Saturday 27 November 2021

Mechanical Turk

The joke is that it never was a robot.

The joke is that 'battery hens'

is a reference to conditions.

The joke is the advert's promise

that you won't speak to a robot

is a promise you will be accused 

of breaking by a caller who knows

fine well you're a human. The joke is

that you know this line is monitored

and when you say 'Yes, I am a real

human being,' in a sing-song voice,

you can say you are not doing me,

you are doing the girl

in the advert.

Monday 22 November 2021

Trump gets an 'honorary' black belt

 In his head, he's really going to start thinking he's Frank Dux now. Telling people he was literally trained by Tiger Tanaka, a fictional character from the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice. He's going to start being all 'I respect you, fellow warrior,' when he meets Putin and Steven Segal now. He's gonna go the full fucking John Dupont. This is hilarious. 

His favourite movie was not Citizen Kane

And will you watch Bloodsport on Air Force One,

now the strains of My Way have died down?

Will some flunky fast-forward the boring bits

so you can cut to Van Damme doing the splits

and punching that big Chinese dude in the nuts?

Will you tell yourself this is what you have done,

with your sniping at China? That you have become

an American ninja, a kumite king, a heavyweight

champion lord of the ring, like the man Van Damme

played, the white ninja, Frank Dux,

who put on a cheap gi and made it all up?

Who paid for the trophy he said that he won

with a face straight as yours when you bragged about grabbing

the pussies of bitches you moved on at pageants.

What is it with boys like you? Desperate to come

off as what you think men are? Was daddy that bad?

Were you so poorly served by the models you had

that you think we respect you, you ludicrous goon?

Well I never did. And I’m glad that you’re gone.

And I hope they fumigate Air Force One.

Wednesday 3 November 2021

Cancellation, Baby!

 I want to be famous

and considered blameless

I want my mates promoted and my critics rendered nameless

I want to be rewarded for actions most consider shameless:

that’s right - I wanna be cancelled!

Cancellation’s where it’s at, pals, cancellation’s King:

if you claim you’re being cancelled you can say most anything,

you can claim to be a pugilist while running from the ring.

All you have to say is ‘I’ve been cancelled!’

Cancellation’s what you need, not dedication, Roy:

cancellation will take you from strength to strength through joy,

you can write a book about how you like perving on underage boys,

and never have to fear, Ms Greer, just be clear that you’ve been cancelled!

Or perhaps you want to talk about the breasts of teenage girls
and folks are pointing out that this makes you sound like a perv?
Just frame your chat in terms appealing to your fellow terves 
and carry on, my wayward Alison, by saying you were cancelled! 

Cancellation is the royal road to superpower,

you can quit your job and get a softball spot on Woman’s Hour,

you can claim to love free speech and threaten critics with your lawyer:

your Stock can never drop when you’ve been cancelled!

Cancellation isn't quite the same as saying 'leave':
true patriots know English words mean more than what they mean,
so if you lose a cushy speaking fee, you still can act aggrieved -
if you ever need to change your plans, Nige, say it's you that's being cancelled!

Is your sense of comic timing deader than a parrot? Are the people who once laughed with you just looking on embarrassed? Do people speak more often of the women that you harassed than your one-note comedies, John Cleese? At ease: claim you've been cancelled!

Cancellation’s barely come in even single spies

while you have big battalions to amplify your lies,

but so what? Claim you're being targeted by Shinigami Eyes,

you can baby face yourself by wailing 'Cancelled!'

But just remember: cancellation’s not for everyone.

You’re only cancelled if you say things they agree with in the Sun,

not things like ‘the BBC platformed a TERF who’s rapist scum,

and they were warned she was a rapist but they let the story run.’

Do you think we care about the truth? We’re journalists, hun!

And if you point out otherwise at best you’ll be ignored,

at worst we’ll slag you off in print or drag you through the courts,

we’ll steal your private photos and we’ll twist your social words,

we’ll convince the general public that you’re all a bunch of pervs

when all you want to do is live your life and not be hassled:

we’ll make that life a living Hell, but we won’t call you cancelled.

