Friday, September 29, 2006

Ready for "Strap 'em to a Chair" Reality?

Before I get to the bummer reality, a quick notice for those of you in California who can take advantage of this opportunity. Compliments of Willis O'Brien fan Miron Mercury, this announcement about one of my all-time heroes, the man who essentially invented monster movies as we all know and love them -- Willis O'Brien, stop-motion animator of Edison shorts, The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, The Lost World (1925), the original King Kong (1933), Son of Kong, Mighty Joe Young (1949) and (with Pete Peterson) The Black Scorpion (1957) and The Giant Behemoth (1958):

A Modest Willis O'Brien Exhibit

Because of our mutual admiration for the art and work of Willis O'Brien I would like you to know: The Oakland Public Library, Lakeview branch, has asked for and accepted a proposal for a modest exhibition on O'Brien and his arts. The exhibition will be held November 1 to December 31, 2007.

The approximately forty works on exhibition are divided between the biographic and the professional.

Using 18X24inch enlargements from photographs generously given by Forry Ackerman and Darlyne O'Brien, Willis O'Brien's life and work will be seen with the addition of a large print biography.

Similar enlargements made of storyboards for (unsold) films will be exhibited along side reproduction posters and ephemera from O'Brien's famous monsters of filmland, i.e., Lost World, King Kong, and the Academy Award winning Mighty Joe Young.

His technical and artistic contributions to the development of stop-motion animation can only be introduced and pointed to in this exhibit which is itself a miniature.

A typical Willis O'Brien/King Kong animation set will be represented by an enclosed tabletop set.

O'Brien's professional film career lasted from c. 1915 to 1962. In Thomas Edison's employment (c.1915) he created a series of three-dimensional animated comedies set in prehistoric times. The Lost World (1925), King Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949) followed. These, and other films, will be offered through the library as accompanying DVD titles to borrow.

Pipe organ score's from The Lost World and King Kong will be performed at the nearby Grand Lake Theater during normal operating weekend hours. Kevin King, the organist, agreed to record both scores. The recorded performance will be available as a download through the web at a later date.

Casual attendees will see how films are made by men and women just like them. They will learn about the people who made King Kong. I will draw the clear parallel between the creators of Superman and how they were treated by DC Comics and the case of Mr. Willis O'Brien, the Oaklander who gave life to King Kong. Attentive exhibit readers will discover, as we already know, that operatic ill-fates can blow on anyone.

The exhibition is meant to publicize the humanity of Mr. O'Brien's life. The damp coastal fog of cruel obscurity on O'Brien's career needs to be vigorously blown away. This modest exhibition will be more of a zephyr.

On January 2, 2008, when the exhibit is complete, the library will have a collection of donated DVDs and books related to O'Brien's work for everyone to watch and read happily ever after.
During the coming year I will be scanning my small collection of O'Brien related material. I am donating my collection to the Oakland Public Library History Room which, I hope, will make it available to everyone.

There will be a special postcard made for this exhibition. A modest card, as befits the exhibition and as surely fits ...

...Your animated friend,
Miron Murcury

Thanks, Miron -- and now -- on to...

...the bummer reality:

Earlier this week, while chatting with my son Dan, the subject of recent movies came up and we got into it. With Halloween a'comin' in, I asked if there were any of the coming harvest he was looking forward to, and Dan said, "Ah, I'm so sick of 'strap 'em to the chair' movies" -- his terminology for the current spate of torture horror films we're enduring.

Earlier this month, filmmaker Lance Weiler and I had a similar conversation, from the view of an insider (Lance) dealing with the current indy film scene. Producers and distributors, he said, were hot for "raw, contained horror" -- Lance's terminology for "strap 'em to the chair" pix -- meaning, cheap-to-make and currently in-vogue claustrophobic torture movies.

