Tuesday, May 31, 2011

I Can’t Draw Pretty Women Pt 1


I learned how to draw nipple shadow on areolas from Dan Iverson in ninth grade art class. Why I hadn’t discovered how to build definition for one of my favorite art book quest items is beyond me, perhaps I had shied away from drawing breasts for fear of letting others in on my personal fantasies or hang ups.

Some of the fist comic book boobs I ever saw were by Sergio Aragones in one of the Mad Magazine compilation novels I’d rescued from a garage sale box during fifth grade, a box my Dad had put out for sale on Tom and Julie Repenning’s lawn as they sold off belongings to make their impending move to Pennsylvania easier. The couple had hoped to downsize enough to fit what remained into the back of their battered old powder blue rust flecked Volvo station wagon.

When I confronted my Dad with fistfuls of Son of Mad and Monster Mad and Mad Rides Again, he shrugged, hadn’t thought I’d have been interested, they were old, and in black and white, and made fun of movies and TV  shows from when he’d been growing up. I’m not sure why I felt betrayed and woefully misunderstood, and for the heaping stack of Mad novels I’d snatched up, I had it in my head that the best ones had been sold and were being read by some kid in a tree house somewhere chuckling to himself as he turned the pages, having a warm belly laugh at my expense for what he could enjoy at leisure and that I would never know.

Perhaps the discovery of that box of novelized Mad magazines on the yard, a veritable Pandora’s Box of prospective influences and inspirations, had all that much more appeal because I discovered it, and perceived come conspiracy behind the motives of selling the books over sharing them with me outright. Regardless, I reread every one of those books innumerable times, and the impact on how I drew and wanted to pack every page I constructed with details and quips and sight gags wherever and whenever I possibly could.

And Sergio’s book, filled with single and double page gags, almost invariably without text to stay consistent with his bits hidden in the margins and seams of the normal monthly magazines, present me with the first cartoon boobs I’d ever seen. Simple, nipples merely black dots, yet I felt the early thrill, the humming pee shiver of puberty imminent, Sergio kept his gags simple, though they were regardless effective, and while a far cry from the martini glass cartoon girl from Playboy, his pair of bare breasted babe panels were personal favorites for fifth grader me. 

After that I began questing for art books in the Milligan College library, though not to see drawings of nude women. Initially I thought that if I studied and learned the tricks of the trade, I could someday work for Mad magazine like Sergio. Remember that I’d collected and immolated editorial cartoons as a kid, so the jump from those to Mad magazine style satire made sense like the leap from Miracle Plays to Vaudeville.

Soon after leaving the card catalog with a list of Dewey Decimal identifiers chicken scratched onto a yellow slip of paper with a golf pencil, I discovered that most available learn to draw books were dedicated to drawing the nude body, particularly concerned with the female form, generally rendered with charcoals and / or pastels. 

There were three books particularly burdened with beautiful bounty and I scrutinized those with particular interest, for intellectual reasons of course. And while I should and could have begun drawing the magnificent splendor of the female human form, for some reason I still couldn’t fathom but hazard a guess might have had Catholic School prudish underpinnings, instead I drew super heroes, monsters, aliens, obnoxiously large explosions, weapons of mass comic book scale destruction, rocket ships, and airplanes. Perhaps I reflected some sort of indoctrination most Americans seem to have about the human form and sexuality as taboo while weapons and violence can ravage center stage. Muscles, guns, violence all work fine for prime time, however flash a book and expect public outrage.

Travelling in Europe, I’ve seen a far healthier attitude about sex and nudity versus war and violence, particularly in Prague and Paris. Blood and guts gets the adult rating, sexuality and nudity teen at most, because the general consensus is that a boob never killed anyone. Unless that boob ran the country, however I digress.

More on why I can’t draw pretty women next post. 

Saturday, May 28, 2011

erratic sense of self


I’m nearly 41 years old. I suppose that’s when some sort of midlife crisis should set in. I’m honestly not sure what that would be, since I’ve lived most of my life with a perpetual state of serrated, saw-toothed sense of self-image. A swashbuckling swagger that’s as many parts self-entitlement as self-loathing, and a lavish latticework of interconnected inter-dependencies that both fuel and feed off the extremes of my perceived being, built up over decades of experience with bullies, loneliness, social misanthropy, and leading to ample public blunders, over compensation, bouts of kicked-puppy need for approval from others, liquid courage last stands and subsequent mornings of shame, boisterous bouts of blowhard loud-mouthed braggart and male bulldaggery.

A perpetually insecure, non-confident state of being can lead as much a healthy disposition towards remaining curious as an unhealthy disposition of fickle commitment, of believing in what’s next over what’s now. Nothing wrong with wanting more until you take for granted or devalue what you actually have.

