Some Nattering about I Am a Hero

I Am a Hero is based on the manga of the same name about a manga artist’s assistant and all around schlub, Hideo. I only really caught the first couple installments of the manga (there’s more than a dozen collected volumes, and at least three spin-offs), but it seemed that there were diminishing returns on the series. The opening, which takes place in the slowly gathering beginning of the outbreak, has a real intimate view of the zombie apocalypse. Hideo is just some jerk with no special knowledge, and his disaffection and depression keep him from really noticing the unsettling events occurring all around him. He delivers some nice sermonettes about how manga is the pinnacle of Japanese society and its greatest cultural export, which, in addition to being clumsily meta, might even be true.

These early sections were pretty enjoyable, but as the manga ranged out of whatever town Hideo was in (maybe Hiroshima?), I got more and more irritated with Hideo and his bullshit girl problems. I mean, it’s fine to have girl problems in the zombie apocalypse, it’s just the gender stuff in I Am a Hero that started really making me twitchy. Not that any of that is surprising in a certain kind of manga! Or comics in general! Or, come to think of it, zombie narratives in the first place! I have a huge hobby horse I like to get up and ride about the role of male violence in creating and maintaining domesticity in zombie fictions, but that is not the topic for today.

The film adaptation of I Am a Hero has the same episodic nature, but definitely smooths over some of the more pulp-sensible parts of the manga. The teen half-zombie girl Hideo befriends doesn’t end up part of a wtf zombie hive mind, more’s the better. The community he and the girl find is pretty messed up, but not openly practicing sexual slavery, like it is in the manga — thank god, because I fucking hate that trope. All in all, the movie improves on some aspects of manga, and there’s some fun scenes in there (like an absolutely harrowing one with Hideo’s zombified girlfriend, my God.)

The real reason to check it out (if you’re an American) is how weirdly it deals with its solitary firearm, Hideo’s shotgun. Japan and the United States have polar opposite attitudes about firearms of any kind: heavy regulation in Japan, plus no marked martial tradition involving firearms; virtual ubiquity in America, plus firearms are irrevocably bound to the national identity. Hideo gets real twitchy when his girlfriend throws him and his shotgun out of the house, but she doesn’t throw out the licence. He has these flights of fancy about using the weapon (and other things, often to very comedic ends) but the shotgun is largely talismanic, a term Hideo uses himself. He resists ever firing it for the entire film, even when beset by zombies or people.

It is literally a Chekhovian gun, so it is finally used, at utmost need, in a completely silly end sequence. He’s got like a hundred shells, and kills roughly one million zombies. Moreover, that shotgun was handled by someone who had no idea how one works, and no one around him could direct him correctly. And look, I know that the zombie fictions do not thrive on true realism, even in the more drama-y outings: Rick Grimes simply cannot make that many head shots, etc etc. I’m not suggesting this makes the sequence bad, or not worth watching. It’s actually one of the funnest in the movie.

But something about this sequence is fetishistic, but not fetishistic the way an American do it. In transporting zombie pulp (which originates in the States) to another culture, certain common motifs of the genre inevitably hitch a ride. Gun violence is bog standard in American zombie fiction, but not often found, in either art or life, in Japan. I Am a Hero addresses this trope in a typically Japanese manner. I think it’s really cool to see that sort of localization, to borrow a phrase from translation, a window into another culture.

An Incomplete List of Oddball Zombie Movies I’ve Enjoyed

I finally caught the companion film to South Korea’s Train to Busan, the animated Seoul Station. It wasn’t nearly as affecting as its live action antecedent, but I completely appreciated how Seoul Station went in unexpected directions, and focused on relationships not normally detailed in either zombie movies or, like, regular cinema. This got me thinking about more obscure zombie movies I have known and loved, stuff that either goes straight to video, or only hits a theater or two in LA or New York. Many of these movies hail from other countries and cultures, which lends grist to my pet theory about zombie movies being largely about national character, much more so than other monsters.

The vast majority of zombie movies, high or low budget (but mostly low budget), are produced in the United States. There’s a lot of reasons for this: the US produces many more films, in general, than the rest of the West. Also, the United States (and Pennsylvania more specifically) is where the modern zombie was created in Romero’s game-changer, The Night of the Living Dead. I know there were zombie films before this, but Romero so utterly changed the landscape that they’re as different as chalk and cheese. In the same tradition, yes, but it’s like comparing the ghouls in the 1932 film Vampyr to modern vampires: similar in name only.

The ways zombie fictions ruminate on class, race, consumerism, and the nuclear family was set within an American film tradition, and not always or often in a good way. So much of the long tail of American zombie movies — the sort of thing found in deep dives into “if you like this, then” on your streaming platform of choice — is fucking trash. Americans can’t help but America, cinematically speaking, so the instinct to fascism, spectacle as unearned catharsis, and violence as morality pervades a lot of American zombie movies, regardless of budget. TL;DR: many American zombie movies are Libertarian (if not outright fascist) garbage fires, with a sideline in diseased gender roles. (This is somewhat ironic, given how Romero’s zombie films were always brutal social commentary against exactly that.)

Apocalypses in general are local affairs, once the lights dim and the communication systems blink out. The world narrows to the distance you can travel on foot — at least once the gas runs out, and you leave the car behind — the skyline streaked with the smudges of burning urbanity. But zombie narratives go a step further, reanimating strangers, neighbors, family, and friends in the subtle tweaks and twists of national character gone feral: slow or fast, cunning or mindless, diurnal or nocturnal, contagious or endemic. These monsters show what we become in the 24 hours and three meals from the end of it all.

Warning: possible spoilers in the film descriptions.

USA:

Maggie

What makes Maggie notable in the context of American zombie movies, a film that collects together Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, and Joely Richardson, is its taunt, Gothic rumination on the parent-child bond. It opens with Arnold traveling into a disease-ravaged LA to collect his daughter, Maggie. She’s infected with a zombie-ish plague, half-dying and half-alive in some overrun city hospital. All the small cues tell you she left because they were estranged — hard to say whether it was the normal estrangement that finds children growing into adults, or a deeper one. When they return home to the family farm, it’s clear it’s both: she’s a normal teenager fed up with her Boomer father, and then also he’s got a new wife and small children who have supplanted her in some ways. I have some autobiographical reasons for why this resonated hard. Anyway. 

Maggie muses in a sometimes overly self-serious way about coming home. Maggie, the character, does a retrospective of her adolescent relationships — complete with teen party with a bonfire on the beach — just short years, or long months, after she leaves home. When her step-mom leaves with her half-siblings, it leaves her alone in the house with a dad who can’t even begin to understand, but is turning himself inside out trying. The ways they never quite connect, right up to the bitter end, are shattering, the kind of thing that set me sobbing, an outsized emotional response to what is largely an understated and grayed out emotional landscape. This the best, most finely detailed work Schwarzenegger has put to film in his latter day career. 

UK:

The Girl with All the Gifts

When I first learned they changed the race of Miss Justineau, the living teacher of an undead classroom in The Girl with All the Gifts, from black to white, I was worried. In the novel by M.R. Carey (aka Mike Carey, for all you Hellblazer heads), Miss Justineau was black, and the undead child who cleaves to her white. The film reverses this, and it actually works really well, almost better in places. Making Helen Justineau a non-malignant version of the Nice White Lady ministering to children whose humanity is completely denied, and who are black [same/same] says something very different from the reverse, especially with how it shakes out in the end. (And unrelated aside: it’s notable to me how many of the films on this list started life — or undeath muahaha — on the page, and how successful their adaptation. Not everything is World War Z: The Less Said the Better.)

