Thursday, June 14, 2007

Thursday Lull:
This and That, Comics, Books, and Hostel: Part II

Well, as I wait for some of the ongoing CCS interviews to reach completion -- hey, guys and gals, get me your answers ASAP! -- and work on my own last couple of comics project for MoCCA debut projects, I'll take advantage of this Thursday AM lull in interview action to do a little morning catching up on odds and ends.

"Not a dream! Not an imaginary story!"
  • Rick Veitch sent me this link to Army's online review of Rick's new Vertigo series, Army@Love, which is well worth a read.

  • The comic and the review, I mean, are worth a read.

    This is some of Rick's most pointed satire to date, and oddly non-partisan in its ravaging of every aspect of the new face of 21st Century warfare. Who'da thunk it -- Rick Veitch as the Terry Southern of 21st Century mainstream comics?

    The Army Times piece is especially worth a look for having interviewed Joe Kubert, too, and getting his reaction to Rick's latest opus. Check it out!

    I've been talking with the CCS grads/seniors/artists in the Myrant interviews about their perceptions of the potential future (and their futures) in comics, and coincidentally
  • Alan David Doane just posted his own musings on the topic, here.
  • I'll add, though, that like broadband internet, the sad fact of the matter is that most rural pockets simply aren't being served -- that is, there are no comics shops or venues offering comics in any reasonable driving distance.

    When I was a kid, every small town had someplace in biking distance to buy comics off a spinner rack, usually in some quantity. Drug Stores had 'em, Mom and Pop grocery stores had 'em, and even a boy in backwoods Duxbury, VT could find comics in Vincent's Pharmacy across the Winooski River in Waterbury (a 20-minute bike ride) or in the village markets in Moretown, Middlesex or Waitesfield.

    Today, Border's or some other chain book store in a nearby mall may be the only access to anything, save for the Archie Digest(s) and Disney Adventures (also digest format) sold at the supermarket impulse-buy checkout counter racks. This means there are precious few entry-level comics for young readers; thankfully, libraries are aggressively racking graphic novels; sadly, more and more communities are ceasing funding of libraries, and we're seeing some surprising local community libraries scaling back their purchases, their weekly schedules (open fewer and shorter hours), and moving toward closing their doors once and for all. This will cut off many young readers from entry-level graphic novels and, of course, reading, period -- another sad sign of the times.

    Anyhoot, read Alan's post, and weigh in with your opinion there; the CCSers and I will continue to air our views here via the interview series.

    Another oddly timely sharing of info from Mirage Studios amigo Mike Dooney arrived this week, strangely attuned to both the memories I've just shared of '50s/'60s/'early '70s comics availability and, coincidentally, my ongoing work on the second part of my Star-Spangled War Stories "War That Time Forgot" reveries and my N-Man and Fury pet projects.

    Mike sent me links to two sites that "allow you to see what comics were on the stands in a given week in the '60's etc." -- Wow, thanks, Mike, these sites are big fun!

  • Here's the DC cover site, and

  • here's the Marvel comics site!

  • Enjoy, and thanks, Mike.

    Another odd coincidence this week is my reading US Army Specialist Tony Lagouranis's harrowing account of his own experiences as an Iraq War interrogator, Fear Up Harsh (just out in bookstores everywhere) and catching a matinee of Eli Roth's Hostel: Part II (2007) this week. This isn't "pleasant" reading or viewing, but essential, each in their own way.

    I'm sure some will object to my placing these two works side-by-side in this manner, but as noted numerous times here, I see obvious and timely parallels in our current political and military policies and the new wave of 'strap 'em to a chair/confined horror' films, and these are the two most prominent incarnations of the literature and cinematic streams of the genre.

    I'm only half-way through Lagouranis's book, co-authored by Allen Mikaelian, but it's heartfelt and heartbreaking stuff, to say the least. Like many who have come home from serving in Iraq, and particularly those implementing the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld torture-by-another-name interrogation of often-innocent Iraq citizens, Lagouranis is speaking out about his extreme misgivings about this reprehensible new age of US military occupation sans Geneva Convention restraints. Unlike other pundits, articles and books on the subject, Lagouranis's views are rooted firmly in first-person experience, making this absolutely essential reading where ever you currently seat yourself on this controversial issue.

    If you can't access the book or can't be bothered to read it,
  • Lagouranis's interview last week on The Diane Rehm Show is absolutely essential listening (Susan Page is the interviewer, filling in for Rehm), in part for the confrontational nature of some of the exchanges with skeptical and/or outraged listeners that may answer some of your concerns or questions, too.

  • If you can't be bothered with either, and still somehow support and/or stomach this US policy as "justified," you're hopeless.