When I was 11, during the season of my panic / rage attacks, I remember I had a strange gravitation towards a fabric doll sort of proportioned like Ziggy, something Hospital gift shops sold then. The doll had a round, flat, heavy sand or bean filled had with a stitched seam around the circumference, beneath the chin as though cancer had been removed, over the top of the head as though post having tumors removed. Very hopeful for your speedy recovery sort of subtext in the doll's cranial detailing.

The makers of the toy had printed a cartoon expression or sympathetic understanding and commiseration expression on the face, eyes looking up somewhat like a Basset hound’s, as though feeling hopeful after a good cry. The body of the doll also had been filled with something grainy and heavy, though only enough to shape the torso out like a wedge of cheese, the top of the torso pinched into a flat line like the top of an iconic lunch sack, attached to the middle of the back of the head via a straight line of thick stitches that ran roughly ear to ear, or where ears might have poked out from if the doll had had any. The short arms and legs were attached the same pinched way, sewn to the body by single decisive lines of stitches, thin and empty at those connection, while fat at the dangling ends full of something with a touch of weight, though puffy as well, perhaps some polyester stuffing.
I would enter a panic attack, sometimes instigated by a situation I didn’t know how to react to, or an answer I didn’t like from my Mom, or a catalyst from a toy breaking like how the head would snap off the insufficiently burly neck peg on the Tatooine Luke Skywalker figure with the little light saber that retraced up into his arm. If you tried to fold his legs back behind him so that he looked like he was flying, you had to be sure you didn’t press against the back of his head for leverage, as the head would snap off, regardless how much Super-Glue your Dad had used to reattach the head from last time. I never remembered this key detail until after I’d “Oops! Done it again!” and that toy’s easily detachable head triggered a few noisy outbursts, though probably only one of the legitimate day terrors meltdown variety.

As the attack began to spiral up, I felt as though I’d become detached, no longer in control of myself. I could feel all of the emotional charge, hear all of the sound and fury, yet could also see myself, could see my Mom’s face go tight and white, her lips disappear. I wanted to badly to hug her, to help her feel better, to stop the insanity and how much hurting it caused. Even from this vantage almost thirty years later, I remember snapshots of the incidents from a distance, like a third person game camera after the controller batteries died in hand, unable to do anything while my avatar races headlong into sofa cushion throwing, plate smashing, lip splitting, arm cutting madness.
 I don’t recall when the doll arrived, or who suggested it to my Mom. That strange little doll had often served as an anchor, something my Mom could shove into my hands, something for me to cling to, focus in on, and that for whatever reason, maybe those puppy dog eyes, I would never throw or tear into or bite or destroy. I would stare at it until the rage and fear and emotion left me crumpled, sweating, tears streaming down my cheeks, clutching the doll to my chest, occasionally looking at it again to make sure I still had it, still could see it. The doll became an anchor, stronger than the security blanket I’d had when I was 5, the soft blue one with the silk sort of trim that I would poke the corners of into my nose for whatever reason until the snot dried and turned the corners into fossilized arrowheads.

The day the bouts stopped, I remember Mom and I were out with my Mom’s friends at some community center event. I had encountered something, perhaps some kids or maybe dropping my watermelon slice in front of strangers off my plastic coated foam plate, I don’t know what, but I had chosen, fought to keep the rage in, and had stood shaking with it, biting into my lip until I could taste blood, hiding next to the sort of big fake fern plant that were all the rage in early 80’s interior decoration, until I felt the rage concede. I hadn’t had the doll with me, the doll I took everywhere, yet as the attacks had become less frequent of late, I’d forgotten it that day.

In the car coming home from the get together, I sat with my Mom in the car and told her I really wanted to be good. I really, really wanted to be good. I trembled and cried and we sat in the car together in our drive way. It was her friend’s car, we were just being dropped off, yet her friends understood something was happening and left a mother to tend her son in the vehicle while standing away somewhere in the yard having a cigarette and contemplating the weather. My Mom would have been so much younger then than I am now, and I can’t comprehend how she handled everything I threw at her, or my siblings did after me. I pray Otis never has the anxiety and inability to self-validate that I do, or anger management issues that I have; as well I hope if he does, that I can have half the patience and grace my Mother and parents did. 

I never had another anger explosion, not like that, though certainly I’ve lost my shit any number of times since and working to be a better, calmer, more rational human being with an objective, constructive point of view will be my lifelong quest, for sure.