The Girl With All the Gifts is one of a teeny tiny trend of fungalpunk horror, of which maybe the most successful was the Area X trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. Carey’s story found inspiration in the nightmarish real world story of zombie ants infected by a fungus which drove them to uncharacteristic behavior, after which the fungus would fruit out of their ant heads. The images of ants with fungi protruding from their head carapaces legitimately freaks me out, and I don’t necessarily empathize with insects all that often. The film hews closely to the plot of the novel, a road trippy rumination on a ruined Britain. The girl who plays Melanie is wonderful, playing her smitten child with a sense of resigned sobriety that gives her an out-sized presence. Glenn Close delivers a quietly seething version of the amoral scientist, which is an interesting twist on a trope that tends to oily bombast (e.g. Stanley Tucci in The Core, which is hands down the best version of this ever put to film.) I love both iterations.

Canada:

Ravenous (or Les Affamés)

Sometimes I find the cultural context of specific foreign films so baffling as to render the “meaning” — insofar as that’s a thing — quite opaque. The French-Canadian Les Affamés falls into this category for me, but in a still strangely satisfying kind of way. Much of Ravenous falls into the mode of the zombie road trip, stopping occasionally to eavesdrop on the dead and their inscrutable machinations, or to enact the living’s more visceral conflicts. (And the dead in Les Affamés are truly strange, piling up teetering obelisks of domestic stuff in a clearing in the woods, or here, or there.) There’s this old saw for writers that “dialogue is action” and that almost reductive aphorism maps onto zombie narratives in this weird way. The drama in Ravenous is all in its dialogue and tense standoffs between survivors; the zombie attacks are almost a relief.

Pontypool

The source material for the film Pontypool, Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess, is both typical and an exemplar of his work. Burgess excels at either elevating pulp to high art, or elevating high art to pulp — because he somehow manages to write deeply philosophical works using absolutely sick imagery, while not prioritizing either. (See also: The Life and Death of Schneider Wrack by Nate Crowley.) This is not an easy thing to do! In fact, I can only think of a couple writers who successfully use the vernacular of both highfalutin literature and pulp styling without denigrating either.

Anyway! Point being: Pontypool is somewhat loosely adapted from the source novel, and in the very best ways. I can’t imagine a film version that somehow cut that impossible middle distance between high and low art that the book does; this will not translate to the screen. Instead the film is a taunt, almost stagy locked-room drama which focuses tight on a couple few characters. Some aspects of the film have become quaint — the whole concept of a “shock jock” has been superseded by media twisted into propaganda by authoritarianism — which takes a little sting out of the proceedings. It’s still an excellent film.

Denmark:

What We Become (or Sorgenfri)

Many of these movies — at least before they are translated into English — have locations in their titles, like the aforementioned Train to Busan. The Danish zombie film Sorgenfri — named after a Copenhagen suburb — was retitled in English What We Become. Sorgenfri means “free of sorrow”, in an almost obnoxious irony, but we will give writers some latitude to be obnoxious when place names are this on-the-nose. I fully expect places like Minneapolis suburb Eden Prairie to become hellish pit stops on the way to apocalypse because come on.

Anyway, What We Become makes full use of its suburban locale, which I don’t necessarily see all that often, Dawn of the Dead notwithstanding. There’s some hot-neighbor-next-door, community-cookout action before the infection locks the suburb down. Each McMansion is swathed with plastic, (almost like in the quick-and-dirty Spanish film series [rec] — more on this later), and if they try to push back against the impersonal authorities in their gas masks and machine guns, quick and brutal violence ensues. If this was an American film, I’d accuse it of 2A essentialism: we need guns to fight teh gumment!!!! But … it’s Danish, so that can’t be what it’s about. Or … not entirely anyway.

Much as Americans like to paint Denmark as some sort of socialist utopia (and don’t get me wrong: America’s fucked), there’s the same cultural, social, and economic stresses like any other part of the EU. I have Danish cousins, and the amount of chauvinism I’ve seen expressed about, say, Turkish immigrants is notable. And that’s not even getting into what they say about straight up Muslims, Turks or no. What We Become taps into a very (white) middle class, very (white) suburban fear of intrusion by the other, and also the fear that the other is already there, hidden within. These kind of insular communities are always predicated on fear: on the other, on themselves — what have you got, I’m afraid of it. In Night of the Living Dead, Romero murdered what should be the romantic survivors, in addition to the nuclear family. What We Become lets some of its characters survive, but only after putting you through some brutal familial self-annihilation.

France:

The Horde (or La Horde)

When I first saw The Horde not much after its 2010 release date, I thought to myself, there is going to be a real and bloody reckoning in France about how the treatment of France’s immigrant population. I knew just a very little about the French attempts to legislate the bodies of Muslim women — for their own good, natch — and it was years before the Charlie Hebdo shootings. But the bloody spectacle on display in The Horde was enough to make me prognosticate doom. Pulp fiction tends to tap into the societal hindbrain, and The Horde was doing that in the goriest, most bloody way possible.

The Horde follows a group of corrupt French police on a vendetta into what reads to me like the projects — low income housing that warehouses the poor and undesirable (same/same). There’s some back story about some drug dealer or whatever killing a cop, but none of this really matters. The fight is between two rival gangs, one of which wears badges and speaks “good French”, and the other have accents and dark skin. There’s a racist old codger (I think maybe even a veteran, but it’s been a while) and a couple other residents to round out the group. The combatants end up trapped in a old apartment building while the horde presses against doors and windows. And of course, several end up bitten, turning at the worst possible moment.

The Horde‘s zombies are faster than Romero zombies, and often a lot fresher, the blood still red and the zombie vigorously intact. As we approach the endgame, one of the cops is given a lovingly detailed last stand, and even more intimate horrific death: standing on the top of a car in a basement parking lot, he shoots and hacks until he’s overwhelmed by hundreds of zombies, and boy howdy do they not pan away. I know this was shot later, but the framing of this sequence reminds me of the season three ender of Game of Thrones, which found Daenerys Targaryen crowd-surfing a horde of anonymous browns. It’s notable to me that the image of a white lady receiving adoration for liberating brown people and a white guy heroically hacking at a mob until he’s overwhelmed are shot virtually identically. I’m sure something like The Pedagogy of the Oppressed has something to say about this, but it’s been some years since my theory-reading days.

The Night Eats the World (or La nuit a dévoré le monde)

The Night Eats the World begins with a musician dude, Sam, coming to his ex-girlfriend’s flat to retrieve some cassette tapes he left after the breakup. The sequence at the party with its byplay and character development between the people marked as protagonist and the inevitably disposable partygoers reminds me of the opening to Cloverfield (and, weirdly, the Netflix series Russian Doll.) Sam crashes out; when he awakes, there’s blood on the walls and everyone is either gone or a zombie.

The Night Eats the World is light on zombie kill thrills, if you’re into that sort of thing, much more focused on Sam’s solitary existence and worsening metal state as he holes up in his ex-girlfriend’s for months. The film manages to find some unexplored corners in the zombie apocalypse: this portrait of fearful loneliness in a teeming city. When I first saw The Night Eats the World, I have to say it didn’t affect me much. My enjoyment was largely intellectual: oh, huh, this is almost a silent film; who even does that? But almost two weeks into my family deciding to shelter in place, the detailing of Sam’s mental state as he rattles around the same couple hundred square feet and considers the death just outside the door: well, this is suddenly, horribly relevant.

