At the MusicThoughts mailing list, jam band guitarist/poet Clifton Johnston shared an interesting idea about the concept of a ‘wiki album.’ Since he expressed it so well, it’s worth quoting him in full and pondering his thoughts.
All great auteurs, no matter the era, find themselves dabbling in science fiction at least once in their career. Lang had Metropolis. Godard gave us Alphaville. Kubrick cemented his reputation with the resplendent 2001: A Space Odyssey while Truffaut took Ray Bradbury’s allegorical classic and turned it into his own version of Fahrenheit 451. The reasons behind such genre experimentation are obvious - speculative cinema is based in ideas, images, and the careful consideration of both. It’s the very set-up that a moviemaking maverick yearns for. It tests not only their storytelling mantle, but the very limits of their imagination. Post-millennial movie god Giuseppe Andrews understands this all too well. That’s why Schoof, his look at a world gone insane under an evil alien influence, resonates as yet another in his growing list of trailer park masterworks.
As our narrator tells us, a force named Schoof began its rampage of Earth in a slow, subtle manner. First, her wheelchair bound grandfather began endlessly circling the parking lot outside his mobile home. Next, her mother and father have a senseless fight over whether or not there are cowboys in their vacuum. Brother is bonkers, climbing palm trees in his underwear and tirelessly jumping over Christmas tress. And another neighbor believes he is being chased by a humongous hamster. As situations in society deteriorate, the local news picks up on the story. They show a man having an affair with a children’s doll, and a homeless philosopher mumbling about the apocalypse… or maybe not. In the end, it will take a scientist, a willing test subject, and a group choral, to save the galaxy.
Staying in the crazed, comedic vein he firmly established with Orzo, Andrews’ amazing Schoof is like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World meshed with Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It’s like a movie long version of the scene in Wild at Heart where Freddie Jones offers his high pitched warning about how “pigeons spread diseases”. Utilizing a Hellsapoppin style to place us directly into the middle of a worldwide meltdown, it’s clear that, as his interests grow, so does this filmmaker’s style. Gone are the static shots where characters merely recite dialogue directly into the camera. In their place are ludicrous action scenes, complex tracking shots, and a much greater emphasis on character interaction.
Indeed, Schoof is one of the few Andrews’ films that provides a cohesive family unit. Vietnam Ron and Karen Bo Baron are the squabbling marrieds, their crackerjack conversations a study in marital strife. The director and his partner, Marybeth Spychalski, are the offspring, and they provide a lot of the visual humor. If he’s anything, Andrews is brave. He will gladly appear partially nude as long as it satisfies a cinematic ends - be it comedy, or something more complicated. Spychalski has been the ‘staright man’ in so many of these movies that it’s great to see her branch out into the more surreal and strange elements of the narrative. With the growing presence of Sir George Bigfoot, Tommy Salami, and the iconic Ed, along with returning superstars such as Ron, Walt Dongo, and Miles Dougal, this is one of the best Andrews casts ever.
And just when you thought he couldn’t surprise you with his unsane concepts, along comes this story’s psycho sci-fi angle. Granted, the extraterrestrial take-over is gloriously goofy most of the time (they are after maple syrup, supposedly), but it does allow for a more freaked out free form flow to the events. Similarly, by making the resulting malady personal and individual, Andrews gives his performers room to expand. There’s a clear parallel here - as with many of his movies, Schoof clearly reflects the growing ludicrousness of society, a situation that sees any issue blown way out of proportion before a single rational thought is applied. In the last act scientist character, a man of intelligence and logic, we get the veiled attempt at redemption - and the resulting laugh when even he gives up on the brain scrambling signal.
But make no mistake - this is not some outsider artist’s take on Stephen King’s Cell or the recent indie fright flick The Signal. Instead, Schoof is meant as a gagfest first and foremost. Once you get beyond the shoot from the hip comic coating, however, there are intriguing elements o’plenty. What other moviemaker today would offer up abortion (including the near blasphemous image of a blood stained hanger), cannibalism, adultery, and rectal dysfunction as part of an interplanetary crisis. Clearly, the big picture concerns of one’s place within the cosmos are being regularly eclipsed by the seven deadly sins - plus five. If anything, this is Schoof‘s most important message…and it’s most disturbing.
