Jupiter Ascending (Wachowski siblings 2015)

Jupiter-Ascending-Channing-Tatum1and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Jupiter Ascending (2015) is not that Meg’s name suddenly makes you flashback to all those Alfred Hitchcock presents The Three Investigator novels you read as a kid; nor is it Channing Tatum being, yet again, so much better than the film he is in either warrants or deserves; neither is it ditto Sean Bean or Nikki Akuka-Bird; nor is it watching all those respectable British thespians hamming it up in exchange for filthy Hollywood lucre; nor is it that the film looks so pretty, though it does; nor is it the comforting familiarity of the Wachowskis’ inability to construct a plot (except when James M. Cain did it for them decades earlier); nor is it the profoundly reassuring sense of your own embodied existence provided by the Wachowskis’ inability to pace a film (be honest, The Matrix is a good 40 minutes longer than it needs to be just because someone somewhere was scared folks wouldn’t understand what was going on, a fear cast aside in the sequels, with their more purely modernist and thoroughly interminable commitment to durée); no, it turns out the best thing about Jupiter Ascending is none of these things at all, but instead the sheer audacity of the title’s claim that not the entire film but merely its ending is complete and utter arse…

(more on Jupiter Ascending here)

Goon (Michael Dowse 2011)

l_1456635_028a4d17and so anyway it turns out the best thing about Goon (2011) is not that it recalls George Roy Hill’s Slap Shot (1977), though it does and that is generally a good thing, more or less, but no, it turns out the best thing about Goon is every single fucking frame of it in which Seann William Scott, the most underrated actor of his generation, appears…

The Disappearance of Nicolas Cage

(Transcript of the pilot episode of Jason Wyngarde’s Mysterious World, which was cancelled mid-season 2023.)

The last time Nicolas Cage, the financially-troubled star of the National Treasure franchise, was incontrovertibly among us was late in April 2011. He has not been seen since, nor has his body been found.

Good evening, I am Jason Wyngarde, and this is my mysterious world – our mysterious world.

MV5BNzY0ODM1NzU0OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTExNjIyOA@@._V1_SX214_AL_In the opening months of 2011, Cage was in New Orleans, shooting Simon West’s thriller Stolen, a film which famously could only be completed with groundbreaking synthespian software. Following a street argument with Alice Kim, his third wife and the mother of his youngest son, Kal-El, Cage was arrested on Saturday 16 April on suspicion of domestic abuse, breach of the peace and public drunkenness. He was bailed out by reality TV star Duane ‘Dog the Bounty Hunter’ Chapman, and returned to work the following Monday. Reports from the set that he was becoming increasingly pensive and introspective were initially taken to indicate embarrassment, contrition, perhaps even genuine soul-searching. But when he failed to return home on the eve of his court appearance, scheduled for May 31, his creditors’ suspicions that he was in fact planning to abscond were apparently confirmed.

Chapman, who at the time insisted that posting Cage’s bail was merely part of his day job and had nothing to do with his TV show, was just one of many who took part in the ensuing – and completely unsuccessful – manhunt. The footage he shot was never broadcast, although some of it eventually surfaced in James Franco’s nine-hour documentary about Cage, ninja guru shaman superhero, a decade later.

Reports of Cage’s illegal flight prompted an internet wildfire of rumours, which-movies-have-the-most-terrible-endings-1477618313-may-31-2013-1-600x400speculations and reported sightings. There were at least eight incidents involving a man dressed as a bear punching a nun. In each case, the assailant later claimed in court that ‘Nicolas Cage made me do it’, a phrase that swept the world for a fortnight that summer as the search for the missing star intensified.

As shown in Werner Herzog’s Cage of Forgotten Dreams, at least one Christian sect was thrown into acrimonious disarray – resulting in rifts, suicides and shootings – by the possibility that the Rapture had happened and God had seen fit to take only one man.

kal_elAll of this was small comfort to Kal-El Cage, who in one of ninja guru shaman superhero’s most poignant sequences revealed to Franco that he grew up pretending that his absent father had just flown away for a few days to the solitude of his arctic Fortress and would be back home tomorrow.

However, sifting through the evidence and hypotheses, a pattern does begin to emerge in the testimony of those who were closest to Cage during the months before his disappearance. Many of their comments indicate that the Oscar-winning star was growing increasingly anxious about his acting. In one of his last interviews, he spoke of being absolutely overwhelmed by Casey Affleck’s pseudo-documentary I’m Still Here, colourfully describing Joaquin Phoenix’s faked breakdown as

the fucking quintessence of Nouveau Shamanic performance. It’s an acting style I’ve been perfecting since I was an extra in Brubaker, and out of nowhere, he’s zen-mastering it like a motherfucker.

nicolas-cage-660aEven at the time, this prompted a rumour that the Elvis-loving Cage, who was married to Lisa Marie Presley for 108 days in 2002, dropped out of sight to undertake a secret art project of his own, touring the world incognito, faking Elvis sightings. Implausible as this may seem, the twenty-eight months after his disappearance did coincide with a massive increase in reported sightings of the long-dead King of Rock’n’Roll.

Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, co-directors of the Crank movies and Gamer, spoke of a sense of melancholy that began to affect Cage during the final days of shooting Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance in early 2011. Neveldine at first suspected it was prompted by yet another article on ‘this sequel no-one wants to a film no-one wanted’ and the kinds of movies Cage was making (he had just signed up for National Treasure 3). But Taylor dates Cage’s mood-change to the night the three of them went to see Drive Angry 3D together:

Nic’s always known some pretty way out people, not just comic book fan weird, but really weird: kabalists, chaoticians, numeromancers, edge-scientists. And let’s face it, Nic always acted in 3-D even when the film was in 2-D. He told me he’d taken on Drive Angry just to see what would happen when the technology raised everyone else’s thespian chops to the level of his own multidimensional acting kata. I thought he was joking, but after seeing the film he just went really quiet for a couple of days. One night he wandered off into the hills with a couple of bottles of mescal; and when he came back, he had this crazed look in his eye, like he’d just glimpsed the edge of something, something profound, sublime. He was a little manic and over the top for the last couple of days shooting, constantly on the phone, texting and emailing between takes. But then we were done, and that was that.

Neveldine adds:

He was on fine form at the wrap party, but the next morning was the last time I saw him. Last thing he said to me, was ‘I’ve seen the next step, the way through this, through all this. And I think my guys have cracked it. Could be scary, should be cool’. But he wouldn’t explain what he meant.

1238618115-cage_sonOn the night of his disappearance, Cage left a message on the phone of his recently-married son Weston, lead singer of Eyes of Noctum, saying only ‘When they ask, tell them “dimensional quadrature”’.

It was while researching this peculiar phrase – it is a mathematical term, concerned with numerical integration – that I met Professor Peter King, and the pieces of the puzzle of Nicolas Cage’s disappearance finally fell into place.

King is the world’s leading authority on incunabula and rejectamentalia. He’d contacted me about archiving my papers at the Miskatonic Institute of Technology.

He explained that the term ‘dimensional quadrature’ is usually attributed to H.G. Wells but actually originates in Charles Eric Maine’s 1955 novel Timeliner: A Story of Time and Space. Maine apparently adopted it to describe a method of time-travel because of the popular misconception, perpetuated by Wells’ 1895 The Time Machine, that time is the fourth dimension. This is not the case, and scientists at MiskaTech have recently demonstrated experimentally that the fourth dimension is a physical plane intersecting our own and a number of other dimensions.

They can tell us little about the nature of the fourth dimension, this phantom zone, other than that it is very different to the world we know. And that once you open up a portal to it, if you listen carefully – very, very carefully – you can just make out what sounds like a single, solitary human voice. Distorted, crying. Shouting and raging. Consuming the very walls that imprison it.

I have now heard it on two occasions.

Is it the voice of Nicolas Cage?

I cannot definitively say.

But could it really be anyone else?

Who else would have pushed so hard? Burned with such intensity? Broken on through to the other side?

Who else could or would have taken acting, literally, to another dimension?

I am Jason Wyngarde, and this is my mysterious world – our mysterious world. Join me again next week, when we hunt, south of the border, for Chupacabra and Peuchen. Thank you and goodnight.

8/5/11

Johnny Storm in a Teacup: The New Fantastic Four

fantastic-banner-10-18To be honest, I’d forgotten there was a new Fantastic Four movie coming out until the trailer appeared yesterday.

My memory was lagging behind in other ways, too. For the life of me I could not figure out why they’d cast Michael B. Jordan as Ben Grimm/The Thing.

I mean, he’s so skinny.

My mistake. They’ve actually cast Jamie Bell, and I’m good with that.1  Jordan is playing Johnny Storm/Human Torch. There was, tediously and of course and now dimly remembered, some kerfuffle about the casting of an actor of colour in a role of pallor. The usual racist bullshit tweeting and trolling. It seemed to die down pretty quickly, especially after Jordan, caught off guard, snapped back ‘You’ll all come see it anyway’. Which is not quite a Neil Patrick Harris well, duh moment, but not bad on the fly.

hulkvsthingMy confusion about who was cast as who does actually make a kind of sense. Because the Thing – although perhaps not quite as obviously as The Hulk – was always one Marvel’s black buck stereotype superheroes.

