Good Soldiers

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I remember my mom pulling a knife on my dad at least twice; it was how you signified displeasure during the Vietnam era, kitchen-table saber-rattling. This was good old-school close combat, like the household and neighborhood chair- and baseball-bat-fights my folks themselves remembered growing up with, in an era before differences were worked out coldly from half a world away by pushing a button, or could be forgotten with the click of a TV remote. Mom and Dad took me to my only anti-Vietnam War protest, at age 5, but they were from World War II, almost the grandparent age of most kids I knew, so there was a whole era of failed social experiments (open marriages! shuttle custody! family group therapy!) that I missed out on. I need to watch movies like The Ice Storm to learn about that phase of my own lifetime, and Julia Lee Barclay-Morton’s My First Autograce Homeography (1973-1974) is that kind of reconstruction.

History remixes itself in Barclay-Morton’s text and director Ian W. Hill’s ingeniously abstract staging, with a chess-piece ensemble of elders and juniors and those left in-between enacting half-recalled family traumas and fractures. We know that Heather (a master painting of personality and prismatic emotional reaction by Stephanie Willing) is subject to the whims of warring parents and inadequate authority figures as she stands in (and leaps, and staggers) for the author as a tween-ish girl. The knives come out, often literally and from abusive surrogate parent Mrs. Levine (a seismic psychological guignol, outsized but never overboard, from Alyssa Simon), as real-mom and “new new dad” (two pillars of attractive remoteness, Olivia Baseman and Derrick Peterson) give self-justifying monologues, “Son of Levine” (an endearingly weird, suitably Bud Cort-esque John Amir) provides some companionship and “The Authority” (David Arthur Bachrach as an unspecified patriarch/preacher in an arabesque of flummoxed faith and self-importance) insubstantially weighs in.

Barclay-Morton’s libretto is a shreddered poetic confetti, its insightful nonsequiturs like fragmentary phrases of a language you didn’t speak at the time, as all childhood relations with grownups are; the narrative is a gauze of memory, unraveling one spiral at a time, as adult retrospect of these same events always is.

Meaning coalesces like an occasional kaleidoscope convergence, nearing and then pulling away from the heart of the matter; every crescendo in Hill’s soundtrack is abruptly cut off, like tics suppressed and revelations hurriedly submerged. Willing’s Heather is a spun-off musicbox figure careening through this like a confused time-traveler to her own present; the ensemble as a whole have the look of off-register film images willfully overlapped or indifferently synched.

These mechanical reference points place the human beings into Hill’s clockwork of old ad-jingle and pop-hit and news-report sound and video cues (puppetmastered with eerie instinct by Berit Johnson), an unbidden memory running itself and making everyone’s own experience feel observed rather than lived in, a ghost even the first time.

Hill’s powers of suggestion in stagecraft and palpable texture in deployment of light reach their latest apex here, with bleaching spotlighting to convert tangible figures to fading film images, nervous-breakdown strobes to prolong physical conflicts, boxes of magic brightness to convey wonders kept beyond our sight.

Earlier in the play, New New Dad is often seen in a fatigue jacket to signify the constant cloak of the Vietnam War; much later, Heather is seen posing in the same jacket, accessorized with machine gun, to convey the revolutionary chic of ’70s homegrown guerrilla Patty Hearst. The enemy has gone from foreign to domestic, in more than one sense; the war, as news-anchors used to tell us, was “in our living room” and then the troops came home; and these days, we bring guns to a knife-fight.

At the end, in a haze of smoke, the cast cuts the fog with light shining from film projectors that have nothing in them, searchlights sweeping for just the sight of their own glow, and a makeshift pair of symbolic headlights, formed from clip lamps hanging at random angles, glare into the audience, two eyes blinding and pushing away your sight. Heather has, after all, long outlived the story, and not every light is seen by staring straight at it, and there’s something to wake up to when you close your eyes.

The show runs through November 22, 2014 at The Brick in Brooklyn, USA; http://tinyurl.com/mcjb8xz  

Hard Return: Incubus

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[From time to time I’ll report my fresh impressions of a cult classic I’m the last to know about — just in case I’m the first-to-last.]

