A word cloud constructed entirely from the testimony of a Guantanamo Bay prison camp detainee…
A word cloud constructed entirely from the testimony of a Guantanamo Bay prison camp detainee…
I wanted to put down a few thoughts on this week’s shooting spree in Colorado at the screening of The Dark Knight Rises. I’ll try to put them down freely, without my usual self-obsessed care. But I’ll fail at that. I’m a self-obsessed man from a self-obsessed culture.
In the wake of this tragedy – ha, we know the drill, don’t we? We reflexively use the requisite sound bites: “in the wake of this tragedy”. The cliches come pouring out. Even the accounts of the victims become cliches: “I heard a popping sound”, “He just started shooting”, “I tried to get behind — “, “I saw someone lying on the ground”. It all paints the same spine-tingling picture, a kind of sentimental poetry of violence. But in the wake of this tragedy, the search for answers begins, the national debate begins, and we’ve heard it all before and done it all before. It’s as if the entire country is on autopilot, moving step by step by step through a predetermined media pseudo-grief drill. Attractive people on television will moderate discussions on gun control, on media violence. They will be moving through the same hypnotized routine, repeating scripts, emphasizing talking points. And each player in this mass, nationwide psychodrama will be using the mass murder to further his or her own agenda. There will be talk of “Why?”, “How did it happen?” But that will all be secondary to the pushing of agendas. Silence would be most appropriate, I guess – not a minute of silence, but days of it, a month of silence – a month of contemplation and grief.
We do this, we Americans. We go on sprees. We go on shopping sprees. We go on dieting sprees. We go on exercise sprees. One of the great inaugural American sprees was the mass murder by Charles Whitman, a student at University Of Texas at Austin, not terribly far from my birthplace. In 1966, Whitman killed 16 and wounded 32 more, with a rifle from the top of the university’s bell tower. “Ladybird” Johnson, wife of Lyndon Johnson, President at the time, graduated from the university, as did former First Lady Laura Bush and Mostafa Chamran, a Defense Minister of Iran.
I like violent stories. I write violent stories. I like Macbeth and Clive Barker and the history of medieval torture. I like Lawrence Of Arabia and The Wild Bunch and Dawn Of The Dead and Tom And Jerry. Being immersed in the violent action, then somehow surviving it, surmounting it, analyzing it, seems to give my animal brain a sense of power. And power, or the illusion of power, is what that animal brain craves most of all. To the animal brain, power means all the food, all the sex, and all the years that ever were or could be. The animal brain doesn’t know that these things are impossible to have. The animal brain believes it’s possible to have everything and an infinite supply of everything. The animal brain has faith.
America was founded on this idea that there was an infinite amount of everything and it could all be yours. European settlers arrived in a completely uninhabited land – not a human soul on the whole continent – no, not a single one. The only thing that stood in your way was Mother Nature. And through the power of your own will, vision, courage, faith, you could have anything and everything you wanted. It was all there in front of you in raw form. If you had the talent to shape it, there was nothing that you couldn’t have.
“I can make the world in my own image” is the American Dream. This is the American Tragedy too – the certainty that I am separate from the world. This belief is the prime motivator behind all American civilization. It’s the thing that got Charles Whitman to kill his wife and mother, then head up to the top of the belltower.
This separation of self from the world – the separation of me from nature, separation of me from the spirit, separation of me from my fellow human, separation of me from my self – is what has made America great. You can’t have a world empire without believing that you are separate from the world – superior, or worse maybe, than others. Or that your God is different from other Gods. The American success story is built on two ideas: Glorification of self and objectification of the other.
If I can objectify you, then I can conquer you, I can buy and sell you, I can blow second hand smoke in your face or believe that Likeing your Facebook status is meaningful contact, I can kill, I can ignore science and reason, I can disbelieve my eyes, I can destroy the future of my children, and more with no sense of any consequences. I can believe there is an infinite amount of what I want and that I can have all of it. Any crime becomes possible. And history has shown over and over that objectification of the other goes hand in hand with atrocity whether you’re shooting American Bison from a train, drawing up plans for gas ovens, drone warfare and human enslavemet. Or firing bullets into human-shaped targets in a movie theater.