Germany:

Rammbock: Berlin Undead

Like The Night Eats the World, Rammbock opens with a dude going to his ex’s apartment to transfer some stuff, and also maybe sorta to rekindle their relationship. She’s not there, but two plumbers are; when a zombie outbreak overtakes the neighborhood, ex-boyfriend and the plumber’s apprentice ride out the zombie apocalypse in the apartment. With other monsters, writers can get a little schematic. This is especially true with vampires. You often see complex list of rules about what a vampire can and cannot do, and then, of course, inevitably how to break those rules. (The most recent Dracula limited series, first from the BBC and now on Netflix, exemplifies this sort of thing.)

Zombies, though, they don’t tend to go this way. The rules are simple: a person dies, they reanimate, then they hunger for the flesh of the living. Oh, I suppose there are some other conditions that may or may not come to bear: does killing the brain kill the zombie? are we all infected or is it contagious through a bite? fast or slow? But these are more set-dressing than, like, necessary for the storytelling. Rammbock‘s zombies, by contrast, are photosensitive, a detail it takes the principles some time to work out. Then when they do, they work towards exploiting this detail in order to save their own lives. Rammock is, again, maybe not the most exciting zombie film ever made, but the location, relationships, and the weird taxonomy of zombies make it worthwhile.

Spain:

[REC]

This scrappy Spanish found footage horror film was so successful it spawned a movie series and an English language remake (which was retitled as Quarantine.) (The Spanish series has diminishing returns: the second relocates to an airport, which is fine, while the third goes eschatological in a way I did not appreciate at all. Oh, and there’s apparently a fourth I never saw, REC 3: Apocalypse which is by the filmmaker of the first two, but not the third, which is promising. ) REC follows a Bridget Jonesy reporter on a ridealong with some firefighters. They head out to a call in an old apartment building with six or eight units. One of the residents has gone murderously feral; they contain her, but not before one of their number is bit; when they panic-run to the exit it turns out the building’s on some sort of horrible lockdown.

The film ends up being a locked room horror show as various people get infected and infect others. There’s also apparently a plot where it turns out the authorities are evil, but who even cares. It’s obvious they were evil when they locked an entire apartment in to die. Again, this film had certain meanings back when I watched it whenever, but in the middle of a global pandemic, things read a little differently. The willingness to sacrifice first responders stands out, as does the bickering in the doomed apartment building about the motives of those that locked them in. That the outbreak is legible, with known origins and therefore, potentially, a cure is another fun aspect of fiction. It turns out that real life is much more bleak, which is saying something, given the end of REC.

Japan:

One Cut of the Dead

Frankly, One Cut of the Dead is the best godamn zombedy produced since Shaun of the Dead, and in some ways it exceeds Edgar Wright’s most excellent film. Filmed on a budget of $25,000 (JFC), the film relies on what could be a gimmick, but ends up being just a beautifully written script. The first half hour or so of the movie is one continuous take, telling the story of a low budget zombie movie lorded over by a tyrannical director which is then attacked by real zombies. (Not dissimilar in setup to Romero’s 5th outing into his formative zombieverse, Diary of the Dead, but that reads pretty Boomer-y these days.) After this impressive feat of film-making is a crazy bananas twist that had me all-capsing to my viewing partner, the indomitable sj, for at least the next half hour. It’s just … the whole thing is so well done it makes me tear up a little.

The trouble with talking about One Cut of the Dead is the several spoilers in serial that happen in the second act. All that aside, I can say that the shifts in tone in One Cut are masterful, running from comedy to terror and back again without even a blink.

Origin Stories: The Day After

This is going to be one of those deep dives into my own bullshit. Fair warned.

A while ago I had a slightly wine-five conversation with a friend of mine (hi sj!) where we tried to parse the origins of our zombie obsessions. I know I have roughly eleventy million reasons why I keep seeking out zombie narratives – from a love of horror/comic gore that no doubt has roots in the body trauma I experienced birthing babies, to a static-shock kind of irritation I have with common, even prevalent, constructions of domesticity I find when the dead rise – but the reasons why I started picking up fictions of the undead are maybe a little murkier. I believe there are two formative experiences. I’ll start with the most recent.

There’s this half-joking definition of Gen-X that posits that it is the generation just too late for atomic bomb drills, but too early for Code Red. When we hit the school basement, our heads down and our fingers interlaced over our necks, it was because of the most prosaic tornado. (Or at least in the Midwest, where we had such a thing.) At a family function recently that put together my Boomer parents with my Gen-whatever kids, I was keenly aware of this divide. The Boomers and the kids rightly bonded over the trauma of the drills they are subjected to, whereas Richard and I just shrugged. This was not a part of our experience, this exact civic trauma baked into our primary educations. But we were still on the tailing edge of the Red Scare, even if the civic authorities had kenned to the ridiculousness of the bomb drill. My go-to nightmare before the zombie shambled into my psyche – and after, often in a confusing jumble – was one of nuclear devastation.

The Chernobyl disaster happened in 1986, just days after my 12th birthday. I’ve been watching the HBO series about the disaster, and kind of freaking myself out with how clear my memories of the event were, even though I was just a tween in the 80s. I remember Sweden sounding the alarms: where in the fuck is this radiation coming from? I remember all the Russian dissembling, and the slow leak of information. I remember once the disaster was contained, the propaganda they released about the brave and noble workers who sacrificed themselves to encase the reactor in concrete; as if. Seeing how close they were to meltdown — to the poisoning of Central Europe for the next several millennia – retroactively validates my schoolgirl fears. I had a fallout dream a week ago; I haven’t had one in years. Add in the fact that I spent a month in Minsk five years later – 400ish kms from Chernobyl, very roughly the distance from New York to Boston – and my schoolgirl fears look awfully credible. It’s completely crazy we didn’t quite clock the reality of that danger. But then, the whole goram Soviet Union was shuddering apart, so dying of wasting cancer seemed very fucking remote compared to possibly having to yeet off to Poland once all the unrest started in earnest. We were there in April. By August, the Soviet Union had shattered.

But I think the event that caused my zombie thing happened three years earlier.

This is the scene, as I remember it (which is a fairly huge caveat, because I’m regularly interrupted by family members telling me that’s Not How It Happened): I was at my grandparents’ house in Munhall, PA, a post-War suburb outside of Homestead, PA, birthplace of Carnegie Steel. Everyone was gathered round the television to watch “The Day After“,* which was a Television Event of the kind that my kids won’t ever experience: 100 million people watched that broadcast. The internet tells me there were 224 million people in the country at the time, which means that Jesus Christ that was a lot of people. (I think maybe Game of Thrones may be the last big tv event, but even that was a series – not a Big Deal TV Movie event. “Bird Box” this was not.) Or not everyone was gathered round; I’m fairly sure my five year old sister was already abed. We slept in the same room — which used to be our mother’s — in 30 year old twin beds. There were mourning doves who roosted in the eaves and woke us up in the gloaming with their sadly loud laments. Grandpa Ed was in His Chair, my parents and Grandma Fran were on the couch, and I was fists on chin on the plush carpeting. I was allowed to stay up because I was a worldly nine.

