Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Magic: part 4 - A practical example

Remember way back in the first one of these where I said I thought the distinction between "Magick" and stage magic was something of a false dichotomy? Here's what I mean: watch the video below - for as long as you can stand at least. Sorry for the random German subtitles - the version I watched initially has now been taken down.

Right. That woman's name is Kiesha Crowther, she calls herself Little Grandmother (here is her amazing personal website) and she is a Magus.

Depending on your personal definition of "Magus" you may well have a number of objections to that assertion. Her video is hokey as all get-out, and clearly bunk. Water is demonstrably not entirely made of crystals, there are almost certainly no "scientists" planning to hand out your personal stock of magic crystals to the people of Fukushima and dump them into the radioactive holding ponds because "love is stronger than radiation", and the idea that you personally will definitely have a large stock of magic crystals lying around is bizarre*. Moreover, if you've clicked through to her site you'll see that she's made a number of very bold claims about her supposed psychic abilities and the high degrees she holds in Native American traditional magics - these are all almost certainly lies as well.

But this misses the point.

A stage magician is not judged on their ability to actually saw people in half and magically heal them on the spot. A stage magician is judged on their ability to draw an audience into a consensus, misdirect their attention and provide a pleasing illusion that they have sawed someone in half. This takes a level of control over human perception which approaches the truly magical in the hands of a masterful practitioner - for a spectacular example check out this guy. Similarly, you can only judge the power of a Magus like Little Grandmother when you understand their true goal. In this case it's pretty simple - money, and the prestige necessary to create more money.

For those of you who didn't manage the whole video try it again, for those who did - pay close attention. Notice how crafted the whole thing is. She really does try to cover as many generically-New Age bases as she can, and even goes so far as to vaguely allude to some sort of Evil Big Government conspiracy to suppress True Knowledge toward the end there to try and bring in the survivalists. This is a magical ritual. She is trying to draw power from her followers to increase her stature and pull in some energy-in-the-form-of-money at the same time. The fact that her self-claimed powers are nonsense is entirely irrelevant because it's all misdirection - it's a carefully constructed mirage designed to hook into the cultural obsessions of largely white, fairly affluent, mostly-Americans, and me circa 1995.

And while she's no Crowley, Kiesha Crowther is powerful enough for her own ends. So long as she maintains her ritual Face Of Sincerity, keeps posing with massive crystals, and refuses to shut up she'll keep on getting speaking engagements and requests to run workshops and do rituals. She wields sufficient cultural force to have at least some of her detractors shouted down and shunned (if you really want you can check out the controversy on the New Age web here, but be warned - it's a hell of a rabbit hole). She's even been smart enough to keep her mythology sufficiently white-bread to leave her a back door out if she ever decides to "renounce" it all and "convert" to a more conservative racket like fundamentalist Evangelicalism.

Manipulation of the gap between perception and reality, resulting in a massive increase of personal power.


*Possibly less bizarre if you're one of the "Tribe Of Many Colours" she's addressing in this video, but still.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Mouldy Sushi

Cinemania has my reviews of Dead Sushi and Mold. They're both deliberate attempts to make "good bad" movies, and both unusual in that they (mostly) succeed.

Mold is a homage to 1980s cheapies that manages to pretty much nail the tone (and horrifying-yet-hilarious practical effects) of its terrible source material and riff on it at the same time. The framing device about an American government desperate for a new weapon in the War On Drugs is an almost total red herring, but that's actually no bad thing as the real issues tied up with America's relationship with Colombia would probably have either been mishandled or have detracted from the film's manic go-forward energy.

Dead Sushi is the most-recent full movie* from porn-director-turned-total-insanity-director Noboru Iguchi who seems to specialise in this sort of thing. It's completely nuts from start to finish and, aside from a weird sense of permanent slight misogyny, is a lot of fun. All you need to know is that it involves zombie sushi and climaxes with a flying sushi battleship and an axe-wielding tuna-mutant.

