Sunday, November 8, 2015

Why Zombie Movies Matter

Elsa Lancaster sharing a tender moment with Boris

I've watched more than my fair share of zombie movies.  To give you an idea of how many that is, in contemporary America, the fair share of zombie movies is twelve.  This does not count individual episodes of The Walking Dead.  I've seen movies about zombie strippers, zombie cats, zombie Nazis, funny zombies, tragic zombies, and plain old zombie-zombies.  I believe I have finally watched enough zombie movies and never care to see another.  

(Movies with giant spiders, on the other hand, I still have an unslaked appetite for.)

I have come to the conclusion, however, that zombie movies are telling us something very important, and actually quite reassuring.

The original zombie movie was Frankenstein - yes, that was definitely a zombie movie - but it wasn't until Bride of Frankenstein that the great theme of all zombie movies was articulated by the Creature itself, "We belong dead."  

He says this about himself and the ostensible bride of the title, magnificently played by Elsa Lancaster, in a dual role as Mary Shelly, who wakes from the dead in bird-like terror and confusion, and whose zombie-hood is so pitiable.  There's the whole idea right there, and if you want to stop reading the blog after this point, you may.  The dead belong dead.  Death is okay.  Death is appropriate.  What is truly terrifying is the alternative: never being able to die.

We have an understandable fear of death, but zombie movies tell us that when the time comes to die, that this is as it should be.  It is natural and even wholesome.  Grief is wholesome, also.  What is unwholesome is morbid terror.  

In Gulliver's Travels our hero learns about a group of immortal humans known as the struldbrugs, and Gulliver naively proclaims how wonderful it would be to live forever, and what opportunities it would provide to gain knowledge and riches. 

His interlocutor brings him up short, and says, no, the struldbrugs are a terrible scourge and it is considered a great misfortune when one is born into a family.  They grow into old age, cranky, infirm, foolish, and opinionated.  Swift is making the same point as any zombie movie.  Don't wish to live forever.  Wish for a reasonable life-span and a peaceful death.

Of course, in zombie movies, the immortals not only age and decay, they eat brains.  Because, hey, brains.

Monday, November 2, 2015

How Porn and Horror are Alike (And Why Horror is Better)

 The content of this blog is not as salacious as some readers might hope, but it begins with a very simple observation: porn and horror both operate on the same principle.

Porn, so I'm informed - I've never seen any myself, ahem - begins with a perfectly banal set-up that rapidly, if not instantly, spirals into sex.  The pizza-delivery guy or the plumber, or whoever, comes over, trades a few double-entendres with the scantily-clad resident, and then a porn groove starts up with a boom-chikka drum beat, and an electric guitar's wah-wah, and the next thing you know, everyone's rolling around on the furniture making sweet, sweet hibbidy-bibbidy.

It's the same thing with horror.

A perfectly ordinary, banal set-up: a new neighbor moves in next door, or the cat dies, but then as quickly as can be managed, a dissonant sound-track picks up in a minor chord, or children's voices singing nursery rhymes just slightly off-key, and the next thing you know, it turns out the neighbor's a vampire, or the cat gets buried in a special graveyard that makes it come back to life as a zombie-cat, or the house is located on a haunted burial ground, or whatever.

In both cases - porn and horror - the underlying concept is that at the border of daily experience is another set of experiences which is not merely entirely different and incongruous, but defining.  In porn, the point of life - its essence - is not getting pizza delivered or your pipes fixed, but sex, and sex with as many different partners in as many acrobatic configurations as can be done.  Likewise, in horror, the meaning of life is not found in ordinary experience - the birth of a child, for example - but in the extraordinary and terrifying discovery that this is the spawn of Satan.

The audience for porn as well as horror is given the impression that the ordinary world is a paper-thin veneer for another world, a world where people's lives - whether for good or ill - are way more interesting than their own, and that these people know something about life that the rest of us are too naive, lucky, unlucky, unattractive, or cowardly to suspect.  Both porn and horror create a sense of expectation that something is just around the corner, and only the boom-chikka, wah-wah or creepy children's voices will tell us what form that something will take.