The key to Incubus is not story, but sound. Filmed in 1965 and lost for three decades afterword, it lingered in most people’s minds like a half-remembered melody. The film unfolds like a dream even when you’re seeing it, since it’s spoken in a language that almost nobody in the world shares — the utopian, syncretic creation Esperanto, once meant to be a universal language but soon almost extinct. This makes the film a kind of music rather than a spoken narrative, and music itself plays a dominant part.

Incubus exists in the interstice of two towering sci-fi milestones; The Outer Limits, whose creator, Leslie Stevens, directed and wrote this movie the year after the first version of the show went off the air, and Star Trek, whose leading man William Shatner stars in this movie one year before his most famous role.

Outer Limits’ first-season composer Dominic Frontiere also scores Incubus, and his hypnotic, mournful music is instantly recognizable while being fundamentally divergent form his work on the iconic science-fiction franchise. For Incubus is not science-fiction but folkloric horror.

Shot in California but thrown into a spacetime crossroads of classic village and unspecific historical period by its ornate, fantasy language, Spanish Colonial architecture and minimally archaic costumery, Incubus is a fable that could happen at any time — and only in the human psyche. Shatner is Marc, a pure-spirited soldier back from some unspecific conflict, convalescing in the countryside with his saintly sister. It’s a village with a supposed fountain of youth, which attracts venal and vain seekers, who are prayed on by local succubi who want to recruit some low-hanging fruit for Satan.

Marc of course is incorruptible, which complicates the plans of the demoness Kia (Allyson Ames), who intends to claim him for Hell. As the plot progresses she realizes she would rather claim him for herself, and he in turn tries to recruit her to the embrace of god. It’s an exceedingly weird-in-a-maybe-unintentional-way movie, with a coven of predatory females and a very maternal male lead.

The passive are sacrificed — including Marc’s sister, who is just automatically good rather than a resister of temptation like him, and, on the other side, the Incubus of the title, a personified force of hell who, by serving as a mere pawn no matter how powerful he is, does not have the moral superiority of having chosen what he does.

At one point Marc’s soul seems forfeit because he has succumbed to vengefulness in stabbing the Incubus for killing his sister; but what matters is what’s in his heart, not what he does circumstantially — and the same goes for the succubus who would be his love, whom the Incubus, through the discreet means of 1960s suggestion and perilously low budgets, tries to silence by turning himself into a humanoid goat and sexually assaulting her (one of the more appallingly misogynist scenes in film history, if you can stop laughing), but who loses when Kia tells him her heart belongs to god. Marc, himself lying almost killed by the Incubus just inside the village church, reaches out for the succubus’ hand and the monster evaporates — action, not just blind-faith acceptance, has won the day and eternity.

Frontiere’s music is a constant presence, and where he relied on eerie limpid delays and whistling electronic winds in Outer Limits, the harp predominates here; the sound of Outer Limits was mournfully technological while in Incubus it is memorially ancient. The earlier show was about a gleaming, godless future, while the movie is about a textured, god-full infinity. Treated as a legendary midnight movie or DVD-only oddity, Incubus got Stevens a kind of immortality though not the kind he expected, and it forges deliriously, determinedly ahead into an endless past.             

Black Apps

Few corners of the world remain unexplored, but the closer we feel to each other, the more dangerous things seem to get. Tension replaces mystery, and this is the source of “GetFisk”’s intrigue. The series of adventure iBooks picks up from the lineage of pulp action fiction, and with a confluence of media, achieves mixed results. midnight_in_juarez_cover 

Two novellas in, the adventure definitely gets better as it goes along. But then, classic pulp rolled off the presses at tens of thousands of words a month, and while it never missed, the hits couldn’t all be knockouts. The GetFisk series concerns the shaky line between glamour and brutality as high-energy movie franchises, videogames and open barbarism on the news cycle converge in both the Western and the global mind. Fisk is a mysterious businessman, a Tony Stark without superpowers but with a Doc Savage-esque troupe of operatives to execute his worldwide agenda.

That agenda is an interesting fantasy of judicious control; in the same way that Shakespeare’s work was an overall brief for the rightfulness of monarchy and the responsibility of leaders to be considered and humane, this newer violent crowd-pleaser shows a multi-billionaire trying to bring world stability by undermining drug cartels and high-seas pirates through the even bigger business he can install (and getting his hands dirty in the undercover muck while he does it, dealing with mercenaries and terrorists and double agents).

