Wednesday, 13 April 2011

BOOK OF BUZZ: "Bug Room"

Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce a band that I am in...


Tenderness. Tenderness is frozen. The Wilderness is calling. Emptiness is the four walls I’ve been given. A jar of bugs. A slow death on a sill.

Nothing to prove.

Nothing to hide.

You wouldn’t want me.

You wouldn’t have me anyway.

Like a prom king that grew up wrong and took it out on his bride.

Sympathy and forgiveness are for taking. A last note: badly spelt; asking. A lack of manners: challenge all-comers! A sleeplessness full of blood-dogs and dumbness.

Tenderness… The Wilderness… Emptiness… a jar of bugs… A slow death on a sill…

Nothing to prove.

Nothing to hide.

You wouldn’t want me.

You wouldn’t have me anyway.

Like a prom king that grew up wrong and took it out on his bride.


“Bug Room” written by Book of Buzz

The Man With The 2Quid Moustache: buggy bass, guitar & keyboards. - Buck Theorem: words&vocals - Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez Rodriguez: drumkit bug


recorded by Dan Marshall

Mixed by Kramer (!)

Book of Buzz on facebook .

"The Electric Stuff of Love" by the man with the 2quid moustache

Monday, 11 April 2011

"Sucker Punch"

Zack Snyder, 2011, USA


“Sucker Punch” is a mess. Incredibly so. If nothing else, Snyder has given a clue as to what the fantasies might look like of an adolescent boy getting his first awkward crush over a female character from a games console adventure. On the other hand, the mash-up anything-goes-high-fantasy-over-plotted-and-under-developed and adventures-within-adventures set-up also resembles many comic strips from “Heavy Metal” magazine and many Manga titles. It’s just... a mess.

By the miracle of CGI and other modern special effects, Snyder can do anything, but that only means he has no control. More for the mix: steampunk, “American McGee’s Alice”, Ray Harryhausen giant monsters, post-“X-men” moody and soapy superhero comics, bad fem-rock videos. When tied to a solid and fascinating story such as “Watchmen”, Snyder’s boundless/undisciplined imagination sometimes worked wonders in bringing that seminal graphic novel to life. When limited to a realistic world and forced to abide by certain horror conventions, Snyder produced a number of outstanding scenes in his remake of “Dawn of the Dead” (the opening remains one of the best introductory sequences ever). “300” showed just how ridiculous and terrible Snyder can be when the script does not focus him: at his worst, he comes across as oblivious to the actual meaning and intent of the material at hand. But “300” is, if nothing else, one big joke of absurdism and there is a tongue in a cheek somewhere, surely. When, in “Watchmen”, he used “Hallelujah” for a sex scene, it was hilariously audacious. “Sucker Punch” has none of this knowingness. It has no control at all.

Here is a director that has used music and genre mash-ups to considerable effect previously, and yet here hits all the wrong notes. In “Dawn of the Dead” he bonded Johnny Cash with the zombie genre, and in “Watchmen”, the superhero genre with Nina Simone, all to wonderful effect. With “Sucker Punch” there is some Tarantino effect where you feel that he has written down the play-list for the soundtrack before getting the film together. He doesn’t go as far as to ‘sample/steal’ from other film soundtracks, but what we do have is a relentless catalogue of so-so rock cover-versions. The songs are often so obvious and puerile in their association to the plot that you wonder if there will be a song about walking up stairs when someone walks up stairs. “Army of Me” when Baby Doll first shows her combat skills; “Where is My Mind?” to signify lobotomised and fantasy-insanity; “Search and Destroy” for… you get the idea. We know we are in trouble from the outset: before we have even settled, we have an extended pre-credits music-video for a cover version of “Sweet Dreams (are made of this)”, which is apparently the go-to song for girls being abused by their step-daddies once their mother dies. In trying to stop leery step-dad from abusing her sister, Baby Doll (Emily Browning) accidentally shoots her sister (although the scene is muddled and so this was not particularly clear to me at first, or to the people I went to see the film with). It is somehow indicative of the bewildered and shallow psychology of “Sucker Punch” that it has no understanding of the ambiguities of the lyric of “Sweet Dreams”, that they imply a little give-and-take which, if applied to the situation of these “Sucker Punch” sisters, could imply they were as much to blame as the step-dad. Well, they do dress sweetly and move around in pretty slo-mo. Overall, “Sucker Punch” goes on to look like feature-length music video tie-in for a dodgy cover versions album. There is no interesting friction in the mash-ups of inappropriate songs married to various scenes. Song choices: 1 point (the originals are mostly great). Cover Versions: 1 (they probably aren't all bad when taken out of the film). Song use: minus 3 points.

