, this isn’t just a room – it’s also the space that connects the bedroom with the outside world (background), and the site of eating (foreground). It’s a spacial representation of domestic existence.

Granted, repeatedly viewing areas from the same angle was pretty standard in early silent films, going back to the fixed camera of the Lumières. But Christensen’s mise-en-scène here directly adds to his broader arguments about hypocrisy and resentment as the roots of witch hunts. For him, the persecution of witches starts in the home, aided by religious fervor, and eventually returns to destroy it. Despite all of the film’s graphic depictions of occult behavior, it ultimately takes a very Enlightenment stance, debunking its own gruesome images and replacing them with a model of “witchcraft” far more sinister: as a self-destructive way for the town’s women to express their petty grievances. This is a totally natural form of horror, the fruits of malicious human selfishness.

This is the conclusion of Christensen’s documentary and his satire, which operate side by side throughout the film. Witch hunts are located with a larger institution of violence and oppression whose processes are curiously gendered. The women are the accusers and, in turn, the accused – the witches whose sexuality is equated with a satanic pact. The men are the monks, totally puritanical and militantly resistant to the possibility of sexual desire. They are distinct from the home; their realm is the church. The story sees the two spheres as attached in a self-sustaining loop of accusation, arrest, and confession. And it’s in the torture/confession that both genders express their hatred and lust. The visualizations of satanic rites are just projections of the hidden urges that motivate the witch hunt in the first place.

That was a slight digression, partially inspired by Carol Clover’s reading of The Exorcists Father Karras, which I’ve been reading recently, but my point is that this single frame contains a number of threatened values (womanhood, motherhood, family, home), and implies the existence of their opposites. Häxan is an audacious and intelligent film that functions at once as delirious horror cinema and as sober historical inquiry. This image is a rich example of Christensen’s multi-tiered imagination feverishly at work.

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The Ones We Might Have Saved

So, we’re a little late to the party – OK, from the looks of it, a few weeks late – but the two of us felt that joining in Arbogast on Film‘s “The One You Might Have Saved” floating blogathon was too good of an offer to resist. Therefore, better very late than never, here are our takes on horror movie characters we liked too much for them to just be killed off, like that, so senselessly! Can you imagine that the filmmakers had the gall to do such a thing? The bastards! (Warning: spoilers are inherent.)

Andreas

I would save Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette) in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). Yeah, Tippi Hedren’s Melanie Daniels was the star, destined to end up with Hitchcockian mama’s boy Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). But whereas she was mostly a spoiled, emotionally fucked-up drama queen learning to cope with an emergency, Annie was the really mature, worldly one.

Annie was Bodega Bay’s schoolteacher, and she was exactly the kind of teacher you wish you’d had in middle school. Resigned to her provincial life in a coastal town she called “a collection of shacks on a hillside,” she was totally jaded. She’d given up on a romance with Mitch after his mother disapproved, and resolved to hang around Bodega Bay… smoking, gardening, teaching, etc. Annie’s whole attitude is delightfully sardonic, and she gets some of the film’s best lines. (Hell, she begins a sentence “With all due respect to Oedipus…”) She’s a woman with little to lose, content to help the town’s children play games, sing that obnoxious “Risseldy Rosseldy” song, and practice fire drills, all with a knowing look in her eyes.

And when the birds strike, whether at a birthday party or at her schoolhouse, Annie doesn’t freak out. She just takes the lead, keeps the kids calm, and does everything she can to save their lives, even at the expense of her own. That is a good teacher. I can remember plenty of teachers who would never have taken decisive action like that, even in the midst of a bird attack, and definitely wouldn’t have sacrificed everything for their pupils. But Annie, for all her cynicism about romantic relationships, still has some fight left in her, and dammit, she cares about those kids.

I grant that Annie’s death does have meaning within the film. It could’ve been a lot more ignoble. Mitch and Melanie dwell on it, try to give her mutilated corpse some dignity, and the trauma sticks with them for the remainder of the film. So yes, her death and its consequences are well-written, especially given the awesomeness of her character. Mainly, I’m pissed off that she dies in the first place. She’s the one spark of sarcastic charm in Bodega Bay, a place full of unironic fishermen, yokels, drunkards, busybodies, and repressed lawyers. Assuming that the birds eventually stop killing everyone and move on, how will Bodega Bay rebuild without Annie?

While glancing through the film’s script, I noticed a line which I don’t think made it into the final movie. It’s from Annie’s surprisingly intimate heart-to-heart with Melanie:

Here I have a life. I’ll go into that classroom on Monday morning, and I’ll look out at twenty-five upturned little faces, and each of them will be saying, ‘Yes, please give me what you have.’ (pause) And I’ll give them what I have. I haven’t got very much, but I’ll give them every ounce of it. To me, that’s very important. It makes me want to stay alive for a long long time.

