Archive for April, 2012

Affairs with electronic women are overrated.

Time may prove me wrong on that one. Robot technology is, after all, still developing. Maybe a bunch of clever scientists will beat the whole “uncanny valley” factor and produce a robotic mate with whom an affair seems appealing, rather than creepy on a very large number of levels.

But the idea of having a relationship with an electronic simulation of a woman apparently seemed a lot more romantic in decades past than it does now.

The thought occurred to me recently when I traveled to Delaware to see a community theater production of Alan Ayckbourn’s play “Comic Potential,” because my friend Scott Pruden was acting in it.

For the record, it was an excellent production. All of the actors were very good — Scott in particular. (And in addition to being a fine comic actor, he’s an excellent writer. I highly recommend his science fiction novel “Immaculate Deception.”)

The play is a romantic comedy set in the near future, centering on a romance between a young man and a beautiful female robot. It’s entertaining.

But afterward, I reflected on the science fiction trope of a guy getting involved with a robot woman. It seems to me that plot device has become as anachronistic in its own way as those old science fiction stories about rocketship voyages to the verdant, inhabited surface of the moon.

When I was a kid, I was a big fan of old-timey science fiction. Come to think of it, I still am. I think of them as fables, in which the writers draw on the more fantastic possibilities of technology to make some kind of statement about the human condition. (Is it possible to use the phrase “the human condition” without sounding pompous? Apparently not.)

And I remember the human-guy-hooks-up-with-robot woman storyline coming up fairly regularly. A couple of examples I can cite off the top of my head are the 1938 short story “Helen O’Loy” by Lester del Rey, and the 1959 “Twilight Zone” episode “The Lonely.” Classics, both.

While “Comic Potential” had its winning moments, I wouldn’t consider it a classic. And since it premiered in 1998, that anachronistic element I referred to earlier seemed all the more puzzling.

It’s set in the near future, where robots serve as the actors in soap operas. A young writer encounters a beautiful robot actress who possesses a spark of humanity that sends her on a Pinocchio-like quest to become a real girl. Along the way, naturally, she and the young writer fall in love.

And in a standard feature of this type of story, it has a scene where someone tells the guy, in effect: “She can’t love you! She’s just a machine!” We the audience, of course, know better. And the Philistines who question the sincerity of their love are inevitably proven wrong.

So why do I say that story line has become outdated? For much the reason those stories about the inhabited surface of the moon have. Technological advances have actually taken us to the moon. And we know it’s not like that.

Similarly, electronic simulations of beautiful women with whom men can interact are no longer just science fiction plot devices. They exist, and men actually do become obsessed with them.

Want evidence? I just did a Google search on the term “Lara Croft erotic fanfiction,” and got 1,890,000 results. (For the record, the Google search is as far as I got. Yeesh!)

Turns out the Philistines were right. She can’t love you. She’s just a machine. And the guys who can’t wrap their heads around that concept aren’t romantic idealists, so much as rather sad individuals.

Then again, the best examples of the human-on-robot love stories, like the aforementioned “Twilight Zone” episode, dealt with the artificiality and ultimate emptiness of the “ideal lover” fantasy. And some more recent science fiction works have dealt very compellingly with that theme. I’m thinking “Blade Runner” and “A.I.”

So maybe that plot device isn’t as anachronistic in the age of Lara Croft erotic fan fiction as I originally thought.

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Boy, there sure were a lot of street criminals with Mohawk haircuts back in the ’80s. They were young. Kids, really. And there were DROVES of them out in the city streets, menacing law-abiding citizens. It seemed you couldn’t set foot in an alley without one of them pulling a knife on you.

That was the situation in the comic books, anyway. A lot of movies, too. The streets were packed with violent, youthful predators. And they all had Mohawks.

Which was kind of weird, when you think about it. I mean … yeah, you’d see people around with Mohawks back in the ’80s. But as I recall, they were a lot more likely to be art school students than street criminals. About the most menacing thing they’d do would be to bore you at a party with an annoying rant about what a self-destructive genius Sid Vicious was.

So why all the pop culture street criminals with Mohawks?

My theory? They were stand-ins.

See, the comic books back in the ’80s reflected the fears of their time. No surprise there. They’ve always done that. Around World War II, comic book heroes battled Nazis. In the post-war decades, they took on megalomaniacal villains intent on destroying Western Civilization. Kind of like a bunch of Fidel Castros and Che Guevaras with a more flamboyant fashion sense.

