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With time comes perspective. With time comes greater understanding and wisdom. When you’re young, you don’t fully appreciate subtext and thematic resonance. When you’re building your own personal aesthetic, elements like context and creative boundaries are in their infancy, incapable of being readily comprehended and accepted. Back in the late ‘80s, a certain champion of independent cinema announced the arrival of a raw and gritty “war” film entitled Combat Shock. Best known for its hilarious horror comedy splatterfests like The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke ‘Em High, adolescent fans anticipated another raucous ripper, a genre gem made up of 60% rude attitude and 40% crude arterial spray. What they got instead was a dark and deadly serious look at a Vietnam veteran at the end of his rope. The only “shocking” for these seemingly disappointed Troma geeks was the level of unfiltered truth being hurled at the camera.
For you see, Buddy Giovinazzo’s urban grit masterwork remains a wholly unsettling experience. After the sudden massacre of an entire village, GI Frankie Dunlan (Buddy’s brother Rick) kills a Vietnamese girl. He is captured and sent to a POW camp. There, he is tortured for information. Later, he takes up residence in a VA hospital, but is still terrified of the nightmares he has surrounding the war. Now he’s an unemployed drifter, a married man with a pregnant wife and a mutant baby (the result of Frankie’s exposure to Agent Orange). With street hood Paco owning his very soul, there is very little hope for the failing family. Even a phone call to his once influential dad earns Frankie nothing but bad news. With his flashbacks getting more heated and the possibility of eviction on the horizon, our hero is not sure what to do - that is, until he happens to come into possession of a handgun.
Made before Oliver Stone’s apologetic Platoon and containing an entire squadron of squalor, Combat Shock - or as it was originally conceived, American Nightmare - is a brilliant, brazen denouncement of how our nation treated its returning war “heroes”, and a prophetic statement of how little things would change over the next three decades. Delivering a ‘day in the life’ portrait of poverty and pain so devastating that it just might lead you to the same suicidal conclusions haunting its main character, this is starkness as a soiled symphony. Sure, there seems to be obvious nods to David Lynch’s Eraserhead and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, but Buddy Giovinazzo is not paying homage. Instead, he’s exploring the same urban and interpersonal horrors that stain both of those ‘70s classics, and doing so in a far ballsier manner than his far more famous celluloid brethren.
Combat Shock is clearly meant to be a political statement, albeit one wrapped up in the neo-realistic filth of a NYC crumbling into decay. There has never been a movie this fetid, this streaked with the stains of a million displaced and dour people. From the desolate apartment which Frankie calls home to the bombed out buildings that resemble the ruins of a defeated nation, Giovinazzo turns the Big Apple into one incredibly sour fruit. Even worse, he turns Frankie into the kind of hopeless case that no amount of government aid can help. With the constantly howling freak child in the crib and an angry, emasculating wife in his bed, our lead is less a man and more like a combination of quasi-human pieces. Held together with spit and sickness, Combat Shock ideas were always meant to be a slap in the face. Frankly, Troma fans didn’t expect it to sting so badly.
And that’s part of the film’s mythology - and misinterpretation. Back when Uncle Lloyd and the gang were seeking ways to market their films to the widest audience possible, Giovinazzo’s original 16mm American Nightmare was cut in order to conform to both ratings requirements and perceived commercial appeal. To this day, few have seen the longer version of the film and that’s a shame. Presented as part of the Tromasterpiece Collection of Combat Shock, Nightmare itself is quite amazing. It’s as disturbing and dark as the released take, but thanks to the added time (about ten more minutes overall), Giovinazzo has a chance to elaborate on all the possibilities he’s introduced. There’s more war both at home and in the battlefield, and a greater feeling of metropolitan alienation. We get more drugs, more death, more despair.
But that’s not all the new two disc DVD has to offer. Giovinazzo (now an expatriate living in Germany) is joined by controversial auteur Jörg Buttgereit for a commentary track that’s part trip back in time, part anecdotal evidence of Combat Shock‘s endearing genius. Our director has an answer and a story for everything, from the obvious allusions to one Henry Spencer to the unquestioned influence of the No Wave band Suicide (and the song “Frankie Teardrop”) on the movie. Buttgereit acts more like a fanboy, reflecting on elements of the film that he simply adores. This is carried over to the second part of the package, where many famous filmmakers (including John Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer McNaughton, William Maniac Lustig, and Roy Document of the Dead Fumkes, among many others) extrapolate on how influential - and unfairly marginalized - Giovinazzo and his movie truly are.
Perhaps The Manson Family‘s Jim Van Bebber says it best when he describes Buddy’s brother Rick as being ‘Travis Bickle without all the pretense’, and it’s a feeling expanded upon by the brand new interviews with the men behind and in front of the camera. Looking nothing like their former selves, the Giovinazzos describe their early career as musicians (we see music videos for their band, as well as several startling short films) and speculate on how well Combat Shock holds up some 25 years later. They also explain some of the reactions they’ve had both then and now. Fleshing out said retrospective is a look at some of the locations. A few stand in sharp contrast to their former filthy selves. Others, sadly, have remained exactly the same (or horrifically, much worse). With trailers and the aforementioned copy of American Nightmare in tow, this is about as definitive as the digital format gets.