If only she had. I would not want to be a kid growing up in Bodega Bay without Annie around. She’s the one I might have saved.

Ashley

As Andreas said, we are a little late to the game but who cares! This is such a fun interesting topic that we can’t let it pass up. So here’s a character that I would have saved, Bobbie Markowe from The Stepford Wives:

The Stepford Wives is such a biting, bleak expression of all the things women fear. It’s especially terrifying to a loud, opinionated feminist like myself; the idea that there is no room for substance or personality if you’re female as far as men are concerned. Just shut up, cook, clean and be available for sex at all times (and like that sex, dammit). In a historical context, this film was made during an intensely politically charged era during which second-wave feminism was at a head. It represents with such dark, dead-on accuracy what oppression feels like: the sense of no escape. Despite your hardest sleuthing and strongest determination to escape there will always be something else to hold you down, shut you up,  or completely invalidate you and your words.

Our protagonist Joanna Eberhart and her slovenly, braless, spirited friend Bobbie Markowe are the sole representations of female empowerment and feminist ideology in a disturbing town full of docile homemakers. I love Bobbie. I love her so much. Her quirky, cute disregard for homemaking are a beautiful representation of a woman who just naturally ain’t into that cooking and cleaning stuff. I love Bobbie because I relate to her deeply on a personal level and see myself in her and her fears.

Everything that Joanna and Bobbie stand for is presented in stark contrast to the Stepford Wives. Their comfortable, casual clothing vs. the starched and pressed dresses and blouses of the wives. Their social and political awareness and increasing concern and fear vs. the vapidity of the wives. And throughout the film, you feel a shaky yet comforting faith in their power as a team. Bobbie and Joanna will get through this together. They will escape Stepford and be free women. And then, out of NOWHERE Joanna comes to Bobbie’s house and what does she find:

It’s unexpected, frightening and a horrible blow to the viewer. Dear GOD, no, not Bobbie! Why!? Why, Bobbie! And then things get even more horrifying as Joanna gets closer and closer to the truth about the wives of Stepford. In one of the most terrifying scenes of the movie, Joanna confronts Bobbie proclaiming “I bleed! Do you bleed!” before stabbing her with a kitchen knife. It’s a moment of profound horror, and I may read just a bit too much into it in how I interpret her words and the area where she stabs (not quite her stomach but just below near a more…sensitive area). Instead of bleeding or showing any human reaction at all, Bobbie merely pulls the knife out. She doesn’t bleed. She is not a woman at all.

“Bobbie” then goes into a mechanical loop, monotonously repeating words and phrases, dropping cups and just tweaking the fuck out. Because she’s a goddamn robot. ROBOT. We don’t know what actually happened to Bobbie, we don’t know what horrible end she met and who or what offed her. All we know is that she disappeared and was replaced with this.

Bobbie Markowe is, for me and I’m sure for lots of other viewers and lovers of this film, such a significant loss. The entire film is so bleak. There is no escape. There is no way to get out from underneath the oppression we as women experience living in a patriarchal society. Bobbie and Joanna represent the fight against all of that, the constant angry cry against everything that holds us down. And it’s so upsetting that Bobbie-strong, willful, opinionated, quirky Bobbie-is dragged down and ripped apart by this over-exaggerated caricature of  male oppression. If I could have, I would have saved Bobbie Markowe.

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Saturday Theme Songs: Pokémon

Starting around 1997-98, American children could not turn their heads without seeing that fuzzy little yellow rat we called Pikachu. Once the anime and video game were released in the United States, we had Pokémon fever, and the ensuing blitz of merchandise and advertising didn’t hurt one bit. For those few years in my life, Pokémon was as much “a part of my childhood” as walls or running water; such was the power of Pokémania. And the anime, which was probably the most mainstreamed anime ever to be broadcast in this country, was a huge part of that. (Though that’s not to say I didn’t also enjoy the video game, card game, action figures, board games, magazines, books, stickers, conventions, and much, much more.)

Rewatching the anime’s opening sequence again after all these years reminds me why I loved it so much in the first place. Not because it was good, per se – I suspect that if I watched it now, it would feel childish and formulaic. But that’s just why I loved it: if you’re in that 7-12 demographic, Pokémon contains so much of what you want out of life. It’s a chance to be a cool kid, and to have power over your surroundings, just by virtue of some high-tech Poké Balls. It’s a chance for low-risk adventure with your friends (and lots of preadolescent romantic tension!) without worrying about parents or responsibilities. And look at how many varieties of terrain and Pokémon we’re exposed to in one minute! (I count about 30 different species.) The opening promises the viewer that they’ll be “travel[ing] across the land, searching far and wide.” For a kid with a big imagination and a yen for faraway lands, this is a godsend.

