Friday, May 21, 2021

#MonstrousMayChallenge 20: The Monster In History

The Monster in History

I swear I want to write about actual “monster” monsters, but politics as a playground of ghouls and fiends tends to dominate my headspace. Maybe that’s one of the greatest fears to be realized by the election of Joe Biden: people will stop paying attention. That was even one of the primary public reactions. Trump is no longer president so we can start ignoring the presidency again. Isn’t it nice how “boring” he is?

For all the foot-stamping outrage over “cancel culture,” over “our history being erased,” the real erasure is of those very horrors when they’re part of living memory. People spoke longingly of the genocidal Bush II regime during the Trump regime and complained that Trump wasn’t like the good Republican presidents that had come before. Why couldn’t he be more like Reagan, that half-talented, sub-literate, television presenter who publicly mourned the deaths of Nazi soldiers and allowed a pandemic to run unchecked? Oh, and remember the glory of Reagan colluding with a foreign power during the run-up to his first election in an effort to undermine his opponent? Nothing like Trump.

Maybe it’s not the figures of history, of even history itself, that are the monsters, but the process of historicization itself, the transformation of the present into “history.” Our public reappraisals of the founders like Jefferson or creators like Lovecraft seem less about judging people from the past through a contemporary lens and more about the paucity of contemporary spaces where this kind of criticism is permitted. To put it another way, the past is a safe space to direct criticism because it absolves all of us in the present from responsibility.

Yes, obligatory Santayana invocation, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but I’m talking about something a little different.

Let’s look at W as an example. He was appointed president after arranging for a paid mob to attack ballot-counting locations in Florida. Trump tried the same thing, but was stymied by COVID restrictions, having to target multiple states, and, in Philadelphia, by people occupying the streets in response to the Philadelphia Police Department murdering a man in front of his mother. Because of the police’s rioting and paranoia about people potentially telling them, “no,” they prevented any of the GOP’s paid rioters from coming in and stopping the vote count. Philly finished the count which gave PA, and thus the presidency, to Biden.

But those connections were never mentioned—that “Stop the Steal” was a managed operation that had been done by the GOP before and that what protected the ballot counters was the Black Lives Matter/Defund the Police movement. Erasing those parts changes the story. “Stop the Steal” is no longer an action the Democrats should have anticipated and prepared for (and should anticipate happening again), it was a couple of sore losers deluded by Trump—a man who is no longer a concern since he lost the election. Also, Black Lives Matter/Defund the Police didn’t save the election for the Democrats, instead it became the reason the party didn’t do as well as they could have.

When we forget the history of five minutes ago, we’re not doing it for the sake of moving forward. The rehabilitation of W is about absolving all those presently in power of their complicity, both in letting it happen the first time and in letting it happen again. The monster of history is not history itself, but the way “history” is divorced from our sense of the present precisely because it is the past. Therefore it is not something we can respond to, resist, or protect ourselves from. Which means it’s not our fault when it all happens again. Because who could have seen it coming? After all, history is not “now” and not our present concern.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

#MonstrousMayChallenge 13: The Domesticated Monster

The Domesticated Monster

“The domesticated monster” sends me immediately to “My Pet Monster,” the blue stuffed toy that wore bright orange manacles. If you pulled its arms apart, it would break the chain. The manacles came off so you could wear them as well, and it feels like the obvious joke is to say it was a gateway to light BDSM for a generation of children when the appeal clearly was the power fantasy, having the ability to break something without getting in trouble.

The toy came out in 1986 which means it was prevalent and popular in 1987, a year I keep returning to. I’d had an idea for a story set in the 80’s about a group of Tipper Gore-ish mothers accidentally summoning the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse and, as Illuminatus puts it, “immanentizing the eschaton.” It comes down to their kids and other children this group of moms has bullied to summon the devil and try to save the world.

When I started doing research and thinking about the story more, it immediately led me down the path of the Satanic Panic, the PMRC, and everything else. I started looking more and more at the year 1987. I think deciding to move to Korea pointed me in that direction.