Japan has for years had a far more violent media culture than the US. Japan brought us “Battle Royale”. In “Battle Royale”, school kids fight to the death on a remote island while the world watches, yet there have been no “Battle Royale” copycat killings. We know that violence in media is not the cause of random acts of senseless violence. We know it’s not the availability of guns either. Truye, Americans own more guns per capita than any other country, but Switzerland and Finland also have a high gun ownership. What Japan, Switzerland and Finland lack is a 300 year old culture celebrating the triumph of the self over its environment. Although this culture, the culture of narcissism, is America’s biggest export and it has begun to deform other cultures, reshaping them in its image.
I do not own a gun and do not ever plan to. But it just doesn’t stack up that the source of American violence is the number of firearms available. I think it’s rather the other way around. The obsession with the inviolable “Me” and dread of “The Other” stokes the desire for guns – and for money, for food, for entertainment, for guarantees of absolute safety, for immortality, for super-heroes who will kill and die in your name – and the more you cling to security and protection, the more insecure and vulnerable you feel.
Already, various special interests are using this latest Colorado shooting to promote their own agendas – as I am probably doing here. It’s unnerving – the stampede to again find enemies, to again and again point to a problem outside the self, the elimination of which will solve everything. As Einstein famously said, “You cannot solve a problem with the same mindset that created it.”
But there is no desire to solve the problem. The media conversation that will judder on over the coming weeks will resemble that of a confronted narcissist – heavy on self-justification and blame and really slick sounding. Seeking personal humility and self-honesty and striving for the unity of ourselves with our fellow creatures, our world, our own futures would mean an assault on the fabric of American Civilization – of Western Civilization. And this civilization is well-armed and obsessed and will not be stopped.
Orwell, as usual, describes our situation with pinpoint accuracy. From 1984:
(article originally appeared on Mark Deniz’s
My first exposure to George A. Romero’s Martin (1977) came via an event at the Academy Of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences. George had been selected to give a George Pal Lecture, the Academy’s special night in which a cinematic luminary is invited to give an address on the state of fantasy/sci-fi/horror. I don’t remember a lot about that evening. I do remember being introduced to George Romero – and Adrienne Barbeau – by Bill Moseley (Bill’s intro to George was when he played brother Johnnie in Tom Savini’s 1990 Night Of The Living Dead remake). I also remember George Romero saying, in his address, how much he was influenced by Powell & Pressburger’s The Tales Of Hoffmann (1951) and repeatedly rented out a 16mm print of the film when he was a kid in NYC – except sometimes the print wasn’t available because it was being rented by another local kid named Martin Scorsese.
The one thing I most vividly recall from the evening was the clip George showed from a movie of his called Martin, a movie completely unknown to me at the time. It was the scene in which the title character – the vampire Martin – stalks a married female victim in her home and must deal with her and the unexpected arrival of her lover.
My mind was blown.
Martin feeds by first injecting his victims with a hypodermic, then once the victim is unconscious, opens them up with a razor blade to feed on the blood. The procedure is performed with the skill and adrenaline agitation of a hunting forest predator – with nothing romantic or sublime about it. It is at once both mechanical and savage, idiotic and fiendish.
The chaos, the madness, of the clip Romero showed us was breathtaking. The maniac bloodsucker darting around the house, wielding a hypo, alternately evading and wrestling the woman’s half-naked lover in a farce from Hell – it was absurd, and very, very real – and very frightening.
There are few movies I can think to compare Martin with. It’s as if Harmony Korine had made a vampire movie produced by David Cronenberg. Romero goes to every conceivable length to make his extraordinary vampire creation as banal and mundane as possible. He’s an unromantic 84 years old. He dresses like someone with Asperger’s. He is an unappealing, creepy person, setting aside his vampire characteristics. He lives in a miserably ordinary house with a miserably ordinary family. His vampirism seems quite normal, while the hocus pocus of religion or concepts of Good and Evil seem like the outlandish superstitions.