Just look at how this sequence progresses. We start out with the two most mysterious and powerful Pokémon of all, Mewtwo and Mew, flying through some bizarre outer space setting. So right away, we’re given intimations of something big and awesome: the three first seconds are nothing but money shot. Then we move to Ash pledging himself to a vague dream of being “the very best,” which would later be called being a “Pokémon Master,” followed by a rapid-fire series of Pokémon. It’s a marvelously edited opening, relying on fast cuts that keep time with the music, as well as constant movement in different directions across the screen. Squirtle goes right, Cubone goes left, Pidgeotto goes right, then Rapidash goes left, Zapdos goes right, Articuno goes left, and so on. It’s extremely dynamic, throwing off and then reestablishing the composition’s balance, and it suggests that the show’s all about nonstop motion, or even nonstop conflict. It’s an appealing idea for a high-energy 9-year-old whose mind can’t sit still.

Then, as we enter the chorus, we get a sense of the plot. “You’re my best friend, in a world we must defend,” is sung over images of Ash between Brock and Misty, then Team Rocket, then Ash’s rival Gary. (Because of animation’s unique abilities, this happens without any visible cuts; each set of characters just rise up and block out the previous one. It’s a very fluid procession.) Several successive images convey progress (Pikachu leaps into the air), community (the nodding elders), danger (Charizard breathing fire), and friendship. We end on Ash, alone, hurling a Poké Ball into the title. It’s a coming-of-age show: finding a compromise between our aggressive individualism and the need to locate ourselves in the wider world. Ash (and us as preteen viewers) want to be “like no one ever was,” but it can’t be at the cost of our friends, both human and Pokémon. It’s a sappy moral, and sappy morals are what the show traded in, but it speaks to greater problems that kids deal with. Pokémon solved those problems through friendship and a little dose of total fantasy.

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Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lovecraft

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.

Lately, a surprising amount of people have been finding Pussy Goes Grrr by searching for the word “Cthulhu,” so I figured it was time to write about H.P. Lovecraft‘s Cthulhu Mythos. (Even more hits have come from “lady gaga hot,” but that’s neither here nor there.) Although he picked up from where others like Poe and Lord Dunsany left off, Lovecraft blazed new trails in “cosmic horror,” and his impact has been felt in many corners of popular culture. Of course, he was also an unabashed racist who apparently didn’t believe that fictional characters should have sexual desires.

He’s such a divisive, mammoth figure in horror history, one who led respected authors to write glorified fanfiction, one whose complex legacy has reached its ungodly tentacles into the 21st century — and beyond?? Lovecraft’s influence, both good and gruesome, is spread like glowing ichor all across weird and scary stories. So here’s some musings on Lovecraft or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the Great Old Ones.

1. Knowledge

As the quote above (the first line of “The Call of Cthulhu“) indicates, Lovecraft’s stories are implicitly opposed to any form of scientific rationalism. In his fictional universe, the scientific method or any other attempt to unearth the truth will inevitably lead to tragedy, and probably insanity too. Lovecraft’s narrators constantly blur the lines between truth and falsehood, sanity and madness, and “the real and the unreal,” as Jervas Dudley says at the beginning of “The Tomb.” Basically, when we try to discern the laws by which our universe functions, we’re asking the wrong questions, because things don’t necessarily make sense.

Lovecraft’s life span (1890-1937) puts him squarely in the midst of one of modern history’s greatest ruptures. He came of age just after the turn of the century, and really started publishing short stories during World War I. So it’s easy to read his grim work in the context of the early 20th century’s massive technological and political flux – like the deformed twin brother of literary modernism. Along with this symptomatic fear of the impending future is a tension between the old and the new: his stories are replete with mentions of antiquated tomes (most notably, the Necronomicon) and with stilted Victorian jargon and racial epithets. His characters often have long (sometimes cursed) bloodlines, and of course the evils that emerge are the oldest of all.

