Sunday, June 28, 2009

the transformers: the movie (1986)

A story on NPR the other day irked me with its suggestion (apparently endorsed by the current CEO of Hasbro) that the early Transformers and GI Joe cartoons were simply toy commercials, and apparently lame ones at that. Given the profound influence these cartoons had on my cultural development as a child, I took some offense. The contemporary Transformers schlock-films by Bay et al. are more product and advertising than the original 'toons ever dreamed of being. And it truly pains me to have my beloved Autobots & Decepticons treated so poorly by our modern special-effect princes and big-screen storytellers.

Fortunately, there is an alternative. Watch the animated epic, The Transformers: the Movie (1986) and be cured of your Hollywood-induced cynicism. I saw this movie in the theaters with my brother when I was an aging 12-year old and I still consider it my most fond farewell to these legendary icons. The plot is satisfyingly absurd, some of the characters actually die (which never happened in the episodic cartoons), and the majority of the film takes place off Earth, providing a novel backdrop for the storyline.

Broadly speaking, the film was meant to bridge the gap between the 2nd and 3rd seasons of the cartoon - and yes, to introduce some new characters (i.e. "toys") for us to latch onto. The new generation of toys were more futuristic in design, and from my standpoint, less appealing. So, Optimus Prime was replaced by Rodimus Prime (voiced by Judd Nelson) as Autobot commander; Megatron was replaced by Galvatron (voiced spectacularly by Leonard Nimoy).


It is worth pointing out how "cool" the original Megatron toy was to boys of my age-group. Here's a photo:

Pretty hardcore, really. I'm not sure how many parents nowadays would be comfortable with how "realistic" looking this thing is - but that, of course, was the whole point of the Transformers. Megatron was relatively unique in that the object he was imitating was small enough that the toy itself was a replica. You don't run into that problem with Optimus Prime - he's just a rad toy truck. Now that I think about it, this may ultimately explain why they made the move from Megatron to Galvatron, even though the latter's "laser-gun" form was much less interesting to me. Cops mistakenly killing kids touting toy guns is always bad press.

So probably the strongest selling point of the movie for me was the heralded death of Optimus. I always fucking hated that guy. Just a big boyscout, teaching his "lessons" about world peace and being generous and listening to your parents and shit. Watching him eat it in the spectacular battle-scene between him and Megatron confirmed my belief (always confounded by the episodic cartoons) that Megatron was simply tougher and better. A gun beats a truck. It seemed simple to me.

And if that wasn't enough, both Ironhide and Starscream - two of the most obnoxious characters in the series - bite it as well. Ironhide with his disingenuous southern drawl and frank idiocy, Starscream with his weaseling and whining and constant backstabbing. Good riddance.

The larger threat at play in the movie is Unicron: a robotic planet that wanders the galaxy consuming worlds (voiced by Orson Welles, in the last role before his death). So, yeah, he's got a Galactus thing going on and that makes him one bad-ass ripoff.

As a final selling point, we should consider the bizarre Quintessons, the divine watchmakers, the gods of this universe. Imagine that your most profound existential quest leads to the discovery that your creators are psychopathic, multiple-personality disorder freaks with 5 faces who spend their time feeding robot slaves to mechanical sharks. Yeah.

Really, the dweebs who write wikipedia can do a much better job explaining this stuff that I can:

"Twelve million years ago, the alien race known as the Quintessons used the planet of Cybertron as a factory to produce cybernetic lifeforms. Their early experiments in fusing organic and technological components into one being resulted in the creation of the "Trans-Organics," which proved too primitive and unstable, particularly a living energy siphon named "The Dweller", and they were all sealed away in the lowest levels of Cybertron.

Subsequently, the Quintessons turned to pure robotics for their creations, and produced lines of consumer goods and military hardware robots—which would eventually become the lineal ancestors of the Autobots and Decepticons, respectively.[1] Forging their bodies in the Plasma Energy Chamber,[2] the Quintessons programmed their robots with intelligence using Vector Sigma, to allow them to carry out their tasks on their own, thereby leaving the Quintessons to do nothing other than live in leisure. However, what they failed to realize was that their robots had developed true sentience and real feelings — after a million years of slavery, they could now feel and know the difference between it and freedom, and they struck back against their masters. The Quintessons fought back against the rebellion with their Dark Guardian robots, unconcerned and thinking themselves untouchable, but when the Coda-Remote, a device created by the rebel leader, A-3, was used to shut down the Guardians, the robots got the upper hand, eventually forcing the Quintessons to flee Cybertron.[3] They scattered through the galaxy until they became largely forgotten by the Transformers."

With a creation mythology like this, how can someone suggest that the Transformers cartoon was merely a commercial vehicle? Clearly, there is love and depth of process here that belies an actual narrative. Compare, for a moment, to Pokemon, the "media franchise" in which the cartoons, I would argue, primarily served as a means of driving product sales and secondarily served as entertainment.

