Watch the new video for Animal Collective’s “In the Flowers”, the stunning, sublime opener to Merriweather Post Pavilion. The incongruent visual montages, going from a lo-fi retrospective (with one cool, hard-ass lookin’ dude), to seas of swirling flowers, to explosions of light, color, and ballet, may be a bit overwhelming at times. Nevertheless, it seems like Animal Collective hemorrhages these beautiful overtures at will.
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Many movies have tried to explore why we as a people are so attracted to violence. Usually this exploration involves a violent crime that’s watched by many, and a main character that acts as the moral center of the film by denouncing those who watched and did nothing. But often the message of these movies ends up feeling hypocritical because while the character denounces our attraction to violence, the movie itself exploits that very attraction in order to gain an audience. The mixed messages contradict each other and the movie ends up saying nothing at all.
This is a problem for any story that wants to explore this subject. How do you examine our attraction to violence without descending into a glorification of it? Surprisingly, MadWorld succeeds where so many others have failed.
MadWorld revolves around a game within the game. An island city is cut off from the rest of the world, and transformed into one giant set for the game show Death Watch. It’s explained that Death Watch was created to “quench mankind’s thirst for blood and violence in the absence of war,” but this current incarnation of the games was driven by a pharmaceutical company to recoup profits after a major loss. The player controls Jack, a three-time Death Watch champion, now on a mission to rescue the mayor’s daughter from the island.
MadWorld is a gloriously violent game, there’s no disputing that fact, but the game itself only passively encourages the sideshow of violence. If players never pick up a signpost, they’ll never see the gratuitous cut scene of Jack stabbing it through someone’s skull. If players never pick up an enemy, then they’ll never see the cut scene of Jack repeatedly ramming him into a spike. While the game allows for these acts of violence, it is ultimately the player who performs them. Therefore when MadWorld begins to moralize and condemn the Death Watch games, it blames those who participate in such games for continuing the trends of violence. It’s interactivity gives it an excuse to avoid any blame.
It’s telling that Jack is an ex-champion of the games, a professional killer. People bet money on contestants like Jack, they’re the lifeblood of the games, and it’s no surprise that his counterparts, the bosses we must kill to progress, are all psychotic. This is who we’re playing as. We’re one of the bad guys.
But what makes MadWorld so interesting is that it gives us players a scapegoat of our own. Jack is on a mission to rescue the mayor’s daughter, his (and by association, our) goal is a noble one. We may fight and kill, but it’s done in self-defense. We’re forced into the games, and the only way to reach the mayor’s daughter is by progressing. The end is supposed to justify the means. It helps that Jack isn’t portrayed as a psycho like the other contestants. In fact, he’s shockingly restrained in the cut scenes, so we see him as a good guy forced to do bad, and the real villains are the ones forcing us to kill.
There are no redeeming qualities to the pharmaceutical company that sponsors Death Watch. They’re using the games to earn money fast, implying that they’re entirely driven by greed. The members of this company, as well as other upper class elites, watch the games unfold from atop a huge tower. They watch for fun, they have no noble goal, for them the violence of Death Watch is just an avenue for entertainment and profit. Compared to them, the player and Jack and the other contestants are just pawns in a larger conspiracy. They’re the real villains; they’re the ones to blame for the cycle of violence.
But what exactly do they do to encourage this cycle? They create the violence for profit, and they watch the violence because they find it entertaining. With those traits in mind they’re no different from the developer and the player. MadWorld is unabashedly pointing the finger at itself, acknowledging its own role in the promotion of violence.
The game exposes our hypocrisy towards violent media by feeding it to us, then giving us a justification for our actions. In a brilliant twist the people we use as scapegoats, the voyeurs and profiteers, are not different from ourselves. We come to think that Death Watch is a horrible game, even as we enjoy MadWorld. The final message of MadWorld isn’t so much a condemnation of violent media, but rather our rationalizations for enjoying violent media. The game knows you love violence, that you’re attracted to the over-the-top black and white gore, that’s really the only reason to play it. In the end that’s all the justification you need, it tells us. You find violence fun. Admit it, and enjoy it.
Come on, what did you expect? Logical plotting? Complex, three dimensional characters? Some shred of recognizable scientific or technological reality? Seriously? This is Roland Emmerich we’re talking about, the man behind such mindless guilty pleasures as Stargate, Independence Day, the updated Godzilla, and The Day After Tomorrow. Did you honestly believe that after the less than stellar returns for that numbing Neanderthal nonsense 10,000 B.C. , the director who made destroying the planet his prime directive would avoid the upcoming Mayan cataclysm? Now who’s kidding who? 2012 is material perfectly suited for the Duke of Disaster Porn, a man who’s killed more continental populations than the Black Plague and Colonialism combined. And though it won’t end up on any critic’s Top Ten lists, it’s surely better than a certain overlong Summer epic about battle intergalactic robots.