In the case of porn, this sense of expectation can only be disappointing, frustrating, and to some extent disgusting.  (I really don't want to imagine my pizza-delivery guy has just engaged in complicated, multi-orificical coitus with some bimbo and her three roommates.)  The world, says porn, is a perpetual orgy - an orgy from which you and I, for some reason, have been excluded.

In horror - and I maintain this is what makes it superior - the expectation is a feeling of relief mixed with a certain salutatory dread.  After watching yet another revision of the zombie apocalypse, we are relieved that we don't have to deal with zombies in our own world.  Yet.  And it's that yet that's crucial to good horror, the lingering notion that just because our lives have been relatively safe and predictable hitherto, there's no promise they will continue to be so; indeed, the people we just watched barricaded in a house against legions of the undead outside, were exactly like us at the start of the film, living lives even more boring than our own, never imagining something like that could happen to them.

The expectations set up by porn not only are jejune, but contrived to dissatisfy us with our lives; horror, on the other hand, makes us grateful; thank goodness we haven't have penetrated that thin veneer into the other world of experience.  The notion that the delivery person will be a nymphomaniac who will - with minimal preamble - engage us in an exhaustive and exhausting survey of The Kama Sutra is just plain dumb.  On the other hand, even if the world is as rational and predictable as we'd like to believe, speculating that perhaps it isn't - that the underlying reality might possibly be anarchic and deeply irrational - that below the experience of the ordinary might lurk something quite different, alien, and unknowable - that speculation, which is offered by horror, is not only not to be sneered at, it might be a kind of wisdom.

And that's why horror is superior.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Fear Me, Halloween Candy!

Look upon me and tremble, Halloween Candy!

Fear me, Halloween Candy, for my name is Man.

I am thy nemesis, thy knell of doom, thy horseman of the apocalypse.  In the apocalypse of candy there is but one horseman, for he will eat thee all.  There is not even a horse, just a horseman, the horse was just a metaphor, and that horseless-horseman's name is Man.  Look upon the name and tremble, oh Halloween candy!

For I will keep thee in a basket by the couch in front of the TV and I will eat thee.  I will eat the M&M's, and the Twix, and the Kandy Korn.  The Tootsie Rolls shall I eat last, so they can watch all the others go before them and because I really care not for Tootsie Rolls so much, but I will eat them anyway, for my name is Man.

I will keep eating, even though I am not hungry, and actually getting kind of queasy, but I shall not stay my hand, though Nancy says, "Jesus, how much of that stuff have you eaten?" and I am shamed.  But I shall not spare thee, I shall not even spare the Bottle Caps, even though they are pretty disgusting for my name is Man.  I am the same candy-eating scourge that in days of yore lay waste to an entire bag of Valentine's hearts that have no more flavor than antacid tablets.

My name is Man.  Let word go round the candy bars and Laffy Taffy that I care not whether you taste good or not or how fresh you are, I shall eat you anyway.  If I drop an M&M, I shall search among the couch cushions until I find it, and then I shall eat it.  There are those who will drop candy on the floor and pick it up and eat it, proclaiming, "Three second rule."  But I acknowledge no such rule, for my name is Man.  I could find a Jolly Rancher in the tomb of the Pharaohs and say "what the hell," and eat it anyway.  And I don't even like Jolly Ranchers!

Thy day is at hand, oh Left-Over Halloween Candy.  When the last of the trick-or-treaters had departed, did thou think in thy heart, "We have been spared, though all our brothers were distributed to tiny Disney Princesses and diminutive Donald Trumps and Hillary Clintons, for the trick-or-treaters have gone and yet we remain."

Fools, oh Candy, fools!  For I am Man, and none shall escape me, for lo, I once, in a Chinese restaurant looked upon the fortune cookie of my neighbor and asked, "Are you going to eat that?"  And, lo, I ate it, though I had eaten of my own fortune cookie already!  And I did not even read the fortune!  I cared not for the fortune, I disdained it!  I only wanted the cookie, and fortune cookies are the worst cookies there are, and the only point to the whole thing is the fortune, which I didn't even read!

What hope then, can you have, oh Peanut-Butter Cups and Skittles?  What hope then for Starburst and Snickers Bars!  Perhaps, later, I shall regret my harshness and incline to mercy, but by then shall it be too late.

