Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Toot Toot Goes the Mastodon


Are you on Twitter? If you are, you probably know it's a swirling dumpster fire of awful. It is a place where all of the nightmares of our world can endlessly scroll before your eyes like a portal into the darkest circles of hell.

The normal news cycle would be exhausting enough, but it's also overrun by white supremacists, Nazis, harassing bots, and worse, they're all treated as rational and deserving of space to say whatever they want because of freeze peach.

Enter Mastodon, the latest attempt to de-throne Twitter (and the rest of the social media juggernauts). On its surface, Mastodon is a Twitter clone with a higher word count allowance--500 instead of 280. When you log in, it even looks exactly like Tweetdeck, but with different skins. Underneath the hood, though, there's some really cool stuff both on a functionality level and a basic structure level that makes it at least a potential Twitter contender.

The Basics

The code that Mastodon is written in is open source, which means anyone can go out and make suggestions and start projects to make improvements to the platform. This is cool because it means, were you sufficiently talented and motivated enough, you could write up and introduce improvements to the platform. It's community based rather than answering to the board of directors at Twitter.

Functionality

Setup to Mastodon can be a tad complicated, and I want to talk more in depth of how it works and the pluses and minuses, but let's save that for later. Let's pretend you've already signed up and are ready to start using it.


  • Like I said, it's a Twitter clone in a lot of ways. It's laid out like Tweetdeck, and functions almost the same.
  • The tweets are called toots. TOOTS!
  • Because of elephants. Get it?
  • You can:
    •  toot something
      • a normal post
    • boost something
      • like a retweet or reblog
    • or favorite something
      • like most social media platforms
  • You can add media to your posts--images, videos, etc.--and the platform will generally format them so that they look nice and fit the layout.
    • The pictures aren't quite as sleek and functional as on Twitter--you can't just swipe from picture to picture--but it's not clunky either.
  • The little globe symbol at the bottom of the message area is your privacy settings. You can set toots to go out:
    •  publically
      • everyone can see it, including not your followers
    • followers only
      • so that it's only visible to your followers
    • or that it goes "unlisted" 
      • I'll explain that more in a sec
    • You can also choose "direct" as an option. 
      • This is how Mastodon direct messages--it looks just like a tweet in your feed, but it can ONLY be viewed by the person that you sent it to (and the admins that mess with the code, but that's obvious).
  • You can also tag your posts with a content warning--that's what the CW is for.
    • This creates a title on your post, basically, that lets you give a quick heads up of what will be buried below a "see more" option. This way, if you want to talk about something particularly traumatic, you can hide it so people can engage with it as they want. This is true for politics, nudity, and other potentially heavy topics. 
    • It's ALSO super useful for spoilers! One of the fights everyone always has on Twitter is how long do we wait to talk about something before it's out of the "spoiler zone." Well, now you don't have to worry! Tag it, "Thor Spoilers" and spoil to your heart's content!

Instances

The most complicated aspect of Mastodon is the concept of instances. This is because Mastodon isn't a  centralized thing, per se. With Twitter and Facebook, there is one centralized platform that has one board that oversees the enforcement of rules. Mastodon is a framework on which anyone can start their own mini-Twitter...or mini-Mastodon, if you will.

That already sounds weird, so let me back up a second.

If you've used Reddit, you know that there is Reddit, the overall application, and then there are subreddits--rooms that you can enter that have their own rules for what's acceptable. You can interact with the people of r/fantasy (a fantasy devoted subreddit) for years and never have to speak to anyone outside of there.

Mastadon is very much like that. The difference is, with Reddit you still only have one account and one group of official people that oversees the Official Reddit Rule Enforcement. Each Mastodon instance--each "room"--requires a separate account, however.

The really cool thing about Mastodon is you don't have to be part of an instance to follow someone from that instance. So, I joined tootplanet.space because it was queer friendly, had very straightforward rules, and I loved the space theme. A lot of the SFF authors I follow on Twitter, however, joined wandering.shop, which is intended to function kind of like an online science fiction/fantasy convention where you can talk about SFF books and TV shows and interact with authors and fans. I can still follow those authors and interact with them while being a member of my instance.

Some people stressed about which instance to join, and one of the flaws of Mastodon is that there aren't obvious ways to find what's out there. A tool does exist, but if you don't know about it, you might miss it. You can go to https://instances.social, which has a tool that will ask you questions and help you narrow things down to some possible options based on what languages you speak, how many users you want in your instance, and what specific moderation rules you're either for or against.

But why instances? Why set it up that way?

Home, Local, and Federation

When you setup your account on your instance, your home timeline will probably have one or two accounts that you auto-followed--that's usually an admin account of some kind, kinda like Tom from MySpace. Beyond that, your timeline will be empty.

There are, however, two other timelines that you can look at: Local, which is a stream of everyone in your instance, and federation, which is a combination of everyone that you follow and everyone that the people you are following follow. (That's not 100% accurate, but it's close enough for these purposes.)

This is how I saw it explained on Mastodon that helped clarify things a little:
  • Home--this is my home and it's full of my friends whom I invited in.
    • If you post a toot "followers only," it will go to your followers feeds only.
  • Local--this is my neighborhood where I chose to live.
    • You won't follow everyone you see here, and not everyone you follow appears here. This is your local community.
    • When you post a toot "unlisted," it will not post here
  • Federation--this is the city I'm staying in. It's full of friends of friends
    • All of the people you follow will appear here, along with everyone that they follow
    • Posting toots unlisted means it won't show up here, either.
Dipping into the latter two feeds will give you suggestions on who to follow beyond searching for someone.

And? So what?

Recently on Twitter, I saw a white supremacist call someone the n-word. When the person responded by calling the white supremacist a "fucking racist," they were suspended for a week. The white supremacist wasn't disciplined by Twitter.

Twitter is driven by ads and media buzz. They have shareholders and a bottom line. It's a business, and it's trying to sell you things and sell you to advertisers so they can sell you things. Because of that, it means that, in spite of any rules they may have in place, they're not incentivised to kick off the Nazis unless they have to--in Germany, Nazism is illegal, so those accounts are blocked there. Just not here because of freeze peach.

Because Mastodon isn't centralized, as long as you join an instance with good moderation rules and an active admin, you don't have to deal with that nonsense. Abusers can be banned from the instance, but it's better than that. Your admin can ban entire instances from interacting with your instance. writers.blah can decide that they don't want to deal with nazis.shitheads and ban the entire instance. In fact, tootplanet.space had a list of banned instances and why they were banned. It's one of the reasons I decided to join them--they were very straightforward.