One interesting thing that comes from having the sorts of constant crisis of confidence considerations I have is that I have an arsenal of avenues I can turn to for alternatives to angst. Drawing, writing, building, collecting, shopping, long urban hikes alone or walks with my family. More involved projects like making audio collages or painting have been tough to do lately, however I look forward to more of that once Otis is a bit older and our accommodations can more amply accommodate the workspaces needed for those sorts of projects, similar to the lean to woodshop my Dad had back at our Milligan College place where he’d fix up banjos and fiddles, or build a Red Baron plane for my brother’s plush Snoopy ace fighter pilot doll.

Another is that I feel a regular compulsion to do things for friends when I have time, drawings or give the gift of toys. Partly so they’ll like me, and partly because  feel validated by doing something for others, as I don’t trust praise and don’t inherently believe anyone sees much of any value in anything I do, thereby necessitating a need to prove what I do is good, deliberate, and with best intentions, albeit somewhat self-serving ones, as I want, as likely most folks do, to be liked and appreciated. What I don’t want is anything in return, a surprising revelation considering how selfish I can be in other forums, like toy collecting, or not giving up my weekends to the office, even when that means twelve hour days during the week.

Feeling uncomfortable with self-image and having little ability to feel comfortable with my shape and size, I have spent a lot of time parodying myself and making up persona, creating an outward projection of what I would like to be, like a robot or tentacle-laden supernatural monster or anonymous character behind some sort of mask. While the truth is that under all that playful self-deprecation are some real issues with body and personality I’ll perpetually work to not have get the best of me (or pass on through example to Otis), I do like that by poking holes in my image I can exist with a general humility, and remain largely impervious to insults from others because while I’m thin skinned and want everyone to like me, odds are there isn’t anything anyone could call me I haven’t already called myself, or had mentally and / or physically laid on me by bullies in various schools and gigs.

And when you’ve super inflated your ego to face the day, humility is an imperative. And when you're prone to hyper-tension, best to exercise moderation for what you consume, particularly pints of beer and / or coffee. Or so I've been told.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Man of Many Masks


I’m not sure when I became infatuated with masks. Perhaps all the way back when the masks were made of plastic and print painted to look like Spock, Superman, Batman, or whomever your hero of choice.

Those early 70’s masks had elastic drawstrings stapled to either inside edge of the face bowl, holes for the eyes to peek though allowing your eyes weren’t too close together or low brow to misalign, and a mouth slit sharp enough to slice open an unwarily jutting tongue. They were sold tucked inside flimsy paper boxes with colorful, slip off tops, often with a cellophane window to see the mask and folded costume inside. The costumes were plastic or cloth pajamas printed or patterned to approximate the license, intellectual property, or franchise they represented.

There’s a whole series of disconcerting Burger King television ads employing a mask that’s an homage to those bygone era of plastic masks, and even more parodies that highlight just how creepy a lot of the masks actually were. There’s just something inherently unsettling about those deliriously happy, fixed expressions held on with a rubber band, a theme so many alternative designer toys and assorted horror films have also explored. 

The elastic band masks, a family favorite, were used to great effect around the schoolhouse portion of the Universal Haunted Theme Park, where mute children wearing the masks would materialize from the mist or woodwork to stand near you, head cocked this way and that, perhaps follow you a little while, or drift away as soon as you looked nervously around to check if you were alone. 

Try to talk to them or take a picture, they’d move away, and you’d turn to find another one standing right behind you. Deeply unsettling, particularly the animal masks.

Vintage hockey masks, the sort Jason Voorhees wears, have held a longstanding appeal to me, the clean design is iconic and something I liked to draw and felt drawn too due to an issue of Heavy Metal I read in 7th grade. Jason’s initial mask from the third film installment is based on the mask the Detroit Red Wings once wore, though according to Wiki enlarged some, with added holes and red pips for personalization. Having looked through a few of the sites dedicated to the history of hockey masks, from the first leather and wire basket ones to the high tech ones worn today, I have to admit they’re all pretty cool, and depending on the context off the ice, fairly intimidating.

One day while I worked as the part time toy guy running the toy counter for Nostalgia Comics in downtown Eugene, Oregon, the owner Daryl pointed out a listing in the latest Previews catalog for an opportunity to purchase one of Sideshow’s limited edition shadowboxed autographed replica of Jason’s mask from the 5th film. I thought about it for about two minutes before committing a couple week’s salary to the thing. To expensive to ever consider wearing for Halloween or valentine’s Day, though looks great on the wall in the glossy wooden shadowbox.