For my name is Man.  Look upon the name and despair, oh Candy!

(Originally posted 2012)

Friday, October 30, 2015

Value Erosion in Halloween Candy

Several weeks ago, I bought a bag of discount Halloween candy at Costco, and a week ago, it somehow became open.  (I blame Nancy for this.)  Understand this is not premium candy; it might be more accurately termed candy-by-products: what's made of scraps and floor-sweepings after the better candy has been shipped off to distributors, and I selected it for the expressed reason that it wouldn't present an undue temptation; nevertheless, Nancy and I are consuming it at a remarkable rate, and by "remarkable" I mean truly terrifying.

When first opened, the bag sat on a sideboard, because it was too big to empty into a basket.  Now it has been emptied into a basket, and the level is noticeably dropping.  If icecaps are deplete as fast as our candy, polar bears will need to be much better swimmers. 

The danger is not that we will run out of candy before Halloween, rather what I term "Halloween-Candy Value-Erosion."  First, I have assigned each type of candy in our assortment a value:

Skittles              6
Laffy-Taffy       5
Lemon-Heads   4
Gob-Stoppers    3
Red Twizzlers   1
Sweet-Tarts       0.5
Sour-Punch       0.2

As for Skittles, their ranking needs no explanation; but some may find the high score given Laffy-Taffy questionable.  Laffy-Taffy, however, has long been an underrated candy.  I believe the fact it is only available on Halloween makes it suspect in people's minds, and then there its habit of clinging to the wrapper like skin, making it all but impossible to eat without swallowing a little piece of paper as well.  Were it not for the wrapper issue, I believe Laffy-Taffy would outrank Skittles itself.  The rest of my rankings should be uncontroversial, but notice that after Gob-Stoppers, the value drops off sharply.  Sweet-Tarts, for instance, qualify as candy only in a marginal sense, alongside Tums antacids, candy valentine hearts, and sidewalk chalk.  Sour-Punch, a candy I was hitherto unfamiliar with, is, according to my son-in-law Drew, "not that bad."  I have tried it.  It is that bad.  Were it possible to do so in this scoring system, I would assign it a negative number, ranking it alongside German licorice.  I believe if we looked into the matter closely, we would discover the existence German licorice was solely responsible for that nation's unfortunate behavior in the last century.

Now take a moment to examine the original distribution of candy-values on a normal curve as shown in Figure One.

You will confirm immediately my original statement that this is not a premium selection of candy.  The median score is 2.5, somewhere between Gob-Stoppers and Twizzlers, the latter of which is pretty much just flavored wax.  But a look at Figure Two shows heart-sickening decline of values that has occurred in less than a week.  The bell curve now looks like an anaconda attempting to pass a Volkswagen.  This is accounted for by Nancy's and my grazing habits in the candy basket.  We have already eaten all of the Skittles, and what Laffy-Taffy remains is red, partly because it is less desirable than yellow, and partly because it tends to camouflage itself as Twizzlers or Sour-Punch.  The remaining assortment of candy veers dangerously close to the Sweet-Tart and Sour-Punch end of the spectrum.  Bear in mind also, this precipitous transformation has occurred in just one week, and there is one more day remaining until Halloween.

One might think, that having eaten all the best candy out of the assortment, Nancy's and my candy-eating pace would slacken, but indeed it seems just the opposite.  I can only account for this as some sort of "feeding frenzy" such as you see among sharks who suddenly bite at everything that moves, even fellow-sharks, perhaps out of an instinctive fear that if they don't act quickly, all the good chum will be gone before they can get any.

The menace lies in the reaction of the neighborhood children when they receive fistfuls of inedible candy as a reward for dressing up in their adorable little Yoda and Batman costumes.  The neighbor children are sweet-tempered, cherubic even, but it does not do to push them too far.  To my knowledge, no one has ever attempted to foist off sweet-tarts and sour-punch and attempt to call it candy.  Who knows what form their unholy retribution will take?

Time alone will tell.