Anyway, I’m getting way from monsters, or so it seems. Although I wasn’t seeing it mentioned in any of my readings about the Satanic Panic, one of the underlying fears was a gender panic—ambiguous masculinity married to unbridled sexuality. It’s not an accident that what set Tipper Gore off was Prince: a figure of ambiguous masculinity who is unabashedly sexual… and Black! While the censorious actions of Gore and the PMRC started as a response to the counterculture rock of metal and punk, they didn’t ascend to the height of their power until they targeted “gansta rap.” Racism is where it started and racism is where it ended.

I was interested in that idea of the Satanic Panic being a reactionary movement against queerness though. You even had a cottage industry of “boot camps” promising to “de-punk and de-metal” your children, and what is that if not proto-conversion therapy? And this is happening during the rise of the AIDS pandemic, something the fascist Reagan administration allowed to run unchecked, calling it a “gay plague.” 1987, by the way, was the year of the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights—aka “The Great March”—which was the site of the first major action by ACT-UP.

1987 was also the year of the campaigns for the 1988 presidential primaries. Bush was gunning for the Republican nomination but was being stymied by his involvement in the Iran-Contra Affair. The Democrats were pushing for Dukakis, but he was facing a real challenge from party outsider Rev. Jesse Jackson (who was running on a platform to the left of Sanders’ 2020 campaign). Meanwhile, Korea was preparing to host the 1988 Olympics which pro-democracy activists used as an opportunity to force the military dictatorship to finally allow promised democratic elections. The government was using the Olympics as a way of showing how stable and advanced the country had become and so couldn’t use its typical tools of violence to silence dissent this time.

To put it simply, 1987 felt like a tipping point for hope, a moment where real change was possible, where the monsters would be defeated.

We know how that went: Dukakis went full-bore against Jackson and then didn’t campaign against Bush, the pandemic was allowed to run unchecked and used to justify further discrimination against its victims, and in Korea, elections were finally held with the winner being the man the dictator had already tapped as his successor. Just like with My Pet Monster, we could break our chains, but only the ones made to be broken so that we wouldn’t break anything else.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Busan Midnight Movie: Fog Island (5/15/21)

A mystery is consuming the island of the Busan Midnight Movie so we’re journeying to another island full of mystery: Fog Island! Who are the heroes of this tale? What revenge is being plotting by the visitors’ host? And upon whom will that fate befall?

After doing March of the Monsters and drug films all through April, I was looking to get away from themes and just post random movies again. However, I also decided to stop doing Busan Midnight Movie. It’s a curious amount of work for very little output (usually about 3-4 minutes of content outside the movie and serial) and I’m indifferent to most of it. The things I enjoy most are repurposing/recontextualizing the media I’m featuring (a la “Last Time” and the sundry promos) or showcasing some really gonzo flick that even I hadn’t been aware of before. Plus I feel like my host segments, in general, aren’t that interesting or funny.

The latter is a consequence of doing the show every week. I have a fulltime job and want to do things other than this silly YouTube show (like cook, take Korean classes, and watch other movies), but all my time was being taken up by the Busan Midnight Movie. On top of that, because I’d imposed such a quick turnaround time on myself, I couldn’t do the work of pre-screening lots of films and picking things that really stood out. War God felt like a bit of a peak in that respect: a truly gonzo feature that I reused to cut into a music video. If I wanted to have fun like that, I’d have to change something

So it was sometime during March or April where I decided I wanted to stop doing the show the way I was doing it and wrap up, let’s say, season 1. I grabbed a lot of movies that seemed potentially interesting from the Archive and uploaded them all to YouTube to see what garnered a copyright claim.

All of this is a long story that probably would have been spread out over several production notes if I’d been updating these posts about the show regularly.

Fog Island and The Ninth Guest (which I mention in the episode) didn’t trigger any claims so I watched them both. Initially I was going to do the episode on The Ninth Guest because it seemed vaguely overwrought, the plot didn’t make sense, and it had very clear echoes of Saw and Clue. Also, the initial copy of Fog Island I opened had been encoded for the iPod and so was formatted for a very small screen.