    Sadly, more Americans -- particularly those more likely to end up serving in Iraq and/or Afghanistan than their older compatriots less likely to serve -- vicariously toyed with these hot-button issues (to torture or not to torture?) this week via the wide theatrical opening of Eli Roth's Hostel: Part II.

    In the best of all worlds, these increasingly pressing real-world issues would be hotly debated in public venues all Americans would be tuned in to, and books like Fear Up Harsh would be reaching more voting citizens than Hostel: Part II, but that's la-la land, folks.

    Let's face facts. Television and movies reach far, far more eyes and ears than books ever will in 2007, and Hostel: Part II will no doubt comprise the deepest thinking on torture most Americans will ever give the subject. So, I'll engage with my thoughts on the film in that context, folks.

    More disturbing than anything in Hostel: Part II is the complacent indifference the film has been greeted with. The TV and radio spots and promo have been omnipresent, and it was surprising to hear an NPR radio program adopt Chas Balun's term 'gornography' (which Chas coined to sum up his personal revulsion for Aftermath when he was a guest at Montreal's FantAsia Fest in the '90s) in reference to Hostel: Part II. Even the outrage has reflected a sad overload mentality, from
  • those villifying the movie -- "You live in a free country, you put up with crud like Hostel Part II", writes Michael Phillips in The Chicago Tribune (here's the best online link to sample the yays and the nays, including Phillips's review) -- and
  • easily bored gorehounds who blithely note, "All in all I thought that Hostel 2 was sort of a 'meh' film" and "At least with the Saw movies there was a purpose for the torture."

  • Huh. Well, that's not the movie I saw.

    First, I'll talk about this movie as a movie, period, and on its own terms.

    Hostel: Part II is easily the best of Roth's films, manifesting a maturation of writing and directorial skills that were barely suggested by the earnest crudities of Cabin Fever. Roth is still willfully fusing intelligence and pop cultural debris -- the calling card of his dog pack, as Grindhouse lovingly demonstrated -- wearing his trash chic (copyright G. Michael Dobbs!) credentials on his sleeve without derailing the narrative thrust or drive of this, his tightest and best-crafted script. Roth succinctly ties up the loose ends of the original Hostel in an opener most reminiscent of Friday the 13th: Part 2 (1981) -- there's crap movie street cred for ya, bunkie -- before jumping into an equally succinct and effective expansion of all that Hostel implied.

    Unlike the ballyhoo for the notorious Snuff ("Made in South America -- Where Life is Cheap!"), life isn't cheap in Hostel: Part II -- it's in fact tres expensive, as we quickly see when the smarmy young desk manager scans the passports of our trio of American female tourist (Roth inverting the gender issues of Hostel), setting off an international online bidding war for the option to execute. In about three minutes of screentime, Roth crosscuts between a global sampler of business elite and aristocracies, bidding on their laptops, cell phones and text messagers while at/in their respective desks, meetings, lunches, family outings, pools and golf courses.

    This is deft, creepy, cruel and funny stuff, the first American cinematic fruition of all that Ellis delineated in his then-scandalous novel American Psycho. The rich yuppies of the '80s were only the tip of the iceberg. Moneyed sociopaths rule, and it's Hostel: Part II's effortless shorthand cartography of class warfare as a covert dungeon-room conflation of instant-connection 21st Century global economies and medieval European aristocratic abuses of power that sets Roth's sites higher than any of this subgenre to date.

    's cinematic chops are up to the challenge his own conceit presents. Hostel: Part II evokes The Most Dangerous Game (the venerable wellspring of this entire genre, quite explicitly referenced when the heroine stumbles into the hidden lair -- the headquarters -- of the implacable overseer of the conspiratorial network of youth hostels and subterranean torture chambers) and a range of now-celebrated European genre permutations, from '60s German-made medieval horrors (e.g., Tomb of Torture, etc.), Jess Franco (specifically La Comtesse Perverse) and gialli (note Edwige Fenech's role here as an art teacher, though the narrative echoes a few giallo, specifically Perfume of the Lady in Black) to far more aggressive '80s Euro-trash fare (none other than Ruggero Deodato, director of Cannibal Holocaust, cameos as "Italian cannibal," dining on one of the actors from the last Harry Potter film!). The very first onscreen atrocity recreates Elizabeth Bathory's historic literal bloodbaths, tapping (pun intended) the most ancient of predatory aristocratic abuses -- vampirism, both genuine (Bathory) or metaphoric (Stoker's Dracula), has always been the most pervasive of all 'rich cannibalizing the poor' horror tales. Roth gets that out of the way quickly (in a grueling setpiece) to get to deeper, rawer nerves.