(Originally posted 2013)

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Consider the Capybara

Now here's an animal you'd think would be endangered, but isn't: the Capybara: a semi-aquatic rodent that can weigh up to 200 pounds.  They mate only in the water, and when a female is approached by a male she doesn't care for, she submerges or leaves the water.

Although they can run as fast as a horse, they rarely do so because basically why run as fast as a horse unless you need to?  Even horses don't run as fast as a horse most of the time.  They are generally unafraid of humans.  They are hunted for their pelts and meat.  Like the beaver, on which more later, Capybara meat can be eaten during Lent, because 17th Century Church fathers officially identified Capybaras as "fish."  (Ah, the mysteries of organized religion.)

So we have a large, slow-moving, unusual, edible animal, in a wetland habitat being encroached upon by industrialized man.  This would seem a recipe for disaster, survival-of-the-species-wise, but it isn't.  Oh, and did I also mention they're a nuisance to farmers?  And yet, the Capybara, unlike some species I could name - yes, I'm talking about you, Mr. Kakapo, is doing quite well, thank you, and isn't gotten even close to being on the endangered species list.  Its distant cousin, the American Beaver, another aquatic rodent, was on the endangered list a few decades ago, but now is back off again.

Maybe part of the reason the Capybara is not endangered is that it had so many predators to start with - jaguar, puma, and ocelot.  Looking at a Capybara, the words wily and evasive don't spring naturally to mind, but maybe they're smarter than they look.  If you're going to keep from being eaten by pumas and jaguars for a few hundred thousand years you must be doing something right.  Another secret is the Capybara sex-life.  In spite of the fact the dominant male tries to keep their mate from fooling around on them, most of his offspring are likely to belong to someone else.  Evidently the females don't submerge or leave the water as often as their husbands might like.  Unilke the Kakapo - sorry to use you as an example again - the Capybara didn't become flightless.  Okay, the Capybara never had wings, but it didn't give up some essential survival adaptation when things got good, unlike Dodos, Kakapos, and Kiwis.

To sum up, here are some of the lessons we can take from Capybaras.  Have a good sex life.  If your ancestors had some skill, such as flight or running fast as a horse or adding up a whole bunch of numbers in their head - hold onto it and cultivate it; you might not need it now, but it may come in handy when you least expect it.  If someone's hanging around you don't care for, submerge or just leave the water.  And don't fret the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune now and then - an occasional jaguar or ocelot in your way may not be all bad; like the Capybara, you may find anything that doesn't kill you outright makes you stronger, and if it does kill you, just think of all those good times you had back in the water.

(Originally posted 2013)

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Edward Gorey and Me

When I was seven years old, in the children's section of the Ft Pierce, Florida public library, I discovered the most wonderful, the most delightful, the most delicious book I had ever seen up to that time.  It was as if the angels had placed it on the shelves especially for me.  It was The Wuggly Ump by Edward Gorey.  It was a nursery rhyme about three children who spend their lives in idyllic play until they are eaten by a monster, the Wuggly Ump, in a distant land, who lives on umbrellas and carpet tacks.  There's a periodic refrain with variations, "Sing tiraloo, sing tiralay, the Wuggly Ump lives faraway."  Throughout the story, the Wuggly Ump draws closer and closer until finally it is upon them: "How uninviting are its claws, how even more so are its jaws."  The last page shows the Wuggly Ump resting comfortably, a broad smile on its face, a cut-away drawing of the belly showing the three children floating inside with the final line, "Sing tiraloo, sing tiralump, from deep inside the Wuggly Ump."

I loved it.

That same year, my mother had introduced me to Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, and I loved that book too, but as far as I was concerned The Wuggly Ump had it beat all to heck.  Max gets in trouble and goes on an adventure where he overawes and rules an island of monsters, but after all, he returns safe and sound, and the "wild rumpus," as far as I can make out, is really just a dance.  But the Wuggly Ump eats the kids!  That was way more subversive than anything Sendak created.

And there was something about the drawings, too, and the writing.  At seven years old, I didn't know the Victorian Era from buttermilk pancakes, but even I sensed that though the book was clearly recent, there was something antique in the costumes and the wording that gave an essential charm to Gorey's twisted nursery rhyme.