And we are dealing with a movie that definitely deserves it. Combat Shock may be a bad memory for anyone coming to the Troma title hoping for the standard bile, boobs, and beasts. It’s definitely more like The Bicycle Thief than Bloodsucking Freaks. In fact, if you are looking for a film that tells the true story about what life was like for returning veterans in the ‘70s, if you want all the pain and political posturing, unresolved emotions and lingering social failings, this is the film to seek out. Somewhere in the great halls of misbegotten movies stands a pedestal waiting for Buddy Giovinazzo’s Combat Shock. It’s a true American original, a portrait painted in the scum, sweat, and the fears of both its subject and its supporters. Time does have a tendency to play tricks on you. It can alter even the most concrete of critical snubs. A quarter of century ago, few found this film exceptional. Today, it stands as one of the ‘80s independent best.
From Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, Ubisoft
Easily one of the more prevalent facial expressions in video games today is the scowl. Although their anime and cartoon inspired counter-parts break the trend along with faceless protagonists such as Master Chief, overall the heroes of video games all seem to be having a bad day. Why are angry video game characters so prevalent? The basics of the scowl are explained in a guide on how to surgically alter your face to not scowl. It recommends removing the vertical hatchet lines between your eyebrows and always keeping you lips just slightly parted to avoid pursed lips. The scowl, based on the instructions on how to avoid making one, involves keeping your jaw clenched and your eyebrows arched down. Doing so will make people feel intimidated, cost you potential business clients, and make everyone think you’re unhappy. So why are we so desperate to play as people with this facial expression?
How does one make a scowl appealing? A random Twitter cast for people’s favorite celebrity scowls brought up everything from Harrison Ford, Adam Baldwin to Uma Thurman and Alan Rickman as favorite scowls. Clint Eastwood, whose scowl continues to intimidate people to this day, still manages to bring in the fans. An old article from People Magazine about Eastwood interviews several industry people that have worked with him. One comments that the really impressive thing about him is the fact that he’s genuinely a tough guy. After almost collapsing while filming a scene where his character was climbing a rocky wall, Eastwood clawed his way up when the photographer told him he had no choice. Another relates a story where a boulder almost fell on their mountain guide and maimed another crew member. Eastwood, who was funding the film, nearly broke down into tears. He was ready to cancel the film right there. The crew member states, “Clint seemed so simple I thought he was phony. But after a while, I realized how sharp he was. He isn’t verbal, but he is one smart mother…He always comes off very callous and pragmatic, but inside, he’s just mush.” Eastwood’s scowl thus communicates both a sense of hostility but an underlying belief that there is something genuine about him, that his contempt only comes from the fact that he cares.
A comparison between a good scowl and a bad scowl can be seen at Sports Manifesto that compares the scowls of Dick Cheney and Bill Cowher (retired Steeler’s Coach). The blog notes, “Cowher’s scowl seems more genuine than Cheney’s, his is a classic scowl which is solely intent on eliciting fear in the victim. Cowher seems capable of unthinkable acts when that scowl is strewn across his face…Dick Cheney’s scowl seems contrived, as though he accidentally shoved something up his ass as a child and can’t get it out.” The blog concludes that Cheney is scarier because his scowl is something that is simply worn like a mask while Cowher is reflecting his inner turmoil. In the case of both Cowher and Eastwood, we accept the scowl because of its authenticity.
Yet the scowl is not just something used in film or politics, even the fashion industry is dependent on creating a scowl that is genuine to sell their clothes. An excellent article at The New York Times asks why fashion models always look unhappy. The article is about a random survey that showed the unhappier the model looks the more expensive the product they’re selling. One of the first comments to the story explains that models are technically not allowed to smile. They will even be fined money if they do it on the runway. Smiling, as opposed to scowling, is psychologically interpreted as an act of submission while scowling communicates superiority. The article quotes from a Professor Ketelaar, “Lower status individuals appear to smile more than higher status individuals. I suspect that this is due, in part, to the fact that there are several different types of smiles, including a true happiness smile and a true embarrassment smile. The latter smile, the embarrassment display, is often seen as an appeasement display in primates… Thus, the non-smiling faces of the higher status brands are not trying to make the consumer feel bad; they are simply attempting to display the signals that are associated with higher status.” The irony is that the higher the status you want to communicate to a person, the more negative the signal you need to send to show that you don’t care.
From Half-Life 2, Valve
It is hard to conclude this blog post without stopping and appreciating the power of the smile in a game avatar. Even the fashion article above points out that there is a difference between an embarrassment grin and a pure happiness smile. Just as the scowl indicates superiority and indifference, the smile creates a sense of being welcome. You don’t even have to do it with your mouth. A guide on how to smile with your eyes at wikihow explains that a good smile is not just turning the mouth upwards. The essay notes, “Fake smiles involve just the mouth, and people notice something wrong. The next time you are REALLY smiling, take note of the muscles in your cheeks, forehead, and temples.” A real smile should make the eyes glimmer and it has to come from something real. The article goes so far as to suggesting thinking about a happy thought when you try to smile, even if what you’re smiling at doesn’t qualify. For all the excitement that may come from playing as the ultimate scowling badass, it is hard to not appreciate the big goofy grin on Mario’s face when he invites us to come fly around the galaxy with him. Or feel welcome when we see Alyx Vance smile after we just blasted our way through a tough level. If the scowl’s function in video games is to empower the player, it’d be nice if they had enough character to drop their guard as well.
Unlikely collaborators Moby and David Lynch put their heads together for a cool black and white animated video that actually catapults the bald electronica guru into relevancy again. In turn, Moby lent the director a hand with his new album Fox, Bat, Strategy: A Tribute to Dave Jaurequi, out June 30. Yes, David Lynch is about to drop an album!