Martin has that riveting knife-edge freshness and immediacy that has been virtually absent from filmmaking for 20 years. Watching it, you have the unnerving sense that the storyteller is not playing by your rules, that you’ve ventured into an arena entirely unpredictable and your safety may not be the storyteller’s highest priority. The 70’s cinema – hands down the best decade for horror – completely embraced these twists and turns and breathtaking shocks, the things that can burn a film into your mind for a lifetime. Martin, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Exorcist (1973), Halloween (1978) – on and on – aren’t masterpieces because of their “spooky” subject matter. The very way they are told, their rhythms, structures, and turning points are calculated to give the audience a transformative experience. They are not about giving the audience what it wants, but giving it what it needs.
In today’s motion picture vampires we see beautiful merchandise, beautifully packaged and factory sealed for freshness. But there is little that is truly shocking and transcendent. Rather than the bloodsucker being a pernicious monstrosity with a story that, if studied, might make us wise, we prefer evil with a candy face, easily digestible horrors, monsters as harmless as we fantasise we are.
Martin, though a killer and a monster, is the one character who consistently tells the truth in Romero’s film. Give us back our truth-telling vampires.
From Michael Galindo’s “True Murders: A Book of Murders & Murderers”:
“The Foot Farmer”
Christopher Marmalate, aka “The Foot Farmer” (b. 1916 – d. 1951) murdered fifteen young men between the ages of 16 and 25 over a single summer in 1951. Marmalate lived in a small two-room house with no plumbing or electricity at the edge of a piece of public wasteground outside Spirit Lake, Iowa, USA.
Christopher Marmalate served in WWII in the Pacific and was several times disciplined for assault and drunkenness. He was discharged four months before the end of the war after his parents, along with two younger sisters, died when a tornado struck their Iowa home, leaving as the only survivor Christopher’s young brother, Paul Marmalate. In April 1949, Paul Marmalate was killed by a train. The wheels of the train parsed Paul’s body into 7 separate pieces. Christopher identified Paul’s body after it had been discovered by a group of teenagers. The remains were cremated.
In mid-May 1951, 20 year old bachelor Sam Knauss was reported missing, after he failed to report to his job as a delivery truck driver for five days in a row and family members found his house abandoned. Sam Knauss had been last seen at an after-hours bar on the outskirts of Sioux City by bookstore owner Morgan Krieger, a bar Christopher Marmalate was known to have occasionally visited.
Marmalate dispatched his victims by gunshot, usually with a single shot to the head. Although in at least three of the victims, multiple gunshot wounds to the back and torso indicate the victim attempted to flee or evade dying.
After shooting the victims, he severed their feet at the ankle joints. Initially he used a newly purchased hacksaw, but by the end of the summer a heavy axe was employed. Marmalate then buried the severed feet in holes carefully plotted in a circle around his house.
Though there was no way to absolutely match up every severed foot with its owner, it is believed that Sam Knauss’s feet were the first to be buried, in a line 24 feet away from Christopher Marmalate’s front door.
All Christopher Marmalate’s victims were from the Sioux City, Iowa area. The feet of each man were buried, within hours of their owner’s murder, exactly 24 feet away from the killer’s front door. The number 24 was somehow significant to Marmalate, as revealed by the many diagrams and maps of the area he drew and which were found strewn around his dwelling – marked with the number 24, or multiples of it, accompanied by arrows and cryptic symbols.
Marmalate died of a self administered gunshot wound – fired from the same WWI issue Colt revolver he had used to kill his victims. Police arrived to find the body lying in a shallow, hastily dug trench after receiving an anonymous tip about the murders. It’s almost certain the tip was a call from Marmalate himself.