In our back and forth, Lance was leery of my proposition that the contemporary subgenre of torture films had anything to do with reflecting our national zeitgeist: in the film business, all that matters is that these gorefests are fashionable (at least one studio, Lion's Gate, have built their theatrical cache on the success of this subgenre, from Rob Zombie's House of 1,000 Corpses and its nominal sequel The Devil's Rejects to the Saw franchise, which arguably made it all palatable to the money people) and most importantly cheap to produce. There's the gold standard -- The Passion of the Christ, Hostel -- and then there's the exploitation that followed in its wake.

Lance's cynicism is understandable, but as I argued, it doesn't matter that the Bert I. Gordons and William Allands of the '50s were rushing to make giant bug and monster movies because they were relatively inexpensive to make and the unexpected success of Warner Bros. one-two punch of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (an indy pickup, in fact) and Them! (a WB production) made it a hot genre for that decade. They still plucked a collective nerve -- the xenophobia of the Cold War incarnate, embodying all the inchoate dread of 'outsiders' in their most primal form -- and made money because of that collective reflective process. They functioned as cheap thrills -- laugh at the big bug scares -- but kept coming because people found them of use, too. Those outsized process-shot critters entertainted and spoke to us as a nation for a time.

The torture flicks do the same.

Yes, Lance is right: they are crowding the video shelves and popping up (less frequently) on our theater screens because Saw and Hostel popularized an remarkably streamlined, formulaic cheapjack permutation of a perpetually-popular genre (horror). But they are making money because these fucking movies speak to us about dark realities we deny about ourselves. They are exploding on screens because they speak to us about that which we won't talk about -- our current national obsession with terror, torture, demonizing enemies and objectifying 'them' as objects to be abused, while reflecting our deeper humanity: the inevitable empathy with the torture inflicted, both as the victims we "know" we are (9/11) and the victims we fear we'll be (the gov't exploited dread of becoming the next 9/11-event victim or, just as unlikely, the screaming beheading victim in some online snuff stream; the deeper dread of empathizing with those we torture in the name of God and country).

As with any cycle, there's cream and there's crap. I saw this cycle coming, and the I knew the kid gloves were off after Mel Gibson's The Passion, which will likely remain the ultimate torture epic of all time; Mel trumped Pasolini and Salo, and that's quite an achievement. The ugly hypocrisy of the Christian right embracing this torture epic while ignoring/denying/resenting the revelations of our own country's assuming the mantle of torture-sanctioning fearmongers in the wake of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and other detainee abuse/torture reports (including prisons in New Jersey) spotlit our national schizophrenia at that time, which was already being dissected in the early incarnations of the torture genre (The Passion, mind you, opened the door for the more exploitative fare, wherein the spectacle of pain inflicted/suffered, torn flesh, agony and spilled blood is paramount).

The humanistic strain of the genre has been little noticed or discussed, earning little at the box office and dismissed by and large by our useless daily 'reviewers' (precious few of them are critics) as Memento rips or riffs -- The Mechanic, Head Trauma, The Jacket, etc. -- though these films have been quite articulate in their confrontational scenarios of repressed atrocities, debilatating guilt, and the toll of denial and all-consuming need to know the truth. These are redemption parables, appealing for us to literally wake up to what we've done, what we're doing, as a culture. Others (indy pickups made for precious little, but honest and direct in their focal points: Open Water, Wolf Creek) are despairing scenarios: we are lost, truly lost, and no one is going to save us.

Both the redemptive strain and the despairing strain have yielded some memorable films, and were made with integrity and a desire to communicate something the filmmakers considered essential.