By the ’80s, they were dealing with a rising tide of street violence. In Frank Miller’s classic “Dark Knight Returns,” for example, Batman goes up again street gang that has brought Gotham City to its knees. And yes, its youthful members tend to favor — you guessed it — Mohawks.

This was all happening at a time when crack was starting to break out in the cities, with its resulting violent turf wars. And an ascendent Republican Party under  Ronald Reagan was eminently willing to stoke white, middle-American fears about those scary inner city criminals.

This was a time when pop culture celebrated vigilante violence as just plain awesome. Even necessary. Let the wussy relics of the hippie era snivel about how these kids just needed to be understood. What the inner cities REALLY needed was The Punisher or Batman or Charles Bronson to wade in there and give them a good beatdown.

I guess you see where this is going. The movies and comic books featuring heroes shooting or punching out a bunch of teenage inner city street criminals were obliquely dealing with the crack epidemic, and the era’s paranoia about inner cities.

But they sure as hell couldn’t make those street gangs consist of minority youths. Because then the subtext is right out there, and the whole thing takes on an ugly connotation. Suddenly, Bruce Wayne isn’t just a watchful protector standing between the law-abiding citizens of Gotham City and an onslaught of violence and savagery. You could make the case that he’s a rich white guy who — as a hobby, basically — puts on a costume and beats up poor black kids.

It seems to me that the whole trend of vigilante worship abated somewhat with the Rodney King beating, and the riots that came afterward. As a culture, we got to see a “Dirty Harry”-style fantasy come to life. And it wasn’t awesome. It was ugly as hell.

Lest I sound like too much of a sanctimonious scold here, let me say for the record that I like “The Dark Knight Returns” and the Dirty Harry movies. I don’t believe that type of entertainment caused racism, vigilantism or civil rights violations, any more than “Rebel Without a Cause” or EC Comics caused juvenile delinquency in the 1950s, as some self-appointed guardians of public morality argued at the time.

I believe they reflected some larger trends in society. Trends that still crop up. And it’s important to periodically remind ourselves of the vast gap between pulpy entertainment and reality.

Ah hell. I really didn’t intend to bring up the Trayvon Martin case. I didn’t create this blog to address the big, heavy issues. But I feel that there’s no getting around it at this point.

I’m not going to hash out the details of the case here. And I’m certainly not going to assign guilt or innocence to either Martin or George Zimmerman. I believe in the principle of “innocent until proven guilty.”

Zimmerman is entitled to his day in court, just like anyone else charged with a crime. I also believe attempts to present Martin as a violent thug solely on the basis of his cutting class and smoking pot is bullshit.

Regardless of who’s guilty or innocent in the Martin case, however, one thing’s for sure. The whole thing’s exposed something very hurtful in our society. Something that can’t be glossed over with a car chase, a few explosions and a catch phrase.

Ever watch one of the Friday the 13th movies and think that a bunch of teenagers who can’t get away from a slow-moving guy in a hockey mask probably don’t belong in the gene pool?

I started a discussion about this topic on Facebook today, and came to the conclusion that it’s a failing on the part of the screenplay writers.

Did you write a script featuring a killer who requires the victims to essentially HELP him bump them off? WRITE A NEW FREAKIN KILLER BECAUSE IT’S NOT SCARY ANYMORE! IT’S ANNOYING!

Here’s the discussion that I imagine takes place in those writing sessions:

“OK. The victim is running from the killer. And, uh … hmmmm. That’s problematic, since she’s running and he moves at the speed of a recent double knee replacement patient with a codeine buzz and a wedgie. How about this? She runs into a farmhouse where there’s no exit. They used to build farmhouses without backdoors, right? They didn’t? Well, maybe our audience won’t know that. Then … I guess she could still run away from him in there, couldn’t she? How about if she stumbles and hurts her leg? She’d still be able to limp away from him? Hmmm. How about this? She somehow accidentally handcuffs herself to the railing …”

With the re-release of James Cameron’s “Titanic,” and the upcoming 100th anniversary of the sinking that inspired it, I’ve been seeing a lot of news stories about the movie lately.