His main surrogates are secretly deadly moviestar Tarita Lee and deceptively charming merc Carlos Madrid (yep), figures operating suitably on the margin between our highest fantasies and worst nightmares.

Two GetFisk iBooks have thus-far appeared, Midnight in Juarez (the drug-cartel one) and Pirate Lair (the Somali one). At times — too many times — the drama that’s ripped from today’s headlines seems merely scrapbooked in place. The books’ narrative halts often for little TED Talks on how legalizing pot in the U.S. would really screw the gangsters making money off it south of the border, etc. — all true, but the text sings in husky, shrill colors more compelling when it’s talking about assassins with icepicks and glass-jawed heroes sent to “dreamland” and femme fatales “armed with two shotglasses and a serpentine tongue” — and when the skilled plotting takes over from the diagrammed background issues.

Juarez is told all in present-tense, which gives an interesting immediacy, though it often also feels like an extended pitch for a movie you might rather be watching; Lair is more traditional narratively but makes better use of its modern trappings — little gifs open each chapter of both books, but they are often so rudimentary as to not add much; the series would do well to exploit the pictorial nature of screen reading by integrating these scene-setting images as static illustrations with text run over them. The simple technique of Lair being designed for light text on black background pays more attention to design, and this second volume’s animations, and their selectivity of incident, show more refinement.

pirate_lair_coverWhen the books drop themselves into their own rush and demonstrate rather than describe, they can truly absorb the reader, and the second one is confident enough to double back into the life stories and venture inward to the motivations of its damaged, determinedly optimistic protagonists. Juarez ends on a jawdropping reveal about one of the main characters that keeps most of the other players in suspense while letting us in on something that hits us like an inevitable but unanticipated driveby. And the machinations of Lair pull us along in ways that the creators wisely let us in on less of beforehand than any of the dots connected one-by one for Juarez.

The real world is complicated, and we learn its meaning as we go along; speaking for themselves, in one of the books’ best touches, the marauders of Pirate Lair show us a shaded (if sketched) portrayal of how people not given much chance to be goodguys can try and do their best. I have the feeling that GetFisk will do better and better as it goes along; the plots it hatches are well-formed, and the scenes it weaves around them are becoming more and more persuasive. As Tarita muses about a charismatic turncoat druglord, and maybe our next thrilling series entry, “Too dangerous to love, but too exciting to miss.”

Superunsung

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Kirby Krackle has always had the anthems for misfits needing to pull together — but their newest-to-me album is all about reaching out.

Sounds Like You, whoever you may be, leaves a lot of the specific superhero, sci-fi and gaming references of past albums behind, to sing the praises, and imperfections, of the geeks themselves — and indeed every individual who is a misfit (and a glorious varied mismatch) in their own way. Main songwriter and singer Kyle Stevens told me this is about the progression of geek culture overtaking the mainstream, but it’s also about the geek flag that everyone can now unfurl.

Simple pleasures of fruitful slacking (“Cozy Pants O’Clock,” an ode to goofing off in adult jammies set to a great glammy backing of crunchy guitar and haunted-mansion piano; and “One More Episode,” a ballad of binge-watching with the one you love even more than Peggy Olson and Heisenberg), and knowing enough not to connect at too high-speed to your heart’s desire (“140 Characters”), are the heroic achievements here.

“Parachute,” about emotional leaps and looking out for each other, is my new fav love song (and the last three included KK’s own “Needing a Miracle” from Super Powered Love), and “Take You Out Tonight” is another ode to growing wiser as part of something; no one writes happily-married-ever-after songs like Stevens, because fanboys aren’t supposed to want that though it’s all we and Clark Kent are really ever thinking of.

What the aforesaid “Needing a Miracle” did for the Lois Lanes and Mary Janes of life, “Grandma’s House” does for the Aunt Mays; a disco inferno that completely unironically homages kickass wise-hearted old ladies (Stevens also happens to be setting one of the prime examples of what a male in fandom who doesn’t deserve to be chased down and effed up by a Catwoman cosplayer would look like).