Each instance has its own set of rules, so some instances allow literally anything. Some are more restrictive. Some allow NSFW posts untagged. Some don't. Some allow swearing. Some don't. That's the beautiful flexibility of instances. AND you can still follow folks from other instances with different rules, too. So you can follow that puppet porn account all you want, even if your instance doesn't allow YOU to post puppet porn.

What's the downside?

Because each instance is a separate account with a separate password and separate settings, if you were to decide that the instance you're in doesn't fit, you have to create a new account elsewhere. There's some nice tools put in place to bring your mute, block, and following lists with you so you can keep what YOU see the same, but you can't bring your followers with you.

Some people really want there to be a single account that you create, and then you can check into different rooms as you wish. There were legitimate concerns raised of people being able to impersonate other people in other instances, and since there's no centralization, it'd be next to impossible to get rid of them all. There's no central authority, so there's no "verified" option like on Twitter. This is a legit concern.

Although Mastodon has been marketed as "Twitter without the Nazis" that's not accurate. As I said, Nazis can join an instance or create their own. It's up to the admins of whatever instance you join to block them and keep them out. It would be pretty easy for the Nazis to whip themselves into a frenzy, mob an instance, and bring it down from the inside, and everyone would have to just start new accounts elsewhere, which is a bummer.

There's also the possibility that you could run afoul of the mod and get booted for whatever reason. As Chuck Wendig pointed out, mod drama back in the BBS days was real and it would be easy for a mod to take a sudden disliking to you, and you'd just lose that account.

There also needs to be better muting in place. You can mute and block users, but muting keywords is restricted to a by-column basis. Just because my instance is good about not posting spoilers for Thor Ragnarok doesn't mean that everyone in the Federation timeline would be. Plus, if I absolutely never want to see the word rutabaga, I should be able to mute that universally. Unfortunately, that's not the case for right now. You can, like I said, mute keywords by column, though, which is nice.

Another functionality that I miss is making lists. I have a list on my Tweetdeck of my friends so that, even if I don't want to read through my whole feed, I can get an update on how they specifically are doing. That functionality isn't present at this time.

These are real issues, and if the platform continues to grow, these are things that they would either need to come up with answers to or figure out work arounds for.

Final thoughts

I really dig it. Like, a whole lot.

I think community policing is a really great way to deal with most harassment issues, including being able to just completely ban an instance so you don't have to deal with the shit gibbons at all. 

I also like the additional functionality of the content warnings letting you hide potentially sensitive information and letting users choose for themselves whether they want to engage. Politics, whether you agree with someone or not, has made Twitter into a nightmare where joy goes to die most of the time. It may be the front line for the resistance, but it's also front line of my sorrows.

And finally, Mastodon puts the social back in social media. There's an interesting sense of pride and identity, especially in the smaller instances. You feel like more of a tight knit community, and you all agree on what you consider acceptable. You don't have to follow everyone in your instance, but you'll likely still interact with a lot of them, and you can always drop into the Federation stream to get a sense of what Mastodon as a whole is talking about--at least within your circles of interest. And that's really cool.

I hope this sticks around. An awful lot of people moved over there, but I can see the instance confusion being a barrier to entry for a lot of folks, and the potential for impersonation in other instances is higher than I would like. For folks looking to use it as a marketing platform like Twitter, it doesn't function as well as Twitter does for that. But for everything else, it's so much more enjoyable.

Check it out. See what you like. Hit me up. Follow me. I'm @whirlingnerdish@tootplanet.space.


Thursday, November 9, 2017

The October Movie Challenge (with The Me!)

Photo by van Ort  Some rights reserved from Flickr
As I said last week, we did the 31 Days of October Challenge--which is to watch one horror movie every night in October. Because we're damned fools that should know better, we actually worked in quite a few extras.

Seriously, we have a serious movie problem. Especially me. I have it bad. What am I gonna do, though, NOT watch a movie?

Last week, my wife wrote up her thoughts on each movie we watched, and now it's my turn!

Please enjoy!