The first whatever hour of “The Day After” is just interpersonal bullshit as it plays out in Laurence, Kansas. Nothing about it is particularly memorable or interesting: it is just a day in the life. Some of the actors involved had established film careers, like JoBeth Williams, who had just starred in “Poltergeist” and “The Big Chill”, or Jason Robards, who had a pretty storied career at this point. John Lithgow had been nominated for an Oscar already, for “The World According to Garp” – which, gah, that movie is due for some reassessment – and would pick up another shortly for “Terms of Endearment”. (Steve Guttenberg wouldn’t make it big until a year or two later.) This wouldn’t be notable today – things are pretty porous between the big and the small screen – but back then actors tended to be relegated to one or another. I mean, maybe some second tier movie actor would cameo on Happy Days when they were deep in the junket, but that was about it.

Once the bombs fall, though, that’s when it happens. Or maybe that’s when it doesn’t happen, because the absolute worst thing about “The Day After” is how matter of fact it is about the fallout, both emotionally and physically. A couple of characters just simply vanish, never to be heard from again. Most try to carry on the only way they know how – like Jason Robards’ character, who continues doctoring despite the death of his family, his neighborhood, and his city. When the inevitability of his radiation poisoning becomes clear, he returns home, to find a bleak and blasted landscape with people picking the bones. He breaks down when he’s offered the barest kindness, weeping in the arms of a stranger. He presumably dies in the rubble. It’s a lot of people dying watching other people dying, at least until some of the dying start to kill. A woman delivers a godamn baby. They are all going to die.

I didn’t see this ending in 1983 because I freaked the fuck out so hard my parents carried me bodily to bed, where I presume I eventually slept. As a parent now, I can just see my parents’ slowly dawning awareness of my freakout: glued into the narrative, until my brain starts screaming with momservation, and I turn and see that look on my kid’s face. Sitting in the darkened bedroom and shushing quietly why I rub a back, trying to quiet the tears. I watched “The Day After” all the way to the end much later, and it was zero to the bone how closely the post-nuclear landscape aligned to my nuclear dreams, how the visual language of my nightmares is cribbed from just the barest glimpse of the end of this film. My mind goes to rubble, to the shadows on the wall, in the cold sweat of nightmare. The zombie shambles out of this landscape, its ataxia like radiation burns.

In retrospect, my viewing not much later of “Night of the Living Dead” at a slumber party would only act as cement on my personal horror landscape, setting the bleak nuclear winter as my discontent. My dreams tend to redress the houses I have lived in as the set for both the tedious and the terrifying, so my terrors tend to be the familiar turned strange: a sink full of blood, a doorway half-shattered but holding, a hatch in the floor above me raining down debris as someone – something – treads the boards.

*This is stupid and doesn’t matter, but I’m having a hard time deciding how exactly to deal with television/movie/episode names. AP and Chicago style are at odds, so I’m going with Chicago because they actually say what to do with series television names vs. episode names.

Sharcano!!!1!

There’s this dismissive, tautological quote that goes something like, “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” I can’t find a reputable source for this line — it’s been attributed to Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, or a tumblr image of some cats — but it has the kind of epigrammatic pithiness that makes for great ad copy. I think you can fairly easily tell by the title whether you are in the audience of this book. Sharcano = shark + volcano!!!1! You know if this math is for you.

I guess I expected Sharcano to be a nod to pulp horror like anything by Guy N Smith, a journeyman writer who churned out well over a hundred novels, and, given that he isn’t dead yet, likely is churning them out still. (His wiki page notes that he is an “active pro-smoking campaigner”, which I find inordinately charming. I even smoke, and I know that shit ain’t good for anyone, mostly because I smoke.) I was expecting shoddy continuity, uproarious misogyny, and lurid bloodbath, the kind of thing banged out in two non-consecutive weekends with a lot of uppers in the mix.

But no, Sharcano is more a nod to big budget action disaster films, movies like Armageddon and The Day After Tomorrow. This is not a criticism; more an observation. There’s an estranged couple — one of whom is a massive television personality slash dillhole — so you’ve got your remarriage plot; a couple of moppets of various ethnicity; a priest at the focus of a shady Vatican conspiracy; some bubbas; sasquatch &c. There’s a lot of destruction that would work well better on the screen with Michael Bay-ish craptacular jump cuts, but then there’s a wry comedy aspect that would never be evident in a Michael Bay film.

What Sharcano reminds me most of is The Core, which is a silly disaster film complete with unobtainium and Stanley Tucci. The scene where Tucci is in a train car thing, about to die, bloviating into a tape recorder in his showboat way, and then starts laughing at the ridiculousness of such an act is one of my legit favorites. Almost as good as Samuel L in Deep Blue Sea starting into a monologue about how we’re not going to fight anymore! right before the supershark fucking drops the knowledge. Drop the knowledge, sharks made out of lava. We’ll catch up.

Here’s the thing: I’m not sure this book needs to be 400+ pages, and I’m seriously unsure that it should be the first in a trilogy. Sharcano is well better than it should be, a quality which gives with one hand and takes with another. Pulp’s got a certain energy to it, a rough, unedited pulse. Sharcano has a more arms-reach approach to the material, a half-ironic tone that tries to split the difference between straight up satire and gleeful homage. That’s a hard line to walk, very hard, and that Sharcano manages it at all should be seen as a win. If you like this sort of thing, as the cats of tumblr tell me, then this is the sort of thing you’ll like.

 

I received my copy from Netgalley. Thanks, dudes.

The Wind Rises: Childhood’s End

I finally got to see my first Miyazaki film in the theater when I took the kids to see The Wind Rises this weekend. I’m still kicking myself for missing The Secret World of Arietty when it passed through town as that has since become my most deeply felt Miyazaki film – I hesitate to use words like “favorite” with my darlings – and that would have just killed on the big screen.  Hayao Miyazaki has stated that this is his last film, and even though he’s retired before, I should not be messing around with being “too busy”. The Wind Rises is the biography of plane engineer Dr. Jiro Horikoshi who designed planes before and during WWII. As a last film, this is both a departure and right in line with Miyazaki’s body of work, a puzzling, deeply personal biopic about a childhood hero that elides as much as it informs. It it both gorgeous and strangely inert.

This isn’t going to be a review, btw; it’s more going to be a collection of impressions. I don’t have a mind for the visual, and I’m no film scholar.

There are two Ursula K. Le Guin novels I haven’t read: Malafrena and Always Coming Home. (Note: Ursula K. Le Guin is my heart, and the writer whose works are most important to me on every single level.) I’ve only taken one run at Malafrena, and I suspect it was mostly wrong timing, as her other Orsinian tales – Orsinia is the fictitious country in which a collection of her stories occur – worked for me entirely. (She’s coming to terms with Virginia Woolf, on some level, in those stories. I know!) I’ve crashed on the rocks of Always Coming Home at least twice, making it a third of the way in before I just set it down and walked away. I posted a non-review of my failure at some point, and a fellow ursine reader sent me this just transcendent explication of the book, calling it her most personal work, this deeply felt but also surface-placid recollection and exploration. I still haven’t read it, despite circling around the book-with-cassette-tape edition I have on my shelves. I have a discomfort about it, like watching something too personal.

There’s something to that here, in The Wind Rises. My husband and I had a long conversation about works we thought fit this strange format: undisputed masters of their craft creating art that ultimately fails (on some level) because the artist has an audience of one: the artist. We can piggyback into this audience, or worm our ways in using biography or the tabs on the personal that align in some feeling way, but the art itself is ultimately impressionistic in a way that defies that external logic. You can hang on by the skin of your teeth or the teeth of your skin, but you will never get it on some visceral level, even if your viscera responds. This can seriously fucking piss off viewers or readers, as evidenced by a lot of nasty, false-populist reviews like Rex Reed‘s for To The Wonder:

To the Wonder is the kind of fiasco that keeps film-festival programmers salivating and discriminating audiences stampeding toward the exit doors. It’s a simpering yawn that makes The Tree of Life seem like an action thriller with Bruce Willis. It is about … nothing.”