It’s 2009, and government geologist Adrian Helmsley stumbles upon one of the greatest - and most terrifying - discoveries in the history of mankind. Recent solar flares have flooded the Earth with atomic particles known as neutrinos, and just as the Mayans predicted, the year 2012 will see these radioactive bad boys radically restructure the planet. The core will get super hot, the crust will melt, and the huge continental plates will shift and separate. It means the end of all life on the planet as we know it - earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, and other humungous natural calamities. Taking the information to bureaucrat Carl Anheuser, it is three more years before a rescue plan is put into action.
Cut to present day 2012, and unsuccessful author Jackson Curtis is planning a weekend camping trip with his ungrateful kids. They just want to hang out at home with his ex-wife and super cool plastic surgeon stepdad Gordon. Still, court ordered visitation is court ordered visitation, and the clan heads out to Yellowstone for a little R&R. There, they run into conspiracy theorist Charlie Frost. Jackson learns of the upcoming apocalypse, the secret plan to save the human race, the pitfalls of bad Flash animation, and his daughter’s bedwetting issues. Cut to the next day, and all the predictions are wrong. The planet is not dying on 12/21/2012. It’s going to Hell RIGHT NOW!
Step right up folks! Step right up and prepare to be mesmerized, bowled over, and generally blown away by Roland Emmerich’s 2012, a movie that is guaranteed to be the last word on impending cinematic Armageddon for the foreseeable future. Never before has one film filled the screen with so much unbridled carnage. Indeed, the opening destruction of LA is so complete, so overflowing with images of crumbling freeways, cavernous earth cracks, and shattering skyscrapers that it literally boggles the brain. You sit staring at the images wondering what Emmerich and his award-worthy crew of F/X artists can drum up next - and then a subway trains comes spewing out of the opened ground and bullet into the immense maw of an ever widening post-after shock abyss, and our jaw goes lax again.
This happens time and time again in 2012, from the moment when Yellowstone goes Vesuvius to the hotel-like ocean liner that gets its own version of the Poseidon’s ‘adventure’. Nothing is spared - Vegas is turned into a fitting rendering of Satan’s own ‘sin city’ (complete with fire lapping up from below) while Hawaii goes back to its flowing magma past. As the massive ash cloud turns DC into a no-breathing zone, the Washington Monument crumbles. Similarly, footage from Brazil has the famous Christ the Redeemer statue shattering into pieces. Nothing is sacred - not the Sistine Chapel, not the country of India, not various significant and meaningful locations around the globe. Gigantic tidal waves wipe out everything, offering up a sense of destruction that is indeed extermination level.
How and who survives remains 2012‘s aching Achilles Heel, however. No one expects well-drawn personalities and meaningful individual reaction in a movie excessively concerned with crushing and cremating famous facades. For their part, John Cusack (as Curtis), Woody Harrelson (Frost), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Helmsley), Oliver Platt (Anheuser), Danny Glover (The Pres), Thandie Newton (his daughter), and Amanda Peet (Cusack’s ex) all acquit themselves admirably. As a matter of fact, given the shoddy script provided by Emmerich and co-writer Harald Kloser, they do a damn fine job. The narrative is indeed a mess, combining elements both within the Mayan myth as well as tired old templates that Irwin Allen wore out decades ago. Emmerich also finds little to like about his emotional epiphanies, staging them in such a way as to more or less drain the sentiment out of the situation.
But at least he knows how to present epic action and destructive spectacle. Unlike his younger brothers in apocalyptic arms, like McG, Stephen Sommers, or Michael Bay, there’s no hand-held crazy cam frenzy to make you nauseous, no jackrabbit jumbled editing style to render even the most simplistic chaos indecipherable and the more complicated stuntwork unrecognizable. Instead, Emmerich lingers on his money shots, allowing us to take in details that other filmmakers would simply crosscut away from or over. This is especially true when Harrelson witnesses the Yellowstone eruption. Massive vistas are framed to fill the entire screen, huge plumes of deadly smoke and ash washing over the viewer like the choice cinematic cheese it represents - and we lap up every last cheddary bite.