**************
  1. Gerald's Game
    • Mike Flanagan can basically do no wrong for me at this point. I love horror, but my favorite horror is when creators tap into their characters and create very personal stories that aren't just scary, but display the heart of the story. It's why King's books work so well, and Flanagan does that perfectly in his movies. I've heard some complaints that it goes too long, but I thought the ending was very good thematically for the character. Don't @ me.
  2. Beware the Slenderman
    • My wife is obsessed with true crime documentaries, so this was her pick. I liked it, I thought it was an interesting look at a complicated case since mental illness is a complex issue. However, there were times where the documentary sauntered up to "people who like creepy things could be dangerous," and I'm just not here for that. The best part for me was exploring the history of the Slenderman mythos since, unlike traditional folklore, it has a discernible creation we can point to. And yet people still believe it. I get it was supposed to be a documentary about the crime, but I really want a documentary that just deep dives into internet folklore and creepypastas now.
  3. Ginger Snaps
    • I dug the hell out of this. Katherine Isabelle is great, and it's one of those beautiful movies that could have only come out in 2000 that has just enough late 90s trends to make it feel of the time but gives a fascinating peak to where cinema and horror could have gone if 9/11 hadn't happened. More practical creatures in horror movies!
  4. Wrong Turn
    • This movie sucked. It wasn't the worst thing, I suppose. Just a dumb slasher movie, but without the charm of the 80s or early 90s and without the silly cynicism and deconstructionism of the late 90s early 00s. It was just...there. Mutant rednecks murder folks. Yay...
  5. Cube
    • I really liked this movie. It's fascinating how similar it feels to Saw--traps, a mystery that has to be solved for why these people are here--while predating the entire Saw franchise. It's a lot of fun, a tad cheesy at times, but I actually have a soft spot for the "people locked in  room figuring out why they're all there" genre--which Saw dips into, not always, but frequently.
  6. It (2017)
    • I was surprised that my wife was so keen to watch this movie. She has been afraid of clowns since I met her. She watched the first trailer and called me at work freaking out--scared, but also excited? Turns out, this movie is fantastic. Probably my second favorite horror movie this year. The choice to just leave the adults stories to a sequel was the right one. This movie earns its R rating, and I didn't expect that since R rated horror movies are pretty rare these days. Very good, I'm stoked for the sequel.
  7. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
    • We all know this movie. I like it. It's cute. But the reason we saw it for Spooktober was because we had the chance to see it outside with a live orchestra performing the score. I literally got goosebumps repeatedly throughout the film. They're doing it again next year with Chamber of Secrets, and I will be there if I can.
  8. Blacula
    • I really really liked this movie. I didn't really know what to expect. I don't know that I've ever seen a proper blaxploitation movie. I've seen the parodies of those, so my understanding of the genre is filtered through style and parody. That said, this movie was great--a fascinating spin on Dracula. Using the slave trade as the backdrop for vampires was an excellent idea, and Blacula really came across like a tragic figure. The movie was surprisingly sad.
  9. Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday
    • This was actually my 3rd or 4th favorite Friday, I think. I don't have a lot of love for the Friday franchise--they're very repetitive and don't really get interesting until part six. That said, this one was silly, and I enjoyed the bounty hunter character.
  10. The Purge: Election Year
    • It was chilling watching this movie in a post-election world, especially since there's a subplot about Russians that was insanely prescient. The franchise has turned more action oriented than horror--if it'd been me, I wouldn't have followed up on Frank Grillo's character and instead pursued another character, but it was good.
  11. Flatliners  (2017)
    • This movie sucked. I thought maybe the hype was overly negative because people were nostalgic for the original, and since I'd never seen the original, I figured I'd enjoy it more. No. It was very stupid. Diego Luna's character has nothing to do, and the ultimate pay off for what's causing the haunt is so so so weak. Seriously the saddest, silliest movie. Also, the PG-13 rating felt like it was handcuffing the movie. Like, at times the movie felt like it wanted to go super dark, but back-pedaled instead to a softer, weaker place. Just don't. It's not worth it.
  12. Happy Death Day
    • Essentially, this is horror Groundhog Day. Unlike Flatliners, this movie didn't feel handcuffed by its PG-13 rating. The point of this movie wasn't gory deaths, but the inventive ways she dies and the mystery behind her repeating day. The main actress is really great in it. The movie was a great time--highly recommended.
  13. Freddy vs. Jason
    • This movie gets a lot of hate, but I actually like it. I thought the way the two franchises together was pretty seamless. Some people were apparently pissed they focused more on Nightmare's mythology than Jason's, but I ask you this: what Jason mythology? There isn't any. Nightmare, meanwhile, has tons. Not casting Kane Hodder was bullshit, though. And that homophobic line toward the end. Otherwise, pretty solid. I wish it had revitalized the two franchises rather than being a dying gasp for both of them.
  14. Halloween
    • This was the original, and it was great. I'd never seen it before, and I got to see it with a double feature of Friday the 13th on...well...October, Friday the 13th. Obviously, this movie is a classic. It is the best slasher I've seen of its era. And that score. Chills.
  15. Jason X
    • So stupid. So glorious. So many puns. So much late 90s early 00s future nonsense. A robot lady fights a nano-bot armored Jason in space. That is all you need to know to understand this movie. I love it. It is dumb, but I love it.
  16. Get Out
    • Amazing. Chilling. My favorite horror movie--and might be my favorite movie of this year. I look forward to Jordan Peele's future works. 
  17. Life
    • This movie was basically Alien. That said, it's really good. It has a few interesting twists and turns, the set work  to make the antigravity feel real was astounding. The creature was cleverly designed, and as it evolves throughout the movie, it still looks cool. A surprisingly big budget, all star cast that basically no one saw, and that is a shame.
  18. Little Evil
    • This was a very silly, fun little movie. Lots of references to horror classics packed into the movie without it devolving into the lazy reference humor of the Scary Movie franchise. Adam Scott is great in everything. 
  19. Final Destination
    • I really like this movie. It FUCKED ME UP as a kid. Death will come for you in a Rube Goldberg machine-esque fashion! The plane crash in the beginning was wild since this came out in, I think, '99. In just 2 years, this movie wouldn't have come out.
  20. Saw 2
    • I actually like most of the Saw movies. The mystery of them keeps you going into the next one, and the gore, to me, never really felt gratuitous. I mean, it is gratuitous, but there's always a point for it. John Kramer's story is fascinating, and while the first one was a great locked room mystery, this one is great to get a peak into the mind of the killer. Plus, it's a bit of a commentary on how toxic hypermasculinity hurts everyone, including yourself.
  21. Nightmare on Elm Street 1984
    • A classic. Amazing. I love this movie--although maybe not as much as the sequel? So good.
  22. Nightmare on Elm Street 2010
    • Jackie Earle Haley is amazing. He, seriously, did a great job making Freddy scary again. Unfortunately, the movie can't decide whether it wants to remake the old movie, or do something new, so it keeps waffling back and forth. The movie's opening scene is legitimately great--the red and green lighting of Freddy's world is a wonderful call back to the original series, there's surreal, spooky imagery. And then the rest of the movie is...bland to bad. The calls back to the original are bland. The pay off the mystery is bad bad bad.
  23. Saw 3
    • Again, I liked this movie. This is the movie in which--spoilers--Jigsaw dies. A doctor is tasked with keeping Jigsaw alive while another guy goes through a maze, confronting each person that was responsible for the death of his son as Jigsaw tries to teach him forgiveness. I feel like they perfect this hall of horrors premise in a later sequel, though. Tobin Bell is fascinating.
  24. You're Next
    • I love this movie. Adam Wingard's recent efforts have left me cold--Blair Witch was...fine...and Death Note was stupid. But this movie? This is just about perfection. A beautiful twist on the home invasion genre, and I've read their pitch for the sequel. It kills me we'll probably never see it.
  25. Saw 4
    • This one was my favorite for a long time because we learn the most about Jigsaw. And I do like some of the final twists. However, Riggs isn't quite as interesting a character to focus on as some of the others, and I feel like they waste some of the potential with Eric Matthews character. But still solid.
  26. Saw 5
    • This movie focuses on Luke, who has retired from his diner in Stars Hollow and become a cop in the city. Not really, but basically. And it's...okay. It's a bit of a pissing match between two cops, both of whom look similar enough that sometimes you have a hard time telling them apart. Still a decent mystery, but it feels less like a full movie in itself and more like an episode from a TV show.
  27. Saw 6
    • I don't like the story of the cop that survived the previous movie. I do like that this movie retcons the entire franchise into a commentary on the health care industry in America. This is the movie that perfects that hall of horrors things that Saw 3 did. I had a quibble with one person's inclusion that wasn't really clear enough in what they did to deserve Jigsaw's wrath, but otherwise I dug this one quite a bit.
  28. Saw 7
    • This poor movie. Oddly, the most expensive, it looks the cheapest, and that's sad because this features the return of Dr. Gordon from the first movie! I like the way this movie ties up a lot of the mysteries and feels like a decent final chapter...which...it is. They did good.
  29. Tucker and Dale vs Evil
    • Hilarious. One of my favorite horror comedies ever. Maybe it's because I'm from Arkansas, but this one really hits home.
  30. The Fog (1980)
    • Some people said this movie was slow, but I would call it atmospheric. It's all about setting up the characters and building the dread. The fog effect was a great way to make a scary movie monster for cheap. Not my favorite John Carpenter, but pretty good.
  31. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
    • Love this movie. (Im)patiently waiting for the Criterion release. 
  32. Jackals
    • A decent movie with an interesting set up for a home invasion movie, but I feel like it fell just a little short of being really good. There were a few stumbles in the plot, but there were some really good performances. 
  33. Jigsaw
    • I really dug this movie. Somehow, this one feels more cinematic than the other ones. I don't know if they got a bigger budget or what, but the scope somehow feels bigger. Tobin Bell returning to the franchise was very welcome. There were some questions, some quibbles, I had with the ultimate twist that don't necessarily strike me as a problem...but I would love to see them addressed in a sequel.
  34. Gone Girl
    • This is my 2nd favorite Gillian Flynn book, and I love this movie. Creeping dread, disturbing, cerebral. It has a weird almost anti-feminist flavor to it that works for the movie, but also makes me tilt my head at Gillian Flynn a tad, but also this movie is great.
  35. Trick r' Treat
    • Fun. Silly. A wonderful Halloween movie. I forget this movie is an anthology sometimes because the films are woven together so carefully.
  36. Halloweentown
    • I love these goofy movies, especially the first two. Classica, and with Carrie Fisher's mom! And one of the great villains of a Disney movie: Kalibar!
  37. Hocus Pocus
    • Hilarious. Amazing. Gay as shit. I love it so much. Pretty much entirely carried on the three witches' performance. So so campy and great.
  38. The Nightmare Before Christmas
    • This movie made me who I am today. It is the first movie I can remember that really twisted my tiny heart and got me into horror. I've loved creepy, spooky stuff ever since. I love, love, love this movie from top to bottom. It's also a wonderful movie about cultural appropriation and how just because you like a thing doesn't mean you understand it or can take ownership of it.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Childhood Toy Nostalgia!