 

Which, look, I’m not going to say that To The Wonder is approachable or even worthwhile to a lot of people, nor am I going to say that those people are either idiots or “discriminating”, Rex. But it’s not about nothing. We’ve been hacking our way through Malick’s To The Wonder over months now, stopping for tirades from my husband – what is this shit? – and conversations with friends – hi, Eric! – about the individual, national and cultural response to a work that’s clearly, clearly, as much about personal mythos and national narrative as it is about, like, telling a story. There is no story that can tell me. There’s no story for anyone. It’s all memory or recording. My husband made peace with To The Wonder when he realized the film depicts all the interstitial moments – just after that conversation, just before that realization – a collection of boring connective moments that are the troughs between the high heights, the slack edge of feeling. But that’s an intellectual response, in the end, to a stark emotional landscape. That’s what we’ve got, I guess.

A lot of The Wind Rises bores me in the same way that To The Wonder does – these vistas where I consider the shape of the light or the angle of the sky more closely than I should, knocking myself out. Huh, you don’t see animated characters smoke anymore, and that smoke is gorgeous. Look at the ripples on the water. Look at the fluid dynamics of the clouds. But then there’s the moments that poleaxe me, like when Marina’s daughter asks her, “Why are you sad?” and she says, “I’m not sad.” There’s no reason on earth that should freak me out, but it does. The moment when I realized that all of the machine noises in The Wind Rises were made by people, which is occasionally funny and sometimes alarming. The 1923 Tokyo earthquake was made by human voices as well; yeesh.

It felt important to me that Hayao Miyazaki was born in January of 1941, about a month after Pearl Harbor, just weeks before my grandparents married and my grandfather enlisted in the Navy, which would send him to the South Pacific where he would encounter Jiro Horikoshi’s planes, at the very least in their effects. Miyazaki is not a Boomer but a War Baby, living through this profound upheaval as a pre-linguistic person; the war more a series of impressions and conversations remembered over dinner or around the doorjamb. I remember these times of my pre-personhood myself – Nixon impeached, the end of the Vietnam war – but I remember them more from my relationships with Viet and Hmong children who began peopling the elementary school, or the conversations overheard but not actually listened to, in the way of children, as my parents talked. Miyazaki is dealing with a part of his life that cannot be accessed through memory.

That The Wind Rises works best in its soaring, physics-defying dream sequences makes perfect sense to me, in this context: Miyazaki painting these watercolor vistas – like the landscapes Jiro’s wife paints en plein air during their courtship? The goofy, childish authorial voice of the Italian engineer intoning with its almost easily-dismissed gravitas as a bedtime story about the worst things there are, and the ugly, logical conclusions of the engineering war machine. There’s a lot of criticism of The Wind Rises because it never exactly owns the effects of Jiro’s engineering in the war effort, but then also some real anger in Japan about its pacifist message. I get the impression that a man of Miyazaki’s generation cannot win, in artistic portrayals of his generation and the gauzy childhood memories of the one before, a rock and a hard place of national narrative and the you lost mentality of the post-Allies. I’m aware of my dislocation as a viewer because I am not Japanese; here I felt the generational disconnect as well.

One of the things I noted as I watched was the strange convergence between Jiro Horikoshi’s marriage and the one between Richard and Arline Feynman when Feynman was working on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. (The wiki article on Jiro has exactly zero about his personal life. I honestly don’t know how much Miyazaki bent here, in terms of life story, and it would be interesting indeed if this was fictional. Also, bearing in mind I’m getting most of my information about Feynman’s marriage from Feynman’s anecdotal memoirs and the film starring Matthew Broderick. I refuse to google, because on some level this has more to do with how biography is created than dreary facts.) The sick woman of Jiro’s wife is something of a thing in Miyazaki’s films, from the absent mother in My Neighbor Totoro to the boy in Arietty. The sequence where Jiro holds his wife’s hand while working slayed me, slayed me like the harsh breaths in Arietty. There’s a lot of his signature characters – the dwarfish superior played for comedy like the mean housekeeper in Arietty; Jiro’s sister who is so like Ponyo in her chubby, brutal girlishness, even when she is grown. I can see the war machines from Howl’s Moving Castle or the thrill of flight from Kiki’s Delivery Service.

The Jiro Horikoshi of the film has the same courtship as Feynman with a tubercular woman, a marriage despite filial objections, and the same divided loyalties as he works unceasingly and tirelessly for a dubious purpose.  The same dislocated relationship to the war effort – tangible, but indirect – the same lonely death of the wives. And the same transcendent belief of the unflinching beauty of their arts as they practice them. There is something wrong with the world that intellects like Feynman’s and Horikoshi’s are spent on things that florescence and then explode. “None of my planes came back,” Horikoshi tells his soul-body in the end. It is left to the viewer to see them driven to debris and the end. Feynman’s creation rains down on Japan in a hellfire. That Miyazaki inserts himself in a wand-breaking sequence like Prospero’s, the authorial acknowledgement that talent and mastery come to their end, hellfire or not, lends a tragic sweetness to the film. Is this the end? Does it have to be? Oh, God, no, please.

 

Unsafe on Any Screen by Scott Phillips

I’m really trying here to come up with a Walter Benjamin quote about media studies and engagement with popular culture, and I’m totally failing, which is about right. Obviously, I spend waaaay too much time reading all of y’alls lovely, personal reviews of all kinds of books. Books I would never read; books I have been warned away from; books I’ve been ordered to read; books I have on the long and growing list that I will never complete because some day I’m going to die.
Even though I have less engagement with movies, as an art form, I compulsively read movie reviews as well. I have the reviewers I trust, and the reviewers I know that I can take anything they say and turn it inside out, so that a bad review becomes a recommendation. I have a passing interest in trash movies, but not a full-blown love affair. Mostly my affection for bad movies leads back to Mystery Science Theater 3000, and the times I spent with my family watching MST3K. My immediate family, growing up, was all-female, and I still have the warmest of memories of watching bad movies on Thanksgiving, with my mother & sister, in lieu of the football that was de rigueur in most co-ed households.

Scott Phillips doesn’t just have nostalgia to warm him when he watches grindhouse trash, he has a full-blown and well articulated love. This is awesome, and makes for a fine collection of movie reviews. Leonard Maltin, you may fu*k yourself. Many of the movies reviewed in this slender volume cannot be found on Netflix or even in your local video store, should you have such antiquated things in your location. You have to seek these movies out. They are made by people on no budget, with a group of friends, and a maniacal laugh. Or they were made on a budget and then disappeared. Phillips has an encyclopedic knowledge of the pedigree and taxonomy of trash cinema, so that he can draw lines between this director and that, this actor, this imprint, etc. Awesome.

I get the impression that Unsafe on Any Screen started life as a blog, so some of the reviews are annoyingly short. Kind of like my – and many people’s – early reviews. But once he starts cooking, man, what a joy to behold. He has really weird grading scales: one about how many greased gorillas he’d fight to watch the film in question, and one about how many scotches, or whiskeys? it takes to get through the film. I endorse this. The scotch metric in particular, not because I especially love scotch, but because it can be either a bad or a good thing that a particular film is awarded the high scotch metric. I feel this way about a thousand things: that they are awesome, but they make me drink, or that they are terrible, and they make me drink. Or they are nothing at all and I remain sober. It gets at the whole deep ambivalence I feel towards so much stuff, even the stuff I love, in an intensely satisfying way. My only real complaint is that there is no index. At least the reviews are alphabetical.

