ToddSeavey.com Book Selections of the Month (April 2011): World War Z, Pontypool, They Live
I’m speaking tomorrow at 7pm at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar (1120 S. Lamar Blvd.) in Austin, TX (at an event likely to sell out, I’m told – so get your $8 ticket here if you want to hear about why Russia’s socialist past is no model for Austin’s future or America’s intellectuals generally). The host – who is getting married this week – L.B. Deyo, is rather fond of zombies, and, to be frank, I have never quite shared this fascination. Zombies, it seemed to me, were just a psychologically-shallow, shambling menace of no greater complexity than kudzu, and their stories always involved their potential victims either finding some trick to stop the plague or else dying at the end, with lots of running away in the interim. Frankenstein’s monster looks quite sophisticated by comparison.
But the three texts discussed in this review are shining exceptions, each giving the (very) basic zombie-plague dilemma a very interesting – and in the end very political – twist.
The first thing I must say about the novel World War Z – written by Mel Brooks’ son Max Brooks, incidentally – is that no book that I have ever walked around town with has sparked more spontaneous comments from female passers-by. After years of walking around with philosophy, science, politics, and econ books that no one ever heard of in my hand, I discover that chicks dig zombies (indeed, last year’s notoriously evil ex liked zombies – and would sit completely unfazed through the most grotesque Rob Zombie films as well, come to think of it, which I initially took as a sign she was fun, then as another alarming sign she is likely abnormal, and now perhaps should see as instead simply part of a broader trend).
Brooks’ novel is structured as if composed of dozens of brief oral reports given after a war against zombies that nearly extinguished the human race, reports from several different nations, revealing different harrowing aspects of the epic struggle, as remembered by the still-traumatized survivors. He manages to do it all with military-thriller realism and grittiness, from the descriptions of local politics breaking down to the simple pride ex-military men take in finding more practical tools with which to conduct post-war sweeps to clean up residual pockets of zombies (I would suggest calling the vehicles used in such sweeps “zombonis”).
I mentioned a geeky Japan-centered passage from the book in an earlier blog entry. Another passage describes a downed fighter pilot desperately fighting her way out of zombie-filled territory only to discover that the dispatcher giving her advice may have been a fear-induced hallucination. (I was reminded of that passage when listening to an update about that man who may have a parrot that helps talk him down during psychotic episodes – and that hopefully will never start giving him advice more akin to that of the Son of Sam killer’s dog. My thanks to Diana Fleischman for the link.)
Despite talk that funding may be near collapse for a World War Z film adaptation, I hope one will happen – using the already-existing J. Michael Straczynski script – and if the movie occurs, I hope it features the turning point at the middle of the book: a battle that involves college students fighting off zombies while one of them sings “Avalon” by Roxy Music over the school P.A. to inspire the troops – though I've always thought of that as more of a “make-out song” than a “fight song.” Now “Editions of You,” my favorite Roxy Music song, that might work as a fight song. (It may depend on whether you’re facing slow zombies or fast zombies.)
Speaking of zombie films: having seen 300, Watchmen, and now Sucker Punch – but having hated the third in spite of its zombie-like Nazi soldiers powered by “clockwork and steam” – should I also see Zack Snyder’s earlier Dawn of the Dead?
One reason I was worried in advance that Sucker Punch would be bad, by the way: It's bad enough if (a) your movie just looks like a big-budget videogame and (b) your plot is “find five objects in order to proceed to the next level,” but (c) if that’s your shallow, game-like plot, don’t be dumb enough to put that – in the form of expository dialogue – right in the trailer.
But I suppose the thing only made $50 million on an $80 million budget, so no need to keep punching the corpse. Look away.
A far smarter, quieter, creepier, and lower-budget film is Pontypool (my thanks to film expert J.R. Taylor for recommending this overlooked Canadian gem). Like many of my favorite movies – including the 90s’ best films, Matrix and Fight Club – Pontypool begins with what seems like a fairly simple, visceral, physical premise but builds to the point where it begins to havemuch broader, socially-transformative political implications – and a post-credits coda about the aesthetic appeal of violence that is, I do not exaggerate, one of the strangest artistic tangents I’ve ever seen that nonetheless works (and I’d love to hear how other viewers feel about it).