Yesterday my wife and I were wandering around the store goofing off because we'd just gotten out of a movie and didn't want to go home yet, and I stumbled across an amazing discovery. Dr. Dreadful's was a toy that I remember seeing commercials for all the time growing up. I'd always wanted them, but never got one.

Turns out they're back and almost exactly the same.

I also remembered another commercial because my brain is flypaper for stupid, useless information. Anyway, enjoy this geek out while I'm neck deep in NaNoNonsense.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The October Movie Challenge (with The Wife!)

Photo by van Ort  Some rights reserved from Flickr
So we did the 31 Days of October Challenge--the idea being watch one horror movie every night in October. We actually worked in quite a few extras because we just love movies that much. There's actually even more that aren't on this list because they weren't horror movies--you can see those on the Movies I Watched List page.

Anyway, my wife had a lot of fun with this and decided to give her thoughts on each movie. Please enjoy my darling wife's debut here on the blog. I'll write up my thoughts in a separate post that'll go up later--I'm in the thick of NaNoWriMo at the moment, so I haven't had the chance yet.

Please enjoy!

**************
  1. Gerald's Game
    • I really enjoyed this more than I thought I would. I had a vague idea of what it was just because my life partner is a bit of a King fanatic ;) It was feminist AF and I super dug it.
  2. Beware the Slenderman
    • This was my pick, and probably my third time watching it. As a sufferer of mental illness, I think it does a service to show that their actions weren’t just pure acts of evil, but complicated by their situation. On another note, that county in Wisconsin needs to get its shit together (it’s the same county as the Making a Murderer show’s location).
  3. Ginger Snaps
    • Speaking of feminist AF, this rocked. Since my partner is writing a werewolf novel, I loved seeing this and feeling like I got a peek into his mind. It’s cheesy, brilliant, gory, and I recommend it to everyone I know.
  4. Wrong Turn
    • Jesus Christ. Where to start with this movie. This was the first horror movie I ever bought, and I got it at age 11(?) Being from the boondocks, this movie creeped me the fuck out as a kid, and it holds a special spot in my heart. Every time I go to our hometown I think of this movie and the redneck inbred cannibals that are so like the patrons of the Dollar Tree down home, haha.
  5. Cube
    • Hilarious. Terrible. Preposterous. Such a gem of a time capsule3.
  6. It (2017)
    • I LOVE THIS MOVIE. We saw it three times, and I could watch it a hundred times more. Turns out, the cure to a phobia of clowns is actually wanting to fuck one.  I was the only person in the theatre all three times who was laughing and cheering on Pennywise, which probably speaks more to my general fucked up-edness than anything else.
  7. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
    • We saw this at an outdoor screening with a live orchestra preforming the score. Pardon the pun, but it was *magical*.
  8. Blacula
    • This was my first experience in Blacksplotation (sp?). I enjoyed it for what it was. Not really super memorable, but a stand up movie. Not the worst thing we watched, but not the best.
  9. Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday
    • Was this the one where Jason body hopped? Bleh.
  10. The Purge: Election Year
    • Arguably the best entry in the Purge series to date. I don’t think it pretended to be anything it wasn’t and just leaned into the absurdity that is the crux of the premise. Fun times.
  11. Flatliners  (2017)
    • FUCKING. AWFUL.
  12. Happy Death Day
    • I loved this one, too! My only complaints wer that it was a little predictable for me since I’ve seen eleventy thousand slasher movies and that it didn’t actually feature any 50 Cent music.
  13. Freddy vs. Jason
    • This movie is ridiculous, and anyone who says otherwise is kidding themselves. It’s bullshit that it didn’t feature Kane Hodder as Jason, but whatevs.
  14. Halloween
    • I actually prefer Rob Zombie’s interpretation more. But it’s easy to see why this is a foundational horror movie.
  15. Jason X
    • Jason goes to space…I think. Literally just so dumb that I can’t even articulate anything about it.
  16. Get Out
    • Fucking masterpiece. 
  17. Life
    • Interesting flick. I'm not one much for space movies- I didn't like Gravity or The Martian, and I wasn't a huge fan of this. The creature itself was more compelling than any of the astronauts (apart from you know which one but I'm not gonna spoil it). Predictable ending. Meh.
  18. Little Evil
    • As a fan of both The Omen and of Adam Scott, I wasn't surprised that this movie was great. A fun little satire that wasn't actually super predictable and did something that made it it's OWN THING. Highly recommend. 
  19. Final Destination
    • 90’s gold. That’s about it.
  20. Saw 2
    • Not enough Cary Elwes.
  21. Nightmare on Elm Street 1984
    • Has my favorite scene in any movie ever. Johnny Depp turning into an upward stream of blood. I love it so much.
  22. Nightmare on Elm Street 2010
    • It had so much potential! The micro naps could have been so much, but it’s just a  mess of a movie. It can’t decide if it wants to be a direct remake or a new spin, and it tries to do both and just fails, which is no fault of Jackie Earle Haley’s.
  23. Saw 3
    • Not enough Cary Elwes. And not enough Tobin Bell, for that matter.
  24. You're Next
    • Another feminist AF movie. I love everything about this, every line of dialogue, every scene transition, the score, everything.
  25. Saw 4
    • Not enough Cary Elwes.
  26. Saw 5
    • Not enough Cary Elwes.
  27. Saw 6
    • Not enough Cary Elwes.
  28. Saw 7
    • Some Cary Elwes, but still not enough.
  29. Tucker and Dale vs Evil
    • Such a fun little flick.
  30. The Fog (1980)
    • This was my first time seeing it, and it was pretty good, but not as good as The Mist.
  31. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
    • Also my first time seeing this one. I really liked it, but hated most of the characters. 
  32. Jackals
    • So close to being a good movie, but so frustrating that it didn’t quite get there. 
  33. Jigsaw
    • I had goosebumps at the theatre when it was over. I super dug it, and recommend it to anyone who enjoyed the Saw Franchise. I really hope they continue after it to follow up on some stuff they hinted to with the main character.
  34. Gone Girl
    • They did such a good job translating the book to the screen with this. Super fucked up and awesome.
  35. Trick r' Treat
    • Second time watching this. I don’t hate it anymore, but I don’t like it really, either. I just hate movies that do that whole schtick with the multiple stories happening at the same time, like Love Actually. Blurg.
  36. Halloweentown
    • Classic DCOM.
  37. Hocus Pocus
    • It’s an iconic Halloween flick for a reason, folks.
  38. The Nightmare Before Christmas
    • Same.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween from Sanford S. Pupkins!