What it comes down to is that I’m as fascinated by the critical process as I am with the art/trash in question, and this book is as much a love letter to the silly fun we have while watching bad movies as it is to the movies themselves. His exuberance is infectious, like an alien pathogen beamed down to a small Italian village that infects a scantily clad babe. It’s going to eat someone’s brains, but it might just take its top off before it does so.

Keep circulating the tapes.

Also, P.S., Scott is a friend of mine, which is how come I read this, in interests of full disclosure. I never know where to put these disclosures: at the front, like I’m defensive, or at the close, like I’m sneaking? I guess I’m going with sneaking this time. The thing is, there’s no such thing as objectivity, so I’m not even going to pretend that the fact I think Scott, personally, is awesome didn’t have an effect on my read. It did. But in this case, his balls-out love of his subject, his total commitment to  the barrel-bottom of sleaze and cheese movies resonated for me. I know love when I see it, and he loves this shit. Amen.

World War Z: The Movie

Of course when I started seeing trailers and reading descriptions of the film adaption of Max Brooks’s journal of the zombie apocalypse, World War Z, I immediately jumped up onto my high horse and started penning angry screeds in the comment sections of Reddit. (Just kidding. I don’t use Reddit.) Why in the hell were they even calling this movie World War Z if exactly nothing was taken from the book but the title? The book World War Z is nerdy and wonky, very much what a serious military history geek would write about the zombie apocalypse with CNN on mute in the background. So, maybe the individual voices were a little same-same; Brooks’s take was refreshing in its long, global pan, broken out from the locked room scenarios of so many zombie narratives. Instead of the usual how will we survive tomorrow, it was a consideration of how society – societies – would respond to such a threat.

Admittedly, the book is a little bloodless – the snap gone out of recountings because we know the raconteur has survived – and I was expecting changes. Much of Brooks’s book simply wouldn’t work on the screen. I did have some fantasies about the film being about the soldier’s narrative. He pops up at least three times in the book, moving from the Battle of Yonkers – which is actually beautifully narrated, and a pretty biting criticism of the ways military tacticians refuse to adapt to changing realities – to a West Coast enclave, and then back out through the flyover states, reclaiming this grand America. The zombie herds like buffalo, the consideration of the in-fill towns and the feral domestic animals, the drudgery and mud-covered victories: all this would have worked on the screen. Alas, no mas.

World War Z, the film, opens with a languorous morning flipping pancakes and only occasionally tense domesticity. Gerry Lane is an ex-CIA investigator, clearly still in the recovery phase of adjustment to stay-at-home dad and unemployment. His kids are moppets, and while I think it might be indicted that his wife is a professional of some kind, this isn’t lingered on. The New York setting and the traffic snarl action pieces reminded me of Will Smith’s I Am Legend, but the New Yorkiness and generally elegiac tone is absent from the movie. Pitt’s Gerry Lane seems like someone who would be better played by Tom Cruise, whose asshole Ethan Hunt routine from the Mission Impossible movies might register stronger than Pitt’s surfer insouciance. Much as I generally like Pitt, here he lacked an edge that made his supposed backstory anything but narrative justification. I was in the CIA, like, I guess.

From here, the movie bops around the zombie apocalypse, running set pieces with the thinnest of narrative fiber between them. Some of the set pieces were honestly thrilling – like the zombies swarming over the Israeli wall, or some of the stuff in North Korea. Some of them felt like hey, what about an outbreak on a plane??? I felt twitchy about a wasted David Morse vamping through a toothless mouth prosthetic about Jews and how they never forget, although the chatty Jurgen Warbrunn – one of the few characters (sort of) from the novel – explains a little better what looks like unvarnished antisemitism in Morse’s explanations of the Israeli response. I liked the look of the androgyne Israeli soldier tasked to escort Lane out of Israel, but there wasn’t much more than a look to her character. All in all, the movie was the kind of contentless flash-bang that can be fun in the dollar theater on a Sunday, but will likely diminish on the small screen to the point of boring.

Rather than just complain about fast zombies, because honestly, that’s maybe the lamest criticism one can level at the zombie narrative, my complaints more have to do with the lack of viscera. (Seriously, I’ve been trolled one too many times by people exclaiming that fast zombies aren’t really zombies, like the taxonomy of imaginary creatures isn’t flexible enough to include a little sprinting.) But really it was the lack of guts that got me, because whatever other societal jibber jabber zombie narrative might capture, they can thrill because of entrail-rending zombie bouquets, the mob ripping someone limb from limb. They’re about physical fear, body horror, our fear of the inevitably declining meat-sack we all live in. It’s not about the fear of death, but of decomposing life. Blood splatter was notably absent in World War Z, which seems a crying shame.

But that’s not even what I want to note about this movie. What I want to talk about is Gerry Lane’s wife. I’ve noted before that zombie stories deal with domesticity in a weird way, and the housewife, as the embodiment of domesticity, ends up bearing the brunt of the weirdness. And maybe I should just take a minute to define terms. Yes, obviously, Lane’s wife is working outside the home, and Lane himself is playing emasculated parent to her harping worry. There’s a quelling quality to their marital interactions: you shouldn’t want to go back out into that manly, war-torn landscape, Gerry. No, no, of course I don’t. I’m using housewife as a shorthand term for the straight, white, middle class momming set, working or not, who regularly are the focal point of the Mommy Wars, the cultural wars, and apparently, now the zombie wars. The housewife is a category more mythic than actual, but she’s got teeth like any other monster, and sometimes she sprints.

But when the fit hits the shan, it’s Gerry’s war skills that nurture domesticity. Gerry mansplains to the Hispanic family that they have to move to be safe in crisis, and they don’t listen, bringing moppet count up to three when their son takes the advice they don’t. By the time the Lane family makes it to the aircraft carrier, Mrs Lane is in full on helicopter mom mode, hissing at Gerry and the UN dude that they should take their conversation about zombies outside lest they upset the children. I punched my husband at this point in the film — in the arm, jeez — why wouldn’t she want to know wtf was going on? Fair enough, don’t freak out the kids anymore than you have to, but given that they were pretty much unconscious in every scene from here on out, maybe you have a shred of curiosity about anything but making sandwiches? Why would a professional woman just wring her hands and push her sleeping babies’ hair out of their eyes? You’re in danger of getting chucked from the relative safety of the carrier, why don’t you offer up whatever hastily sketched skills you have?

Mrs Lane’s story reaches a nadir when she calls Gerry in a panic while he’s on a dangerous op in North Korea, the squeal of the phone alerting the zombies to their locale. Life pro tip: set your cell phone to buzz when in the zombie apocalypse. (Also: cell phones work?) His world-weary decision not to tell her that her domestic panic got a lot of good men killed – good men! – just exhausted me. Broads, man, amiright? Don’t text me right now because I’m in a v. important meeting. Mrs Lane ends up as this tragic impetus for action, inert and often interfering, but without agency or motivation beyond the cheesy invocation of family. Someone smacks down Gerry near the end when he invokes it right back — I watched the thing that became my wife kill my children — but this is a weird conversation, bros ruminating on their obligations that are little more than luggage. Think of the children! Because that’s all we can do!

I don’t know. It’s late, and I’m tired, and maybe I’ll be back to bloviate tomorrow. I thought WWZ: the Movie was fine when people were running and screaming, but it wasn’t much more than that in the end.