The Transformers Movie
has so much going for it, I can even overlook the lameness of our one human protagonist, Daniel (son of Spike, who's homoerotic relationship with Bumblebee in the cartoon series still gives me the willies). In general, the lack of human involvement in the plot is a refreshing release from the hominid-centrism that is characteristic of so much sci-fi fantasy. It also suggests that the Transformers of old had enough character that they didn't need Megan Fox to bring in an audience.

Finally: you must watch this YouTube parody featuring my favorite Transformers character, Soundwave. It summarily encapsulates all that I feel about this whole modern-day Transformers debacle...

"Beth: eject. Operation: shut the fuck up." Fucking brilliant.

The reference to "The Touch" is from The Movie's original anachronistic, butt-rock soundtrack which, I should mention, also contained Weird Al's "Dare to be Stupid":

1. "The Touch" (Performed by Stan Bush)
2. "Instruments of Destruction" (Performed by N.R.G.)
3. "The Death of Optimus Prime" (Performed by Vince DiCola)
4. "Dare" (Performed by Stan Bush)
5. "Nothin’s Gonna Stand in Our Way" (Performed by Spectre General)
6. "The Transformers (Theme)" (Performed by Lion)
7. "Escape" (Performed by Vince DiCola)
8. "Hunger" (Performed By Spectre General)
9. "Autobot/Decepticon Battle" (Performed by Vince DiCola)
10. "Dare To Be Stupid" (Performed by "Weird Al" Yankovic)

Sunday, June 21, 2009


As I do every summer, I am working my way deeper into the Gene Wolfe oeuvre and having just finished Castleview (1990), I felt motivated to offer some thoughts. Like his other works, Castleview offers both a thoroughly compelling and frustrating first read. Mysterious events abound, and many are left unexplained but for random clues, vague connections, and hunches. Mixed mythologies are front and center; this time, as in The Wizard Knight, the story is infused with icons and characters from both Arthurian romance and Norse legend. Vampires, trolls, and a werewolf make appearances, and under some readers' interpretation, an alien as well.

Unlike The Wizard Knight which is set predominantly in a fantasy world, Castleview is seated firmly on our own terra, within a small upstate Illinois town so named because many of the residents have seen (or hallucinated) towers of a ghostly Medieval castle on the distant horizon. Within a few chapters, it becomes clear that Castleview is a ley line, a place where the boundary between human imagination and postmodern reality is relatively weak. Nowhere is this more clearly exemplified than in the character G. Gordon Kitty, a walking, talking Puss 'n Boots who has been made real, at least in part, through the imagination of small child, Judy (who apparently has decided that her cat is both an FBI and CIA agent). In general, Wolfe uses Castleview to play around with the relationships that we humans have with our cultural mythologies in an era when ritual and myth and symbol are judged to be as fundamentally meaningless as dreams or childhood fairytales. I should also say that this was the most frightening of Wolfe's novels I have read (with, perhaps, In Green's Jungles exempted), and at times it read like the very best of bump-in-the-night horror mysteries.

Ultimately, two mythological threads weave through the text. First, there is seasonal cycle of rebirth. This crystallizes only in the final chapters. The Green Man, who also appears as Odin upon Sleipnir, is ritually beheaded by the aged King Geimhreadh and soon, snow falls in upstate Illinois. Just prior to his sacrifice, the "green-cloaked giant" says, "Strike me, as in time I shall smite you." This heralds the slaying of the frost giant Ymir by Odin, symbolically representing the the death of winter and the eventual return of spring.

(Odin upon 8-legged Sleipnir)

But this ritual of seasonal renewal forms only a superficial layer of mythology upon which Castleview rests. Just prior to his sacrifice, Odin rides the Wild Hunt through Castleview, perhaps in an attempt to drive the undead inhabitants of the town into Hel. More importantly, the Wild Hunt foretells apocryphal events, like war or plague. We know that something larger and more meaningful is brewing.

(the Wild Hunt)

More important is the battle between the forces of Viviane Morgan/Dr. Rex von Madadh/et al. and the good midwesterners of Castleview. Viviane Morgan, who primarily seems to channel Morgan le Fay leads the fey in malicious pursuit of King Arthur's descendants. Something hangs in the balance. They focus their villainous efforts, at first, upon "Wrangler" Arthur Dunstan who they believe carries the blood of the king and may be his modern reincarnation (recall that Arthur is borne away to Avalon where he may heal and possibly rise again when needed, as many mythological heroes and kings tend to do). Lucie, one of the young women at Meadow Grass camp (and a pseudo-vampire), drinks a great deal of his blood, and Morgan enchants Hwan Lee to attempt an assassination while Wrangler recovers at the hospital.