Then there is the ending - one of the most engaging and inventive the director has ever created. Without giving much away, it utilizes another Andrews singalong classic to suggest - Life of Brian style - that any tragedy can be skirted or diverted by a little literal human race harmony. It’s a treat, the kind of capper that keeps a fan coming back for more. It’s also an indication that Andrews is in full command of the cinematic medium. The language is no longer foreign to him. Instead, he’s so fluent he can mess with it all he wants - be it a bizarre set of dream sequences, or a Mitch Miller musical moment.
As he continues to expand as a visionary, as his pallet of potential premises reaches well toward infinity, Giuseppe Andrews continues to amaze and inspire. Over the course of the last few months, he’s given us the amazing Americano Trilogy, the stellar Garbanzo Gas, and the full blown laugher Orzo. Now, he readily walks into the realm of the unknown and the fantastical to realize even more of his remarkable creative aims. Schoof doesn’t purport to have any futuristic insights, or pretend to prophesize the shape of things to come. As with all the films in this director’s career defining oeuvre, we are witnessing the marginalized and the fringe falling even further outside the bonds of normalcy. That someone champions their cause is reason enough to love this man’s work. That said films stand as works of unique, underground art is the icing on the cinematic cake.
“To Be Continued…”
Three words that literally drain all hope out of a horror fan. Whenever that title card arrives at the end of a fright flick, one of two things is for certain. First, the previous movie was so lightweight and lame that the makers couldn’t find a way to end it. Instead, they simply went with a sequel and skirted the issue. The second scenario is even more ‘scary’. In this case, the talent behind the camera is so ambitious, so convinced of the epic nature of their narrative, that one mere movie can’t hold all the brilliance. For them, a single outing barely broaches the subject. In fact, we could be looking at several installments. While it may seem like a spoiler, Automaton Transfusion uses the abovementioned phrase at a crucial juncture in its plot. But it does so for a rather unusual third reason. In this instance, it just wants to let the audience catch its blood-drenched breath.
The storyline here is simple…dead…simple: at a local high school, three outsiders (Chris, Tim, and Scott) try to avoid getting beaten up by jocks while hitting on all the hot honeys. Viewed as slackers and stoners, the trio retreats to a punk rock show in a nearby town. In the meantime, the popular crowd heads to a remote house for a big time kegger. What all of them fail to realize is that a zombie outbreak is occurring - right under their adolescent noses. Locals are going loony for human flesh, with classmates attacking teachers and residents resorting to acts of carnage and cannibalism. When Chris finally realizes what is going on, he has only one concern - save his cheerleader girlfriend Jackie and get to his dad. Sadly, both goals may be next to impossible to achieve. The dead are alive - and very, very hungry.
In fact, if you look carefully, it is clear that Miller wants to riff on every major zombie film - or similarly styled undead romp - from the last forty years. The party local resembles Romero’s Night, while a big city attack and creature wail remind one of Day. Our fiends are fast movers, like the Zach Snyder Dawn remake and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, and our heroes wield all manner of makeshift weapons ala Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste and Dead Alive. There’s even a Fulci homage, a taste of Raimi, and a last act denouement that simply reeks of John Carpenter. Put them all together and you’ve got a greatest hits package of terror takes - and that’s good, since Miller is going to make do with action set pieces only.
That’s right, Automaton Transfusion doesn’t mess around. It doesn’t waste a viewer’s time with unnecessary exposition, intricate characterization, or subtle social subtext. Instead, it gives us the standard high school cardboard cutouts, tosses in a generic love story and formulaic friendship, and then starts the vein draining. Within four minutes of the film starting (and some of that is credits), Miller has us deep in the thick of things. Necks are being torn open, bodies coming back to life in a local morgue. It’s not long before rampaging ghoul gangs are carving up the countryside, their insatiable appetite for offal driving them to more and more heinous atrocities.
Such an approach leaves the filmmaker open for criticism, but he doesn’t really seem to care. On the accompanying bonus features found on the DVD release, Miller makes it clear that budget, time, and talent issues mandated that Automaton Transfusion be as streamlined and sleek as possible. A full length commentary track discusses the production problems, the camera cheats (an ‘abandoned’ highway still has visible cars reflected in a main vehicle’s side panels), and the decision to expand the narrative. There is also a collection of deleted scenes which show how far the filmmaker actually wanted to push things. The Behind the Scenes featurette offers insights for other independent auteurs, while a short called Suffer or Sacrifice illustrates Miller’s ambitions. Together it treats a movie that apparently needed massive work in post to look halfway cinematic (the herky jerky shooting strategy of the image and over-editing doesn’t help) into a creative call to arms.