Tuesday 2 November 2021

Horror Recollected in Tranquility 2: C.H.U.D. (1984)

What does C.H.U.D stand for?  One of the big twists in Douglas Cheek's film is that it doesn't stand for 'Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller'. That phrase, blurted out by Wilson, the dodgy suit from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission after some papers bearing that acronym are inadvertently revealed during a meeting with the protagonists, is actually a hastily improvised cover for the real translation, discovered in the final act on canisters of toxic waste dumped under New York City - Contamination Hazard: Urban Disposal. 

The files never referred to the Dwellers, but to this secret programme of dumping waste beneath the inner city. It's an effective twist, and it really transforms the movie, turning it from a battle between humans and typical - if very well-executed - horror movie monsters to a struggle to reveal the truth and expose Wilson's schemes. It's Wilson, the NRC company man, who gets shot by one of the protagonists in the film's denouement, after all. The revelation that the bigwigs have decided the only thing New York City is useful for is dumping waste also situates the film in the kind of conversations about New York that were going on at the time, with the city still emerging from the 1975 financial crisis, and not yet transformed into the sanitised, tourism and finance-focused behemoth we know today. Reagan to City: Go Toxic. 

Not just New York, in fact. During the 1980s, the Thatcher government, an ideological ally of Reagan's neoliberal US regime, discussed whether or not it might be better to allow the 'managed decline' of the poverty-stricken city of Liverpool, rather than investing to save it. Liverpool being, among many other things, the setting for Clive Barker's short story 'The Forbidden', better known to most through its US adaptation into yet another film whose supernatural hijinks reflect anxieties around urban spaces, the 1992 version of Candyman (which would be rewritten in 2021 by Us director Jordan Peele). 

Candyman itself is somewhat outside the purview of this series, in that I didn't get around to rewatching it while doing the October Horror Movie Challenge this year, and this series is meant to strictly follow the films I did watch. But it's worth mentioning here both because it shares concerns with C.H.U.D., and was Peele's next writing choice after Us, which strongly suggests Peele didn't show us a copy of Cheek's movie on the TV shelf in the opening of the film we looked at yesterday just because they share subterranean settings. 

Both films are about abandoned populations: the Tethered in Us, the street people (and indeed by extension the entire population of NYC who will have to deal with toxic waste and the cannibalistic mutants it creates) deemed expendable in C.H.U.D. And while there are specific groups culpable in these abandonments - the scientists who discontinue their experiments with the Tethered, Wilson and his pals at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission - both those groups ultimately answer to the US government. Whether it's the Tethered or the people of New York, both of them have been abandoned by America. 

This is what's so important about Red's statement in Us that 'We're Americans'. Why her final, attention-grabbing gesture is the Tethered creating a Hands Across America style chain across the country. She's staking a claim, resisting being discarded. The protagonists of C.H.U.D. -  George the photographer, and A.J. the Reverend (played by future Home Alone housebreaker Daniel Stearn) - also stake their claim with an attention-grabbing move, stealing an NRC camera to expose that organisation's misdeeds, but you could argue that they're less successful. Certainly they are in a non-diegetical sense. 

Why? Because - well, what does C.H.U.D. stand for? You have to have seen the movie to know the initial explanation is a bait-and-switch. In posters and video covers for the movie, in its numerous sequelae, and throughout pop culture since, it's become axiomatic that the acronym really does mean Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller. And so a meditation on urban abandonment and necropolitics avant la lettre is more readily remembered as simply a creature feature. 

Of course, that's a fairly common trope in the history of horror cinema: often the first film in a franchise has depths and resonances which vanish from later entries (indeed, we'll be looking at one notable example of this later in this series). Maybe the reference to C.H.U.D. in Us will lead more people to look again at a film which might too easily be dismissed as 80s schlock, and think about the themes both films share. 

Monday 1 November 2021

Horror Recollected in Tranquility 1: Us (2019)

In his documentary Jerry Building: Unholy Relics of the Third Reich, the architectural critic Jonathan Meades observes that tunnels are a form of 'infantile structure...the burrow, the warren, the uterine comforter...associable with secret societies, and the desire of the human to take on animal form.' Jordan Peele's 2019 film Us, which has a lot to say about childhood, secrets, and the animal, begins with an observation about tunnels, telling us that 'There are thousands of miles of tunnels beneath the continental United States. Abandoned subway systems, unused service routes, and deserted mine shafts...Many have no known purpose at all.': 

Meades observes that the Nazis' infantile obsession with burrows and tunnelling (they were building underground bunkers long before the war began) would acquire a new importance when they were forced to 'scurry, crawl and hide in the dark'. But Us, like most horror movies that deal with the depths, isn't about burrowing in, except in its unsettling opening and, to an extent, its climax. Instead, it's concerned with what might get out. 