Couple years later I discovered a fellow on EBay making authorized fiberglass replica masks for sale at a modest price. He crafted masks matching most of the films, as well as different degrees of weathering and detailing. The more weathered and detailed, the higher the price. I passed far too many days revisiting the listings before finally settling on a single mask that spoke most to me. Clean, without the trademark machete slice on the temple. I should have dropped for the leather straps, however the snap on black elastic bands aren’t bad.  
Through art school, museum exhibits, and bookstore shelves I would learn about Noh masks, and ceramic casts, and French circus masks like the sorts you’d see in Cirque du Soleil or Mardi Gras, aboriginal scowls, decorative shells, discombobulated machinery, and the sorts of things that show up in Michael Parks paintings. I drew variations of masks and costumes, explored fashion and fetish magazines for inspiration, and my sketchbooks filled with page after page of clippings, doodles, sketches, penciled, inked, paint smeared variations on masks, goggles, tubes, ribbons, bones, braids, pipes, metal, latex, silicon, rubber, Teflon, glass, Plexiglas, mirrors, buttons, snaps, mesh, scales, chain link, plush fur of animal, toy, and Muppet. 

When given the opportunity to design some toys for Toy2R, a designer toy company operating out of Hong Kong, I paid homage to some of my favorite masks, Jason’s and Mexican Wrestling superstar Blue Demon. I feel toys should be an extension of the artist behind them, a reflection at least, something that makes an statement about that interests the artist, bemuses, draws their curiosity. Just as video game workstations reflect their occupants through the toys and images propped, pinned, and post-it around their designated spots, the design of and / or on an art centric toy is a manifestation of one of the myriad flavors and stylistic dispositions of the artist whose handiwork is the end product.

I learned about the Lucha Libre from Charles Burns comics, however didn’t understand the sheer breadth and energy of the genre until my friends from Headquarters in the West End of Vancouver brought me a couple films back with them from one of their trips home to see their families back in Mexico City. Blue Demon, Santos, the Masquerade, Satanos, so many incredible characters, and the best part: they never take off their masks. 

True, some of the burly titans have variations to their masks they switch to between takes, though their characters reflect that special ability somehow, changing appearance is some part of their modus operandi. Blue Demon never changes his mask, or takes it off, and whether he’s fighting devilish minions in the ring or vampire women from Venus in the abbey or leaping car to car as the racers careen down a mountain cliff face, whether he’s dressed to kill or dressed for a late dinner and cocktails, he has his iconic mask on. Over the years I've found or been given by friends a number of wonderful Mexican Wrestling masks, and most recently Alex & David brought back from their trip to Mexico not only a new mask for me, but a stunning cape and helm combo for Otis. Now all we'll need is a backyard to put up a ring in.

While in film school I collaborated with Jason Bisschop, his girlfriend, and Shotaro Hirai to design the antagonists for our student film, and one of those characters, the Black Queen, needed a mask to add to her visual intimidation factor. I drew a pattern I felt would work, however was at a loss of how to make the actual piece. Jason’s girlfriend, also our make-up artist, saved the day with a blank mask likely intended for use around Mardi Gras, a white feminine face, blank expression, Noh mask style feline eye sockets. Taking my pattern, she painted it as well as creating a wonderful heart pumping prop for our actress, Axaxa, to utilize. Say what you might about the film, at least the Ghost Queens looked stunning on camera, a group effort for sure, and I’m glad to have had a chance to contribute. Little known secret, I would love to do costume design, and have a real weakness for any country’s version of Project Runway.

I discovered the television version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy first way back on one fine Sunday in 1982, just before seventh grade would begin for me at Washington College Academy. My family had just relocated there from Telford, my parents taking and sharing a job running the school’s kitchen while they chipped away at school, my Dad for his Masters, my Mom for her degree. I had no friends, a trend that would largely continue, and there was an impressive ivory color mushroom growing from the tiny, moldy yellow tiles in the small house’s one windowless bathroom. 

 Almost immediately after I discovered Tom Baker as Doctor Who and knew I’d found something to indeed be a diehard devote fan of. K9 and Louise Jameson  with the fluted leather bustier I prayed would have a wardrobe malfunction pretty much every episode, and Elisabeth Sladen, the good Doctor’s other wonderful eye-magnet sidekick lady who recently, sadly, passed away. The Daleks were cool, but the Cyber-Men captured my heart. Like a second generation of the cowboy robots I’d enjoyed so much on the PBS Saturday morning retro lineup, the ones that lived beneath Gene Autry’s ranch, the Cyber-Men cheered me up simply stumbling around the foam and plywood sets, or equally, the quaint and quiet English countryside. I have a similar affinity for the vintage Cylons from Battlestar Galactica, those poor repurposed offseason NFL defensemen and linebackers trying to move around blind in cumbersome foil and rubber costumes. The Robot Chicken skit about the plight of the Cylon actors sums that experience up nicely, I think.