But none of this alleviates the sting when those three little words appear on the screen. Even at a brisk 75 minutes, Automaton Transfusion doesn’t earn the additional right of continuing forward - at least, not yet. When the military man shows up at the last minute to start his seemingly endless explanations, we wonder why Miller just didn’t manufacture a payoff. We would buy it, even if he simply killed everyone off. But clearly this director believes he has more to say on the subject - or even better, that a quick video sale, the resulting influx of cash, and a smidgen of notoriety will result in a bigger budget. And if that, in turn, results in more of the rabid red stuff, we gorehounds will be more than ecstatic. As long as there’s a possible return on our macabre investment, we’ll suffer through any continuation. We’ll definitely be banking on blood once Automaton Transfusion: Contingency rolls around.
Ultra-pessimist Nouriel Roubini, an economist known for predicting catastrophe, spared nothing in his recent presentation to the House Financial Services Committee. Often scoffed at before the subprime meltdown, he’s been scarily proven right about a lot of things in the past few months. In his words:
For over a year the Fed assessment of the risks to the economy and to the financial markets was flatly wrong. The Fed argued that the housing “slump” would bottom out over a year ago; instead the housing recession got deeper and is nowhere near bottoming out; Bernanke argued repeatedly that the subprime problem would be a niche and contained problem; instead we have observed a severe liquidity and credit crunch that has spread to the entire financial system; the Fed argued that the housing recession would have no significant spillovers to the other sectors of the economy in spite of the importance of housing and in spite of the fact that housing is the main assets of most households; instead we are now observing an economy wide-recession. So to put it simply the Fed – as well as most macro analysts and forecasters - got it totally wrong in its assessment of the risks to the economy and to financial markets.
He’s nothing good to say about what economic trouble we still have left to face:
Currently the problems in financial markets are no longer merely sub-prime mortgages, but rather a whole “sub-prime” financial system. The housing recession – the worst in U.S. history and worsening every day – will eventually see house prices fall by more than 20 percent, with millions of Americans losing their homes and/or walking away from them as they have negative equity in them.
Delinquencies, defaults, and foreclosures are now spreading from sub-prime to near-prime and prime mortgages. Thus, total losses on mortgage-related instruments – include exotic credit derivatives such as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) – will add up to more than $400 billion. Moreover, commercial real estate is beginning to follow the downward trend in residential real estate. After all, who wants to build offices, stores, and shopping centers in the empty ghost towns that litter the American West? In addition to the downturn in real estate, a broader bubble in consumer credit is now collapsing: as the US economy slips into recession, defaults on credit cards, auto loans,
and student loans will increase sharply. US consumers are shopped-out, savings-less, and debt-burdened. With private consumption representing more than 70 percent of aggregate US demand, cutbacks in household spending will deepen the recession.
In a grim twist on AA rhetoric, Roubini then gives his “12 steps to financial disaster”
1. The Housing recession takes 30 percent off of home prices. As a renter, I might be cheered by this if it weren’t going to potentially destroy the economy as we know it. As house prices were running up and friends were sheepishly admitting to how they doubled their net worth, I had the vague sense of panic that I was missing out, but I also felt like this was a phantom wealth. My friends with houses seemed to like the security of it, but fortunately for them, they didn’t try to convert it into real-world wealth through home-equity lines of credit. People who got greedy or jumped into the house-buying game late after getting caught up in the hoopla are the ones who are going to find themselves with negative equity.
2. Which is Roubini’s second point. Mortgages across the house buying spectrum were suspect, in part because they were all affected and inflated by the unmoored house prices. Credit problems
are now spreading to near prime and prime mortgages as the same reckless lending practices in subprime (no down-payment, no verification of income, jobs and assets (i.e. NINJA or LIAR loans), interest rate only, negative amortization, teaser rates, etc.) were occurring across the entire spectrum of mortgages; about 60% of all mortgage origination since 2005 through 2007 had these reckless and toxic features.