However, when I found a different copy of Fog Island and watched that, I saw that this was at once a very similar film that was also more fun. It had vim, it had recognizable actors, and it had a sense of knowing what it was about and rushing straight to it. Also, and I didn’t mention this in the episode, it stars George Zucco who was a memorable face from a lot of the films I initially watched for the PD Project. I feel like there’s a nice symmetry in finding a movie starring one of the main figures of the project I originally started to provide more access for movies to be used in midnight movie shows.

As for the movie itself, as I said, I think it’s pretty fun. The characters are all distinct enough and there is a question of how things will shake out in the end. I like the trope of an isolated mansion on an island that’s full of secret passages and panels, plus it has a really brutal death scene at the end. Nothing explicit is shown (and I’m probably overselling it by describing it this way), but the idea of what is happening, that you know the characters are bound to their fate, and that it will take them a while to die honestly freaked me out a bit.

Plus the movie is “good-bad” in a way that’s solid. The putative love interest doesn’t learn how to act or deliver his lines until 2/3’s-3/4’s of the way through the film and the whole thing is highly riffable. Honestly, this is something it has in common with The Ninth Guest which has more of an air of self-seriousness as well as silences that are begging for audience contributions

Wrap Up:

The Good: Strikes the right notes. Everyone in the movie (save one) knows what the work is and gives you the kind of movie you want it to be. As for the exception, he’s so bad as to be hilarious which makes the experience even more joyful. It’s quick, straightforward, and fun.

The Bad: The print. I wish I had access to a sharper print. There are sequences where characters are walking through caverns and secret passages, but they’re so dim and muddy that you can’t wholly tell who’s doing what where. Granted, these are incidental moments, but as a general rule, I always wish for things that make literally watching the film easier.

Production note: I mentioned uploading movies to see what garnered a copyright claim and some of the flicks that did were Korean animations produced by Joseph Lai (he’s the producer responsible for Godfrey Ho’s output). They’re just re-dubbed collages of other animations and I was hoping to feature them on the show because, surely they’re ridiculous (I haven’t watched them yet), plus I don’t have any Korean content on the Busan Midnight Movie. Seems like an omission. In March of the Monsters, I did note that I did The Giant Gila Monster because the Korean kaiju film Yongary was owned by MGM. The same thing seemed to be happening here so I opted for the random films I could find that didn’t trigger copyright. In the end, I’m glad I did because it led me to flicks I hadn’t seen before that I enjoyed (Spooks Run Wild, this film, and next week’s The Night Caller).

Fog Island

Zorro’s Black Whip (Episode 11)

Thursday, May 13, 2021

#MonstrousMayChallenge 01: What is a Monster?

What is a monster?

The monster is “the other,” something marked out as fundamentally different and separate from ourselves. The difference is what makes the monster useful. By claiming that this is “not us,” we can hang all our least desirable attributes and traits upon it. So in this sense, it doesn’t matter what the monster does—it’s not defined by its actions or intentions—what matters is that difference. All its actions and intentions, by being those of the monster, become sinister and inimical.

This vision of the monster is useful because it offers constant absolution for those who invoke it. Even with our modern stories of sympathizing with the monster or even monsterfucking, the label of “the monster” gets transferred. These stories always have the twist of who the “real monster” was all along—usually someone marked as being like the protagonist or the audience, someone the world of the story values and elevates. The turn comes when the protagonist/audience realizes they have more in common with “the monster” than the hero or when the hero reveals they’ve been behind the threats facing the characters all along.

In this the monster is the familiar rendered corrupt, ideally meant to indicate our own fallibility or potential for failure, but really only shifting the definition of difference. We thought you were like us, but now see that you’re not, that you are “the other” and thus we are absolved both of responsibility for any action you take—after all, we’re not monsters like you—as well as any action we take against you—for how can we be faulted for killing monsters?

“The monster” then is a tool, a means of justifying a kind of ennobling violence, a means of maintaining purity—a goal pursued to convince ourselves that we are ourselves holy. We are only ever the victims of circumstance and conspiracy, the better life we deserve forever denied us by the effects of monsters. It is an ideology that absolves us of responsibility for what our world is and erases the work that needs to be done to make the world what it could be.