Those voices, however lucid and clear, have been drowned out (per usual, that's how these cycles work in a free market) by the louder cacophony of horrors: the Saw franchise, Hostel, etc. I'm not attacking these films or filmmakers, mind you, just identifying what I'm seeing. I'm in a minority in my age group (50s) for finding Saw and Hostel of interest and compelling: I enjoyed them both. Saw is an amped-for-the-21st-Century variation on the Dr. Phibes films, with its own baroque Old Testament zeal and black humor at work; Hostel reflects the current generation's (of which young director Eli Roth embodies) xenophobia with unflinching clarity, as unapologetic in its self-portrait of hedonistic American male narcissism as it is fleshing out that generation's deepest post-9/11 George W. Bush presidency fear: "God, they really do hate us, don't they? They'll pay more to torture an American! They not only want us dead, they want us to suffer for who we are." Roth's narrative embraces the ultimate dread and slakes the desire for hands-on retribution, and that's its power, however risible its extremes (the rescue-the-Asian-woman, dangling optic nerve sequence).

Whether conscious or unconsious, this inversion of the more intelligent redemption/despair is telling and important: The Mechanic, Head Trauma, The Jacket posit: "why must I suffer? What suffering have I afflicted? What have I done?" Hostel counters: "why must I suffer for just being who I am: an American? I've done nothing wrong!"

Here, then, is the national debate we never had going into Afghanistan, the Iraq War, the 2004 election season. It's playing out in movies dismissed by most discerning adult filmviewers as trash, beneath contempt; in the movies younger audiences are paying to see, with the same fusion of dread and anticipation that young audiences brought to the horror cycles of the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s -- arguably more naked in their expression of that dread, stripped of comfy genre metaphors (vampires, giant monsters, zombies, boogymen) to rougher archetypes: torturers, sans apparent motive.

Sublimated fears and perceptions aren't being openly discussed, debated: they're playing out in this earliest 21st Century strain of horrors and on Comedy Central, where and The Daily Show and The Colbert Report bring the mirror of satire to play with equally savage precision. (So successful is the Comedy Central model that Fox News is imitating it and presenting it as "news" -- see below.)

That these horror films are more graphic, explicit, and to-the-bone (in their pain as well as their all too human monsters) is understandable in the light of a President, Vice President and administration so naked in their enthusiasm, their need, to torture.

At least we're spared the argument that horror films caused the aberrant real-life behavior: we're clearly seeing quite the opposite.

When the word "torture" is so relentlessly side-stepped -- "alternative interrogation tactics," etc. -- but the reality is so obvious in the photos we've seen (begging the question, "what haven't we seen?", not out of morbidity but dread -- "if we've done this, what else has been done in our name?"), the fictional models are inevitably extreme.

That's what nightmares do; that's what the horror genre does.

If it's this bad in reality, it's much, much worse in the imaginative realms -- and when the imagination fails to approach the reality, the need to escalate the imagined horrors becomes a genre imperative.

However gruesome the coming wave of "strap 'em to the chair" offerings coming our way -- Saw III, etc. -- they've already been eclipsed by what's happened and happening in Washington D.C. right now. If President Bush's call for justified torture during his recent pre-9/11 Anniversary campaign season madness was outrageous and audacious,
  • the Congress-sanctioned demise of Habeas Corpus
  • is even more appalling.

    If you're among those appalled by the torture movie wave, you have to admit
  • reasoned, nuanced discussion rooted in history and fact
  • has failed (did you read that link? Did you see the word "Athens" and go, "ah, why bother?"). The more realistic, politically-gr0unded films on this subject -- The Road to Guantanamo, etc. -- do not find an audience, reaching only a fraction of the converted. Horror movies make money; horror movies, consciously and/or unconsciously, tap our inner reality. Political movies rarely do.

    What are we left with? Torture movies and a bully President and administration getting its way again, aggressively pursuing its own agenda and embodying our worst instincts, an either spineless or locked-step-fascist representative branch betraying our Constitution in constant deference to the executive branch, which has already proven itself capable of deceit, media manipulation, strong-arm tactics, smear tactics and abuse to retain its hold on power (and that power must be increasingly absolute).

    So, we get torture movies.


    Because we have been and are torturing innocent people.

    The last aggressive torture wave emerged from the Vietnam era, when we were doing the same; the big-budget studio remakes of that era's artifacts (Michael Bay-produced Texas Chainsaws) are as timely as the Saw franchise and the others I've mentioned.