Fictional characters are people too, and a pair of songs late in the disk keep Kirby Krackle’s gloved hand in the realm of comics-for-sound and movies-on-the-radio. “Web-Slinger/Hope-Bringer” looks at the lowest-hanging fruit of subject matter and the hardest to say something new about, which Stevens nails, making you sense not what it would look like to do what Peter Parker does, but feel like to be who he is, in an eerie, energized theme-song of psychological turmoil and release in flashbulbs of bursting ben-day color bombs. At an end of the spectrum far, far away “Moisture Farm” recasts the basics of Star Wars as a kind of guy-walks-into-a-cantina joke to remind us why so many of us get over it and grow up (but can still smile and identify).

The range of styles, from “Taco Night”’s suburban salsa to “North of the Wall”’s troubled, titanic hardcore punk, is like a colorful overwhelming wall of comics and cartridges, and with the new national anthem, “The Same Thing,” KK waves the flag for everyone who needs to be accepted and learn how good it feels to be different together. Geek lit always shows the crowd cheering one solitary hero as he or she prevails. But Sounds Like You reminds us that the story isn’t really worth it until everyone in the crowd-scene wins.

http://kirbykracklemusic.com/

School’s In Forever

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All the world’s a screen anymore, and in everyday life, as used to be the case just in celebrity and politics, we never stop acting. At best that is a type of considered, even examined, life that supposedly-isolating technology has facilitated; at worst, it’s Mr. Student Body President, the most hilarious pilot I’ve seen since the age of print.

This concept, in which The West Wing is repeated as Doogie Howser, is a savage satire of the logical conclusion of youth culture, competitive hipness, and first-world problems consuming our civic bandwidth. Hollywood used to worry about that scary younger generation taking over the government (Wild in the Streets, 1968); now, it frets about young people each collapsing into a country of one (Men, Women & Children, 2014); in Mr. Student Body President the titular popularity-contest winner strides through the highschool hallways with a team of advisors in tow, spouting Sorkin-cadanced solemnities about pep-rally plans and defaming rival schools’ sports teams as in a democracy/terrorist clash of civilizations.

The triviality of the concerns and the soberness of delivery hilariously burlesque the misplaced priorities that people under 70 would see real-life leaders sputtering if any of those people watched the news, and the trappings of poise and seriousness are a little-remarked consequence of a media-saturated culture; people have not been dumbed down by TV and movies and gaming and wifi, they’ve been given a mynah-bird sophistication, and the comedy and tragedy of Mr. Student Body President is that the senior-year executive doesn’t know how funny he sounds OR what his misspent talents could actually accomplish.

Nicholas Barasch is a prodigy of suave self-importance as the title character, Tyler Prendergast; Jenn Lyon a pillar of appalled, receding civilization as Principal Helfrick; Maggie Ross a bundle of existential anxiety as Mrs. Mayer, the embattled media advisor; and Dolores McDougal and Bill Weeden paragons of flummoxed lifetime-functionary earnestness as student council advisor Mrs. Honeychurch and Assistant Principal Leslie Klemmer, respectively. At one point Honeychurch nods up to helplessly look for a google reference for something unrelated to what the kids have queried; at several points Klemmer is reporting his hapless-Hoover surveillance of students’ tweets to the principal.

Sorkin of course banged out a Facebook movie, and Mr. Student Body President more accurately maps how quick these buzz-thoughts pass us by; Tyler gazes with the weight of the world at the empty space on a wall gallery of pep-rally skits past — Wayne and Garth, “Gangnam Style” — and hopes that his planned (and banned) “Turn Down for What” variation will take its place among the relics. This pilot is the wittiest skewer and scalpel of such self-delusion since Conan O’Brien and Adam West’s Lookwell, which is on no one’s wall, and I hope the greenlight gods will not make the same mistake with Mr. Student Body President — the future of comedy actually does depend on it.

A Show About Everything

Absence is not emptiness. When others aren’t looking, we aren’t looking either, but we’re still here just as much. Filmmaker Ashish Pant has a mind for absence in Byron Jones, a nonverbal oral history of the space between what “happens.”Byron 4

The film navigates the dark matter of our everyday; sleeping, meals, the getting dressed but not the going anywhere. Improvising stasis is a monumental task that the movie’s main focus, Bill Weeden, achieves in the title role; his nothing is always a supremely active state, of gestures and tics and unselfconscious mannerisms and unpredictable reactions and inner life floating in the sea of recollection behind his eyes.