*He directed the "F is for Fart" sequence in The ABCs of Death more recently. This appears to be entirely in character, if you look at his non-porn filmography. Actually, looking at his porn filmography on Wikipedia is pretty fun too, if only because the totally-functional-and-descriptive titles that pornos get are hilarious when translated from one language to another.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Cherry Psychomaniac and the Darkest Corner of Paradise

Cinemania has my reviews of Cherry, The Death Wheelers, and The Darkest Corner of Paradise.

Cherry and The Darkest Corner Of Paradise both felt like concept overreach to me. They seemed like they had big ideas in the back of their creators' minds which didn't end up actually translating to the screen. In Cherry, this was a meditation on the destructive capacity of human relationships and the "nice guy" myth which got muddied by the general unlikability of all its characters, while Paradise aspired to Taxi Driver but ended up with lots of scenes of a guy walking around in the dark (albeit attractively shot, and with a neat soundtrack) that led up to nothing much.

The Death Wheelers (originally and confusingly titled Psychomania) is an entirely different kettle of fish - an amazing 70s-kitsch time capsule and a great piece of English spooky-pagan horror. Sadly (I looked it up) the charmingly brutal Nicky Henson who plays the lead seems to have come to nothing in particular. This was also the last movie for George Sanders* before his suicide, and there's some suggestion that its poor reception at the time contributed to his depression.

Really the only downsides to Death Wheelers are its over-reliance on now-dated car chase scenes, and (on the version I got at least) the poor sound quality. Otherwise I'd highly recommend it to anyone who's into that sort of thing.

* The voice of Shere Khan in the Disney Jungle Book, amongst many many other things.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Pointless Mysteries

Cinemania has my reviews of Iron Doors and The Hunt.

They're both kinda average, though for my money The Hunt is slightly better. What's interesting to me is where they fall down - in both cases it's a mishandling of a central mystery.

It's an oft-repeated semi-truism that the stuff you make up in your own head is cooler, sexier, funnier or scarier than whatever an artist can depict. This is how H.P. Lovecraft's stuff works (his horrors are typically more suggested than described) why you hardly see any footage of the Alien in the first movie, and why the Goon Show is better than Monty Python.

Where this falls down, however, is when the mystery is more interesting by far than the actual content of your film. The plot of The Hunt presumes the existence of an organisation that exists to run human-hunting games for the rich. From the implications in the course of the movie, we see that this society is ancient and secretive, as well as highly ritualistic. Unfortunately, we never get more than implications - instead we watch a gutter journalist struggle through the forest while masked men shoot arrows at him.

In Iron Doors the central question is who decided to spend a vast amount of money turning a series of bank vaults into a hybrid of Cube and one of the more irritating point-and-click adventure games of the 1990s. There's a vague implication that it's perhaps to do with aliens or something, but that's pretty unsatisfying when the movie opens up the possibility that alien-abduction-by-Fear-Factor-style-gross-out-challenge is actually a thing that happens to people. Why? What purpose do the aliens fulfill by locking an oddly-accented* German banker in a vault until he finally has sex with a random African woman**? I mean, if that plan solves a problem then the problem must be pretty bloody interesting - more interesting by far than watching a guy agonise about drinking piss and eating maggots.

I did an improv workshop once as part of a conference I was at, and the presenters talked at length about "opening the door, and then going through it" - by which they meant having the courage to follow your ideas to their logical conclusions, even if those conclusions take you in strange directions.

Go watch The Cabin In The Woods (assuming you haven't already) for an example of how to do this right. No seriously, go watch it. It will improve every single bad horror movie you have ever watched or will ever watch by its simple existence. Do it.

Film Crit Hulk has a great essay on the "convoluted blockbuster" over at Badass Digest which is relevant here - especially the bit about judging whether revealing stuff is more worthwhile than concealing it at any given time.

*Seriously, the box says he's German and the movie is German - but he starts out sounding American then swings between generically-European and Irish for the rest of the film.

** The woman is pretty problematic in and of herself. The fact that she seems to be introduced into the maze for the benefit of the German banker is pretty gross, and I found myself really pissed off by the fact that she got subtitles when she was by herself, but not when she talked to the man. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

This is really not very good.

The National Party (for any non-NZers, that's the government right now) have just done a number of things of serious concern. You can read a fairly comprehensive list (and assessment of the list) by Claire Browning here.