If we mindlessly accept the language of violence, Pontypool’s cynical DJ main character warns from his isolated studio (virtually the only location we see throughout the film), we are already living in a world of zombie warfare. Stephen McHattie, who you may vaguely recognize as the Lance Henriksen-like actor who played the elder Nite-Owl in the aforementioned Watchmen and the stone-visaged fleet captain in the ludicrous but spectacular 2012, does an amazing job as the gruff but earnest new DJ in a forbidding rural market who slowly realizes that his callers are witnessing a rising zombie tide.
(For somewhat simpler politics, there’s always the humans-vs.-zombie-Nazis plot of Dead Snow.)
Both Pontypool and John Carpenter’s film They Live end up revolving around broadcasting studios (and even World War Z has a “radio dispatches” feel) – but Pontypool’s studio may be able to create liberating messages, while in They Live’s even-more-cynical, farther-left world, only destroying the broadcast station can enable humanity to survive.
As Jonathan Lethem’s book-length analysis of They Live (by the same title) explains, the film is essentially a populist (and somewhat politically-muddled) primer in 1980s deconstructionism, teaching us that we are the zombies if we do not wake up to the omnipresent brainwashing propaganda of our capitalist overlords – itself a message to which, naturally, I am not very sympathetic, but I can still appreciate the film’s key sequence of a proleish man (played by wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper) donning glasses that enable him to see yuppies as the inhuman ghouls they really are – and their advertising as veiled (now oft-imitated) commands to “OBEY” and “CONSUME.” My thanks to Dan Greenberg for giving me a copy of the Lethem book.
(What would Carpenter think about my funny former co-worker Alice Bradley’s subversive-yet-conformist new mommy-blogger book for aging hip people, Let’s Panic About Babies, I wonder? Might he be more approving of Alice’s great-grandmother, who, if memory serves, once strapped dynamite to herself and threatened to blow up City Hall, back in the days when anarchists were truly dangerous?)
As someone who has unmasked an inhuman ghoul on national television, I sympathize with Lethem’s enthusiasm for the seemingly-trashy Carpenter film – and am amused by the irony of the publishing company behind this film-analyzing book series, Soft Skull Press, having been founded by a friend of mine, Sander Hicks, who went on to become a prominent 9/11 conspiracy theorist. Deconstructionism is never far removed from Marxism and paranoia.
By the way, a prequel to Carpenter’s most-admired film, The Thing, is on the way – made in part by Norwegians and about the Norwegians who preceded the expedition in the original film. It will also be titled The Thing, which I think is odd. Since it’s a prequel to a film based on the novella Who Goes There? maybe they should call it You Totally Went There! or modernize it with the edgier title Who the Hell Do You Think You Are? (or possibly It's a Norwegian “Thing”; it’s a geeky year for Norway, what with the Norse god Thor also headed to theatres, and possibly the Norwegian sci-fi Nazi comedy Iron Sky).
On a non-zombie note, in his book, Lethem mentions in passing his fondness for the Peter Sellers movie The Party (surely an influence on the more recent Anniversary Party, which featured a very Sellers-looking character, though he was referred to in the film as looking like Elvis Costello).
I have long been meaning to see The Party, and reading Lethem’s mild complaint about its extended final sequence of wacky-60s partygoers giving a psychedelically-painted baby elephant a bubble bath only makes me more determined to get around to it – especially these days, with artists like Banksy being badgered by animal welfare activists into ditching their elephant-painting plans, even when the elephants’ handlers say the elephant loves the paint and the attention. (It also strikes me that a psychedelically-painted elephant would be a great symbol for registered Republicans who want to legalize drugs, like me.)
And speaking of the 60s and mind-warping, I really, really need to see Alphaville one of these days.
Lethem notes receiving an e-mail from Greil Marcus praising They Live, which makes sense given that Marcus (as I’ve noted a couple times before) is also a big fan of one of my favorite movies, Quatermass and the Pit, which he describes in a lengthy digression in his book about punk, Lipstick Traces. Both films feature the revelation that the human psyche is partly a product of engineering by aliens. (As for actual punks in film, stay tuned to check out my July Book Selections entry, which will include the book Destroy All Movies! cataloguing every known significant appearance by punks in film.)