Oh, and also, the scene where Gerry pops open a Pepsi machine and the cans all rolled with their labels out cracked my shit up. Pepsi: The Choice of the Undead! Pepsi quenches your thirst for brains.

William Shakespeare’s Star Wars

I have a fractious relationship with Quirk Books. No, fractious isn’t the right word, is it? Because they don’t know I exist nor do they (or should they) care about my opinion? I was excited for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies because the idea rules, but then it turned out soggy and under-heated. But then came the clones – Jane Slayre: The Literary Classic with a Blood-Sucking TwistThe Meowmorphosis – which mimeographed this idea into a purple-blue stew of end-cap bait, finally culminating, for me anyway, in the dire shit-show that was Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls. That book made my blood boil. 

Because, look, I don’t really mind end-cap bait, and I don’t mind the toilet reads that publishers put out to give my non-reading friends and family something to give me when my birthday rolls around. (“I know you like Jane Austen! I think you’ll love this!”) I’m not even being an asshole when I say I appreciate the thought. So when the illustrious and inimitable karen sent me William Shakespeare’s Star Wars out of the blue, I thought, uh oh, I’m going to have to make the choice between my desire to shittalk this book, and being a grateful and worthy human. Again! Why am I such a terrible person? etc.

But as it turns out, hey Mickey! She likes it! So, phew. There’s a dry conversation one can have about translations: which is better, a translator writing from the original language, or one writing to the target language. Is the translator’s mother tongue the original or the translated language? My own take is that it’s almost always better to write to the target language. I once read this biography of Rasputin that was obviously translated by a native Russian speaker, and while it was often hilarious, and I enjoyed the wobbly prose as a desultory Russian language student, you just can’t mix verb tenses like that in English, товарищ. 

I think there’s something of the translation problem in the mash-up, for the reader at least. P&P&Z was probably more aimed at the Austen nerds, because the zombie parts were really more about ninjas, and big swaths of the text were from Austen herself. So you rate it as an Austen nerd, not a zombie nerd – if you happen to be both, like me. (A straight up zombie nerd should probably just stay away.) As an Austen nerd, it was mostly just perplexing, like, what exactly are you saying about Charlotte? Also, you get that messing with the chronology messes with…oh Jesus, nevermind. I really liked the cover and study guide, so I guess thanks for that, Quirk Books. 

By the time Dawn of the Dreadfuls rolled around, that book managed to drop trou and dump on both Austen nerds and zombie nerds – remember, I’m both, so double dump for me – which turned the translation problem into a Zen koan of Not Giving a Fuck. If the translator in question doesn’t care about either language, that’s what you get. (And I’m going to throw in the disclaimer that if you’re neither kind of nerd – Austen nor zombie – then you’ll probably think whatever about all my shouting.) Point being, it is clear to me that Doescher is a Star Wars nerd – that’s the language he is translating to – which I think is a pretty good choice. I’m going to wince when he drops a Naboo reference because I spend a fair amount of energy pretending the prequels never happened, but then I’m also going to hand-clap about a sly reference to nerf herding, which, you know, wasn’t a thing until The Empire Strikes Back. Ahem. Shut up. 

So this isn’t really for Shakespeare nerds. (Do you people exist? I mean, I’m sure you exist, but are you reading slovenly populist Internet reviews?) I wrote this whole thing aping Shakespeare to start my review, but it turns out when I try to write that way, I end up sounding like a pirate. Avast, me hearties! God’s teeth! and all that. So, we’ll give Ian Doescher some props for pretty solid metered dialogue, plus he manages to pull off an occasional heroic couplet that made me smile. I did spend some time discovering this handy nit-picker I got as a booby prize for being an English major had somehow gotten into my hand, and then having to put it away. I’m like an unconscious nit-picker fast-draw, matey. All the short’ning o’ words wit’ apostr’phes to make fit the met’r makes me freak out. Just, ugh. Also, I kept thinking things like, “Other than maybe the chorus in Henry V, who is present at the beginning of every act, Shakespeare didn’t really use a chorus throughout the action like that. That’s really more a feature of Classic Greek playwrights.” But then I gave myself a wedgie. Language from, babies, even if it’s kinda dumb. It’s dumb with jokes about R2D2 monologuing about stuff as an aside, which is pretty freaking fantastic.

So thanks, karen. This rules. 

All Politics is Feudal: This Dark Earth

So, I was recently watching The Dark Knight Rises, and kind of craughing to myself about what a brilliant expression of post-9/11 fascism it is. I don’t mean the term “fascist” in its sloppy usage of “stuff I don’t like” or “dad”, but the more old school definition of authoritarian militarism that positions the arbiter of justice not in law, but in an idealized übermench, you know, with your usual racial and nationalistic overlay on what makes the mench über. Bad guy Bane talks a lot of shit about giving power back to the People – invoking the dialectical enemy of fascism, communism – but as a fascist tract, there is literally one person who might be considered “the people” with a speaking part, and that’s Catwoman’s wing-girl. She has maybe three lines. The police state and the über-police state are pretty much the only important players in a city of 11 million, the People existing either to cheer Batman or drag rich people from their homes dumbly. It’s pretty much a Leni Riefenstahl film, both in terms of ideology, and stunningly beautiful fascist aesthetics. 


A diver in the 1936 Olympics, photographed by Riefenstahl

Putting aside some lumpy plotting – which no doubt was caused by Heath Ledger’s untimely death after so perfectly capturing hysterical nihilism in The Dark Knight (and I’m glad they didn’t re-cast the Joker) – The Dark Knight Rises brilliantly expresses the not-so-latent fascism of the superhero story. It’ll be interesting to see what the Nolanizing of Superman comes up with in Man of Steel, because Superman was your granddaddy’s very first anti-fascist American fascist superhero. (Sometimes you gotta fight fascism with fascism, apparently.) Somehow I don’t think it’ll work, because Superman is boring, and the best fascists have some chutzpah. The old fanboy saw is that Kent is the disguise, and overpowered aliens posing as dorks are hard to put the banners up for. Squeeze out that single tear, fascists, then we’ll root for you. 

Anyway, some what belabored point being that I was reading This Dark Earthat the same time, and kinda musing to myself about all the post-9/11, fear state, how-will-we-maintain-our-humanity-in-the-face-of-terror that I see as endemic to the zombie narrative. This Lord of the Flies with cannibal corpses has been going on at the very least since 9/11, but certainly bubbling there in Romero’s game-changer, Night of the Living Dead, where he rips the shit out of the American nuclear family and societal structures, and probably even earlier in your older school Voodoo sorcerer controlling reanimated slaves folklore. (Sophomore level paper topic: taking the farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead as a structure that symbolizes the Freudian psychological model – id as basement, ego as main floor, superego as attic – map the movement of the characters within this landscape as pertains to societal construction. Et cetera.) 

So, This Dark Earth is, in some ways, a very traditional zombie story, starting in a hospital becoming overrun as the doctor very slowly accepts what is occurring around her, complete with zombie infants and a chemical dump outside of town. A basement-bound reunion of mother and child, a bullet in the brain of a turned husband, a military group using a woman as rape fodder and mama, a barbed wire settlement slipping towards feudalism, a girl writing notes that she’s sure no one will read – it’s all there, and more – the wrangling and hand-wringing of the boy grown into a world with new rules, the prince of this new dark earth. The steam train. The slavers. Jacobs hits all of this, lightly, humanely, with an eye toward the individual that I feel gets lost in a lot of zombie stories, somewhat perversely. Even with very large time shifts, the pacing is furious while still managing a tightly personal tone. 