Most alarming in my book, are the pending changes to the remit of the GCSB and the framework for paying family carers.

Again for any non-NZers, the GCSB are the spy bureau responsible for keeping an eye on foreign nationals operating in New Zealand in order to preserve our security and such. They've recently been discovered spying on NZ citizens, and the government's response is to change the law to make this OK

I've talked before about why I think this kind of law making is a Bad Idea, and my view hasn't really changed on that. What's alarming is that the underlying attitude seems to bleed through to the framework set up for the payment of family carers. There's a comprehensive explanation of that here, and a to-the-point and sweary one here, but the very very brief version is as follows:
  • A bunch of families of people with disabilities took the government to court several times over the fact that they weren't paid for looking after their family members, while a stranger they hired would have been.
  • They won, a lot.
  • The government's now put into law a provision that lets people who care for disabled family members get paid minimum wage by their local DHB if they and the person they care for meet the criteria contained in the bill. If they don't meet those criteria, the bill actually prohibits them from getting paid and (here's the kicker) prevents them from taking the government to court again if they think this bill is unfairly discriminatory*.
  • The law was passed despite the Attorney General saying it's against the Bill Of Rights, and without any of the MPs who voted actually knowing what the impact of the bill would be**.
A while back, Danyl at the Dim Post*** suggested that the National Party have pretty much given up hope of winning the next election, and are simply trying to cram through as much stuff as possible before they go. I suspect he may be right, but I'm getting pretty worried about the damage that might get done in the interim.

Edited to add:
I completely forgot to mention that National have also unlilaterally decided to ignore the recommendations of the Electoral Commission on reforming the way that MMP works. A more diverse and representative parliament would apparently not be in their best interests, which is a concern in and of itself, really.

* It is.

** This here is the Regulatory Impact Statement they got. No, really.

*** Link just goes to main page - can't remember the specific post.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Alcohol and drugs, magical thinking edition.

This right here is a link to the Oddity's pseudo-article about the "new photo craze among students" - consuming beer bongs in unusual clothes and/or places. Those wacky kids, and such.

In case you're not up on risky drinking lingo, a beer bong is the practice of pouring an entire can of beer into a plastic tube (by means of a funnel at one end) and drinking the entire thing at once. It's a) a way of getting really drunk really fast (because the whole beer hits your stomach at once) and b) consuming really awful booze without tasting it so much.

Does it strike anyone else as odd that a paper who gave so many column inches to the effort to eradicate the latest synthetic cannabis bugbear is this supportive of dangerous drinking habits? My pet theory is that they don't consider beer a drug, and thus don't consider alcohol harm as belonging in the same mental compartment as other drugs.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Talking to Clare Curran about drugs

I recently got into a Facebook discussion with Clare Curran about an opinion piece she'd written for the Oddity.

The teal deer* version is as follows: she says she's "woken up" to the dangers of synthetic cannabinoids and other "legal highs" currently available in dairies in New Zealand, and wants people to challenge dairy owners over selling this stuff.

My response was that a) just waking up to it now is a bit late, as these products have been available in dairies since they first came on the scene four or five years ago; and b) surely a legislative response is more effective here - for example, people who don't think alcohol should be available in supermarkets lobby local or central government to change the law**, they don't attempt to shame supermarkets into not selling booze one by one.

At this point, the comment thread was taken over by the usual opposing choruses of "Think of the children!" and "Legalise weed, man!" and the capacity for useful discussion was largely destroyed. Her final response to me was to ask me for a constructive alternative proposal, and mine was to question what her end goal was vis-a-vis the legality of recreational drugs generally.

After thinking about this for a while, I do have a more constructive solution for Clare Curran and my parting shot has a lot to do with it.

The current situation is clearly not good. There are some very rich people paying some very flash chemists very good money to keep making substances one step ahead of the law. These products have minimal (if any) human testing, and do appear to be causing genuine harm to their users.

But here's the thing - these people aren't supervillains*** - they're meeting a demand that exists in the community by selling the products they're currently allowed to sell. If they could meet that demand with other safer products, they probably would. As it is, the commercial pressure on them is to always have another chemical up their sleeve for when the product du jour gets banned, and not to worry too much about concerns like consumer safety.