It’s become kind of trendy to trash the movie. And no, I can’t say it’s one of my favorites. I’m more partial to movies with lots of car chases and shit blowing up, like … well … pretty much every other James Cameron movie.

But hey, give credit where it’s due. “Titanic” was an extremely well-made movie. The actual sinking sequences had some jaw-dropping moments. And even the romantic stuff was well-done, if you’re into that kinda thing.

But see, here’s what I found irritating about the movie. The element that had all the 15-year-old girls weeping hysterically into their popcorn.

It was the ultimate impractical female romantic fantasy. It’s about this young woman who meets a long-haired, footloose, artistic free spirit. Dreamy, huh?

They have great sex. And then what happens? He dies almost immediately afterward. It’s perfect! The memory’s preserved intact! It’s unsullied by the scene that typically takes unfolds a year or so down the line after a young woman hooks up with a long-haired, footloose, artistic free spirit.

You know — where she comes home from a 12-hour shift waiting tables at the International House of Pancakes. And there he is, lying on the couch, already pretty buzzed.

He looks up at her and says: “Hey baby! Could you lend me another hundred bucks? Y’know … just as a loan until I become a famous artist?”

And she says: “You know what? Just pack your shit and get your deadbeat ass out of my apartment!”

Doesn’t have quite the same romantic oomph as “I’ll never let go!”

Now here’s a Zen question, as profound in its own way as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

Is it possible to intentionally make a grade B exploitation film?

I found myself asking this question after coming across a review on the blog “Stabs in the Dark” concerning a tribute to an ’80s-style slasher film, complete with an accompanying VHS issued for added “authenticity.”

Stabs in the Dark didn’t give the film a very high rating, which doesn’t surprise me. And the reason it doesn’t surprise me largely comes down to the quotation marks I felt obliged to put around the word “authenticity” in the preceding paragraph.

As I guess you’ve inferred from the mere fact that I’m writing an entry on the subject, I’m a fan of the old grade B exploitation films.

Yes, I enjoy laughing at the sheer incompetence of wretched movies such as “Manos: Hands of Fate,” which provided Mystery Science Theater 3000 with fodder all of those years.

But I’m not just talking about ironic goofing on bad movies. This isn’t exactly a strikingly original insight, but there’s plenty of great stuff to be found among the ranks of low-budget horror movies, exploitation flicks and martial arts films from decades past

In his piece “A Hard-On for Horror,” writer Joe R. Lansdale examines what makes for a truly good low-budget exploitationer, such as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” In Lansdale’s assessment (and I hope to God I’m interpreting him right), it lies in the unpredictable juxtaposition of genuine artistry and low-budget schlockiness.

If slick Hollywood productions and straight-to-video craptaculars tend to share one trait, it’s their scarcity of surprises. But films that fall somewhere in-between – “Phantasm” and the original “Last House on the Left” come to mind – tend to keep you off-balance. They have an unpredictable, roller coaster quality that makes viewing them a legitimately exhilarating and scary experience.

The bitch is: that’s so hard to do intentionally.

A lot of filmmakers have tried it. It’s easy to find homages to exploitation cinema. The kind of fare made by film students with minuscule budgets and boundless belief in their own cleverness, bearing titles like “Vampire Biker Babes With Chainsaws!” I’ve seen a number of these that turned out to be yawners consisting of little more than a splashy title and lots of “ain’t this zany?” references to exploitation films from past eras.

A few filmmakers have even pulled it off, to some degree. For example, there’s the great “Grindhouse” and two equally great films that it inspired – “Machete” and “Hobo With a Shotgun.”

But much as I enjoyed all three of those movies, they still seemed a little hollow at their core compared to their source material. That’s because their rough-hewn qualities were calculated, rather than incidental. It’s the difference between torn jeans worn on a construction site, and jeans that already had the tear in them when they hung on a rack at a hipster boutique and bore a $200 price tag.

If I was to think of an analogy for the combination of incompetence and skill that comprised the best of genuine grindhouse cinema, I’d evoke a very different type of entertainment.

The early days of television consisted largely of live broadcasts. Occasionally, very talented performers would flub their lines. Sometimes, they’d come up with ingenious improvisations to cover for it. Even when they didn’t, those occasional flubs would give the broadcasts an exhilarating, performing-without-a-net quality that the slicker productions of today – for all they have to offer – simply can’t provide.