Over 100 maps and diagrams, drawn in pencil on cardboard and scrap paper, were retrieved from the Marmalate House. These are currently held by the State Historical Society Of Iowa. The Society’s museum has an extensive collection of material about the “Foot Farmer” killings.
“After Hell” a supernatural drama, a mix of police procedural and “28 Days Later”-style Armageddon story. It’s enthusiastically presented and – the key to any good audio drama – uses an intelligent sound design to create spaces, describe scenes, illustrate scenes in detail.
I was sent one of the new CD copies from SciFind Ltd., UK based aggregator of all things scientifically fictional. I was sold on the concept, sight unseen – or sound unheard.
I love audio drama – as anyone who has heard my delightfully self-indulgent (yes, delightfully!) “Wretched Goo Of The Imagination” podcasts will tell you. One of my first forays into media production was the recording of a thrilling audio space adventure with my older brother. It was entitled “Face To Face With The Planet Scanodon!” and recorded in the living room of our Ohio apartment on glorious reel-to-reel tape. I wonder if my parents still have that tape in storage somewhere.
And I have not grown up – have not “changed my principles”, let’s say – that sounds better – one iota since then. Here is the planet Scanodon at The Cyclopedia Of Worlds:
And, heck, here’s a movie of the planet Scanodon at The Cyclopedia Of World’s video channel, that you can watch till your eyes cross:
The quality of writing and production design may have improved since I was seven years old, but the subject matter…remarkably the same.
Writer-director Joe Medina at Ollin Productions has put together something he should be proud of with “After Hell”. I think Orson Welles would agree with me, if he were animated and rotting next to me in some kind of horrific horror story way, that audio drama – radio drama, we used to call it – is it’s own, self-contained media form. Audio drama, like music, engages the mind and imagination directly – and can – in partnership with our brains – describe atmospheres, textures, spaces, and all manner of impossible absurdities (see again, The Wretched Goo Of The Imagination) with ease. I love it. And will do more of it myself some day, when I finish these several dozen other projects.
Well done, to Ollin Productions and the entire “After Hell” crew. Keep up the good work. We want more. We need more.
In his intro to the Barbican screening of George Romero’s zombie masterpiece Night Of The Living Dead, Max Brooks explained: “Yes, there were zombie movies before Night of the Living Dead, just like there were space movies before Star Wars …”
Likewise, there were technical manuals describing how to survive hideous, unnatural apocalyptic threats to human survival before Max Brooks’ “The Zombie Survival Guide”, but…
In 2003 Max Brooks (son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft – a legacy which I’m sure must haunt Max constantly, like some relentless zombie that just won’t stay down) published “The Zombie Survival Guide”, a meticulous textbook on how to survive in a world plagued by the shambling hungry dead.
I love “The Guide” (as those of us on the front lines call it) very, very much. I bought it for my girlfriend – now wife – hoping it would make her get serious and face the genuine threat closing in on us from all sides. She read it, and she laughed and laughed and laughed. I was ready to go machete-shopping. But I’ll take what I can get.
Max’s follow-up book, “World War Z: An Oral History Of The Zombie War” is now available for study. Last September, even before the book was on the shelves, the film rights to “World War Z” were the object of a massive bidding war between the production companies of Leonardo Di Caprio and Brad Pitt. Brad won – by shooting Leo’s agent through the head with a speargun. That’s the only way you can kill them.
On a gloomy Tuesday night a couple weeks ago, Max began the Barbican Centre’s “Max Brooks’ Festival of The (Living) Dead” with his brief introduction to the first film of the series, Night of the Living Dead. The film was followed by a Q&A moderated by horror film scholar and Time Out writer, Nigel Floyd. Copies of the new zombie book were available for purchase and Max was ready for autographing.
In a quiet half-hour before the evening kicked off, I interviewed Max Brooks about “The Zombie Survival Guide”, about “World War Z”, and about the horror, the horror of it all.
I asked him about the genesis of the first book. It thought it must have had its origins in American post-9/11 trauma. But Max had originally written it in response to the hysteria over Y2K.