Our current space of sympathizing with the monster does mark an important change, though. Early monsters of folk tales and religion are supernatural explanations for the state of an unknowable world. When we hit the Gothic period, we get a different kind of monster—the human made wrong: Dracula, Frankenstein, Jekyll & Hyde. Attraction is corrupted and our desires undo us. Then the 30’s/40’s/50’s introduce monster movies and the monster as metaphor for the atomic age and colonialism: the deadly product of the atom or alien races far in advance of us or the creature from a lost land white people have never visited before, all hostile to the imposition of “civilization” and destroyed by that same civilization once integration is attempted.

Now we sympathize with the monster. We sympathize with these creatures being harried for being different. The monstrous figures and desires are the “normal,” the ones insisting that there is a way you’re supposed to be, a way we’re all supposed to be, and that deviation deserves death. But the order they have to militantly enforce and which will treat us peacefully if we submit literally kills us regardless. From fascist crackdowns on dissent to climate collapse, it’s a system that mandates slavery and suffering unto the early grave, and the responses to criticisms of that system are, “If you stopped pointing out the problems, you wouldn’t suffer.” (Pointing out racism is the real racism) Submission to this system, surrender to conformity, still means immiseration and death. It is through difference and the implicit dissent of existing differently that hope is generated. In the modern moment, the monster is a hopeful figure, an aspirational one, a revolutionary one because it suggests there’s a way past this necrotic culture.

Saturday, April 03, 2021

Busan Midnight Movie: The Narcotics Story (4/3/21)

It’s the month with the weed number, so we’re doing movies all about why you shouldn’t do drugs, and you certainly shouldn’t be high while watching them! First, it’s the police-training film The Narcotics Story! Learn from a very serious narrator how users of marijuana are potentially violent even though they never show any signs of violence in the very movie warning you about them!

Going back to the well a little bit for this one. Initially, I would stream movies live on Twitch, very quickly moving to themed weeks and months. The theme for November was paranoia and propaganda with weeks focused on Communism, Nazism, the atom bomb, and, of course, drugs. I’d make a poll on my Twitter account with three movies and let people vote for which one would be shown. To make the promos for each week, I’d watch all three movies on fast-forward to get a list of all the interesting visuals to pull. I wouldn’t have any audio, but I’d have a general sense of what happened.

For drug week, the options were Marihuana: The Devil’s Weed (which was shown), Assassin of Youth (which will be coming up), and The Narcotics Story. This was the only one in color and the one with the most interesting visuals. I was not aware at the time that it was almost completely narrated or so silly. Considering the nature of the narration, it’s a little surprising that it took me so long to come up with the bit I did for the intermission: gameplay footage of Animal Crossin narrated in this heated, over-the-top, and patently inaccurate way.

I avoided getting political in this script as best I could, but there is continuing fallout from police training films like this. I note in the script that the intended audience isn’t cops so much as the people who have to judge cops: city councils deciding on budgets and juries deciding on the legitimacy of police action. In Texas, juries who have to decide cases where police murder people are made to watch police training films that define every person as a potential threat. The point is to convince the jury that the officers were sincerely afraid for their lives when they murdered that unarmed child or the, and I am not making this example up, wheelchair-using triple-amputee who was wielding a pen. After all, he could have stabbed the officer with the pen if he wasn’t using his only limb, which was holding the pen, to wheel himself closer to them.

All of which points to the underlying grimness and cynicism of these films. We can look at them now through a camp lens, laugh at their over-the-top claims and outright lies, even enjoy the disconnect between what they are showing us and what they are telling us—things that they had complete control over!—but the reality is these lies are still being used to ruin people’s lives. Even as legalization and decriminalization proceeds, the structure of the lies continues. “I feared for my life when I met these people who were not a threat, so I had to kill them.”

Defund the police.