    In an underground economy where money trumps all -- even life -- the macho craving for obscene masculine 'rites of passage' (to increase one's personal power in corporate office arenas) is presented as the explicit motive for the two American businessmen buying Hostel's favors. This sociopathology may meet its match when it's a rich heiress tied to the hot seat. That's it, in a nutshell, and that's enough for an effective horror story. This truly is nightmare turf, for plankton-level peasants like ourselves and aspiring plutocratic whales alike, and kudos to Roth for upping the conceptual ante along with the gore quotient.

    Hostel: Part II isn't art -- in that context, it's unlikely any filmmaker will ever match or top Pasolini's Salo in this reviled genre that by its very nature ghettoizes itself -- but it's a strong piece of work. Roth's script and direction are lean, mean and effective, his writing skills are head-and-shoulders above those demonstrated in his first two films, and the cast is uniformly solid and engaging. The location filming (in Prague and Iceland) enhances the story and experience considerably, and Hostel: Part II is the best of its ilk.

    That's still likely to keep most of you away from the film; it fascinates me how many passionate practitioners of the genre still belittle and dismiss these films with a contemptuous turn of the lip or wave of the hand, as if "these kinds of films" were beneath them, sight unseen. I don't know, it's the same old shit -- just because the title The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is calculated to upset or offend, or George Romero's zombies seem silly out of context, doesn't mean there isn't much more, and something of real value, going on in "these kinds of films." I'm sick of the haughty contempt other artists -- including my friends! -- show for "these kinds of films," while they expect others to take their work seriously. (When I got into the topic of the current horror films briefly with Rick V during a chat, his eyes glazed and that "poor, sad Bissette" look came over his face (familiar since the Dawn of the Dead conversation, circa 1978) -- well, Rick, you've got Army@Love, Roth has Hostel: Part II. You're both aiming at the same underbellies, amigo. Ah, well, Rick always hated horror movies, anyway, particularly the ones with the most aggressive exploitation elements.)

    "These kinds of films" are about something other than simply reveling in the spectacle of pain. They're actually quite complex in the moral issues and emotions they tap, explore (and, yes, exploit). With Hostel: Part II, Roth realizes, with unflinching clarity, a potent parable concerning the pathologies and hidden economies which manifest the ravages of NAFTA/European Union global corporate era plutocracies and the bottom-dollar cash uber alle shared cultures.

    And by 'hidden economies,' I'm not referring to the underground snuff-chambers Roth mythologizes -- no, I'm referring to the film's most politically barbed subplot and most truthful aspect: the two American businessmen who bid, win and wind themselves up for the torture fest they crave. One is as macho as Rudy Giuliani (whom he resembles) in his 'bring it on' swagger and bluster, the other reluctantly involved. The dialogue these two wanna-be-American Psychos share during their morning jog before their day in the chambers is the black heart of the film; it may have run false a month ago, but after hearing the macho, compassionless posturing of the Republican debates in May and early June, it rings absolutely true. How their two stories play out, how their characters meet their respective fates, is the meat of this movie.

    It ain't pretty, but it speaks volumes about the male fantasies that have launched us, as a nation, into interminable war, and what promises to keep us there. It also speaks volumes about the human capacity for objectification, projection, demonizing and scape-goating, and the need many have for victims to objectify, project upon, demonize and destroy -- the be-all and end-all of our current foreign policies.

    It's also the closest most American teenage and twenty-something viewers are going to get to the grim realities of Tony Lagouranis's Fear Up Harsh, a book most Americans will knee-jerk avoid, dismiss and/or revile without reading it.

    Please note, I'm not celebrating this sick function of the pop culture, just acknowledging the reality, and identifying how it functions.

    I don't mean to lionize Roth, either -- I don't know him, but as the first horror movie director to make it into The New York Times 'Style' section (writing about his antics in the Manhattan club scene post-Hostel), Roth is indeed of a new breed, and he comes across as as an egotistical brat at times, but hey, what do I know. He's making horror movies that are honest in their way and he's getting better with every movie, so I'm on board for the duration. Bring 'em on, Eli. In the age of sick powerbrokers like Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and Gonzales redirecting American military operations into squalid cement dungeons in remote corners of the globe to exercise their respective power fantasies rendered flesh, directed toward innocents as well as the terrorists they target, if Eli Roth's brand of pop meditation on the issues is all we get, I'll embrace it.

    It is some form of deterrent, some counter to Fox News's cheering on of the destructive Bush doctrines and status quo (ya, I know, O'Reilly et al have finally become more critical of late, but they actively campaigend for and promoted these policies, this war). It's at least offering some snapshot of what it feels like when someone (even wealthy American tourists) are 'rendered' (read: kidnapped) to awaken imprisoned, stripped of their rights, dignity and reduced to pointless interrogation fodder (in these films, the only point of the 'interrogation' is the primal power of victimizer over victim, the basest dynamic at work in any such scenario) -- and mind you, the Hostel films do locate the audience sympathies with the victims, not the perpetrators (it's the Saw franchise that vicariously engages with the more complex victim/victimizer issues).