There's a commonly-repeated idea that prohibition doesn't work - but that's not quite right. Actually prohibition has worked pretty well in eliminating some drugs from the marketplace in New Zealand. The 2C family, Fantasy and BZP were all popular during their brief windows of legality, but have pretty much disappeared now that they're illegal.

People don't actually want to take bad**** drugs. They tend to do so when  those drugs are legal, because they want to buy them without risking prosecution and all of the other personal and social hassles that come with dealing with the black market. When they're made illegal, committed users return to whatever illegal drug their legal high of choice was emulating and "curious" users shrug and move on. This is why actual cannabis, speed, Ecstasy etc. all persist in the community, while the alternative versions have all faded into obscurity.

So, after all that, here's my reply to Clare Curran. What she seems to see as moral turpitude on the part of dairy owners, I see as a failure of market regulation. People want (and arguably have always wanted) to get high and they tend to do this in whatever way is most easily achieved. Legal highs are easier and safer to get (if not safer to use) than illegal drugs, and there's no regulation saying who can sell them - so dairy owners are free to profit from supplying this demand.

My solution is two-fold:

  1. Stop claiming special cases for tobacco and alcohol. These are recreational drugs, and fairly harmful ones at that. The hypocrisy of telling one group of people that their drug of choice is wrong while freely indulging in a more harmful one knocks a massive hole in any attempt at drug education, and seriously undermines public confidence in drug information that comes from government or the police.

    "Culturally familiar" is not the same as "safe". This inconsistent approach is what has allowed the current messy and ineffective regime to get as bad as it has.

    A more sensible way to decide which drugs are illegal and which are allowed would be to decide on an allowable level of harm*****, and ban (or restrict to medical and scientific applications) drugs more harmful than that. There are already indices that rank various drugs on harm to the user and social harm, so there are clearly metrics for figuring this stuff out.

    Alternatively, if as a society we don't want anyone to take any drugs except for medical reasons, we need to be upfront about that. And we need to ban tobacco and alcohol (and arguably energy drinks, coffee, tea, and nutmeg) along with the rest.
  2. License all the drugs we've decided are safe enough to be legal, and limit their sale to premises that specialise in those products.

    One of the things that contributes to binge drinking in New Zealand is very cheap booze from supermarkets. If supermarkets drop their prices on alcohol to lure in custom, they can make that profit up elsewhere. Even if they lose their license, they probably won't go out of business, because they still sell a lot of other stuff that everyone needs. In order to have real teeth, a license needs to be vital to your continued livelihood.

    I realise that this means I'll need to buy my beer from a liquor store, but I'm actually OK with that. Liquor stores tend to sell better beer than most supermarkets anyway, and no-one will die if booze or other drugs get priced out of their range.
The current legal-drugs barons would have to fall in line with such a regulatory regime, or go undergound and risk direct prosecution. However, current evidence suggests that no-one would abandon legal cannabis to smoke illegal Kronic.


* This was recently introduced to me as a different way of saying "tl;dr" and I think it's awesome - so there.

** This is how come you can't buy alcohol from supermarkets in Southland, for example.

*** Just so we're clear - I don't think they're nice, I just think that moustache-twirling villains are less common than one might expect.

**** "Bad" in this sense means both less safe and less pleasurable than the illegal equivalent. This may be disputable in some other cases, but is certainly true of the synthetic cannabinoids - people don't tend to end up in emergency rooms suffering panic attacks and heart palpitations when they smoke real cannabis.

***** I would suggest that sensible questions to ask might include "How possible is it to fatally overdose?" and "What behavioural changes does this drug induce? Do those changes often include increased aggression?" for starters.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Test fire!

I just upgraded from my weird old Nokia to an Android phone. Because Android is a Google thing (as is Blogger) there's an app to do blog posts from my phone.

I dunno that I'll do it too often (hamfingers + imaginary keyboard = sad) but it's a potentially interesting thing

We'll see.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Profane is sort of Magic

Cinemania has my review of Profane. It's.... interesting.