Wrap Up:

The Good: Stock footage repository. Since the audio is so often unrelated to what’s happening on screen, this becomes a great resource for stock footage plundering. It has lots of shots of real drugs and paraphernalia and it all has that patina of age that makes it a touch more dreamlike and removed. For being an anti-drug film, this ironically could give you all the material you need to make loads of acid-soaked music videos for stoner rock bands.

The Bad: Nothing proper bout your propaganda. I said it above, but it’s pretty sick the way they just lie, even about what’s happening on screen. The users are always described as violent and potential threats and, literally, not one of them ever does anything. In this movie you can see the structure of what became Cops—following a cop on their beat and explicitly lying about what you’re showing them do.

Production note: The copy of the film I’m using comes from a print released by Alpha Video, which means they put a little Alpha Video logo in the upper righthand corner during the title sequence. I had to find a program to remove the bug because with the bug, it’s a copywritten print. Without, it’s the public domain version.

And I don’t want to cast aspersion on Alpha Video: they do good work in making a lot of public domain material available in solid and affordable formats, but slipping their logo into the works, which Mill Creek does as well, is frustrating. Weirdly, I suspect their goal in doing so is less to prevent things like copies being uploaded to YouTube or the Internet Archive, but to prevent the movies from being copied and released by other public domain DVD publishers.

The Narcotics Story

Zorro’s Black Whip (Episode 5)

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Busan Midnight Movie: War God (3/27/21)

This week on the Busan Midnight Movie: War God! The single most gonzo film I’ve found in my hunt for public domain midnight movie fare.

Moving away from old PD Project material, this is something that was entirely new to me. This is a 1976 Taiwanese kaiju film originally titled Zhan shen, but also known as Hong Kong Calamity, Kuan Yu Battles with the Aliens, and Gwan Gung vs Aliens. Martians invade the Earth to punish Earthlings for their abuse of science. The only force that can defeat the Martians is Kuan Yu, a former general now worshiped as a god. He can only manifest, though, if a statue of his likeness is carved with enough excellence and sincerity.

In other words, you have a 100-foot-tall ancient Chinese general using his kung fu against laser-wielding aliens, but only if Linus chooses the right pumpkin patch to wait in overnight.

Naturally it’s my film of the year.

In all seriousness, this movie’s a hoot and it’s the first time I’ve seen palpable translation errors improve the watching experience. A lot of cultural signifiers get lost in translation, something that can end up making sci-fi, fantasy, and horror movies in other languages seem at once more inventive and uncanny: something is being said here with the expectation that you’ll understand and the fact that you don’t makes it feel even more like an illicit pleasure, like you’re listening in on something you’re not supposed to.

The translation issues with this film aren’t questions of dubbing, though, it’s the subtitles. The whole movie is subtitled in Mandarin and English, but the English doesn’t make sense, at least, it doesn’t make sense when you can read it. Most of the time parts of it are cropped out on the left and right or are simply unreadable as they’re white text on a pale and fading print. At best you get snippets that border on comprehensibility which makes them even more compelling. You’re not looking at nonsense, but it feels a step away from saying what it means.

I should note that I became aware of this movie through Gold Ninja Video, a distribution company that focuses on BluRay releases of obscure and public domain features. They prepared a copy of this film which led me to the version on The Internet Archive. It’s always nice to see a company dedicated to maintaining the wilder side of the film scene.

Wrap Up:

The Good: Throwing everything at the wall. There are so many goofy elements in this movie that I’ve forgotten most of them. You have hilarious reaction shots to the aliens’ arrival, bizarre effects of alien interference, and so many odd character moments.

The aliens’ joie de vivre. The kaiju here don’t just stomp through the city destroying buildings, they strut! They look like they’re dancing at various points and it just amplifies the silliness of everything which of course serves to amplify the joy.

The Bad: The print is really washed out. I joke in the episode that this looks to be a copy of a VCD bootleg of a VHS bootleg of a cam rip, but that may be the actual lineage of this copy. The film only circulated as a bootleg VCD for years. And while I may joke about the subtitle issue, it does prove to be a problem in that it creates the sense that you could potentially understand what’s happening if you just rewound and looked at the subtitle a little harder. I went through this movie pretty thoroughly. Let me assure you, it does not help.