A lot of people are going to invoke AMC’s The Walking Dead with this book – and I guess I am too – but this book checks a lot of the stupid societal bullshit of that show – Rick shouting about how “this isn’t a democracy” and then getting his ass bitten by eye-patched demagogues (but not literally, of course), Carl turning into a squint-eyed tiny badass, the rheumy moral mouthpiece wondering “but at what cost?” I’m still into Walking Dead for the set-pieces, because those continue to thrill, but I have no patience for the people or the society of that show. And I’ve lost patience with the characters of Walking Dead because it never comes out and owns the inherent fascism of the zombie survivor community, not with any finesse anyway. Breathers are all imbued with exceptionalism in the zombie apocalypse. It’s numbers; that’s all. But on Walking Dead, Rick gets to be touched with the invisible hand of narrative superiority/safety, lending his leadership a sort of unassailable divinity that should just suck it. This Dark Earth addresses that impulse to feudalism, and it does so while being beautiful in an unshowy way. 

I almost don’t want to recommend it to your average non-horror reader, because I think what Jacobs is doing is subtle, this slow, personal invocation of all the tropes of the genre, that sets them all up and knocks them all down, slowly, like a steam boiler, like cancer. Death is the greatest democracy there is; we all have our one vote. Survivalist groups in the zombie apocalypse are often pictured as Spartan paramilitary camps set against the undead Athenian mob. I think that we tend to conceptualized survival this way shows our instinct towards feudalism – the dictatorial Governor in Walking Dead growling about terrorists, the slaver in This Dark Earth looking for a king to behead. Both Carl and the “Prince” here are positioned as the members of the New World Order, unable to remember the world before the mob, groomed in violent expediency to threats both real and imagined. I’m not sure where Walking Dead is going to go with Carl, but I have my suspicions, and I’m already girding my loins for disingenuous speeches about honor and stuff. 

this is not a democracy anymore, it's a ricktatorship with an image of Rick Grimes from Walking Dead

Observe Jacobs, instead:

The world loves a tomato because it’s red. The apple is red too. But the tomato’s flesh is the flesh of mankind.

Do the dead love the flesh of man because it is like a tomato? We’ll never know. But I have my suspicions.

As the matriculating Prince observes as he filches tomatoes from their tenuous garden. There are times when this is too much, like in an overtly symbolic sequence that has our boy crucified, quite literally, on an exit ramp sign, but then Southern Gothic (which this book is also, in many ways) often can’t help its dips into histrionic religious imagery. Jacobs runs this linear and time-skipping narrative hand-over-hand, from one point of view character to the next, which I believe works beautifully with the stakes and danger of the undead-filled world: you will hear this voice, but you will not know when this voice will end, or if it will pick up again on the edges of another person’s story. Knock-out’s sequence, and the boys on the steam train were especially tight. (And I have another sophomore paper topic ruminating about the train as it fits into the American landscape as some kind of echo of industrialism and colonial expansion, but I haven’t worked out all the kinks.) Certainly, This Dark Earth isn’t reinventing the wheel in terms of zombie narratives, but I thought it dealt with the tropes in a thoughtful manner, which for me can be much more enjoyable than genre-confounding gimmicks or the like. I, for one, welcome our zombie apocalypse feudal overlords, at least as described by John Hornor Jacobs. Hail to the king, baby. 

3 Things I’m Glad Didn’t Exist 20 Years Ago

I just turned 39, which I wasn’t all that pleased about for a number of reasons, some of which are none of your beeswax. But one reason is that it’s a joke age, a place where the oldometer stops for a lot of people, a numerical cultural signifier for “actually, a lot older than 39”. So it’s like turning 40, but worse, because I don’t actually get to own that I’m 40, instead looking like some kind of liar. I admit I’ve overthought this, but it’s my party.

So my husband was watching dross on Netflix, the way he does, and hit upon Tiny Furniture – if you like this you’ll like that, etc. I didn’t even get an individual assessment out of him so much as him reading out the wiki page about mumblecore film-making in absolute horror. Unscripted digital video with a focus on naturalistic dialogue! He shouted. Bah. I haven’t seen any of the mumblecore titles listed, but ignorance hasn’t stopped me from making fun of something before, and I’m not going to stop now. Whenever I see Ed Burns talk about his “low-budg” aesthetic – even the term makes my gonads shrink – I want to die a little. Oh, another lazy, hideously filmed family drama about a lovable asshole being half-redeemed by the love of a someone or something whatever monologue about how it totally sucks when you burn your fingers getting Hot Pockets out the microwave!

It’s not the digital video: I’ve made my peace with that. Digital video can be used brilliantly, like in 28 Days Later, where the shaky, hand held quality and the sub-cinema quality worked with the subject like nobody’s business. The end of the world is seriously fucking nigh indeed. It’s not even low budget film, because I love all kinds of low budget movies, from Evil Dead to Primer. Maybe it’s just that digital video, with it’s lower barrier to entry – you don’t have to know anything about film, in a technical sense, which might mean you don’t know anything about film, in the more metaphorical sense. It’s like the old joke about the film student wondering about why no one goes to the bathroom in movies, and then makes a film comprised of exclusively that. No one goes to the bathroom in movies because that’s stupid and no way to tell a story.

Which brings me back to my shaky point (which isn’t that I’m mad that I’m getting old, completely): I’ve said for a while now, maybe two full years, that I’m so happy that I didn’t have fucking facebook when I was a kid. Good god. Adolescence was bad enough without an indelible record of my idiocy and assholery out there in the world, and that’s not even getting into the idiocy and assholery of my peers. (And I even cringe about stuff I wrote on the Internet 5 years ago, when I was supposedly an adult.) It doesn’t surprise me at all that many of my younger friends and family have deleted their facebook accounts, or inactivate them for long periods of time.

I’m also happy that there wasn’t self-publishing, because, speaking of indelible, I could see my younger self self-publishing the crap out of some seriously painful sophomoric poetry, and that my seriously painful sophomoric poetry is only available in unavailable high school and college journals makes me a happy cat indeed. It was sweet that my shit juvenile writing was set to the page and all, but that it’s ephemeral is part of its charm. We should be able to bury our pasts, which certainly happens in the constant crushing content-production of the Internet; the good news is, people are rarely listening anyway. But someone can still do the hard google though, and that is ouch.

So the third thing I’m glad didn’t exist when I was young enough to take liberties is mumblecore filmmaking. Not that I ever had any interest in film, except as an audience, but I could totally see younger me thinking, hey, why not? when a friend decided to stage some self-indulgent mumble drama, and there I’d be, for all time, doing some walk-on as a barista or girl at the party fudging my lines and generally sucking. (I wouldn’t mind dying in a horror film, though, whatever that says about me.) I recently stumbled over some clueless young man’s personal manifesto, which he wrote in Socratic dialogue as something approximating a novel. The last pages, which I read, have an author-proxy totally burning a television reporter after she asks a bunch of softballs. Cold dis, imaginary reporter! I laughed myself sick and then praised the baby Jesus that self-publishing didn’t exist when I was 20.

So I guess what I’m saying is that on some level I’m glad I’m old, because I can’t imagine younger me navigating this brave new world with any kind of aplomb, given that older me doesn’t have a ton of restraint. I’m getting better at backing away from the keyboard. Even then, I can imagine a 59 year old Ceridwen reading these words and shaking her head. You poor, dumb slob.