From the first time I saw Star Wars in theater I knew the Stormtroopers rocked. Sure, they prat fall a lot for the Rebels a lot, perhaps their fallibility is part of the charm. I pretended to be one as a kid with the vintage Air Force helmet from his Brando-father’s green trunk, despite the helmet looking more like what the X-Wing pilots preferred. I frankly like all the Imperial helmets, the black egg shaped one with the tiny circles on top and chin strap that the sub-officers wore, or the wicked full enclosure clamshell ones the Imperial Gunners wore. Of all of them strangely, Vader’s was my least favorite. Perhaps because that’s the one everyone else liked, I don’t know really.  

When I first attended a San Diego Comicon, and laid eyes on the 501st, a Lucas sanctioned charity group of cosplayers that muster and march for a variety of causes and events, I nearly swooned. I’ve wanted to join in every since, though frankly doubt I’d ever be tall or buff enough. Respect to the troopers that go through all the effort to get their suits looking better and more viable than the on screen equivalents. One thing you learn when you study props and travelling memorabilia exhibits, the stuff that looked amazing on screen often seems underwhelming when seen in person, too flimsy somehow, smoke and mirrors. Not everything, I don’t mean miniatures work for example, or stop motion props. I mean things like armor, capes, costumes, accessories. 

Especially if the gear isn’t the “hero” gear, instead stuff meant to look right from a distance on the background characters or set. The armor the 501st and fellow recreationists put together has to transcend the realities of the plastic stuff the filmmakers might have gotten away with, and look as good up close and in person as the content being recreated looked on the silver screen, a challenge to be sure. Weight has to be added, density, different materials, and often problems solved for bindings and structure that could have been glue gunned or taped up for a film set. 

Lasting through a few takes with a wardrobe crew at the ready is not the same thing as parading around a convention floor for eight hours trying to look your best. And I doubt the film actor troopers has fans installed in their helmets, or voice modulators, or speakers connected to iPod Nanos loaded up with sound FX and quotes controlled by a remote redressed to look like the mike communicator from the film, all the better to crowd please with.

So while I haven’t yet gotten a suit of Trooper gear and enlisted in the local garrison of the 501st, I have gotten a couple halfway decent looking helmets, good enough for snapshots, and inspired by a photo blog by a couple called Red & Johnny, when we got married, my wife and I brought the helmets along to use for one of our dances on the evening, a nod both to Red & Johnny’s example of sharing with your betrothed your interests and passions, and to likewise share our own love of geek, as we also did with all our Lego items at the proceedings. 

We were delighted when the helmets began getting passed around guests at our reception, incidentally symbolic of people accepting, embracing, even encouraging us to continue together on our journey, the one that has lead us to amazing travels and a son that I hope someday enjoys all the fun there is to be had from masks, and from make believe, because the masks are at best a tool, it’s the stories you empower them with that matters.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Veteran Humming Birds


Years ago Radical sent Borut and I, among others, to LA for the Electronic Entertainment Expo to support the Scarface: The World is Yours invite only open kimono sweat box booth. E3 is a post for another day, what I wanted to talk about is the journey Borut and I took one fine, sunny afternoon that lead to our being stranded for about an hour and a half outside a VA hospital in the relative middle of nowhere, where Shel Silverstein’s sidewalks actually ends, or at least the Los Angeles metropolitan bus transit system.

We had one free afternoon to explore and play, and we elected to try to reach Santa Monica, an utterly attainable goal of a daytrip destination according to the tourist map Borut acquired in the lobby of our hotel. All we had to do was hop a city bus and ride it through a variety of visually invigorating LA neighborhoods and suburban sprawls until eventually we’d reach the coast and Santa Monica. True, LA sits on the coast, just a different part, with more Hollywood hopefuls slathering up for tans before their shifts start waiting tables or answering 900 numbers.

We located the target bus easily enough, and climbed aboard to find it relatively empty. Our short lived solitude soon yielded like a farmer’s daughter to every errand weary traveler able to reach a bus stop along the route. We suspected some people were just riding the bus to enjoy the air conditioning, or the sleepy whippet fugue high of the carbon monoxide exhaust vapors drifting in through the high widescreen windows open to keep the air conditioning working for a living. More passengers than a Siouxsie Sioux anthology clambered aboard, the suspension whimpered and the shocks gasped defeat. Morning traffic formed a glittering asphalt aquarium show of colors and creeping fishtail lane changes as we moseyed along, generally pointed towards our intended destination.

After a while the crowd on the bus thinned until eventually only Borut and I remained each with our own row in the back end of the bus vaguely over where the wheel wells were for all the best bump bounces. We occasionally waved at one another and grinned at the scenery like we’d never seen anything by fields of grain, corn, or tobacco previously. Any minute now we anticipated we’d see signs indicating welcoming entry into Santa Monica, a nice change from the signs listing Santa Monica last followed by large mile numbers.