The Hulk is inspired by Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Hyde is clearly racialised in Robert Louis Stevenson’s short novel from 1886, and even more so in the 1932 adaptation dr-jekyll-and-mr-hyde-1starring Fredric March, in which Hyde clearly signifies some kind of simian negritude. (It is always worth remembering that the multiple trials of the Scottsboro boys – a case more typical than exceptional – were dragging on through the first half of the 1930s, even as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, King Kong, James Whale’s Frankenstein, Erle C Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls and other fantastical American racial fantasies were appearing in cinemas.)

Show-Boat-CinematographyThe Thing builds more obviously on the combination of buck stereotype and proletarian image with which Whale imbues Mary Shelley’s creation (building on her description of Frankenstein’s apocalyptic vision of his creations breeding and producing a new posthuman race that will displace aristocratic privilege and white hegemony) and which he explicitly and sympathetically develops in Showboat when Paul Robeson sings ‘Ol’ Man River’.

Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagooncreature3 is a close relation. The appearance of this archaic fishman can easily be interpreted in terms of racist caricatures of African/Afrodiasporic peoples. Something of his melancholy aquatic courtship of Kay, her whiteness emphasised by her dazzling white swimsuit, is carried forward into the sequence in The Fantastic Four (2005) when Ben’s engagement is called off. The racist imagery of the black buck as sexual monster/monstrously sexual it evokes – his finger is just so big he can’t get it into the tight little engagement ring – falls somewhere between unfortunate and hilarious.

Buckwildmsu0And of course, early in his comics career Luke Cage, Power Man – later spoofed, a little unfairly, by Milestone Comics as Buck Wild, Mercenary Man – subbed for the Thing in the Fantastic Four, and soon after had his own side adventure in Latveria with Doctor Doom.

So like I said, my confusion makes a kind of sense. But nonetheless, I am curious about my own unreflective assumption that Jordan was playing the Thing, while also profoundly untroubled by him playing Johnny Storm, a character with plenty of potential (as Chris Evans showed, albeit whitely) to be just another ‘one of those Tom Slick brothers that think you can get by on good looks, a wink and a smile’ (as Black Dynamite‘s Gloria might put it).

The one thing I dread however – partly because over the years I have seen so much awkward, straight-to-video exposition justifying Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Belgian accent to American ears – is the painful scene explaining how come Johnny’s sister, Sue, is white.

I mean, deep down there is a part of me that does actually want to see it, and be appalled by it. But we really could do without it.

It’s not like this is Pleasantville out here.

1
Someone somewhere please, in an alternate universe if not this one, cast him in the other FF franchise, post-Paul Walker, to take up the whiteboy slack alongside Lucas Black.

Mr Skeffington (Vincent Sherman 1944)

mr-skeffington-movie-poster-1944-1020418969and so anyway it turns out the best thing about Mr Skeffingon (1944) is not tittering at the name of the conceited beauty and all-round awful Fanny (Bette Davis), but the sequence right at the end, after she has been brought low (through ageing, a medically dubious bout of dyptheria and some grotesque Perc Westmore makeup) and to the point of accepting the truth of her estranged husband’s words (‘a woman is beautiful when she’s loved, and only then’) just as he, Job (Claude Rains), returns from a Nazi concentration camp – a worn out broken man – and they are able to reunite because he stills loves her and, more importantly, as him tripping over a footstool reveals, he is now blind and cannot see that she is no longer beautiful and so she does not have to learn any kind of moral lesson whatsoever…

The Household Gods and the Darth Vader Corkscrew

Queen Kong. Goddess of utopian desire. Will work for peanuts.
Queen Kong. Goddess of utopian desire. Will work for peanuts.
Mr Atomic. Powerful, if unconvincingly so to look at.
Clockbot. Battery flat. Nonetheless, unlike other gods, he is right about something every day. Twice.
Clockbot. Battery flat. Nonetheless, unlike other gods, he is right about something every day. Twice.
Shrine. Evidence of ancestor worship. And wishful thinking.
Shrine. Evidence of ancestor worship. And wishful thinking.
Luke Cage. Guaranteeing sweet Christmases since 1972. Also, sticking it to the man.
Luke Cage. Guaranteeing sweet Christmases since 1972. Cf. the Man, god of sticking it to.
Wile E. Coyote. Spirt animal.
Wile E. Coyote. Spirit animal.
The Darth Vader corkscrew. Not a household god or deity of any kind. Just a Darth Vader corkscrew. Photographic evidence thereof, because no one believes me. A Christmas present, a nice try, a miss is as good as a mile...
The Darth Vader corkscrew. Not a household god or deity of any kind. Just a Darth Vader corkscrew. Photographic evidence thereof, because no one believes me. A Christmas present. A nice try. A miss that is every bit as good as a mile.