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Final Fifteen

 Some rights reserved by regan76 of Flickr
I've been feeling a little exhausted lately. I meant to post a 31 Days of October list way back at the beginning of the month, but I am a lazy bum and didn't get around to writing it. So I'm going to just say fuck convention and provide you my suggestions for the last fifteen days in October starting with TODAY.

If you've been doing the 31 Days of October, you're approaching the final stretch. You've almost made it. You're halfway through. So here are some things to get you through those last 15 days.

October 17th: Sleepaway Camp

If you're any sort of horror fan, you very likely already watched a Friday the 13th movie on October 13th--I was lucky enough to attend a drive-in double feature of the originals: Friday the 13th and Halloween. (If that's not the case, swap this one out for Friday the 13th Part 2. Not only is that the first one with Jason as the killer, but it features a cast that's decently memorable. Part 3 may be the first one where Jason gets his hockey mask, but it also features the horrible character Shelley.)

Anyway, why Sleepaway Camp? The movie is definitely hella problematic, but what I find interesting about the movie is not the final twist that everyone always talks about. At least, not the way everyone else seems to think of the twist. It may help that I knew it going in, and that made my reading of the movie much, much different. I would make the argument that the movie is much more interesting to watch knowing the twist, too, so I'm going to spoil it. You probably already know the twist, but just in case you care, here's your warning.

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS




The killer, who is referred to as "Angela" throughout the movie, turns out to have a penis. This is usually the thing everyone hangs up on, and I suppose it is a very shocking twist in a heteronormative and gender binary view of the world. It's majorly problematic falling into a long, historical trope of trans people, or people coded trans, being dangerous, violent killers--Silence of the Lambs, Psycho, etc. Not only that, but the movie reveals that "Angela" was born Peter, and that Peter has been forced to live as a girl throughout their life by their Aunt Martha because she always wanted a daughter.

So why recommend such a super transphobic movie?

Well, for one, because it's basically a Friday the 13th ripoff, and I feel like a horror movie marathon should include at least one classic slasher. However, for another, because this movie was made in 1983, nobody at the time, especially in the mainstream crowd, had much of an understanding of sexuality. Many portrayals in movies conflate gay men that dress in drag with trans folks. Even gay folks at the time didn't really understand trans folks. It was a concept still very much in its infancy, as seen in the documentary Paris is Burning. But because of that, and because of the ambiguous nature of the film, you're left wondering if Angela identifies as a woman, or if their just being forced into the part like the movie implies.

I would argue Angela DOES identify as a woman because she keeps both presenting as a woman and using the name Angela in the two sequels. With that knowledge in mind, Angela becomes incredibly sympathetic, and you actually root for her throughout the film as people are massive dicks to her.




END SPOILERS

Pick your poison: watch it because it's a classic slasher or because the twist and sequels actually colors the film in a very different way. Either way, worth a watch and a puzzle.

October 18th: The Final Girls

Chase a classic slasher movie with a movie that lampoons that very formula in a very fun way.

The Final Girls follows Max, whose mom is famous for starring in Camp Bloodbath, the fictional slasher movie series in this universe. When her mom dies in a car accident, Max is left grappling with her mother's legacy--her mother resented these movies later in lift, but they're also some of the only things she has left that lets her see her mom and almost be there with her. After a freak accident, Max and her friends wake up in the movie, interacting with the cast from the Camp Bloodbath series, including Max's mom--or at least, her mom's character.

This movie doesn't 100% work as a parody because it's PG-13, and there are a few moments where it feels like the parody aspect gets undercut by that restriction. That's no fault of the writers, as they revealed in an episode of Shock Waves podcast that they wrote it as an R, but the studio eventually came back and asked for rewrites to soften the movie. This doesn't hurt the movie a whole lot, though because this movie has a lot of heart. The story, unlike most slasher movies, is exceptional and touching. Plus, the stuff that it is able to poke fun at, it does very well. The cast is very engaging and very funny.

Would I like an R rated cut of this? Absolutely. But there's a lot here to recommend, some great jokes, a great cast, and a story that's very moving in the end.

October 19th: Absentia

Mike Flanagan has become my favorite modern horror director because his movies are not just scary, but scary good. James Wan may be next level with his ability to wring scares out of nearly every frame of his movies, but Mike Flanagan has heart and soul in his movies. His stories are as moving as they are scary. And he just had Gerald's Game come out on Netflix recently. But I want to take you back to the beginning with his first film.

The movie centers on Tricia, whose husband has been missing for several years. It's been so long, they're going to declare him "dead in absentia," so that she'll finally be able to move on. But one day, he shows up, alive, but somehow different. He seems off. Meanwhile, she also finds herself drawn tot his tunnel near her house, where something strange is going on that might be related to what happened to her husband.