With falling prices, a huge percentage of the homes sold in those years could go underwater, and those are precisely the borrowers who are ill-equipped to cope with the setback. This is true of virtually all financial panics. The last in are usually hurt first, and hurt the worst. It’s easily justified by painting such investors as greedy, as overwhelmed by envy of the profits others were making. But really, for home buyers drawn into the market by their life circumstances (and ideology about the sanctity of homeownership—how it makes you an adult and somehow legitimizes your family) and not their investment whims, it was just unfortunate timing. An unhappy consequence of treating renters like second-class citizens.
3. Credit problems begin to afflict credit-card loans. This will create a feedback loop, with bank losses tightening credit, tight credit causing consumers to pull back, balking consumers worsening the recession, and the recession compounding credit problems.
4. Monoline insurers—the firms that back debt issuance and allow municipal and corporate creditors to represent themselves as less risky—start to fail, casting doubt on all those improved bond ratings they helped facilitate. This roils all the different institutional investors that hold the bonds, and makes them impossible to value because no one wants to buy them and thereby put a price to them. Panic begins to afflict the managers of these funds, as they can no longer tell what their asset holdings are actually worth, or how well they themselves are performing.
5. Commercial real estate begins to meltdown the same way that the residential market has. The associated securities and the banks and investors involved with them all suffer.
6. The combined weight of all these problems causes a regional bank to fail, prompting the specter of bank runs and forcing the Fed to commit to bailouts.
7. Banks’ balance sheets take a hit from ill-conceived leveraged buyouts from the credit bubble era—these loans were often overleveraged and undercollateralized, leaving banks more exposed to potential losses if the business involved fail—and we are in a recession after all.
8. Corporate defaults will begin to mount. Fear of counterparty risk will loom large, deepening the credit freeze.
Corporate default rates will surge during the 2008 recession and peak well above 10% based on recent studies. And once defaults are higher and credit spreads higher massive losses will occur among the credit default swaps (CDS) that provided protection against corporate defaults. Estimates of the losses on a notional value of $50 trillion CDS against a bond base of $5 trillion are varied (from $20 billion to $250 billion with a number closer to the latter figure more likely). Losses on CDS do not represent only a transfer of wealth from those who sold protection to those who bought it. If losses are large some of the counterparties who sold protection – possibly large institutions such as monolines, some hedge funds or a large broker dealer – may go bankrupt leading to even greater systemic risk as those who bought protection may face counterparties who cannot pay.
9. Then the “shadow banking system” will collapse.
the “shadow banking system” (as defined by the PIMCO folks) or more precisely the “shadow financial system” (as it is composed by non-bank financial institutions) will soon get into serious trouble. This shadow financial system is composed of financial institutions that – like banks – borrow short and in liquid forms and lend or invest long in more illiquid assets. This system includes: SIVs, conduits, money market funds, monolines, investment banks, hedge funds and other non-bank financial institutions. All these institutions are subject to market risk, credit risk (given their risky investments) and especially liquidity/rollover risk as their short term liquid liabilities can be rolled off easily while their assets are more long term and illiquid. Unlike banks these non-bank financial institutions don’t have direct or indirect access to the central bank’s lender of last resort support as they are not depository institutions. Thus, in the case of financial distress and/or illiquidity they may go bankrupt because of both insolvency and/or lack of liquidity and inability to roll over or refinance their short term liabilities.
10. The stock market tanks; the S&P 500 loses a quarter of its value.
11. Credit spreads—a measure of risk—widen, which not only makes the Fed’s policy tool of cutting rates ineffective but also spurs a widespread liquidity crisis—in other words, people can’t get their money.
12. The liquidity problems force assets to sell at an unwarranted discount, given the assets’ underlying value. This becomes a downward spiral for all sorts of investments.
A near global economic recession will ensue as the financial and credit losses and the credit crunch spread around the world. Panic, fire sales, cascading fall in asset prices will exacerbate the financial and real economic distress as a number of large and systemically important financial institutions go bankrupt. A 1987 style stock market crash could occur leading to further panic and severe financial and economic distress. Monetary and fiscal easing will not be able to prevent a systemic financial meltdown as credit and insolvency problems trump illiquidity problems. The lack of trust in counterparties – driven by the opacity and lack of transparency in financial markets, and uncertainty about the size of the losses and who is holding the toxic waste securities – will add to the impotence of monetary policy and lead to massive hoarding of liquidity that will exacerbates the liquidity and credit crunch.
This is what Roubini calls the meltdown scenario. But can anyone stop it? Roubini: “most likely not.”