    Bush's constant assertion and presumption -- that he and his only capture and torture bad guys -- has been proven demonstratably wrong time and time again, and know we have the harrowing account of Canadian citizen Maher Arar to contend with.

    Are our Congressmen deaf? Dumb? Blind?

    You want the season's darkest horror movie, read on:

    Maher Arar's account:

    "I am not a terrorist. I am not a member of Al Qaeda and I do not know any one who belongs to this group. All I know about Al Qaeda is what I have seen in the media. I have never been to Afghanistan. I have never been anywhere near Afghanistan and I do not have any desire to ever go to Afghanistan.

    Now, let me tell you who I am.

    I am a Syrian-born Canadian. I moved here with my parents when I was seventeen years old. I went to university and studied hard, and eventually obtained a Masters degree in telecommunications. I met my wife, Monia at McGill University. We fell in love and eventually married in 1994. I knew then that she was special, but I had no idea how special she would turn out to be.

    If it were not for her I believe I would still be in prison...

    They told me that based on classified information that they could not reveal to me, I would be deported to Syria. I said again that I would be tortured there. Then they read part of the document where it explained that INS was not the body that deals with Geneva Convention regarding torture.

    Then they took me outside into a car and drove me to an airport in New Jersey. Then they put me on a small private jet. I was the only person on the plane with them. I was still chained and shackled. We flew first to Washington. A new team of people got on the plane and the others left. I overheard them talking on the phone, saying that Syria was refusing to take me directly, but Jordan would take me.

    Then we flew to Portland, to Rome, and then to Amman, Jordan. All the time I was on the plane I was thinking how to avoid being tortured. I was very scared. We landed in Amman at 3 in the morning local time on October 9th.

    They took me out of plane and there were six or seven Jordanian men waiting for us. They blindfolded and chained me, and put me in a van.

    They made me bend my head down in the back seat. Then, these men started beating me. Every time I tried to talk they beat me. For the first few minutes it was very intense.

    Thirty minutes later we arrived at a building where they took off my blindfold and asked routine questions, before taking me to a cell. It was around 4:30 in the morning on October 9. Later that day, they took my fingerprints, and blindfolded me and put me in a van. I asked where I was going, and they told me I was going back to Montreal.

    About forty-five minutes later, I was put into a different car. These men started beating me again. They made me keep my head down, and it was very uncomfortable, but every time I moved, they beat me again. Over an hour later we arrived at what I think was the border with Syria. I was put in another car and we drove for another three hours.

    I was taken into a building, where some guards went through my bags and took some chocolates I bought in Zurich. I asked one of the people where I was and he told me I was in the Palestine branch of the Syrian military intelligence. It was now about 6 in the evening on October 9.

    If I did not answer quickly enough, he would point to a metal chair in the corner and ask "Do you want me to use this?" I did not know then what that chair was for. I learned later it was used to torture people.

    I was taken into a building, where some guards went through my bags and took some chocolates I bought in Zurich. I asked one of the people where I was and he told me I was in the Palestine branch of the Syrian military intelligence. It was now about 6 in the evening on October 9.

    Three men came and took me into a room. I was very, very scared. They put me on a chair, and one of the men started asking me questions. I later learned this man was a colonel. He asked me about my brothers, and why we had left Syria. I answered all the questions.

    If I did not answer quickly enough, he would point to a metal chair in the corner and ask "Do you want me to use this?" I did not know then what that chair was for. I learned later it was used to torture people.

    I asked him what he wanted to hear. I was terrified, and I did not want to be tortured. I would say anything to avoid torture. This lasted for four hours. There was no violence, only threats this day. At about 1 in the morning, the guards came to take me to my cell downstairs.

    We went into the basement, and they opened a door, and I looked in. I could not believe what I saw. I asked how long I would be kept in this place. He did not answer, but put me in and closed the door. It was like a grave. It had no light. It was three feet wide. It was six feet deep.