The movie is really good. It's a first film, so if you've seen Flanagan's later works, you'll notice this one is a little rougher, but you'll see Flanagan's great ability with fleshing out characters on full display, as well as his talent at unique scares.

If you're buying the DVD, don't let the terrible box art fool you--this is not your typical Redbox horror movie.

October 20th: Goodnight, Mommy

This is an Austrian horror movie about two boys whose mother has come home after some kind of plastic surgery of some kind. She spends most of the movie with her head bandaged. The boys find her meaner and angrier than they remember, and with her whole face bandaged up, they start to doubt whether she's their real mom after all.

This movie is a slow burn that builds up to a harrowing final act. When it gets going it is a goddamned nightmare. Just thinking about some of the sequences in the final act give me shivers. It's fantastic and gives you a lot to think about regarding the relationship a mother has with her children and how that affects how others perceiver her as a woman as well as how she perceives herself.

October 21st: Coraline

Don't let the tonal shift throw you. I'm dead serious here. Building on the concepts that are explored in Goodnight, Mommy, chase that with a fun stop-motion animated movie from Henry Selick and Laika studios.

Coraline moves into a new house with her mom and dad. It's big. It's old. It's mostly empty. The neighbors are weird. And Coraline is bored. Sadly, her parents are both writers working on projects and are too busy to spend time with Coraline, which leaves her to wandering through the house by herself. One day, she finds a mysterious hidden door that takes her to a strange mirror world where everything appears to be almost the same, but slightly better--her parents are friendlier, the colors are brighter, everything is more fun. Just one weird thing: everyone has buttons for eyes. And Coraline starts to get the feeling that maybe this world seems too good to be true because it is.

Goodnight, Mommy and Coraline both explore parenthood--and especially motherhood--in fascinating ways. Both feature kids demanding more from their parents than their parents feel like they can give, leading to friction in the relationship. And both make you wonder: just what does make someone good mother? And what makes a good kid?

October 21st: Dracula (1931)

Let me get this out of the way up front: Dracula is a little bit dry. It's not paced like a modern movie. But I feel like it's important to check in on the classics periodically, to remind you of not just where horror came from, but movies as an art form.

Plus, this movie creeped me right the fuck out as a kid, and that's due to two things in particular: Bela Legosi's amazing performance as Dracula, and the movie's utter lack of score outside of the opening credits.

In movies from just a few years later, they start using score to tell you how to feel, to underscore dramatic moments. In this movie, though? Nothing. If someone gets bitten, the only thing we hear are the people's gasps as they die. That leaves a hell of an impression on you as a kid.

Plus Renfield is amazing. That man doesn't have much screen time, but by God he gives it his all. And that madman's weird whining laugh followed me into my dreams.

October 22nd: Blacula

Fast forward a few decades to enjoy this amazing 70's classic. A lot of blaxploitation movies are cheesy fun, done on the cheap to cash in on the untapped market of movies targeted specifically for black people. That said, a lot of them weren't what you'd call masterpieces. They were done on the cheap and put out fast. It'd be easy for a movie like Blacula, a movie whose name is an obvious pun, to fall into that. But Blacula manages to be not just entertaining, but a very moving movie that tackles race and slavery in the US.

Prince Mamuwalde, played by the extraordinarily talented William Marshall, goes to visit Dracula to convince him that they should unite together in the UN to force a stop of the slave trade. Dracula, however, doesn't agree and thinks that slavery is totally fine. When Mamuwalde reacts negatively to this, Dracula curses Mamuwalde with vampirism and locks him in a coffin for hundreds of years. A gay couple in the 70's reopens the coffin, unleashing "Blacula" on the American public where his thirst for blood, unquenched for centuries, must be quenched.

This movie is actually very tragic. Unlike Dracula, who is presented as charming, but obviously a villain, Prince Mamuwalde is presented as a very tragic hero. He's been cursed with this thirst that he can't help but quench, he's been ripped out of his own time, and he's lost his wife, all because a white man decided that he wanted to take the black man down and put him in his place.

This is a highly recommended, overlooked classic.

October 23rd: The Autopsy of Jane Doe

This is honestly a modern classic. Tense, tightly paced, unique, and scary as hell.

Cops are investigating a strange case--a houseful of people that appear to have killed each other while simultaneously trying to break out of the house. Suddenly, they find the corpse of a young woman, naked and buried in the floor of the basement. She looks like she's been dead a while. They send her over to a father-son coroner business to look into what's going on with this "Jane Doe." As the autopsy progresses, however, they start finding things that don't make sense, such as wounds inside the body with no scarring on the outside to indicate how they injuries could have occurred. Plus, there are some strange things happening in the morgue itself. And then things go really wrong.

This is a wonderful movie. The first act is super captivating, even before the supernatural stuff begins. Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch are fantastic, and the process of performing an autopsy is fascinating enough to keep you enthralled for a while. When the spooky stuff starts, you're already invested in these characters. There are quite a few twists and turns that make the movie a wild ride, and it all culminates in a very cool reveal.

October 24th: Pontypool

An interesting take on the zombie genre, this one is about a former shock-jock radio host that has settled down and taken a job as a local radio host in Pontypool, Canada. The soft, boring job of listening to traffic reports doesn't sit well with him, and he keeps trying to push the envelope. Suddenly, he starts receiving calls from the town. People are beginning to act strange. They're starting to get fixated on words. And then they turn violent.

This movie almost entirely takes place in the recording booth of a radio station and still manages to keep the tension ratcheting up higher and higher. Being isolated from the violence and hearing the world crumble outside only through reports from people calling in keeps everything shrouded in a veil of mystery and encroaching dread. And the specifics of the zombie virus are so cool, so different, that you have to see it to really get it.

After you're finished with this one, check out the Faculty of Horror episode about it for extra credit.

October 25th: Fido

Another zombie movie! With somewhat more traditional zombies! But don't let this one fool you. On the surface, it's a fun parody of the zombie genre as filtered through the "a boy and his dog genre." But underneath, it asks some very interesting questions about zombies. Are they human? Do they think? Do they feel? Just what makes us who we are as people? Is it really just memories and genetic make up, or is there something more?

In a world in which zombies have been tamed through obedience collars and used as servants, one boy's family finally gets their first zombie. The boy takes to the zombie quickly, naming him Fido, but things go awry when Fido's collar malfunctions and Fido eats one of the neighbors. Suddenly, they have a rising zombie invasion on their hands that threatens to spiral out of control.

Check this one out for a fun, light-hearted movie. And for Carrie Ann Moss looking gorgeous and being fierce.

