The Designer’s Drugs: Room

Medium: Literature

Stimulus: Emma Donoghue – Room

Anno: 2010

 

It takes some serious imagination and talent to make one of the most disturbing elements of a tale chronicling years of imprisonment and rape the act of breastfeeding.  This goes hand in hand with the fact that this tale of extreme abuse is told through the perspective of Jack, the wide-eyed and wonderful five year old boy who was born in this prison and who has never left its confines.  Considering that the only people he’s known are his mother and their captor, that he hasn’t been weaned – and is obsessively against the idea – is perhaps understandable.  But it’s the language he uses in describing the act which gives it its unsettling quality.  In Room, the word “some” means milk, and Jack refers to “having some” as casually as an outsider would describe drinking a glass of water.  Rarely has a literary euphemism been used to creepier effect.

This is all in keeping with the greater theme, which is the mutual incomprehension between Jack and the outside world.  That outside world, it should be noted, includes the reader, whose cultural solipsism, along with those of Jack’s fictional outside world, is bound to clash with the solipsism of the young prisoner.

At Room’s beginning, Jack is a creature who knows so little of what lies beyond the borders of his prison that he is certain that nothing else exists.  This delusion is so complete that he views the television programs he watches as not a series of real elements coming together to form a show but entirely unreal fabrications.  He doesn’t believe that trees exist, or other people, or events.  As the world is increasingly made real to him, Jack’s sense of routine and habit spirals out of control, and in fact he begins to idealize his imprisonment.

It’s at the points of contact where the reader will feel the most conflict with Jack.  It’s easy to sympathize with the victim when in his prison, locked away from the so-called right ideas and behaviors.  One does what one must to survive, after all.  But once in the so-called real world, Jack’s oddness suddenly becomes unhealthy and disruptive.  When he can’t adapt to the spoken and unspoken expectations and standards of a culture he only recently found, he ceases to be seen as a victim and becomes a brat.  It was so hard to read this book and not feel a sense of self-reproach as the frustration with Jack builds.

Ultimately, Room is a tale against absolutes and complacent certainty, a brilliant and unique tale of confinement that illuminates the restraints of all who watch.

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Bizarro Masterpiece Theatre: Curse of the Wolf

Film: Curse of the Wolf (2006)

Director: Len Kabasinski

Starring: Lanny Poffo, Renee Porada, Brian “Blue Meanie” Heffron

Written by: Len Kabasinski

When I was a young wrestling fan, one of the wrestlers who creeped me out most was Lanny Poffo, known to me as the villainous valedictorian, The Genius.  With his Prince Valiant bowl cut, his frightening pedo-stache, and his sinister leer, Poffo cut a villainous figure on appearance alone.  Combining this with his propensities to prance around in a graduation gown and recite foppish bad guy poetry made him one of pro wrestling’s legendary creeps.

I suppose that, upon discovering Poffo’s one leading film role, I was hoping to see The Genius leering at wolfmen and reading goofy lycanthrope poetry.  It was surprising to instead see Poffo playing the straight man in an incredibly subpar, dickheaded film about a werewolf on the run from her dickheaded pack.

This exhibit contains just about everything I hate about modern horror films, which boils down to one cardinal rule: no matter the gore and violence, a film isn’t horror if the audience doesn’t give a shit about anyone in it.  By that rule, this film is highly disqualified.  If the filmmakers elected to go the Troma route of splatter slapstick, things might have ended well enough, but instead they chose to make a joyless spectacle disguised behind that humorless veil of dark irony and cool, full of shitty metal tunes and populated by obnoxiously orating wrestler-types and low-rent porn stars.  To say that the action in this film is rather well done is a cheap consolation.

Though I can’t say much for the company he keeps, Poffo’s roughneck fixer is a breath of fresh air in this cesspool.  Similarly, the actress who plays the fugitive werewolf actually seems to invest herself in her role, though the writer/director fills her mouth with the same crap that fills the mouths of all his characters.  Any scriptwriter who has a woman blame her slight sullenness on maybe being on the rag probably has some lady issues – a prejudice reinforced here by every other scene featuring a woman.

The best character of Curse of the Wolf is The Blue Meanie, a real life pro wrestler who spends his screen time as the wolf pack’s muscle.  Whether he’s rambling around clad only in heavily-stained tighty whities or punching the hearts out of fools, Meanie is the one consistent joy to be found in this film.  It’s too bad that he’s paired up with a pack of flaming douchebags.

The Blue Meanie

Indeed, the only reason to watch Curse of the Wolf is if you’re curious about the film careers of The Genius or The Blue Meanie.  If not, stay far, far away.

Bizarro Masterpiece Theatre: Seth

This is about as tame as it's going to get.