There's a Saki story when Clovis tells his niece and nephew about a "horribly good" little girl who is eaten by wolves because she can't keep all her medals for comportment and penmanship from clanking together.  At the end of the narrative, Clovis' nephew says it was the most beautiful story he's ever heard.  The niece says it's the only beautiful story she's ever heard.  That's how I felt about The Wuggly Ump.

I knew this was a book I'd want to read again, so not knowing the Dewy Decimal System, I memorized its location on the shelf before I checked it out.  I read that book until I had fairly worn the pages through.  I returned it one Saturday and came back the next Saturday to check it out again.  But it was gone.

Oh, the things that children lose.  Jars of pennies and plastic soldiers, favorite toys, and socks.  But of all the things I'd lost in my short life, none dismayed me so much as losing track of that book.  I searched the shelf where I knew it was supposed to be, the shelf above, and the shelf below.  All the shelves in the children's section.  Maybe another kid had found it and checked it out, but even then, my angry heart suspected what must have been the truth.  I came week after week and looked.  It was gone for good.

I am sure now, as I was sure then, that some officious parent - I can picture her now, because surely she was somebody's mother, a flabby woman with moist hands but without gallbladder or irony, had seen the book and complained to the librarian.

And so, Edward Gorey passed out of my life.

Many years later, another decade, in another state - Georgia, this time, where my school-teacher mother moved us after walking off her job during Florida's teacher's strike - I began seeing some very odd drawings in The National Lampoon.  The National Lampoon was full of odd drawings, but these were odd in a different way - they didn't seem to belong in the same category as S Gross or Gahan Wilson; they were Victorian-seeming, with beautiful, hand-lettered text.  One was about a woman who becomes possessed by the devil and winds up in Hell, "The end had come, and this was it.  He threw her in the flaming pit."

I'd long since forgotten The Wuggly Ump and didn't recognize the author's name, but then I bought an anthology of Edward Gorey's work, Amphigorey, and there at the back was The Wuggly Ump!  The triumph, like finding the long-lost jar of pennies or the tin box of toys once secreted in a hollow tree, "It's the guy!"  I said.  "It's the guy!"

Gorey wrote over a hundred books designed the animation for PBS' Mystery and won a Tony for costume design in the Broadway version of Dracula.  Whenever I feel mopey for my lot - the struggle to gain recognition and readers - I think of Edward Gorey and take heart.  And I want to pass this along to my fellow writers and to everyone who toils without recognition in the vineyards of art.  Remember Gorey and take heart.

He didn't just march to the beat of his own drummer; it was the beat of a zither or a harpsichord or some unheard-of instrument no one has ever seen.  What a madman he must have been, to be born and live all his life in the US, leaving the country only once, but deciding to write and draw like an Edwardian Englishman, and to write such books and expect anyone to ever publish them - the painstaking delicate cross-hatching that fills the page with dark shapes, the odd nonsensical imagery!  But he went ahead, indifferent to what anyone else was doing.  He died in 2000, having spent a lifetime producing precisely the sort of art he chose.  He said, "If you're doing nonsense, it has to be rather awful, because otherwise there'd be no point...  Sunny funny nonsense for children.  How boring, boring, boring."

How true.  God bless you, Edward Gorey, God bless you.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Our Consuming Culture

The Arm Pillow, and The Lap Pillow are designed to give that comforting sense of a loved one nearby while one sleeps.  In the case of the lap pillow, the loved on is kneeling on the bed.

But why stop there?

The Chatterbox: Produces a steady stream of feminine white noise on a variety of topics - your personal shortcomings, the tv show "Parenthood," clothes, relationships, and miscellaneous jibber-jabber - to which you can insert an occasional "yes," "uh-huh," "right," or just ignore entirely as you go about your day.

What's-That-Smell Air Freshener: Now you can have those comforting masculine scents around your house any time.  Comes in Gym Sock, Fart, and Unidentifiable Funk aromas.

Damn-It-I-Just-Cleaned-In-Here Personal Robot: A reverse-engineered Roomba has been designed to randomly strew soiled whitey-tighties, dirty dishware, and food randomly through the house.  At the touch of a button, it will apologize and promise to "do better," but then it's right back at it, constantly undoing your housework.