As we rode along, we noticed the buildings thin out, become few and farther between. We began seeing actual green space, or the southern California version, a rare and exotic seeming sight to see at any rate after all the circuit board uber-urban development we’d seen so far from the landing plane and airport shuttle to the hotel. Just Borut casually observed that we hadn’t seen Santa Monica mentioned on a traffic sign in a while, the bus pulled off the main road and up a slight slope into a bus queue. The bus pulled over and the engine shut off. The driver stood and turned to us while digging cigarettes from his vest. “OK, boys, last stop.” He appeared a little bemused at the surprised looks blooming on our faces. “Far as this route goes.”

Borut had always been quicker to process than me, a Commodore 64 to my TRS 80. He stood and followed the driver off the bus, while I scurried out of my seat to catch up. He asked about how to get the rest of the way to Santa Monica, and got some vague directions that point us towards a massive, eerily windowless government building, and beyond that, supposedly, a place to catch another bus that would take us the rest of the way to Santa Monica.

We walked down the bus queue lane and followed the sidewalk beneath an overpass with some beautiful Mexican style tile murals underneath, a strange amount of effort to go through for a space very few people would ever see as we were, on foot, after our bus dumped up in what amount to the middle of nowhere on the edge of well watered government land that we both suspected was mined. We stuck to the sidewalks.

We followed the walk as it curled around expansive, golf course manicured grounds trimmed with low hedgerows and concrete walls until we saw signage and strange iconography that confirmed our growing suspicions that the windowless megalith housed government offices, perhaps sat atop a massive underground complex where zombies and giant robots were built and vat cured. The sign did little to help us, and we couldn’t see any lobby doors to approach to ask for use of a phone. Like a bad horror film, neither of our cell phones worked, Nokia fail in the era pre-4G national coverage.

Getting past the megalith, Borut pointed as though spotting land from a life raft after a week adrift surviving on croutons and wilted lettuce from a McDonald’s healthy option procured from the golden arches kiosk just before the Disney sea hotel epicenter got up to the wrong sort of goofy. I followed his aim and spot a long drive that wound through the shade of drowsy palms towards an island of sun bleached concrete and glowing polarized glass windows, perhaps a hotel, though too minimalistic, maybe a hospital? Surrounded by trees and bracketed by hedge frocked parking lots, looked like a place Catch 22 invalids might be sent to convalesce.

Instinctual reactions proved true, as we approached we passed a sign declaring the place a veteran’s hospital. The closer we got, the more the Fantasy Island tropical retreat paled, saddened, and went from prospective paradise to Paradise Lost. Despite the trees, flower gardens, lush landscaping and gardens, nothing could soften the rigid death mask the front facing fa├žade of this building presented. The glass double doors that formed a sort of agape mouth slide open to release a curling breath of antiseptic and floor wax. 

We walked up to the mouth of the place, pace slowing, looking to one another as though daring or willing the other to take point, or volunteer to brave entry into this place that could easily accommodate a psychological, Jennifer 8 sort of thriller film crew as a chief location. I idly speculate whether perhaps One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had been filmed there. If it had, there hadn’t been any plaques in the lobby. No staff either as far as we could discern when we walked in together, shoulders close as though ready to cover one another’s back should shit go down.

Want to gauge how many scary movies a geek has seen in their lifetime? Leave them alone in the lobby of a hospital for a few minutes and watch their flinching faces flush and their darting eyes bulge.

We located a beige Bakelite looking phone receiver with no dial resting in a cradle hook on the wall near the restrooms, as you might find in elevators or old apartment buildings, a direct line to the manager’s office. The faded printed sign with hand written addendums hung in a clear plastic sleeve with duct-taped corners declared this phone a hotline directly to the nearest cab company. The added notations said what company, the current one at the tail end of several crossed out ones.

Borut tried first, spoke to someone on the other end, and said where we were and where we intended to go. He hung the receiver up after doing some affirmative grunting and nodding the person on the line probably couldn’t see. “be about twenty minutes.” He said with a big, what can you do sort of shrug. He walked back outside to enjoy the sunshine, I braved the john, found it locked, and walked outside wondering who the restroom door had been locked to keep out. Not like this location had to worry about junkies or homeless drifters.
 I wander outside and spot a few viable trees I could pee behind, yet also feel a need to hold it. Somehow the idea of pissing on VA hospital grounds seems poor form, insulting, disrespectful. I’d been in the military, however the people interned here were actual combat veterans, or at least, active forces, and their lives likely sucked enough without some asshat taking a flagrant wiz on their fragrant flowers.

Minutes flow by like hours as we wait for our taxi to come. After a half hour I take a turn with the taxi phone. First I’m told a cab came by, saw no one, and left. I ask if the dispatcher knows where we are, has ever stopped by to see a loved one? No? The view is amazing, you can see for miles. Were we outside? Oh yes, we definitely were outside. In the bathroom? Lady, the bathrooms are locked. Oh, I’ll send another cab right away. That would be much appreciated, since the first one never bothered to show up.