Seth (1995)

What follows is a tale of unearthed treasure.  I’m not certain of all the details of how this gem returned to the world, but I do know that the video was found in the vaults of the Warehouse Nightclub in La Crosse, where it lay dormant for roughly 15 years.  Once rediscovered, the video was quickly uploaded to YouTube by Bizarro enabler Ben Koch, who brought it to my attention.  It promptly blew my brains out with its disturbing genius.

Seth Mitchell, who with his sweet mustache and insatiable eroticism comes off as a gay Burt Reynolds, spends about six minutes leering at the camera, gyrating and writhing around in various states of undress.  There are, in fact, moments where Seth is wearing nothing at all, and while most of the shots are no more explicit than any risqué photo shoot, there is that one scene in the shower where Seth’s balls, beneath his arched back and slutty pose, are clearly in view.

This is the tasteful nude shot.

Musically – and, oh yeah, I almost forgot there was music – Seth sounds like a cross between old timey industrial clanging and perhaps a lo-fi version of the repetitive anthems of Gary Glitter.  Vocally Seth sounds a bit like Q Lazzarus, the wistful yet forceful vocalist behind the tuck-it-back anthem “Goodbye Horses.”  Though I’m not even certain of the song’s title, Seth repeats “Can you feel it?” enough times that I’m assuming this to be the title.  Indeed, the song itself is essentially a hypnotic, droning mantra which serves little beyond providing music to accompany Seth’s striptease.

What’s greatest about this long and overwhelmingly uncomfortable video clip is that it was sent to the Warehouse in hopes of setting up a gig.  Originally, I felt as though I ought to compare this to someone sending self-made softcore pornography to a prospective employer – but then I realized that this is exactly what happened.  Seth Mitchell sent softcore pornography of himself to a venue, looking for a gig.  I applaud that sense of audacity.  I wish that more people – especially in real life – had Seth’s (ahem) balls.

This man is a champ!

Here it is!  (NSFW)

The Designer’s Drugs: Jamiroquai – Rock Dust Light Star

Medium: Album

Stimulus: Jamiroquai – Rock Dust Light Star

Anno: 2010

 

To call Rock Dust Light Star Jamiroquai-by-numbers by no means diminishes the funk brilliance that the album puts on display.  For its latest effort, the band puts out a nice balance of swaggering R&B slow jams with rushing dance numbers, resulting in a well-rounded collection of New Disco.

Yet will all due respect to the bluesy wah overload of “Hurtin’” and the slick Motown cool of “Two Completely Different Things,” perhaps it’s a bit too well-rounded.  Jamiroquai is at its best when it turns up the tempo.  The album’s best evidence of this is “White Knuckle Ride,” which is every bit as swift as the name suggests.  Augmented by the hint of high end guitar funk, a few synth outbursts, and the presence of disco divas in the chorus, the beats and bass of this song create perfectly measured yet exhilarating dancefloor pop.  The formula also works to the band’s advantage in “All Good in the Hood,” though this song is more balanced instrumentally and more focused on vocalist Jay Kay’s soul singing.

The album’s great swerve comes on the final track, titled “Hey Floyd,” which comes off as a fully orchestrated, piano-led theme song to some 70s copsploitation film.  The song takes an odd detour into a reggae phase at one point, but most of the song conjures images of cops in leisure suits chasing dirtbags through the urban decay.  While “White Knuckle Ride” may be the album’s most exciting song, “Hey Floyd” is its most ambitious songwriting.

Perhaps Rock Dust Light Star could have used a little more dance and a little less mellow, but on the whole it’s great fun.

The Designer’s Drugs: Kristian Hoffman – Fop

Medium: Album

Stimulus: Kristian Hoffman – Fop

Anno: 2010

 

Kristian Hoffman’s senses of the grandiose and the absurd lend his music a wide, smart scope that often defies categorization.  Knowing that Hoffman’s extensive musical career includes a collaboration with Pee-Wee Herman and that he was one of the main songwriters behind opera alien Klaus Nomi provides as solid a starting point as can be grasped.

Fop’s largest constant, beyond clever lyricism, is its tracks’ tendency toward whimsical, almost childlike vaudeville stylings directed by piano.  Yet even this isn’t set in stone, as there are plenty of Bowie-style guitar rockouts and soft-spoken balladry to be found on Fop as well.  The best example of the latter is the opening track, the extravagant yet soft-spoken “Something New Is Born,” whereas the former is best represented by the sinister, string-accompanied “Mediocre Dream.”

Yet with the wealth of tracks on Fop – 17 songs in total, with not one feeling like a placeholder – the listener has the freedom to go in whatever direction one chooses.  Hoffman’s consistent inconsistency might have not worked out so well had he not possessed the witty technique to temper his offbeat sensibilities.  Fortunately, he runs at full speed with both.

Bizarro Masterpiece Theatre: Grandma’s Boy

This pretty much sums up the entire movie.