And so Baby Doll is thrown into a sanatorium by her step-dad and left at the mercy of the corrupt orderlies. At the point of being lobotomised, reality flips and we are in a club/brothel full of hot girly-girls and frequented by putrid males. Baby Doll has retreated into an alternate reality where the club is run by a sub-Pacino scene-chewer called Blue (Oscar Isaac), and where she proves not only to be the best dancer ever, but also the one to encourage a handful of other captive girls to try to escape. As ever, this fantasy runs on the perpetual “chosen one” motif. However, there is another collapsing of reality, for when Baby Doll dances, she zones out and we are given self-contained action sequences in different scenarios/levels. These are the best moments of the film, for they hold the crop of beautiful images and offer up a selection of game-inspired but irresistible creatures: clockwork nazis, giant samurais with chain-guns; dragons; bi-planes; robot-battle-suits; silver attack robots – all familiar from sources such as “Lord of the Rings”, “Killzone”, “Dragonslayer” and so on and so on. For my money, the giant samurai fight is the best of the lot, the clockwork nazis the creepiest, the dragon the prettiest. But then I am a sucker for a good dragon. (The dragon sequence offers perhaps the most original and striking visual: when it bites off the tail of the fleeing airplane, we get to see it chomp down from inside the plane.) The fight editing is thrilling and unintelligible in equal measure, but at least in these sequences Snyder is not tied down to story and he offers some spectacular artificial imagery.

Rarely has a film gotten such a kick from watching girls getting kicked around and then kicking-ass. On the one side, this feels like more titillation for the guys, on the other the girls’ involuntary squeals and grunts of pain and panic seems to reveal how artificial macho-centric and unrealistic films are when they don’t show the men during battle doing the same (yes, I know: a real man doesn’t squeal in pain, etc.). The girls scream and grunt here, and then they wipe out the opposition. But “Sucker Punch” is so thoroughly divorced from reality and the action sequences so grounded in game-console language that no point is proven about gendered action fiction and only the titillation remains. We are meant perhaps to see this is a tale of oppressed and abused girls discovering feminine fight-back power, and Snyder has said he sees it as such, but they are dressed for the male gaze and the male gaze runs supreme here: in “300” this male gaze, fascinated with physique and muscles, flesh and action-poses, created infamously homoerotic vistas; in “Sucker Punch” it simply feels like pandering to a teen fanboy’s soft core dreams. When the girls are hurt and abused, tears streaming down faces and so on, it feels like more titillation: look how pretty the girls hurt. Emily Brown as Baby Doll, evidently cast for her big Manga-eyes and Bambi-in-headlights looks, is barely human at all, so porcelain is her skin, so eternally and simultaneously injured and vacuous are her looks. Not that the other girls fare any better, but Baby Doll is left troublingly not so much between Virgin/Whore but more Kewpie Doll/Whore, an empty vessel and lacuna upon which stuttering male fantasies can have it all. She is slave to a brothel; she can dance like a stripper (the fact that we do not see her dance feels analogous to the fact that we cannot see her in the bedroom with clients ~ this is pretty sordid stuff for a PG-13); she can fight back too and look hot doing so. Compare with Hit-Girl from “Kick Ass”: Snyders harem of girl-power folds into ridiculousness by comparison. Which girl audience would take Baby Doll, Sweet Pea, Blondie, Rocket and Amber as their fantasy icons when you have Hit-Girl to hand? (And no, I don't consider The Spice Girls to have been a genuine historical source of "girl-power" either.)

And finally there shall be the old martyred heroine to top off the cheap dramatics and clichés. Well, not totally: the end credits, appallingly, give a last minute musical number (of “Love is the Drug”, no less). Confused on all frequencies and misfiring on several, “Sucker Punch” has only the visuals of the fantasy sequences to recommend it, and even then they shall remind you of gameplaying and other films. Come the third or fourth, even these sequences become tedious. “Sucker Punch” is only going to feed Snyder’s detractors endlessly and, after “Watchmen’s” successes (and time shall surely prove it a success in the main part), “Sucker Punch” is a terrible comedown. Snyder is a visualiser who apparently needs a strong script to rein him in, but right now his failings as a mature artist probably fits just right for Hollywood’s juvenilia. Who knows, since he has proven hit-and-miss and thoroughly erratic, his next film might be his best? But they probably shouldn’t let him write it.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