In the moments we’re looking in the mirror, showering, defecating, arranging our clothes, we don’t “know” anything more than that about ourselves but completely understand who we are, and in this entirely wordless film we learn who Byron Jones is by sensing his mood and anticipating his reactions. Weeden himself was given no advance knowledge of the film’s narrative, shooting in sequence and being handed a part of the script (consisting of incident and activity, no conventional story) shortly before enacting each scene.

Byron 8 He grew to know this personality just as we do over the course of about an hour and three quarters. Time is measured precisely like that, while cycling into one grand composition in which the space from bedroom to sitting room to kitchen is more important than the duration between moments.

Jones is solitary in a literal sense; we don’t see him ever speak to his occasionally glimpsed home health aide though they take meals together, and otherwise we see no soul but him; presumably retired, apparently widowed or never attached, though we know nothing of what choices he has made. All of us are as solitary, figuratively, in our conception of ourselves, we just don’t feel that that solitude is worth watching — we seldom look into it rather than out from it, but in Byron Jones, it is worthy of note.

Pant packs and thickens time into the movie’s scenes, for an animate still-life painting of how we push our way through daily existence. We see Jones, seemingly well in control of his faculties and destiny, dress up; for nobody, as far as we can tell, but not for nothing; attending to himself, he is the opposite of invisible.

We are as aware of time passing slowly as we are absorbed in its particulars, but Byron Jones is not a Warholian endurance test, daring you not to laugh; it is only funny when it means to be, as in an extended struggle between Jones and the vacuum-sealed contents of a SPAM can, or with a rogue home corn-popper. Later on, with lifeforce, with vigorous anger, one day when the aide is late, Jones dancingly attacks a paisley rug with a vacuum cleaner in an act that looks like the wiping clean of a mandala.Byron 1

The mystic, existential referent applies; Byron Jones is like a Koyaanisqatsi inverted, in which the title character’s simple, crucial existence is at the hub of the wheel of the world. We are animals; we rest, eat, take in air and warmth and water; we sustain ourselves, and the moments in which we do these things are flowing into us, not “moving on.” We see scenes of Byron going out, and scenes of him returning, but nothing of the in-between. But he doesn’t go in circles; he completes them.

Common Valor

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In heroic fiction, there’s always another twist on the way to a final victory; in reality there’s always something new to endure in the course of just staying alive. Compromised, complicated heroes are a commonplace of comics since the mid-1980s, but writer Gail Simone is unparalleled in facing the consequences of conflict from the point of view of those without power.

Leaving Megalopolis is a post-apocalyptic narrative of the type we’ve become used to from zombie and vampire flicks and the daily feeds from Ferguson and Katrina-era New Orleans. But less like Walking Dead and more like Missouri, Megalopolis is about a menace not from those we consider “other” than or “under” us, but above — a glittering city’s superhero population has gone rogue, hunting down civilians in a blasted, now almost-dead urban wasteland.

In the trials of the classic band of survivors, attempting escape and encountering brutality and betrayal in the present while just as slowly marching away from guilt or abuses in their past, we see how both the highest heroism and the worst monstrosity can be the work of everyday humans.

The abandonment of Detroit and the shooting of refugees fleeing flooded New Orleans are each explicitly referenced, and Leaving Megalopolis is a grim parable of having no authority to count on and the logical conclusion of dismantling government. But also of the necessity of individuals truly relying on their own resources and moral authority, not to be “left alone” but to find connections with each other; I can’t think of a braver mainstream comics writer than Simone, and I can’t remember when I was as emotionally invested in an end-times drama as I am in this one.

Artist Jim Calafiore does a horrifying, heartbreaking job of portraying the city’s ghostly greatness and the inhumanity of its inhabitants both super and human. Great attention and understanding has gone into the archetypal references in his design of legends gone wrong and his conception of unnoticed and unsung ordinary souls at their best, their worst and their lost, precious everyday.

I won’t reveal what “turns” the superheroes evil, but it coincidentally reminded me of what seems to have happened to Nix Uotan at the end of The Multiversity #1, and the moral of Megalopolis is that the worst that can befall us happens not from “going bad,” but from giving up. Simone is a definitive storyteller and compassionate witness who puts you in the center of the action and herself at the side of your struggles, and will not turn away.