    To paraphrase one of the key architects of the current American clusterfuck, "We'll work with the pop culture army we have, not the one we'd wish for" -- until we can, ourselves, manifest a better one (I did my best & my part to do so in the '80s and '90s, folks).

    Fear Up Harsh is the more legitimate, essential, necessary experience, but it's not going to reach many people. But what would a mass-market film that "legitimately" engaged with these volatile issues look like, and who would go see it? We have plenty of pro-torture media (24) and revenge fantasies (pick your recent action movie hit of choice); anti-torture movies are mighty hard to come by. What fictionalized equivalent of Fear Up Harsh would, or could, exist? What studio would finance it, what theater would show it?

    The reality is this: Films like Saw and Hostel, in all their incarnations, are being financed by the studios and distributed to thousands of theaters because their genre structures overly depoliticize the content -- if the 'extraordinary renditions' of both of Roth's Hostel films were linked to the interminable-by-definition 'War on Terror', these films would not exist; if they existed, they would not be seen. Period.

    How many of you saw, or even wanted to see, Gitmo: The New Rules of War, The Road to Guantanamo, The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib or Death in Gaza? No more than saw Winter Soldier and Sir! No Sir! (the two best and most accesible documentaries on the Vietnam War soldiers-against-the-war movement), I'm willing to bet. Go ahead, try to find any of those films for rent in your local DVD store -- even if you have no intention of seeing them, see if you can find them to view. But you'll find every installment of Saw, along with Wolf Creek, Hostel, etc. This is not a passive dynamic at work; for you free-market advocates, this is the so-called free market quite actively at work (as if the myth of 'free market' is even sustainable in the most addled of minds when only six major studios call the shots in American movie theaters). The new studio in town, Lions Gate, has built its entire empire on "these films"!

  • Hell, for just daring to review one of the films I've just cited, The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib -- scroll down to his June 5th post -- and give it a positive review, Mike Dobbs is taking heat (see his June 11th post, and comments).
  • Too many Americans don't just tune out, they either don't want to acknowledge the realities, or increasingly refuse to tolerate any objection to these horrendous abuses. However you shake the latter stance, it's still pro-torture (see the comments on Mike's June 11th post for the sorry and all-too-familiar rationale). But Americans tolerate horror movies -- they're fantasies, after all, however brutal they may be -- so, Hostel: Part II reaches the masses.

    Hostel: Part II has already reached a lot of people, and more every day -- and it is better than no mediation on the issues. It's 93 somber minutes more than most teenagers, adults and TV shows give to the issues, and it's a hell of a lot more honest than anything Rush Limbaugh (remember his "our boys just letting off a little steam" comment about Abu Ghraib?), Bill O'Reilly, Rice or Rumsfeld or Cheney or that miserable fuckwad Gonzales have said on the matter.

    It's a sad, sorry, worse-than-tragic state of affairs, but it's also a very American state of affairs, given the same pop culture dynamic that was at work and play in the late '60s and early '70s during Vietnam and Nixon's reign.

    Given the grim realities of Bush Administration policies as a context for the macho strutting and crowing at the core of Hostel: Part II, Roth distills it to its primal essence. Thankfully, he's a sharp enough writer this time around to play his narrative trump cards with candor and finesse (even if that 'finesse' does include the most graphic onscreen castration since Make Them Die Slowly and Emanuelle in America, and the most graphic ever in mainstream American cinema; in narrative and metaphoric terms, though, that onscreen castration is central).

    We're an utterly numb nation, and the old arguments about the fantasy pop culture's plethora of violence being responsible for desensitizing the populace simply can't hold water any longer in the face of reality. The horrors of Hostel: Part II, horrific though they may be, are as paled by reality as the Universal horror films of the 1940s were in the wake of the revelations of the Death Camps and the bombing of Hiroshima.

    Choose your poison: the GOPs stonewalling of any censure of Gonzales; the brutalizing rhetoric of the Republican debates; the most recent court refute of the Administration's ongoing maladroit prosecution of Guantanamo prisoners; General Colin Powell's public statements against both Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib; the Italian legal prosecution (and attempted prosecutions) of a CIA-managed 'extraordinary rendition' operation which subverted more efficient international police operations targeting terrorist suspects; the list is interminable, and that's only this and last week's news!

    It's all evidence of a proud, arrogant plutocratic culture gone pathologically insane, lacking even minimal human compassion while boasting, bragging and strutting its stuff as the most willfully "Christian" of all nations.

    Hostel: Part II isn't the problem. Hostel: Part II isn't just the kind of movies we deserve; it's a kind of movie we, oddly enough, need.

    Have a great Thursday, one and all...

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