As a collection of stunning set-pieces interrupted by dull as dirt nap exposition, 2012 is not meant to mean much. Instead, it is created as an experiment in excess, a test of audience tolerances that skips your intellect and sense of propriety to digs right down deep into the arrested adolescent inside of us all. This is the reason movies are made - to show us things we would never be able to see in real life, to experience the end of the world as only a studio with serious mega-bucks can imagine. There is no lesson to be learned here, no call to treat Mother Nature with kindness or to keep watching the skies. No, Roland Emmerich has delivered exactly what he promised - the undeniable mother of all extinction level events - and all other pretenders to the catastrophe crack throne take heed. The king has supposedly delivered his genre swansong, and it’s a dozy!
It is certainly no secret that I am a frequent correspondent with and major journalistic supporter of veteran screenwriter and novelist Rudy Wurlitzer, as any close reader of my Deconstruction Zone column for PopMatters will note.
My friendship with Rudy grew out of a months-long e-mail correspondence that began in late 2008 as an informal interview; that correspondence (as well as subsequent telephone conversations) formed the basis of my 6 February 2009 column, “Conversing with Rudy Wurlitzer: ‘A Beaten-Up Old Scribbler’”.
In a 30 July 2009 column, “Rudy Wurlitzer, Bob Dylan, Bloody Sam, and the Jornado del Muerto”, I explored Wurlitzer’s debut novel, Nog (1969, re-released this year by Two Dollar Radio), and wound up creating a meditative essay on Sam Peckinpah, the death of the American frontier, Bob Dylan, and the stormy production of Peckinpah’s 1973 masterpiece Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (from a screenplay by Rudy Wurlitzer). It’s easy to veer off in different directions from the path originally intended when writing about Wurlitzer and his remarkable body of work because his themes and preoccupations invite a sort of Beckett-esque circular exploration.
Wurlitzer, in my opinion, is one of the finest American writers produced by the tempestuous and troubling counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s, certainly ranking up there with his celebrated colleagues Joan Didion and Robert Stone. I intend to write about Wurlitzer again in my December column because, frankly, my exploration of the somewhat reclusive author and his literary canon is not yet complete.
With that much said, imagine my surprise this morning when I awoke to find e-mails from two colleagues pointing me to an article in the online edition of the Los Angeles Times written by Sam Adams and titled The Resurgence of Rudy Wurlitzer. From the LAT article:
These days, however, there’s something of a Wurlitzer resurgence in the works. His films have found new life on DVD, and the independent press Two Dollar Radio has begun to bring his writing back. In 2008, the publisher released “The Drop Edge of Yonder,” his first new novel in nearly a quarter of a century; earlier this year, it reissued “Nog.” Now come “Flats” and “Quake,” collected together in one double-sided volume (244 pp., $17 paper). For the first time in more than three decades, it’s possible to investigate the interplay between Wurlitzer’s novels and his screenplays, the way his radical experiments in one informed his canny deconstruction of the other.
Now, compare and contrast the above with my own text from Conversing with Rudy Wurlitzer, written for The Deconstruction Zone at PopMatters a full nine months earlier:
Indeed, there is something of a Rudy Wurlitzer renaissance going down in the pop culture zeitgeist; not only through the Criterion releases but also through a well-deserved re-examination of Wurlitzer’s long-forgotten work as a masterful novelist, with independent publisher Two Dollar Radio preparing to re-release the out-of-print novels Nog (1969) and Quake (1974) in late 2009. Two Dollar also plans to release Wurlitzer’s Flats (1971) and Quake in a single “69 turnover” edition (two books in one binding) which pleases Wurlitzer immensely because both novels, the author says, “seem related as they were written back-to-back expressing a sort of post-apocalyptic vision that I was consumed with in those days.”
You gotta love Adams’ canny use of the noun ‘deconstruction’ in his last sentence. A subconscious slip? The hell if I know, but I did take great comfort in what a colleague wrote to me after analyzing both articles:
“One thing I learned in marketing: if you are the person who brings ideas to the table, it doesn’t matter what falls off; the table is always yours, and the thieves need you. Keep plowing the high ground.”
What is the most WTF moment that Lady Gaga has brought about? Was it the lyric “let’s have some fun / this beat is sick / I wanna take a ride on your disco stick” (from “Lovegame”)? Was it Christopher Walken doing a dramatic reading of the lyrics of “Poker Face”? Was it the TV interview she did where she wore a dress made entirely out of Kermit the Frog dolls? Oh no, dear reader. Those moments have now been usurped by Francis Lawrence-helmed, Kubrik-indebted clip for “Bad Romance”, off of the forthcoming re-release of Lady GaGa’s unbelievably-successful debut album The Fame.