Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Retrofuturist Pharma III: The "Metatextual Cigar" Edition: ASCENSION, VENTURE BROS, SNOWPIERCER + the Plastic-Fantastic World of Kim Jong Un

While the weirdest war of isolated 'fake' reality constructs ever conceived by god or gardeners rages on-- a Hollywood stoner comedy about killing a dictator vs. a dictator whose constructed his own fantasy that's stuck in the past-- let us consider a new TV miniseries about an 'experiment' in social isolation, Syfy's ASCENSION!

This latest astro-swinger pad fantasia deftly commingles MAD MEN's early 60s cocktail sexist classist intrigue on a BATTLESTAR GALACTICA's space ark, with indoor beaches, wraparound window space views, reclinable chairs, oxygen masks for turbulence (or radiation belts), sexy stewardesses in short skirts, lower deck resentment of the first class passengers, and so on. This ain't no NOAH's space ark, baby. This ain't your mom's space ark. It is your dad's space ark (if you're my age). It took off in 1963 and neither their sexism nor clothing has changed since. So while we're all post-post everything down here, up there they're stuck at the RIGHT STUFF barbecue. In short it's a ginchier, bigger-budgeted, better written version of SPACE STATION 76 which came out this year, the same year BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW showed up on Netflix streaming! In short, it really is retro-futurism's "time," and if that wasn't enough of a post-modern anachronism (see part 1, and part 2), it's also TWIN PEAKS-y, as the focus is a Laura Palmer-esque girl's murder--that stirs up the soapy sediment as the ship passes year 51 of its 100 year mission to some far-off galaxy.

I got sucked into watching it last night via Syfy firsst showing INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996), which never fails to get me teary-eyed and proud to be American, alcoholic, and human, in that order. And sure it's crypto-fascist Reagan-esque dogma, but so what? Jeff Goldblum walking back from their crashed saucer in the white salt flats, his macho fey hips swaggering in that flight suit with the cigar and Will Smith at his side, while a flaming UFO burns behind them? Perhaps the sexiest image of the entire 90s. Smith got the credit, got the 'Mr. Fourth of July' tag, but it's just as much Goldblum's movie. Both are in tippy-top form and bring out new depths in each other, and for once the wives are more than just hovercraft. Prez Bill Pullman's wife (Mary McDonnell --she'd become a de facto actual president in BATTLESTAR GALACTICA) is rescued by a a proudly non-cliche'd stripper mom / Will Smith girlfriend (Vivica A. Fox). Goldblum's ex is a presidential aide (Margaret Colin - totally off-brand sexy in oversize flannel "boyfriend" shirt, tied at the bottom in vague imitation of a halter-top). And everyone gets to hang out together, from the drunkest yokel to the most brassed-up general, with no buffers. Reagan's dream come true, it's the nations of the world quickly putting aside petty differences to fight the alien threat.

I was going to change the channel after the ID credits, but ASCENSION cleverly slid into place before they could even start rolling, as if subliminally tying itself onto the end as a post-credits teaser. Thet\ 'we're all one planet now' speeding locomotive or space ship crucible got me and I was crying too hard by then--'not until the fat lady sings' cigar smoke in my eyes--to find the remote and thus avoid another dippy Syfy-Canadian joint. But having been all up in the retro-futurist thing these past weeks, how could I switch away? I liked they 'get' how damaging it must be to one's psyche living an entire life in a giant spacecraft, doomed to never go outside and play, or learn to drive. But on the good side, it's an environment free of urban blight, STDs, and racism, though with a rigid class system of the oppressive sort most white people only ever experience while sulking past first class to our miserable 'main cabin' row. Fuck those idiots with their Wall Street Journals and entitled airs!

Cementing the Syfy connection is the indefatigable Tricia Helfer (Cylon #6- the girl in the red dress on all the posters for BATTLESTAR GALACTICA) as an enigmatic head stewardess / politico / master planner (top) who connives and controls her ambitious but weak-willed captain husband like a Lady Macbeth in space. Tall, statutesque, blonde, gorgeous with just enough Nordic alien hybrid to her TV star vibe to make her a fitting TV sci fi cult ruler, she's great but it's Laura Palmer--I mean Lorelai Wright (Amanda Thomson), a Megan Fox-esque bitch sleeping with, apparently, everyone--who becomes the focus. Her mom meanwhile has secrets, too, and the mysterious killer skulks around during radiation storms in a big hazmat suit like the killer in GREEN FOR DANGER. And the black cop (Brandon Bell) struggles to get answers while his scarred mom (?) works at the library that also rents out movies on disc (?) and tells her son to check out the works of Lang and Hitchcock to help him catch the killer. Bonus points! Not a lot, though.