To refresh your memory: In the days before The Terrorists, and the bird flu – but after the Soviet evil empire – we lived day and night with the imminent threat that computer clocks would automatically reset themselves to the Year Zero at the stroke of midnight Jan. 1, 2000 A.D. If we failed in this task, banks would implode, planes would fall out the sky, and Tetris would fail to work properly. The next millenium would begin in a Age Of Darkness. Oh, our hubris! We had dared make machines in the likeness of our own mind, and one absurd oversight would lay low man and machine alike, for a long, long time. Or is that lie low? It’s lay low, I think. Anyway, you know what I’m getting at. To avert the disaster, billions of dollars were exchanged among big companies and many computer experts were interviewed on television.
And “Y2K” stands for “Year 2000”. Catchy, eh?
Max had been devoting himself to writing spec screenplays and believed that was where his future career lay. But year after thrilling year of sitting on executive couches hearing bulemic business majors say “We loved it. But it’s not for us. What else do you have?” was losing its luster. Amid the Y2K ruckus, he wondered what the threat of a national zombie disaster might look like. With Vulcan-proof logic, he created a flawless handbook for survival in that emergency.
The book was a labor of love and, as labors of love will, went into a drawer and bided its time. In the meantime, Max was a staff writer on Saturday Night Live for a couple seasons, but still wasn’t having great success with his original longer-form material.
The zombie myth rises from the fear that nothing in earth or heaven can stop an evil whose time has come. On the flip-side, nothing can stop a zombie book whose time has come. So one day, in a year when the ghosts of September 11 were still very angry, and a new Golden Age of Zombie Movies was beginning, and Iraq was making good on its promise of becoming a real slaughterhouse, a friend said to Max: “Hey! What about that zombie book? I really liked that zombie book.”
Phone calls were made, manuscripts mailed to and fro, and “The Zombie Survival Guide” rose from its drawery slumber and was published in 2003.
Max had been training for years to write “The Zombie Survival Guide”. He was a history major in college and an Army ROTC student. “Most of ROTC was basically survival skills,” he said. It might as well have been zombie apocalypse survival school. He wasn’t just making it up when he said that the M-16 was a crummy gun that was destined to be a liability when the zombies arrived. He had fired M-16’s and learned first-hand why they were undesirable and what was the better alternative was. M-16 fans on the net are miffed at his appraisal of the gun. But who’ll be laughing when the zombies come? Max also dipped back into his ROTC survival manual when writing the chapters on the zombie threat in various terrains.
Ah, the ROTC survival manual.
When my father retired from the Air Force, he taught Junior ROTC and we had several of those survival manuals around the home. It’s a must-have for writers, by the way – particularly writers of adventure or action. Or comedy. In fact, I actually quoted directly from the “Mountain Terrain” chapter of the ROTC manual in my “Mountain of the Imagination” podcast. I finally sold my copy of the book a couple months back, before the move here to London. Was that wise? There are factoids I learned from that book that are still indelibly etched upon my mind. For example, in most Middle Eastern countries, though belching after a meal is good form, “breaking wind in public is considered a serious breach of manners”. Also when you are climbing a mountainside, your body should be aligned with the force of gravity (standing straight up and down), not parallel with the surface of the slope (on your belly, in position for a fatal slide). And also, snow is a much better insulator against radioactive fallout than you’d think.
The ROTC manual is extensively illustrated with line drawings of military personal serenely coping with a variety of dangers. It is probably one of the best basic survival manuals in the world. Next to Max’s book.
Knowing the ROTC book as well as I do, “The Zombie Survival Guide” is all the more enjoyable. You think, “He’s got all this survival stuff absolutely correct! The zombie info must be accurate too.”
But my favorite part of the book is the concluding section of “Recorded Attacks”, starting with 50,000 year old rock paintings in central Africa depicting the walking dead with arms ravenously outstretched, to a 2002 zombie appearance in the Virgin Islands (where, coincidentally, Brooks spent a college year abroad). Most of the major historical periods and world cultures get their chance to do battle with the undead.