October 26th: Killer Klowns From Outer Space

This is just legit on here for something fun late in the game. It's goofy. It's nonsense. It's exactly what it sounds like. Alien clowns land and begin terrorizing a town. All of the expected circus trappings are incorporated as silly and sinister alien technology. The creatures are simultaneously gruesome and scary and goofy and fun. Give it a watch.

October 27th: In the Mouth of Madness

You're hired by the publisher of a famous horror novelist to go collect his very overdue latest book. However, before you even begin your journey, strange things start happening. People are way, way into these books. And when you finally track down the author, you find the lines of what is real and what is only a story begin to blur.

In the Mouth of Madness is a bit dated now because the horror publishing genre is nothing like it was in the late 80s and early 90s. In that way, this movie is very much of its time. However, this movie FUCK ME UP as a kid. You will quickly lose the thread of what is real and what isn't. It is a terrifying roller coaster.

October 28th: Frankenstein (1932)

It's a classic. It's an American classic. A scientist decides to defy the odds and explore what makes us human by gathering together the disparate parts of dead humans and assemble his own person together. By some fluke, it works. The creature lives, but Frankenstein may have got more than he bargained for. He's not really ready to be a father, especially to a giant strong man that can snap you in half like a twig and only has a very rudimentary sense of right and wrong.

You should revisit this one because Universal is trying to reboot their Universal monsters universe into a shared cinematic universe (again). However, what people always miss with these movies is that the monsters are not the real villains. They're victims. They're usually thrust into situations beyond their control and then blamed for the outcomes.

This movie is great. Steeped in German expressionism, with a simultaneously unhinged and sympathetic performance by Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein, and a tragic, terrifying performance by Boris Karloff. A classic that still holds up after decades.

October 29th: The Houses October Built

The last three movies I chose are very much steeped in the Halloween spirit. Each tackles things slightly differently.

First, we have a relatively recent movie about a group of people that decide to make a documentary about haunted houses--specifically the sort of arms-race that has developed in recent years as houses try to out-do each other in authenticity, intensity, and scares as these things become more and more popular. They run afoul in one house by taking a camera into the house itself, but once they're back on the road, things start to get back to normal--that is, until they start seeing people from that house pop up in other places. Are they being followed? Or are they just being paranoid? What happens when you continue to be haunted after you've left the haunted house?

Intense and scary, I don't know that this movie is entirely effective examining the thesis it sets out about extreme haunted houses. But it is fun and spooky, and manages to handle the found-footage thing well.

October 30th: Halloween

You may be wondering: why is this on the 30th and not the 31st?

Well, as much as this movie drips Halloween imagery, the holiday doesn't tie into the nitty gritty a whole lot. Yes, Michael seems to have a personal preference for the holiday--and masks--but at its core, it's a movie about a killer stalking teenagers. It just happens to be the perfect movie about a killer stalking teenagers.

The cast is sympathetic and engaging, the killer mysterious and terrifying, the atmosphere moody and spooky. It is a powerhouse of a movie that will leave you wondering when the Boogeyman could come and visit you.

October 31st: Trick 'r Treat

Now this movie is ALL about Halloween. Halloween is baked into this movie's core. Technically an anthology movie, this movie weaves several stories together throughout Halloween night. A group of girls prepare for a Halloween party, someone plans a murder, a group of kids go exploring a haunted graveyard, someone decides not to celebrate Halloween at all...

The reason I described this movie as "technically" an anthology is because it is so expertly woven together that you forget it's separate stories. Characters ebb and flow, popping in and out of stories. It's almost like a dance.

There's something for everyone in this one--werewolves, ghosts, other monsters, and plain old bad people. This is the perfect movie for Halloween night.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Money Makes the World Go 'Round: A Look at CHEAP THRILLS

**The following contains spoilers for the 2014 movie Cheap Thrills.**


Image from Wikimedia Commons
Cheap Thrills is a 2014 horror movie directed by E.L. Katz and written by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga. In it, two men Craig (Pat Healy) and Vince (Ethan Embry), are pitted against each other in a series of escalating dares for money funded by a wealthy man and his mysterious, aloof wife (David Koechner and Sara Paxton, respectively).

In researching this movie a little after watching this, I saw this movie billed as a "dark comedy." The Rotten Tomatoes consensus even described it as "darkly hilarious." To be clear, I really liked this movie, but I would not call it "hilarious" at all. It was a mean, brutal, nasty movie. That's not to say the movie is entirely without humor--especially Pat Healy, whose dry reactions to some of the terrible situations he finds himself in resulted in a quick dark chuckle from me. But overall, the tone of the movie struck me as very serious.

The movie offers a pretty solid critique of unregulated capitalism, which is perhaps not the intended message, but when the events of a movie revolve around money and its influence on people's behavior, it's always sort of the subtext. It's an admittedly flawed critique given that this was a commercially released movie subject to the capitalist system--but I digress.

Early on, the movie sets that both men are down on their luck. Craig finds an eviction notice on his door and owes $4500 or he, his wife, and his new baby will be out on the street. We learn that Vince and Craig knew each other in high school and that although Craig comes across as a nebbishy square, he was actually pretty wild back in the day. He's since mellowed dramatically and settled into a relatively normal domestic life. Meanwhile, Vince has fallen into the lucrative job of beating up people that owe money to loan sharks--a job that is both physically dangerous and puts him in danger of running afoul of the law and getting him sent back to prison for a long time.

Vince is kind of a dick. He hasn't seen Craig in five years, and yet feels the best way to greet his old friend is to wrap his arm around Craig's throat and demand money. This isn't a playful light grab either, he really gets in there and works Craig's neck, then laughs and slaps him on the back. Ah, friendship, right?

We can see a breakdown of the promise of capitalism in the trajectory these two men's lives have taken:

Craig has submitted to the capitalist, patriarchal system. He has done everything that should lead to a prosperous life. He's gotten a degree in higher education, but the movie implies that he lost or could never attain a job that fit his degree. Instead, he starts the film working a much humbler job in an auto garage changing oil--a job from which he's laid off at the movie's start due to corporate downsizing. There is no pulling himself up by his bootstraps. His job at the garage wasn't even paying the bills, and with that gone, he is fucked in a very big way, and it was through no fault of his own. Bad luck fucked Craig over.

Meanwhile, Vince is doing okay. He seems to make decent money from his job (beating up poor people), and even offers to help Craig with money, but even he doesn't have $4500 to spare. There's some simmering tension between Craig and Vince in these early interactions, and it gets played out more explicitly later in the film. Vince breaks the rules. He operates outside of the law, and he's a financial success for it, even though he dropped out of high school and never matured out of his wild ways. Meanwhile Craig is drowning, in spite of having done everything he's supposed to do to succeed.