If that sounds like backing-away-slowly "interesting", that's kind of a shame. I thought Profane was a good movie, I just hesitate to recommend an explicit BDSM picture with long unfocused psychedelic sections unreservedly, because it's either going to be your thing or emphatically not your thing.

It's hard to explain why I think this movie is good without potentially spoiling some stuff, so if you're desperate to hunt down a copy of Profane and hit it full-force with the Beginner's Mind (which is what I did, albeit inadvertently) you might want to stop reading and go organise that. If you want a pre-taste of what's about to hit you, but not to have things spoiled, here's Usama Alhaibi's Vimeo feed (the link is safe, but at least some of the videos are not even slightly Safe For Work - you have been warned).

Now read on...

I read a book of interviews with Tom Waits a while back, where he talked a lot about "the hair in the gate". Back in the days of reel-to-reel film, it was possible for pieces of grit or hair to get stuck in the gate that the film passed through. When that happened, the audience would see it superimposed over the picture, jumping about as the fast-moving film agitated it on the way past. Waits says that he enjoys the hair in the gate (a sonic equivalent would be someone else's music heard through a wall or in a crowded noisy market) because it forces audiences to make up their own minds about what's happening behind the distortion*.

Profane is very like that. One of the functions of the psychedelic segments and extended BDSM scenes is to confront you with "noise" that can't be processed logically and forces you to try and reconcile what you're seeing now with the information that was revealed in the more "documentary" scenes. As a result, it's hard to say what definitively what happens in the course of the film.

It's possible that Muna undergoes a spiritual death and resurrection in line with the Hero's Journey, and reconciles her cultural Muslim upbringing with her current life in a new sort of mystical spiritual synthesis. It's an equally valid interpretation of the events as presented to say that she fails to reconcile with Islam and becomes an atheist, or to say that the movie is an account of her total spiritual destruction and that by the end she has been entirely consumed and/or possessed by the Djinn. I know which of those I believe, but I'm fairly sure that someone with a different psychic makeup would draw an entirely different conclusion.

The other function of the psychedelic scenes is to mirror Muna's state of mind. This isn't new - lots of films have attempted to convey the experience of taking mind-altering drugs - but Profane is the first movie I've seen to attempt to show drug effects relative to one another, from a subjective point of view. Muna drinks and smokes pot as well as snorting coke and assorted crushed-up pharmaceuticals, and each drug changes the film in noticeable and highly characteristic ways. It's a really interesting device to try and get you into a character's head (as well as making a subtle point about allowable and banned forms of perception) and I thought it was really effective.

What Usama Alshaibi has done with Profane is a sort of Magical cinema. The closest cousins I can think of would be David Lynch or Alejandro Jodorowsky (I've also seen him compared to Kenneth Anger, but I haven't seen any of Anger's films so I can't really comment on that). Both Jodorowsky and Lynch rely on symbolism to carry a lot of the weight of their films, and construct them with a specific psychological impact in mind for the audience.

The Magical element of this is that, because the nature of the symbols is not explicitly decoded, the viewer's subconscious does a lot of the processing in line with their own perceptual reality filters. The full effect of the film is then felt over the course of the next few weeks or months as it slowly unpacks its baggage into the conscious mind. Because the decoding filters aren't "up" and screening the information as it comes in, charge** isn't lost or diffused and it's actually possible for the film to change you (albeit subtly) in ways a more straightforward narrative can't.

I am not the same person I was before I watched Profane - not much different, but certainly not the same.

* This could also be understood as forcibly opening up a gap between perception and reality (or "reality" as relates to the medium in question) as discussed here.

**I try hard to avoid New Age-yness, or "Magickal" language here, because my point is that Magic is a way of explaining a set of processes (for example "negative energy" is a metaphor, not a measurable physical phenomenon) that can be explained in other ways, but (I believe) less effectively. However, I can't think of a better word here. "Charge" in this context would probably be best described as the sense of emotional realness and immediacy in an idea - the difference between reading about something and experiencing it, for example.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Scar Crow

Cinemania has my review of The Scar Crow. It was pretty much the guide for how not to make a low-budget horror movie.