Production note: This episode has the longest set of host segments so far. If you don’t include the music video I cut for the episode, it’s the second longest after Gappa. Once I had the idea of doing the member drive riff for the host segments, they kind of took on a life of their own.

Regarding the “member drive,” that’s a moment of me kidding on the square. Obviously it’s all a joke, but I do feel a certain way about having so few subscribers and views. I’m not looking for thousands or even hundreds of views by this point, but I do have the goal of averaging about one new subscriber per week. While I’m having a lot of fun making this show and getting stranger and stranger with both the edits and the movies shown, it is a lot of work and it’s hard not to ask why I’m putting all that effort in. This episode took me about 8 hours from recording the script to editing the final version, and that’s not an unusual amount of time for one of these. I gotta ask why I’m putting the time into this instead of watching movies in my queue or playing the games that I’ve bought.

But to end on a more positive note, editing the music video was such a joy. It came together relatively quickly although there are things I would do to make it better if I were to spend more time on it. Every time I watch it I just start cracking up, though. As I said on Twitter and Facebook as I was working on it, I kept repeating, “So fucking jaunty” in response to the Martians. I wouldn’t say I’m proud of the video as much as I am still surprisingly entertained by it.

War God

Zorro’s Black Whip (Episode 4)

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Busan Midnight Movie: The Giant Gila Monster (3/20/21)

This week on the Busan Midnight Movie: The Giant Gila Monster! A giant gila monster attacks residents of a small town.

Another deep cut from the PD Project. I mistakenly described the film then as featuring “Giant radioactive monsters and incompetent rear-projection for the win!” The mistake is that the titular gila monster is not the product of radiation, just a result of gila monsters growing large.

No, that’s really the whole story of where the giant gila monster comes from: gila monsters can get big, so here’s one that got really big. There’s no mystery as to why or how and none of the characters wonder either.

The same depth of drama applies to every part of this film. What happens in this movie? Not a whole lot. You could say the disappearance of a young couple at the start is the inciting incident since it leads to the boy’s father tasking the sheriff with finding his son (and casting aspersion upon our hero). However, that father doesn’t return until the very end of the film (where he doesn’t seem too torn up about the likely death of his son) and our hero isn’t drawn into the mystery of where his friends have gone or what’s causing all the car accidents in the area.

In short, it’s a profoundly incurious film that begs you to be interested. But at least it has several interludes of pointless singing.

Wrap Up:

The Good: Elderly teens. This is a film from back when you had people on their third mortgages playing “the kids” and it’s just kind of funny to see suit-bound men with receding hairlines get called “kid.”

The monster. They use an actual lizard shot in close-up and have it interact with models when it needs to smash things. Unfortunately the models aren’t very impressive and the lizard doesn’t so much smash them as have to be coaxed through them.

The Bad: Very little. This would be the place to bring up the songs of Don Sullivan and make fun of the movie for featuring them, but they’re just generic examples of the music of the time. The movie’s so profoundly unambitious that it doesn’t get much wrong, but that’s only because it strives to do so little. The best films of this kind have some bonkers decision on screen—anything from an over-the-top monster to a clear display of the director’s reach exceeding their grasp—and this just has nothing.

Production note: As I say in the episode, I was originally going to show Yongary, Monster From the Deep. It’s a Korean kaiju film and it’s well past time that I feature a Korean film on the Busan Midnight Movie. When I did the copyright test of uploading all this month’s movies to YouTube to see what got flagged, Yongary came up as owned by MGM. Except for the Gamera movies, I’m not aware of any other kaiju films in the public domain so I reached for Gila Monster as a replacement. Coincidentally, this is the same thing Mystery Science Theater 3000 did when they released a box set of their show with Godzilla vs. Megalon: they didn’t have the rights for that and had to pull the sets immediately. When they reissued it, they replaced Godzilla with The Giant Gila Monster

The Giant Gila Monster

Zorro’s Black Whip (Episode 3)