Yet his stories, by and large, take place in the present he knew, namely the 1920s-’30s. And although the evils may have been ancient and buried away, the stories are often about archaeology, exploration, and vanishing frontiers. The scientist or adventurer of the modern day will dig up the secrets of history, and it’s this desire for knowledge that unleashes the irrational destruction. This was a time when science was, more than ever, intent on mapping out and naming everything – all the world’s places, peoples, animals, and phenomena. In Lovecraft, a wrench gets thrown in the works. Knowledge is not purely good; in fact, exactly the opposite. In many ways, then, although he died 8 years before the invention of the atomic bomb, Lovecraft anticipated the course that science fiction and horror would take in the 1950s. (Now think about John Carpenter’s remake of the 1951 Thing from Another World from this perspective. Maybe a little Lovecraft was present in the story all along? “Keep watching the skies…”)

2. The Mythos

Lovecraft was one of those rare artists who constructed vast, terrifying worlds from the sheer force of his imagination. In the disturbed universe of the Cthulhu Mythos, he implemented the ideas above (fear of knowledge, the past erupting into the present) as the concrete material of his fiction. To the human characters of the Mythos, these aren’t just abstract intellectual crises; they’re perceptible (if indescribable) and usually life-threatening realities. Their universe has its own elaborate cosmology, built up through tiny details scattered here and there across dozens of stories, through subjective glimpses into its remote corners. At its core is a basic premise, tying together the sci-fi, fantasy, and horror aspects of Lovecraft’s work: mankind is not alone, and what’s out there doesn’t really care about us.

Going back to the connection between Lovecraft and modernism, the Mythos certainly engages in a very modernist project, namely displacing humanity from the center of consciousness and power. It’s a very cold, bleak project as well, since unlike most ancient myths or other sci-fi, Lovecraft’s alien gods are primarily nonanthropomorphic. They’re hard to communicate or fight with, and they’re totally unsympathetic to any of our desires or dislikes. Their physical natures inspire terror in human beings unlucky enough to perceive them. They’re also incredibly powerful, and when you add that to a lack of common ground with humans, that makes for horror. They preceded us and they will outlast us, so human pride and the importance of human affairs are suddenly reduced to the smallest of footnotes on the universe’s history.

So: Cthulhu. The most iconic, well-remembered character in all of Lovecraft. Somehow he (she? it?) was seized upon as a representative of everything Lovecraftian, but Cthulhu is an effective envoy of cosmic terror. (And easier to spell/pronounce than Yog-Sothoth or Nyarlathotep.) Introduced in “The Call of Cthulhu,” s/he’s relatively approachable as Great Old Ones go. Dwells in the sunken city of R’Lyeh, has cults spread across the world, and awaits the moment the stars are right so s/he can burst forth and start a new era of life on earth. Cthulhu is also a great demonstration of how Lovecraft is so effective: s/he is revealed through fragments, never seen for long, and never speaks. Yet through hints and suggestions, the reader receives a giant, terrifying impression. Despite being so distant and inscrutable, we still somehow feel like we know Cthulhu.

3. Lovecraftian

And now Lovecraft and Cthulhu are part of pop culture. And naturally, they’ve become subject to endless appropriation and parody. His stories are so delightfully morbid and well-realized, brimming with imaginative realms and creatures, yet also so unrelenting and self-serious. It makes perfect sense for an artist who admires Lovecraft to imitate him while deflating the grandiosity of his writing. So we have examples like the filk love song “Hey There Cthulhu” by Eben Brooks, or the musical “A Shoggoth on the Roof.” Or the 1980s resurgence of Cormanesque horror-comedies, where Lovecraftian tropes were used in over-the-top, gory classics like Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead and Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator.

And in literature? Suffice it to say that Lovecraft doesn’t just have a legacy; he has a subgenre. As a sample of the endless homages, I’d point you toward the anthology Shadows Over Baker Street, which introduces Sherlock Holmes to the eerie world of the Cthulhu Mythos. (I especially recommend Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald” and Paul Finch’s “The Mystery of the Hanged Man’s Puzzle.”) With his huge collection of stories, Lovecraft provided a potential framework for the writers who followed him, between the fictional world he created, the dark angle from which he confronted his themes, and his mastery of ornate diction and tense pacing. These fantastic tools can also be used by authors from different backgrounds, thereby producing Lovecraftian fiction that isn’t so aristocratic, racist, and sex-phobic.

This is a pretty broad view of Lovecraft’s career and effect on horror fiction. Since his legacy is so colossal, he’s pretty much a one-man field of study, so far more specific and in-depth analyses are available all over the Internet. For the curious, I’d recommend the AV Club’s Gateway to Geekery for Lovecraft, or just going over to Wikisource’s collection and diving in. But if you dare to delve into these untold horrors, do not be surprised when you find yourself thrust head-first into a ghastly, unspeakable fate worse than death. I mean, it’s always possible.

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