The Burning (...and sexual tensions)


Tony Maylam, USA, 1981

For a certain generation, films such as “A Nightmare on Elm Street”, “The Evil Dead” and “The Burning” took on mythical status. There was I, at school, getting the low-down on how terrifying these films were from my far cooler pal, a guy who was tall for his age and dressed like a teddy-boy (making him quite the off-beat pal as this was the Eighties, remember) and seemed to have no trouble getting into or hold of 18 rated films. So it was that I first heard of “The Burning”, undoubtedly as we walked to school one morning. He filled me in on the slim storyline and, presumably, the nastier details. The concept of the rampaging burnt-up man certainly lodged in my brain. As this was one of the banned “video nasties”, I do wonder in retrospect how he got to see it. But only this much later in life have I gotten around to watching it myself, during which time I have seen a bundle of other films that have likely given me a near-to-perfect idea of what to expect.

As one of those horrors with a troubled history with the censors, “The Burning” has, if anything, probably increased in its notoriety. Some of this is down to nostalgia: it is indeed of its time and one of those films which contemporary slashers refer back to and copy. “The Burning” itself was already derivative of “Friday the 13th”, which was already derivative of “Halloween”. But there is a straightforward quality to these ‘80s American slashers, an almost low-budget earnestness, that later gave way to trends in irony and recourse to homage. “The Burning” is not devoid of satirical airs and it does possess a couple of iconic qualities and one seminal scene of carnage. It has the fan-favourite “Cropsy” as its killer (played by Lou David): a creepy summercamp janitor and the victim of a teenage prank that goes wrong, leaving him flailing around on fire and a hideously disfigured burns victim, courtesy of make-up celebrity Tom Savini. Its true iconic image is the image of the silhouetted Cropsy holding up the open garden sheers, ready to bring them down on whatever victim lay beneath.

As the modern viewer might expect, there is a lot of tying-in with sex, death and mutilation. As Aurum notes,

"the film is a particularly clear example of the Puritanism of this particular subgenre, since virtually all killings follow various scenes of sex play, and thus can be all too easily read as ‘dire warnings’ or ‘punishments justly deserved'. [1]"

Indeed, Cropsy tends to go manic after foreplay or teenage sex. His first kill is a prostitute who rejects him once she lays eyes on his barely human burned visage (Savini himself says that it is not a realistic portrayal of a burns victim; it is rather a stretched, silly-putty like hall-of-mirrors distortion). Cropsy is effectively rendered impotent, and in rage he murders her with a protracted scissor-slaying. It is as if the worst thing, the very thing that turns him insane with random fury, is not so much his disfigurement but the horror of this impotency.

Next stop: the summer camp, where there is a whole lot of typical machismo, posturing and preening. The girls seem to giggle about sex and flirt in equal measure: perhaps they are meant to be, if you will, reproachable teasers (as Aurum says) but there is a slightly softer and greyer arena of interactions going on; not necessarily due to any superior characterisation and writing, but just a little ambiguity and complexity to the characters work wonders. For example, Glazer the resident bully (Larry Joshua) is himself consistently mocked and rejected and, although arguably close to one, he is not the date-rapist that many of the other guys seem so uniformly close to being. He alone is shown trying to please his girl and appreciate her. When their sex falls short, he simply apologises and doesn’t resort to aggressive insistence on his virility. He’s not a soft romantic but there is the impression that he might have range to mature. By contrast, the other "funny guys" all seem much closer to genuine date-rapists, sly coercers and Nice Guys. The tension around sex and youthful exploration is probably expressed most obviously and sympathetically in the subplot where one girl is simultaneously curious, charmed and afraid of the boy trying to romance her. But it is tough luck because any step towards sex receives a pair of garden sheers. In this way, “The Burning” is one of those films that simultaneously formed and adhered to the slasher conventions and provided the material for endless parodies.

But it is limited to see Cropsy as only a puritanical punisher. He serves as more than just a warning and retribution, for he is also the manifestation of the girls’ fear of painful penetration, of their anxieties about rape and the loss of virginity. In one example, there is a close-up of the girl trying to hold the open sheers blades at bay as Cropsy forces in on her, which is unsettling and clear in its symbolism. Cropsy is the wild, roaming, ugly personification of all the rape tendencies that seem to underlay most of the male student’s interactions with the girls. One might even find a “dire warning” in the fact that “Woodstock” (Fisher Stevens), the character referred to most as a masturbator, has his fingers chopped off. And then there is the backstory of Cropsy: in the fireside version, he was a disliked janitor who followed around a boy with his garden sheers constantly in hand.