Carrie (Kimberly Peirce 2013)

Carrie_Domestic_One-sheetand so anyway it turns out the best thing about Carrie (2013) is the moment when you remember that back in 1988 the Royal Shakespeare Company decided it would be a good idea to blow the best part of $10 million on a flop Broadway musical version, but it turns out the very worst thing about it comes a moment later when you realise you would much rather be in the stalls, singing along and soaked in pig’s blood…

Wrapping Up Hellboy’s Penis: del Toro, disability, The Devil’s Backbone and Blade

Guillermo del Toro, by Carlos Chavira
Guillermo del Toro, by Carlos Chavira

This is the promised follow-up post to  ‘On Hellboy’s Penis’ and ‘On the Back of Hellboy’s Penis: Pacific Rim‘ . Once it is out there, I will stop using the words ‘Hellboy’ and ‘Penis’ in close conjunction to clickbait y’all.

One of the curious features of Guillermo del Toro’s films thus far is that they all contain characters with disabilities or who become disabled through injury in some way during the course of the action – most often people with legs that are damaged or only partially functional. This ranges from De la Guardia (Claudio Brook), the billionaire villain seeking immortality through the eponymous device in Cronos (1993), who lives in a sterile environment and spiders around on a pair of crutches to signify his waning powers as a form of castration (but also because at least since Shakespeare’s Richard III ‘being crippled’ signifies villainy), to the  Republican guerrilla who, injured by fascists, has his leg amputated in El laberinto del fauna/Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).

Although such characters are usually not particularly well thought through, what makes them interesting is that they are often situated among monsters, which by their very nature raise questions about what are considered normal or normative bodies and abilities.

devilsbackbonethe_640x360Far and away the most interesting of these characters is Carmen (Marisa Paredes) in El espinazo del diablo/The Devil’s Backbone (2001), who runs a remote boarding school/orphanage, sheltering the children of those fighting for the Spanish Republic or whose parents have been killed by the fascists. A woman in her mid-fifties, she regularly has sex with Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), a handyman half her age. She has no feelings for him – it is just a matter of her sexual pleasure – and he goes along with it in order to gain access to her set of keys, one of which will unlock the hidden safe in which she stores gold to fund the Republican cause. She also has lost one of her legs at the knee, and we several times see her remove or replace her prosthetic lower limb.

Jacinto finally blows up the safe, only to find it empty. Later, Carmen’s body is found among the rubble, the gold concealed within her artificial leg. It is a fascinating image, this gold among the rubble, this hidden fold within which treasure is found, this older sexual woman who is not at all an object of repulsion or criticism.

***

Blade (Wesley Snipes) can be understood in terms of disability (he is part vampire and thirsts for blood because of this condition, for which he self-medicates) and of extra ability (he is a vampire, with all the powers that implies, but he is unaffected by sunlight). In the Blade (Norrington 1998), a film in which del Toro was not involved, a potential genetic cure for Blade’s vampirism is extrapolated from experimental treatments for sickle-cell anaemia. Blade ultimately refuses it, in a heavily coded moment that is also all about staying black. In Blade II (del Toro Blade-Wesley-Snipes12002), the vampires conduct genetic experiments to ‘cure’ themselves of their inability to go out in daylight.

Blade’s peculiar situation – a person with a disability, a person with superpowers – is really useful for beginning to think through superhero narratives, which, whatever else they might do, profoundly relativise ability. As Scott Bukatman wrote, in an essay on Superman and Spider-Man (among others), ‘Through the superhero, we gain a freedom of movement not constrained by the ground-level order imposed by the urban grid’ (188). That is, only the superhero is adequate to the environments we build for ourselves; the merely human – regardless of ‘ability’ – is not.

References
Scott Bukatman, Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 21st Century. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

This post and the related ones, ‘On Hellboy’s Penis’ and ‘On the Back of Hellboy’s Penis: Pacific Rim’  are extracted from ‘Disability, Monsters, Utopia: Some Lessons from Guillermo del Toro’, delivered at Disability Studies/Science Fiction, Universität zu Köln, 28–29 November 2014. Thanks to Olga Tarapata and Hanjo Berressem for the invitation to participate, to Ria Cheyne and Margrit Shildrick for their supportive comments, and to the captive audience of grad students for asking so many questions.

Some version of it might appear in a book on monsters I am thinking about writing (cos, you know, they love to fund research leave for stuff like that).