Wolfe, in discussing Castleview, has joked that all of us are Arthur's descendants - and so perhaps the fey are embarking upon a futile endeavor:

"Okay, if there really was an Arthur and there was because he is mentioned in ancient chronicles and he left a number of descendants, which is at least plausible, then we are probably all descended from Arthur. And what Morgan LaFay is looking for is a descendant who is a satisfactory Arthur figure for her. But not only is Wrangler descended from Arthur, and Will Shield is descended from Arthur but Bob Roberts is descended from Arthur and Ann Findler is descended from Arthur because we all are we all derive from this." (GW)

Perhaps Morgan is seeking an Arthur figure for the same reason that Green Man must be sacrificed to Winter: Arthur is part of a mythological cycle that maintains a heavenly order and, to some degree, prevents Armageddon from occurring. Without a ritual sacrifice of Arthur every few generations, perhaps the land of fairy itself (and its Queen, Morgan) will disappear forever into the mists of fantasy.

Regardless, in the climatic final battle between "good" and "evil," William Shields steps forth (instead of the injured Wrangler) to battle the fey champion and possible werewolf, Rex von Madadh. Like Arthur at the Battle of Camlann, Shields falls. Von Madadh's voice rings out: "The king is dead! The king is dead - and the world lives! The end is not yet!" At first, I imagined him a Fenris, howling in despair that the Ragnarok had not come. But the more I think about it, the more I believe that Arthur's/Shield's death is ritual, necessary, cyclical, and Von Madadh's voice echoes with victory and joy.

In the closing epilogue, we see Shields being taken away to Avalon under the watchful eye of his sister. It is a surprisingly satisfying ending, given the rapidity of the climax and the aura of failure that hovers over the final battle.

(Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon, by Burne-Jones)

Yet, because this is Wolfe, so many questions and loose ends remain:
  1. Who or what is Liam Fee, and why is he so fixated on buying the Howard home? He only enters the house following an invitation, has a tendency to break mirrors, can dissipate into smoke, and at one point seems to be drunk on blood. Ergo, vampire. However, when he confronts Lee in his prison cell and Lee kicks his ass, he appears as a 3-eyed monster or alien. Various mentions in the text of Excalibur being formed of meteoritic stone from another world suggest a sci-fi intrusion to the plot. Wolfe does have a fancy for alien technology and influence, as can be seen in his other works. Indeed, alien vampires (the inhumi) figure prominently in his Book of the Short Sun series.
  2. What is the small brown leather book that rests under Excalibur when Judy pulls it from the cabinet? Merc picks it up and Wolfe never mentions it again.
  3. Who is the group of troublemakers that lurk in the background of the text (and kidnap Bob Roberts) but never make a formal appearance? Are they simply trolls and fairies, followers of Morgan? Are they aliens from Minnesota?
  4. What exactly is Jim Long (Long Jim)? A zombie?
And so on. If previous experience with Wolfe proves a useful guide, much will be gained from a second reading. As always, highly recommended if you have the patience and diligence to ponder and research while reading. Many thanks to various contributors of the Wolfe reader archives for providing ideas, clarifications, and explanations for many plot points.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

teri's pollock

Aili and I watched the documentary Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock? (2006) last night and were intrigued enough to seek follow-up information. Briefly: 73-year old eccentric & former long-haul trucker Teri Horton buys a painting for $5 at a local thrift store. It is, ostensibly, ugly and she buys it primarily as a joke to cheer a friend up. Later, when trying to re-sell it in a garage sale, an art teacher informs her that it might well be a Jackson Pollock. She embarks on a mission to authenticate and sell the piece for what she believes is its true worth (something around 50 million dollars). Given that there is no signature on the painting and no provenance, the art-world is decidedly unimpressed. Here is the piece:

For general comparison sake, here is a genuine Pollack:

Side note: in my younger years, I used to find Pollocks as ugly as Teri Horton does, and as pretentious as Mondrian. I think that I now actually like these things. At least for museum walls - nothing I'd want hanging over my bed.

I won't relate the entirety of the docu-drama but will say that the saga continues to this day. Horton has apparently turned down offers of 2 and 9 million dollars, feeling insulted by them. Last winter, her piece was, for the first time, exhibited at a Toronto gallery which accepted its unusual authenticity:

They also placed it on sale for $50 million. Thomas Hoving, a self-declared "effete, nose-in-the-air art expert" (who makes an unforgettable appearance in the documentary) has argued repeatedly that the painting is not genuine for the following reasons:

"* It is too neat and too sweet, using soigné colors that Pollock never used.
* Some lines are perfectly straight. It’s hard to drip straight lines.
* The canvas is commercially sized, which means that paint does not come through the back of the canvas. All real Pollocks are unsized and his paint patterns can easily be seen from the back.
* The thing is painted with acrylics. Pollock never used acrylics."

You can read more of his response to the painting being exhibited here. Overall, I have to admit to being less than convinced myself, mostly due to the clear scientific bias that has gone into "proving" the piece is a Pollock. The individuals involved, in particular the forensic expert Paul Biro, seem determined to find evidence that establishes the authenticity of the painting. It certainly seems possible that the painting is a masterly "look-alike," perhaps even generated by this man, Francis Brown:

Ultimately, of course, the painting is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it. And in this case, if you're a fan of wealth-redistribution, you can certainly root for Ms. Horton.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009