Ah, yes, then we get to the meat of it: the raft scene. This is the scene that defines “The Burning”. It is here that the garden sheers are most used and it is the garden sheers that got the film added to the BBFC “video nasties” list during the 1980s. What the BBFC doesn’t tell you is that many of those “video nasties” were also full-on black comedies. “The Burning” is full of humour: black, intentional and unintentional. The summercamp scenario allows the shock-horror gags of Tom Savini’s gory effects work to move through teen comedy conventions. Funnier but arguably less unique than “Sleepaway Camp”, “The Burning” is far more humane and proficient than the “Friday the 13th” series; for example, it seems to have more interest in its characters as actual people). Conversely, Savini doesn’t appear to have much time for the “Friday the 13th” sequels and “The Burning” is certainly better conceived, but it is still b-grade stuff and its reputation rests mostly on those garden sheer killings which are predominantly bundled all into the raft massacre. One can laugh at the idea that Cropsy ~ whose actual size seems to vary from this moment to that, although the intension is surely that he is a big, big guy ~ would lay down in a floating canoe with his sheers, just waiting and hoping that a raft topped with teenagers would bump into him. But the killing are indeed savage, sharply edited and graphically sprayed across the screen. If slasher films rest their worth upon the killings, “The Burning” doesn’t have the bodycount of Jason Vorhees, but the raft slaughter is quite unforgettably vicious. It is true that slasher films seem to represent the meanest self-loathing of young horror fanatics for their own generation, portraying them often as selfish, disdainful and disposable. But those on the raft seem, of all the film’s victims, to be the most sympathetic and the least deserving. That, perhaps, is the greatest perversion. [2]

Another subplot provides Cropsy with further interpretation. There is a close alignment between Cropsy and resident nerd Alfred (Brian Backer) from the moment of the fireside horror-story, which is, of course, the tale of Cropsy. Alfred is apparently bullied and feels friendless, an outsider and alienated. The truth of it is that his dorm colleagues all incorporate and defend him from the main source of trouble, Glazer the bully. Perhaps Alfred’s true source of alienation and sense of inadequacy lays elsewhere. Alfred’s confused association with status, sex and scares is clear from his early attempt to scare a girl in the showers in some muddled plan to scare her, see her, to woo her, and to impress and emulate his peers. All his furious, unresolved and latent desires to resolve his sexuality and punish his perceived persecutors ~ or at least to visit a jealous vengeance upon those that are ostensibly "normal" in a way that he feels he is not ~ all this is manifest in Cropsy too. Cropsy is like Alfred’s retaliation unleashed and uncontrollable. Note how Cropsy incapacitates Alfred rather than kill him off quickly like everyone else (and if we wanted to stretch: is Alfred left-handed? Because if he is, is that his masturbating arm pinned to the wall?). But there is something else that may be at play here, for is it really the girls that makes Alfred feel inadequate? Is it that Alfred may well have a latent crush on the moderately sympathetic camp leader Todd (Brian Matthews), or even Glazer himself? But let’s forget Glazer because he goes having sex with one of the hot girls and has "dead man" plastered all over him. Cropsy disposes of all the competition and leaves only the tale of the Alfred being saved by Todd the camp counsellor and then Alfred saving Todd in return. (In a rarity for slasher plotting, Todd the councellor finds Alfred due to the latter’s screams and howls of horror; no suffering in manly silence for this victim.) Many read slashers as simply misogynist, but in truth they also contain endless male insecurities and desires to protect friends, families, lovers and crushes, not to mention plentiful anxieties over gender, masculinity, femininity and sexuality. Not so much a coming-out pic, then, but lots of repressed sexual rage which Cropsy happily acts out and then goes on to provide a romantic ending of sorts.

“The Burning” is entertaining and undemanding, but it snaps along brusquely, has better than average acting and atmosphere and is no-nonsense slasher fare. It is probably exactly the kind of item that horror’s detractors would wave around as exhibit #151 in the prosecution’s case. It is also exactly the kind of disposable and nasty fun that horror fans run to for undemanding entertainment and, as ever, to work through all those social and personal anxities.

[1] The Aurum Film Encyclopedia of Horror, editor Phil Hardy, (Aurum Press, 1993, London), page 346

[2] This perversity - that the ostensibly underserving suffer as much as the ostensibly deserving - feels like something that Rob Zombie was trying to get to with many of his female victims in his version of “Halloween”)