I felt like it was aiming for a sort of Severance meets The Wicker Man vibe (High Weirdness interspersed with witty sarcastic English people getting humorously murdered) but ended up flailing wildly back and forth between Troma-flavoured gore madness and the dullest possible kitchen sink melodrama.

All the synopses I read of this movie talk about the witch panics in early modern Europe (an interesting period of history and good for the High Weirdness angle). Unfortunately, The Scar Crow doesn't really dig into the material that deeply, and undercuts any point about the accused women being wronged by having its witches actually be wicked witches who truck with the devil and summon the dead.

Actually, the basic setup reminded me a lot of another terrible movie - Lesbian Vampire Killersexcept that LVK  was over the top and campy and actually bothered to flesh out its ludicrous back story. It also had the balls to pitch an imaginary sequel about gay werewolves post-credits.

Troma-gore can be pretty good if that's your thing (and the two Troma-y scenes in The Scar Crow  are pretty hilarious**) but you have to wade through a lot of unlikeable men discussing their uninteresting relationship dramas to get there. Also montages - exercising montages, studying magic montages, burying a corpse over and over again montages, drinking montages, drunken making out montages, endless, endless, dull, dull montages.

On the plus side, this movie and The Mark of the Beast have taught me a valuable lesson - if the opening credits of a movie are just text over moving water and water is in no way relevant to the content of the film, it's probably going to suck.

* Disappointingly, just a movie about killing lesbian vampires - not (as you might have hoped) a movie about how lesbianism magically confers some sort of anti-vampire powers.

** Putting this down here so I can add a pretty pointless potential SPOILER WARNING... The first guy to get killed by budget-Jeepers-Creepers is killed by having his (obviously fake hot-pink plastic) cock ripped off in the cheapest-looking manner possible, complete with amateurish blood spatter from the "wound".

Friday, March 15, 2013

Life Without America or God Bless Principle

That sounds like a really heavy political post title, but it's actually just a flashy way of saying that I reviewed a couple more things for the good folks over at Cinemania.

God Bless America is Bobcat Goldthwait's* cultural revenge porn movie. Basically, he has a couple of characters talk about everything he hates about American pop/political culture at length, and then go and bloodily murder people who are thinly veiled caricatures of the stuff he doesn't like. On one hand it makes me a little uncomfortable, because "just murder every last motherfucking one of them" seems like such an American-movie solution to a problem (surely it would have been more subversive to come up with something shaped less like the things you're criticising?) but on the other, it's ironically a more honest approach than Michael Moore's just-an-outraged-regular-guy-for-reals pose.

Life Without Principle is a weirder and in some ways more interesting fish. I had a hard time writing the review, and am having similar trouble here because I really enjoyed it but all my attempts to describe it make it sound kind of rubbish. Theoretically a thriller, it's also a dark comedy and a complex and sometimes very slow meditation on avarice and the positive and negative power of money. I'd recommend it if you have patience and you're down with subtitles.

* As a side note, it makes me immensely happy that "Bobcat Goldthwait" is a real person's real name.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Mark of the Beast (and also I'm gonna try and write more stuff)

I'm reviewing movies for an outfit called Cinemania now. They tend to get a lot of horror/exploitation, non-English, art-house and documentary things - so that's obviously what I'll be reviewing. With any luck this'll prompt me to do more non-review writing as well.

The first thing I've done for them was Rudyard Kipling's Mark of the Beast - it wasn't very good. The short story I checked for reference, I found here if you're interested.

As a post-script to the review there (to sum up - the problems almost all stem from a clumsy transposition of the story form Kipling's India circa 1890 to a modern "Forest" which makes a very poor substitute) I had a minor revelation this morning. Actually, America does have a modern equivalent (or at least, enough of an equivalent for the story to make sense) to Kipling's India - the Middle East.

Sure, it'd have been on-the-nose to set the story there and might have made the movie quite controversial. However, it'd let the characters continue to be military with all the "protect your mates" culture that goes with that instead of no-one-in-particular civilians, as well as providing a plausible "subject population" instead of the movie's awkward references to "Natives". The questions that Kipling raised in his original story about the relative values of "civilised" and "uncivilised" lives, as well as the unease about the way that the use of torture subverts the cause it is used to support would also have made much more sense that way.

Oh well.