Twenty minutes later Borut tried again, this time pointing out that we weren’t residents there, that we’d ridden the bus as far as it would go, that we just, for the love of games, wanted to go to Santa Monica before the day turned into night and we were forced to set fire to something.

As Borut made the third call, aka the one that worked, I finally saw the first signs of life around the place since we’d arrived. Precisely two signs; first a legless old man in a wheelchair rolling out by his own hand to park just outside the door and have a smoke. He had a tube coming out of his throat and another from his arm going to a bag tucked next to his incomplete lap. He asked me for a light, I still smoked then and could oblige. He nodded thanks and looked away into the middle distance. I walked a few steps away to the far edge of the patio, over to the edge of the structural shade, over next to the trees and tall flowers in the strip of flowerbed landscaped around that part of the receiving area. 

I heard the tiny flutter zip past me before I saw it, a hummingbird, small, agile, brilliantly colored, and absolutely not worried about being close enough I could have pet it. Suddenly I forgot all about how long we’d waited, or the pressure mounting in my bladder. The old man and bird appeared together, and with the a gentle breeze began to play through and tussle the fronds of the palm trees, dry a bit of the perspiration on my skin and sweat soaking into the armpits of my shirt. Life had appeared, and I must have unconsciously taken that coincidental collusion as a sign of hope, I relaxed finally, tension flowing out of me, becoming one with the moment enough to hear, smell, and feel everything around, and to forget that we were stranded at a place people go to disappear, the forgotten, old soldiers fading away.

I remembered I had a camera and managed to capture a couple pictures of the bird before it remembered that it needed to keep a low profile after that whole witness protection kerfuffle. Borut emerged to state he felt confident this third time would work, and to describe his call. His instincts were spot on, and fifteen minutes later we were in the back of a cab bound for scenic Santa Monica.

Getting stranded had never been a part of the plan, given a choice, likely would have passed on the excursion. Still, a word very apt for that place, still, I am begrudging grateful we did. After all the noise and hustle of the E3 event we’d been working, to discover yourself in a predicament and place so alien, so grim, and yet so strangely beautiful when you just finally let go, let yourself relax and just breath, is pretty amazing, humbling even. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Night of the Night of the Living Dead


The first zombies I ever encountered were possibly many people’s cherry poppers, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. What is a touch unusual perhaps is where I saw it.

Washington College Academy had their newish gym and pool facility that’s I‘ve mentioned before I had to spend inordinate amounts of time in both for gym class and for slaving away working off the dept of my tuition, a debt frankly I should not have been accountable for since both my parents worked for the school running the kitchen. What cheap skate establishment can’t comp student fees for employees? Not Washington College Academy, that’s for sure. I believe on paper my parents occupied a single staff position as well, a strange interpretation of the unity of marriage, that’s for sure.

So outside of class and cleaning/ maintenance duties, I spent a lot of time in the upper parts of that building for social functions. Dances were a big one, though awkward as you might expect, since there were only a hundred something students in the school, and half of them were from out of town, so any other new blood attending the dances were either related to a student that lived locally, or to someone on the staff of the school. What I did learn very quickly were the importance of songs like “Hotel California” that last forever and don’t require dancing skills beyond the ability to grapple, sway, and shuffle in a vague circular motion.

Alternatively to the dances / cop-a-feel-a-thons, there were also movie nights arranged by the student council, a blonde haired blue eyed all star Ivy League pedigree clique cluster reminiscent of the jocks or popular people from your average teenage sports drama like the sorts John Hughes directed or John Cusack showed up in a lot. And one of those movie nights, the first one my folks let me attend actually, began with a forgettable until you find yourself alone on a trail on Whistler movie called Grizzly and ended with the game changer called Night of the Living Dead

A couple of things make this double bill noteworthy. First, that the films cost money to see, raising funds for something or other, and breaking the laws for non-commercial viewing the FBI legal warnings at the start of the VHS tapes are about, right after those ones about not making copies. Judging from the quality of the films, I'm pretty sure both were second generation duplicates, which really only served to make Grizzly feel more authentic, like NIN's faux-bootleg Broken video. Second, the films were both intended for audiences over 18, and while everybody knows the real target audience for horror films rated R is 16, I'm pretty sure 7th graders were too young for the R rated market in the early 80's. Now, they're still to young, but the content is available to them anyway. Smile, hold out hands as though handing someone a birthday cake or tray of mewling kittens, and say, "May I introduce you to the internet." 