That something unheimlich might emerge from underground is hinted at in the presence, in the opening shot, of a VHS copy of C.H.U.D., Douglas Cheek's 1984 movie in which the people of New York's streets are menaced by the quasi-titular (but more on that tomorrrow) Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller. So when Lupita Nyong'o's Adelaide 'Addy' Wilson strays from her arguing parents at a seaside theme park and becomes lost in the 'Vision Quest' themed hall of mirrors, we're primed to see something disturbing emerge from the dark. What we get, however, is a different flavour of disturbing to cheek's shambling, toxic zombies: an exact duplicate of Addy: her doppelganger. 

We will learn, later in the film, that said doppelganger is one of 'the Tethered': clones created by the government and kept underground as part of an experiment to see if they could somehow be used to control their originals on the surface. We will learn that the experiment failed, and the Tethered have been abandoned underground to a life of empty mimicry of their originals (their name refers to a peculiar psychic connection between the clones and their counterparts) and eating the caged rabbits left behind by the scientists. But the first thing we will learn about the Tethered, when a family of them visit Addy and her family at their vacation house, is that they want revenge. Addy's Tethered counterpart, Red, explains her motives in a speech which also serves to introduce us to the twisted copies of Addy's husband and children which make up Red's family: 

'Once upon a time, there was a girl and the girl had a shadow. The two were connected, tethered together. And the girl ate, her food was given to her warm and tasty. But when the shadow was hungry, she had to eat rabbit raw and bloody. On Christmas, the girl received wonderful toys; soft and cushy. But the shadow's toys were so sharp and cold they sliced through her fingers when she tried to play with them. The girl met a handsome prince and fell in love. But the shadow at that same time had Abraham, it didn't matter if she loved him or not. He was tethered to the girl's prince after all. Then the girl had her first child, a beautiful baby girl. But the shadow, she gave birth to a little monster. Umbrae was born laughing. The girl had a second child, a boy this time. They had to cut her open and take him from her belly. The shadow had to do it all herself. She named him Pluto, he was born to love fire. So you see, the shadow hated the girl so much for so long until one day the shadow realized she was being tested by God.'

What follows is a game of cat and mouse between the Wilsons and their Tethered reflections, plus two tethered duplicates of two family friends played by Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss, and their children.  This culminates in Addy descending into the tunnels again (the 'Vision Quest' attraction has been restyled as the less culturally-appropriative 'Merlin's Quest') to confront Red and rescue her kidnapped son, Jason (in the course of which Red explains more about the Tethered's origins). 

What's most compelling in all of this is the air of unreality Peele creates around the story. The confrontation with the  doppelganger, or the Shadow, is a big, mythic, Jungian theme, as is descent into the underworld. The styling of the hall of mirrors, in both its guises, reminded me of those creepy, fairytale-style covers that you see in pictures of some of the books on hypnotism which would eventually morph into the pseudoscience of Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Rabbits, of course, have a longstanding connection with adventures underground (go ask Alice). As with Peele's previous film, Get Out, the scientific veneer (in this case the scientists who create and then abandon the Tethered) really serves as a plot contrivance to allow Peele to tell a story about disturbing magic - magic which strikes at the core of one's identity.

Because one of the film's last revelations is that Addy herself is one of the Tethered. In the hall of mirrors as a child, she strangled her doppelganger - the real Addy - unconscious, and replaced her. The damage to the original's vocal chords is why Red speaks in the scratchy, terrifying voice in which she addresses Addy. 

Maybe this is why, as Addy finally escapes with her family, and sees evidence of Red's plan (inspired by another pop culture reference from the opening scene) coming to fruition, she smiles. Because she, more than anyone else in her family, understands the drive to get out of the sunken place the army of the Tethered has escaped from. Because she already got out. And this, perhaps, explains why of all her family - including her physically much bigger husband, Gabe - Addy proves to be the fiercest fighter in disposing of her family's doubles. Because she knows what it's like, down there in the underground shadow of America - and she doesn't want to go back.