    It was seven feet high. It had a metal door, with a small opening in the door, which did not let in light because there was a piece of metal on the outside for sliding things into the cell.

    There was a small opening in the ceiling, about one foot by two feet with iron bars. Over that was another ceiling, so only a little light came through this. There were cats and rats up there, and from time to time the cats peed through the opening into the cell. There were two blankets, two dishes and two bottles. One bottle was for water and the other one was used for urinating during the night. Nothing else. No light.

    I spent ten months, and ten days inside that grave.

    The next day I was taken upstairs again. The beating started that day and was very intense for a week, and then less intense for another week. That second and the third days were the worst. I could hear other prisoners being tortured, and screaming and screaming. Interrogations are carried out in different rooms.

    One tactic they use is to question prisoners for two hours, and then put them in a waiting room, so they can hear the others screaming, and then bring them back to continue the interrogation.

    The cable is a black electrical cable, about two inches thick. They hit me with it everywhere on my body. They mostly aimed for my palms, but sometimes missed and hit my wrists they were sore and red for three weeks. They also struck me on my hips, and lower back. Interrogators constantly threatened me with the metal chair, tire and electric shocks.

    They used the cable on the second and third day, and after that mostly beat me with their hands, hitting me in the stomach and on the back of my neck, and slapping me on the face. Where they hit me with the cables, my skin turned blue for two or three weeks, but there was no bleeding. At the end of the day they told me tomorrow would be worse. So I could not sleep.

    Then on the third day, the interrogation lasted about eighteen hours.

    They beat me from time to time and make me wait in the waiting room for one to two hours before resuming the interrogation. While in the waiting room I heard a lot of people screaming. They wanted me to say I went to Afghanistan. This was a surprise to me. They had not asked about this in the United States.

    They kept beating me so I had to falsely confess and told them I did go to Afghanistan. I was ready to confess to anything if it would stop the torture. They wanted me to say I went to a training camp. I was so scared I urinated on myself twice."

    There's more, much more... but if you're still with me, I'm surprised.

    You won't find that account on TV news, or most new venues.

    CNN is so depleted they're illiciting "I Report" footage from their viewers: the corporate journalism model at its current nadir (reporting is, natch, the hard part).

    Fox News (the contemptable bastards -- it still blows my mind that so many diehard xenophobic American apologists swear by a news corporation owned by an Australian media mogul) are too busy stringing together clips of President Clinton's assertion he tried to kill Osama bin Laden (snipped from his onscreen outrage at the latest round of GOP pass-the-buck-we're-not-responsible bullshit) with Nickelodeon footage of a little girl (acting) horrified at someone saying they killed Santa Claus to counter, for a nanosecond, what we did to Maher Arar and are doubtlessly doing to other innocents.

    Hell, Fox News wants blood, as they have since their inception. Oh, how fucking funny. I almost choked in rage when I caught this clip at the end of Fox News's Tuesday night session after midnight: Clinton killed Santa.

    That's news?

    You caustic fucks.

    Why torture movies?

    Because the American ideal has collapsed, in the eyes of the world and in our own eyes:

    We have been tortured; we are torturers.

    Our government is led by Leatherface's mock-Texan (born in CT) brother, and his chickenhawk appetite for blood -- his craving for terror, the word he so savors, that spills from his lips more than any single other -- is unslakeable.

    The new horror movies provide rehearsals for either scenario:

    This is what it feels like to suffer.

    This is what it feels like to make others suffer.

    This is what it feels like to not survive.

    This is what it feels like to survive.

    This is what it feels like to be consumed by guilt for something I deny, or forgot, I did.

    This is what it feels like to avenge myself on my tormentors.

    This is what it feels like to survive but never confront my tormentor.

    This is what America is feeling, seeing, being, denying.

    This is the level of debate most of our younger voters -- who do not vote -- are finding within their reach.

    Bon Appetit.