The final, and biggest thing to make this line up strange is that Washington College Academy had a very Christian-centric agenda, with daily all hands announcements in the auditoriums that began and ended with hymns getting sung, with Sunday services for any kids living on campus, and with Bible bits constantly popping up in various aspects of annual fund raising / for profit school functions, like the Christmas Dinners and the mid-spring BBQ. Nothing southern folk like more than a big BBQ social. Posts for other days. The take away is that this pious Christian leaning school allowed Friday night double features of Rated R horror films. And I'm so glad they did, just as I appreciate that they allowed the students to perform Thurber's Carnival in the same auditorium we sang hymns like "The Morning Has Broken" every weekday. 

True, overall there are a couple later zombie flicks I like more, yet they wouldn’t have happened to hit the screen without this precedent setting picture. Night of the Living Dead is brilliant for a lot of reasons. Part Lifeboat, part stage play, and part character piece, the zombies were chiefly a shocking backdrop, a condition like a typhoon or earthquake, that a group of people throw together had to contend with when none of them had any expertise as to how. Romero enhanced all that with less than subtle social commentary about racism, an extremely bold angle to approach on the backside of race riots and MLK speeches still vivid in the mind’s eye of the viewing public, and still relevant to a room full of naive kids when they happen to be living in the still stilted South in the early 80s.

When the end of the film comes and the hicks posse marches up to save the day and mistakes our black protagonist for a zombie and shoots him, the metaphor read through even for me at that young of an age. Perhaps because I’d been bullied, or because I’d grown up seeing passive segregation all around me. The mob mentality demonstrated in the film, coupled with the wholesale gleeful slaughter of zombies, including lynching, taunting, and abusing them before putting them down, left me feeling unsettled, nervous, and full of questions. Of course flesh eating zombies were scary, however as a metaphor for anyone different or outsiders, they became victims. Inversely, as a metaphor for Communism, or Fascism, or religious zealotry / cults, they become far more sinister, especially as stragglers turn into groups, and their mobs outnumber the forces that fear and hate them. The richness of the simple little film is that it isn’t simple, and can’t easily be dismissed.

The subsequent zombie films I’ve enjoyed or thought well of have also been character pieces and left me with questions to consider. Sure, gore can be fun, and seeing a film chow through a cast until no one alive is left standing has some charm when you want mindless, primordial eye stimulation. However that sort of fluff is forgettable, flat, and doesn’t remotely measure up to the brilliance I find in Night of the Living Dead, or Return of the Living Dead, or the two very different versions of Dawn of the Dead, my preference actually being for the remake over the original for repeat viewing, despite the silly V baby scene.

Zombie fare worth watching / reading / consuming should have character development and social commentary / insights / questions. This is probably true for any horror fare really, and probably why I’m not a fan of torture porn or home invasion films. I like a few blocks off Vancouver’s worst strip, and have lived near the equivalent areas in Cincinnati and Columbus. I don’t need to see fictional extrapolations of the horrors and prospective evils of desperate predators, junkies, juvenile delinquents, or social malcontents. The mainstream and local news programs already mouth water over that tripe trope well enough, thanks.

Max Brooks wrote what feel could potentially make the finest filmic example of social commentary / experiment with World War Z, or at least the most sweepingly epic and global one.  I hope the film does the book justice. Until then, I believe for me, the ground Night of the Living Dead broke remains uncontested, or bested.

Also, what is with the remake Romero produced for Night of the Living Dead? The revisionist decision to make the rednecks shooting the black guy OK because in the remake the black guy has been bitten and turned into a zombie infuriated me, like Lucas having Greedo shoot first. WTF?

Games have a whole other potential for bringing Lifeboat scale societal questions to bear, though so far only the side quests saving survivors in the Dead Rising series seem to touch on that potential. Dead Island’s recent 10 minutes of gameplay appears to delve deeper into the idea, yet still seems to get sidetracked addressing gratuitous genre conventions about gore and action, which is fun to be sure, just not very deep. Makin choices about saving, exploiting, or abandoning people is where the real fun emotional and intellectual challenges come in, especially combined with resources management and allocation. Exciting stuff, and I look forward to playing through.

I would love to create a more grounded, Walking Dead sort of open world MMO zombie outbreak game, each persistent server a new outbreak with a new clock, when you die you migrate servers and begin a new account, or play on as a zombie, your choice. Of course, I also want to make an action MMO out of Stephen King’s The Stand, so you can guess what sorts of epic horizons my interests trail off towards.

By the way, if you have never seen the spoof of Night of the Living Dead called Night of the Living Bread by a Columbus filmmaker, look it up. It is awesome, especially seeing it during the 24 horror film marathon the Drexel theaters used to host, all that bread flying around the auditorium ample evidence of a tradition well established.