There's an overriding fantasy in ASCENSION, SNOWPIERCER,  NOAH and INDEPENDENCE DAY, which is to smash through the TRUMAN'S SHOW-ish God complex-brand Ed Harris / Kim Jong Un/Jaweh-ishness of our miserable overcrowded lives and feel some direct control of our own destiny rather than being ruled by hypocritical far-off governments. It's an idea common to dreams and science fiction: one day being able to scale back the overpopulated, polluted, fucked-in-the-head society we live in, but not in a fascist brutal fundamentalist Christian or Muslim or Amish or Hassidic or TEENAGE CAVEMAN-style way--to go back instead into the locally sourced and small business past wherein the future was hip as the 60s-70s hetero-white-patriarchy could dream it, to somehow recapture the essence of what we lost as a tribe, we heterosexual white dudes. If we're just old enough to remember some of the shit our MAD MEN-ish fathers got away with in the 60s-70s, we feel resentful we can't get away with the same shit but at the same time we don't even own a tie, let alone need a whole rack of them, so gather ye perks while ye may. But oh me brothers, to have the social order openly privileging us again! To live in a cool space craft and drink martinis served by hotties in sexy outfits while stars spin by outside, isn't it worth it even if we have to wear ties all day? It's like Windows on the World or Crystal Peak, you know... the old "animals could be bred and...slaughtered" skidoo... hard to resist if you're disenfranchised from the tools of the system, como yo. And ASCENSION's pilot has a great twist ending that makes a great metaphor for what Salvia Divinorum is like if you know how to meet it halfway, or LSD or ayahuasca is like if you don't. Cuz who knows what weird things are waiting for us by the time we get to Arizona?

It's space, man... it's in the air. And we are made of dreams dreamt a million years ago by a serpentine morass of intergalactic exile DNA scary enough to make Carpenter's THING shit its pants. And we're still evolving and morphing and spinning madly through the abyss like Prometheus lashed to a giant golf ball that will never see the green.

Another example:  I used to be quietly fascinated by the Cartoon Network show, THE VENTURE BROS., which is like a queer Crystal Peak version of JOHNNY QUEST, with a well-constructed bizarro world retrofuturist vibe in which a bald ectomorph named Dr. Venture is the genius scientist son of the kind of square-jawed super dad space race titan of industry that Tony Stark had, and who's left his son this gigantic retrofuturistic scientific research center, laden with faded modular relics from the early days of the space race. There's a few things that irk me and are why I stopped watching after a scant five seasons, like the insistence on elements of gross bathroom humor that seems needlessly tacked on and which, thanks to my morbidly acute imagination, I can't really endure it unless I'm half-anesthetized upon the Usher crypt table, which luckily is how I spend a good deal of my life. That windy sentence said, if you're the type who can handle scatological humor, and loves retrofuturism , then know that it's on Cartoon Network, ready for the Pretty Polly plucking. There's a hybrid Kissinger-Mary Poppins; a foxy supervillainess with a voice like Harvey Fierstein; a Dr. Strange-ish neighborwho holds ayahuasca parties and keeps close eye on his sexy narcoleptic daughter and whose spirit guide is voiced by H. Jon Benjamin; a sex-changed Hunter S. Thomson working undercover as a female stripper; a bodyguard with a mullet and a shoebox full of Led Zeppelin cassettes; and even a secret sub-basement of mutants presided over by that weird haired haired singer of that old Brit band Prodigy. That's just off the tip of my head. And it's been years.

So savor the rich attention to retrofuturist Johnny Questian detail, the weird streak of faux-closeted gay stuff, and the brilliant idea that supervillains and superheroes have come to terms with their interdependence, and taken steps to ensure each other's continuation. And most of all, let the sweet lull of HD widescreen TV make everything that was old new again, even America... in the early 60s... as seen through Big Brother eyes... of Canadians.

Or super cool South Koreans.

SNOWPIERCER (2013, but released in the states this year) is directed by South Korean son Bong Joon-Ho, who directly addresses the brutal need for mass murder at the core of overpopulation and global warming, and how pulling the plug on the whole damned tub of foul humanity may just be the most heroic thing we can do.