I love zombies. But greater than my love for zombies is my love for Roman history – particularly British Roman history. So, when you’ve got zombies vs. legionaries in Roman-occupied Britannia … the only thing that could make it more sublime is if the legionaries had light sabers. And there are lots of Roman-era accounts of zombies in the book. In fact, I wondered when I first read them “Why so many? Hmm. Maybe this Brooks fellow just likes Romans. Well, good for him. Or … wait a… could it be … is it just because the Romans kept better records?!” So I asked Max, why so many Roman accounts? And he replied that it was because, yes, the Romans kept better records. Of course, the important lesson to learn form the Roman stories is that the discipline and training is the best defense against the zombie horde.
The new book “World War Z” in some respects begins where the “Zombie Survival Guide” accounts left off. It assumes a world-wide zombie outbreak and is a collection of first-person accounts of encounters with zombies during this period. The book was much more difficult, Max said, than the first, primarily because of the massive amount of research necessary. Not research about zombies – he already knows about them – but research about modern places, professions, technology, society in many different parts of the world. As with “The Zombie Survival Guide”, the stories in “World War Z” will only be as effective as their factual, mundane details are. Most horror is based on the supposition that the audience will suspend disbelief. The goal of Brooks’ kind of horror verite is to leave no room at all for disbelief. The wonderful result is either fascination, dread, or belly laughter.
He was inspired by Studs Terkel’s “The Good War”, a collection of personal narratives of WWII veterans and by the work of Ed Victor, whose 2002 book coldly examines the causes and conditions of a Third World War from the point of view of some far-future historian. Wonderful. Max Brooks is the Peter Watkins of the zombie world.
As if all these great zombie doings weren’t wonderful enough for the fans, Max’s next project is the adaptation of the accounts at the end of the “The Zombie Survival Guide” into graphic novels. People have said that writers seeking the best home for their stories work toward becoming tv writer/producers. But the best avenue, we are learning, particularly for those of us who like to write spectacle is the graphic novel. Later, during the Q&A with Nigel Floyd, when Max announced this plan to the pre-movie audience, a collective gasp of excitement filled the theater.
I asked Max if he was planning then on promoting “World War Z” at Comic-Con next year. He said he didn’t know and confessed that he had never been to Comic-Con. I was shocked. There is, literally, no other event in the world with a more zombie-receptive audience.
To whom do I address my complaint? To Max’s representation? To the publishers? To Comic-Con itself?
Guys, why hasn’t Max been down to Comic-Con yet? Why is this? It’s only the most important yearly event for horror, fantasy, and sci-fi entertainment in the world. Do you not want Max to do well? What do you have against Max that you are holding him back like that? I believe you’re jealous. Yes, I do. I do believe you are. That is why you won’t let him go to Comic-Con. I’ll say it once: get Max’s ass down to Comic-Con in 2007. And get him on his own full-on panel. Not one of those little panels. One of those massive Hall H panels. If you don’t, then … well, I can’t be held responsible for the consequences.
It was a great night really. Great to meet Max and talk with him. Great to see one of the best horror movies ever made – maybe one of the best movies ever made. But best of all, I learned the most important fact I am likely to learn about my new life in here in London:
During Nigel Floyd’s Q&A, an audience member asked: “Max, what is the best place in London to hide during a zombie outbreak?”
Max said without a second’s hesitation: “HMS Belfast.”
Thank you, Max, in advance, for saving my family.
Damn, I forgot to ask …
… can we bring the cats with us?
Today is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. There are more hours of daylight today than on any other day. This phenomenon is caused by the sun’s swelling to more than seven times its normal circumference. The resulting increase in electromagnetic output naturally increases the number of hours and minutes that it is daylight we have at this particular time of our lives.
So you see it is very simple.
If you are a vampire, you may want to take extra-good care of yourself by observing some of these simple guidelines:
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