Lethem is developing the literary equivalent of David Bowie or Gary Oldman’s film career, which is to say: to the untrained eye he looks highbrow, but when you really tote up the score, you realize that everything he does, no matter how brainily executed, tends also to be sci-fi or genre geek stuff – which is fine with me, of course.
Lethem also wrote a comic for Marvel that was essentially just a remake of a 70s series – and thus not all that clever as a thing unto itself – but was an interesting effort on his part to recapture the sense of weirdness he felt upon reading the original series, Omega the Unknown, back in the 70s. That was a Steve Gerber comic about a boy whose adventures bear an odd resemblance to schizophrenia but were never revealed as such – something along the lines of his parents being revealed as robots while he gets adopted by the perfect sci-fi superhero, who may also be some version of the boy himself. Trippy.
Less fond of Lethem and all his kind is the writer of this hilariously sweeping and scathing – and true – denunciation of the New York Times Book Review from the acid keyboard (?) of Anis Shivani (I know how they’ll be pronouncing his first name at the Times). I am grateful to the writer who pointed out the column to me – a writer who wishes to remain anonymous, out of fear of the Establishment.
In the anti-NYT piece, Sam Tanenhaus’s Death of Conservatism gets a thwack (like the thwack I gave it on this blog one year – and a seeming-lifetime – ago) – and so does my fellow Brown Class of ’91 alum Jeff Shesol, for being bland and mainstream (perhaps we can discuss it at the twenty-year reunion next month amidst other cowardly members of the Establishment).
Though it would be absurd to believe the first conspiracy theory that happens along as a simple explanation of media phenomena, after reading They Live, I can’t help thinking about those four recent cases (three of them available on YouTube) of popular broadcasters having mental/verbal meltdowns (not so unlike the climax of Pontypool) and wondering whether there is some causal connection that is not immediately apparent.
Did micro-strokes really afflict people on air in weirdly syntax-mangling ways (and if you watch the clips, it really does seem as if their word-order simply becomes very strange without their speech or actions otherwise going awry) for decades without anyone noticing before? Or is something new in the air(waves), maybe something as mundane as a newly-glitchy teleprompter software being in wide use lately – or on-air personalities having less time to prep and read carefully than they did in the slow-moving days of three major networks? (Presumably it was not a glitch in their zombie-mind-control rays, despite conspiracy theories to that effect.) Odd.
Speaking of broadcasting, my thanks to former co-worker Austin Petersen for the photo above showing (in addition to just the tiniest glimpse of the top of my head) one of our colleagues holding a copy of Daniel Drezner’s book (which has also been pointed out to me by Ali Kokmen and Jacob Levy) Theories of International Politics and Zombies, which will of course come in handy if World War Z really arrives.
I probably should have jumped on the politics-or-literature-plus-the-undead craze when I first had the idea, years ago, of fictionalizing Teddy Roosevelt’s (real) perambulations of turn-of-the-century New York City with then-reporter (and future Dracula author) Bram Stoker – but reality turned out to be so interesting in that case that mere horror fiction (with inevitable climactic battle against vampire-prostitutes atop the then-new Flatiron Building) would be a disservice.
You see, if I’ve got the facts right, not only did TR, then New York police commissioner, really roam the streets at night occasionally watched by reporters such as Stoker, doing things like dropping by brothels to make sure his officers weren’t partying there, but TR’s (literal) Dutch uncle (a NY legislator in his own right) was a science buff who inspired Van Helsing...TR’s son Archibald was an ultra-conservative co-founder of an anti-gay secret society bent on preserving civilization against rising decadence...and one of the men Archibald was reacting against (and who Stoker went on to befriend and correspond with, even while disapproving of his morals) was an avowed sensualist writer who was in TR’s Long Island intellectual circle, namely Walt Whitman, who became (one of) the model(s) for, yes, Count Dracula.
Why make stuff up when you’ve got history? Then again, the poster slogan for my fictional-horror version could have been “Speak softly and carry a big wooden stake.” You know, maybe that will be my 2012 project. L.B. Deyo considered writing a book about grave-robbers and a book about TR and would surely approve. I’ll tell him about it at the Dionysium tomorrow.
As a bonus, also pointed out by Dan Greenberg, the story that inspired They Live – not quite as exciting as discovering that the plot of Inception was taken from an old Scrooge McDuck comic, but it’ll have to do.