In the film's post-apocalyptic ice age landscape, the only surviving life is crowded onto a giant speeding train that rarely slows down and just races around in crazy circles across the frozen tundra, mile after mile, years measured by laps around the course, frozen in time at the date it shut its doors, not unlike North Korea, circling in place above the wild American decadent south. Like NK, this train has a solar-powered silver bullet serpent pecking order, the lower classes are herded like concentration camp detainees in the rear of the train, fed bricks of gelatinous gunk and subjected regularly to harsh brutality by a police force led by a bespectacled Tilda Swinton. The front of the train holds the elite, and the very head of the train holds the 'engineer' - Wilford (Ed Harris) who makes the rules and lives high on the hog. The rear is presided over by filthy leftist John Hurt, and his right hand muscle, Chris 'Captain America' Evans.

They stage a revolt, which involves fighting (in Bong's favorite style: claw hammers in tight quarters) from car to car, each new car a shock or surprise as--among other things--the filthy urchins get to try sushi for the first time, and see just what sort of micro-livestock they've been eating all their lives. It's a brilliant, existential critique of everything from the rigged 'real truth' behind war, to conservative brainwashing, jet set decadence, reproduction's insidious con job, and class warfare. Watch it on your Kindle before boarding your Xmas plane, and see if you don't want to take a swing at one of the first class douchebags. It's better to go down swinging, after all, rather than sitting cramped in your seat for another 30 years and not lighting up your Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum victory dance cigar because they don't allow smoking on planes. You think Kim Jong Un wouldn't light that cigar? The 'No Smoking' sign went out as soon as the aliens attacked, General!

Bong's film didn't really come into any kind of theatrical release here until this year, so I'm quietly folding it in with NOAH, INTERSTELLAR and ASCENSION to make grand points about our longing to get some friends together, pack up, and head off-world, for a chance to begin again while the whole shit-house below goes up in Rekall-implanted digital flames behind us. Witness the latest slimy moves of Wall street and Republicans and tell me they all shouldn't be frozen by reverse global warming or burned in a sea of fire, or at least left behind in a shower of Matthew McConaughey sparks! Instead they'll probably have golden ark tickets and we won't. That's the depressing reality- that even in our imaginations we're third class citizens forced back into steerage, like John Cusak and his 2012 band of stow-away freeloaders. But at least if we're in the right movie we can maybe bash those first class passengers with a hammer real good. As long as we remember to do it onscreen, of course, and have the wisdom to know the difference. 

NOAH even agrees. In Ridley Scott's film, Russell Crowe's plan is for his family to be the last surviving humans, and die out with grace after setting the animals post-flood free, because humanity is a vile plague, with greed and malice fueling a continual destructive turbulence wherever it flourishes.  But even then, his liberal shit of a son is sheltering the vilest of humans in the back of the ship. "My father Enoch told me that one day," Russell Crowe says, "if man continued his ways, The Creator would annihilate this world." Well that's some Creator you got, Russell, blaming all but two giraffes for the crimes of their cagers. This almighty Creator should really look in the mirror, or stick to something like a human-only plague next time, ala the forthcoming TV series version of 12 MONKEYS or the PLANET OF THE APES series, so the animals can roam free down the city streets rather than being cramped up with each other, seasick and with no room to even take a shit for over 40 days and nights.

NOAH's virtual water
Let 'The Creator' suck, then, on our own willingness to wipe ourselves out (at least virtually) before He gets a chance, or can stop us, yet again. Let us get the last laugh and a middle finger raised, the 'victory dance' cigar (or cigar wrapped blunt) smoked before we're wiped out by His humorless petty wrath. If He can't take a joke, it's by jokes we defeat Him. The fat lady sings do do doo dooo.

How bitter the fate those who seek fun in terror should be doomed to, goes the garbled threats to Sony. But, if terror's all we ever get, then terror better learn to loosen the fuck up. Because we're coming for it, with all the CGI and stoners we can muster. We put the props in propaganda, Kim, and we will bury you in unsold DVDs of THE GUILT TRIP. Activate... Mecha-Streisand... and George Burns forgive us.


POSTSCRIPT 12-18-14: Sony backed off. The real has been eclipsed by the virtual - and watching it unfold on CNN, followed by BLACK MIRROR: WHITE CHRISTMAS and then the final episode ASCENSION was a post-modern triple threat that has completely broken my sense of self, and of America, Don Geiss, and hope, and the wisdom to know no different. 

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