Film: Grandma’s Boy (2006)

Director: Nicholaus Goossen

Starring: Allen Covert, Nick Swardson, Doris Roberts

Written by: Barry Wernick, Allen Covert, Nick Swardson

 

There was a summer in my life in which my friends and I watched this film at least once a day, and the routine never grew old.  This isn’t necessarily because Grandma’s Boy is the greatest film ever, but it’s more of a comment about target audiences.  For a group of sarcastic and surly twentysomethings man-children – some of whom were pot smokers, all of whom were videogame freaks, and every last one a lover of karate monkeys – it’s hard to name a more appropriate film.

The main plot involves perennial Adam Sandler henchman Allen Covert starring as a video game tester in his late 30s.  After getting kicked out of his apartment because his roommate spent all their money on Asian hookers, he runs out of options and ends up staying at his grandma’s place.  Crazy old lady hijinks ensue.

But really, this isn’t about plot.  The reason one watches this film is to take in the bizarre characters and ridiculous situations which splatter across the screen.  Grandma’s Boy is little more than a series of high slapstick and comedy Rorschach, but somehow it incorporates all of its chaotic elements into a likeable, if not entirely coherent, mass.  This is a film in which an African witch doctor will suddenly show up, say a few ridiculous lines, and fade into the background to allow some other absurdity to follow, and somehow the viewer can roll with it.

Covert works great as the story’s tenuous anchor, bringing a wry and grudging enthusiasm to the proceedings.  His sidekick, played by Nick Swardson, is even better, cutting loose as a wide-eyed, cougar-hunting adult infant.  But the scene-stealer in Grandma’s Boy is the villainous J.P., an arrogant yet inept video game prodigy played by Joel David Moore.  J.P. is about as great a nerd as can be imagined, and his woeful attempts at asserting authority over his game testers is undermined by the fact that he honestly believes that he is a robot, and acts accordingly, down to his jerky movements and electronic voice.  Moore is an absolute treasure in this role, though you’d think that such a role would carry the danger of getting typecast as an uber-nerd.  Then again, Moore ended up starring in Avatar, so if he is to forever be a film geek, at least he’s been well compensated.

Grandma’s Boy may not be for grandmas themselves, but for the modern nerd it is fine tomfoolery.  Someday, when my generation ships out to the retirement homes and spends its last moments popping pills and playing videogames, I’m sure this film will be even more fitting.

The Designer’s Drugs: Ace of Base – The Golden Ratio

Medium: Album

Stimulus: Ace of Base – The Golden Ratio

Anno: 2010

 

I try to avoid having guilty pleasures, but it wouldn’t be far off to describe Ace of Base as my one musical pleasure which is most surprising.  Though I tend to loathe much of the band’s best known work – “The Sign” in particular makes me grate my teeth – Ace of Base was really my first serious introduction to electronic music.  The clubbed-up B-sides of the band’s debut album drew me in, and its follow-up, The Bridge, is a mature stripe of Europop that stands as my favorite example of the style.  Of course, most people only know the singles, and as such I get a villainous glee when busting out Ace of Base upon the unexpected.

It’s been eight years since Ace of Base released their last album, and for some time it seemed as though the band had packed it in.  The gradual departures of the band’s two female singers, Jenny and Linn Berggren, seemed to be the final straw, but instead of calling it a day, the two remaining members decided to crew up, recruiting two new girls to sing their songs.  The result is The Golden Ratio, and while there are some good tracks to be found, this version of Ace of Base doesn’t match the original.  There are two big reasons why this is the case, and both have to do with Ace of Base trading in what made it unique for more conventional pop fodder.

First, the new vocalists sound like every other female pop vocalist on the scene.  Their voices crack with girly vulnerability at all the right moments, their lyrics profess all the expected heartbreak and whimsy.  They’re props, and serve their purpose.

But the more pressing problem with The Golden Ratio lies squarely on the shoulders of the band’s tenured members.  The band doesn’t completely abandon its reggae-tinged pop roots, and the strongest example of the old style, “Mr. Replay,” is one of the album’s best tracks.  Yet there is a strong sense that the band is trying to keep pace with everyone else instead of being itself.  “Southern California” is the worst offender, a lifeless grab at moody American girlpop.

But what’s worse, the opening track, “All for You,” sounds like every other electropop group from Ace of Base’s mid-90s heyday, and it’s only the most glaring evidence.  Trading in Ace of Base’s electropop for the La Bouche/Snap!/Culture Beat conglomerate is not a good move.

Still, there is one very bright moment on the album, a flamenco guitar led dirge titled “Who Am I” in which every aspect of the new group comes together perfectly.  If every song on The Golden Ratio was as well-orchestrated as this, it would have been brilliant.

Yet as it stands, I’d have recommended that this new group have started with a clean slate and a new name.  The Golden Ratio is no Bridge.

 

(As a bonus, one of the worst music videos ever!)