Enter the wealthy Colin and Violet who at first seem friendly and relatively benign. Colin explains that it's Violet's birthday, and he wants to entertain her. His solution is to present an escalating series of dares that each man will complete for cash. There's plenty of examples of this type of guerrilla-style competition in reality TV--such as Cash Cab and Billy on the Street--and of course obvious examples like Fear Factor. Some of the dares are individualized to the specific person, some are more of a competition to see who can complete the dare first.

The dares start harmless--first one to drink this shot gets $25. They quickly become gross if unfortunately common place--Vince and Colin are dared to go up to a waitress and make her angry enough to slap them. Vince proves to be a bit sly and rather than falling into the expected trope of misogyny--the clearly implicitly preferred method by Colin--and just tells her straight up to slap him so he can win the money. Colin later re-establishes patriarchal norms by daring Vince to slap a strippers ass.

Colin's vast amount of money and lack of morals puts him in a position of power. He doesn't honestly care who gets hurt or what trouble is caused as long as he's having fun, and he has enough money to remove any potential obstacles. The first time we see Colin, he's in the bathroom doing cocaine. Later, when the group has begun the dare competition, Colin starts doing cocaine in the open. When a waitress tries to stop him, he pays her several hundred dollars to turn a blind eye--which she does because what waitress would turn down that much money when they typically make less than minimum wage?

Each time that Colin crosses a line and introduces a dare that violates a moral or social rule, there's just enough money to tantalize Craig and Vince to keep playing. Craig is facing imminent homelessness and has to figure out a way to protect his wife and his child. The patriarchal system has a rigidly enforced gender binary system in which men traditionally are the breadwinners and protectors. Failing to provide adequately for your family is not just a problem in all the obvious ways, but demonstrates you are a failure as a Man, and Craig is feeling that pressure to provide. He's been hiding at least some of their financial issues from his wife.

Vince's needs are more self-interested than Crag's since he has no family that we know of that he has to provide for. However, we learn that Vince went to prison at some point, and the prison system is a complex system set up to feed into itself. Once in, it's like being caught in the gravitational pull of a planet--almost impossible to escape. People that go to prison are more likely to go back because 1) the prison system isn't designed to rehabilitate and teach, but rather to punish, and 2) many--really most--employers won't hire criminals, especially felons, which makes finding and maintaining employment next to impossible. All the higher paying jobs have you submit to a criminal background check, and if you fail, you're out of luck, even though ostensibly you have paid your debt to society and should be allowed to reintegrate. Many criminals end up falling back into crime to make money because it's the only way for them to make enough money to be able to live--which is exactly what happened to Vince.

So then Craig and Vince get into a bidding war to the bottom over who will cut off a pinkie.

What the fuck, right? Yeah, this is probably the moment when this movie turns from sinister and uncomfortable to the kind of violent horror you've been expecting.

Colin dares Vince to cut off his pinkie for $25,000. Craig surprises Vince by countering that he'll do it for $20,000. When Vince confronts him about trying--as Vince views it--take money from him, Craig explains that the money he's earned so far will cover his immediate financial issues, but not the actual cause. Getting that much money could provide him time to find another job and build up a buffer rather than desperately flailing from paycheck to paycheck--he was, after all, about to be evicted BEFORE he lost his job.

Eventually, Craig wins the bidding war, cutting his pinkie off for $15,000, and is then dared even more money if he'll eat his finger.

The movie culminates in a winner-take-all scenario when, unbeknownst to each other, they are each dared to kill the other. We aren't aware at first that Craig has been given the same offer--$250,000 to kill his old friend. We only see Colin offer that to Vince. Vince has been set up to be a bastard throughout the movie. He's been in prison. During a breath-holding contest, he punched Craig in the stomach to make him lose. He's the one that cuts Craig's pinkie off, and rather than putting it on ice so Craig can have it re-attached, he throws it aside, which allows a dog he stole earlier in the movie to choke on the finger and die. He's been willing to slap women on the ass, harass people, and he tries to rob Colin and just make off with the money at one point. But at the last minute, even though Vince has been portrayed as the more selfish, crueler, morally weaker one, he can't kill his old friend. It's shocking, then, when Craig turns around and shoots Vince in the head.

Once again demonstrating that there are virtually no obstacles that money can't overcome, Colin calls someone to come clean up his house and dispose of the body. Craig goes home, mutilated, humiliated, but financially secure.

The movie ends in a darkly humorous scene of Craig, bloodied, mangled, and exhausted, trying to comfort his crying baby. His wife comes in, and the final shot is a wide shot of Craig, looking absolutely horrifying, surrounded by the cash he won. The obvious final question is whether it was all worth it? Which is worse--undergoing physical and psychological torture to set yourself up financially, or to lose your home and endanger not just yourself but your wife and child? To add insult to injury, after Craig leaves, Colin gives Violet $20 because even the murder was actually a dare between Colin and Violet. What's more, it isn't even a high wager--only a $20 bet between the two.

The movie is harrowing and sometimes extremely hard to watch. There were parts that made me squirm from discomfort. That said, as a microcosm to play out many of the issues that already plague the workforce and unregulated capitalism as a whole, it was fascinating. There have been lots of movies that have involved people being put in impossible life-or-death situations and being forced to do things that are morally reprehensible or physically unbearable. The Saw series, The Belko Experiment, Circle (2015)--not to be confused with the 2017 Emma Roberts/Tom Hanks movie--and House of 9 are all examples of this type of scenario. But all of those are involve everyone being expected to murder each other on the threat of death. This movie is unique in that Craig and Vince aren't being held under the threat of any violence, mutilation, or death. They are told repeatedly that they can leave any time they want. But if they do...what are they going back to? And they do so with the knowledge that they could have done something to change their circumstances if only they'd stuck it out a little longer.

Every step of the way, the movie's mission statement is "Money makes the world go 'round." The only people able to escape the consequences of their actions are Colin and Violet because they have enough money to throw at any obstacles to make them disappear. Ultimately, everything Vince and Craig endure is just a game to them because when it's over, they go back to being unbelievably wealthy and carefree. The scars, both literal and metaphorical, are born by those that can't buy their way out of trouble and can't turn away from a chance to become even a fraction of what Colin and Violet are, even if it costs them everything in the end.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Let's Talk About Confederate Statues

This is a photo I took of our very own Confederate statue in the middle of downtown Bentonville. A petition is currently being circulated by a local activist group to have this removed--which I have signed, obviously. Arguments for this statue's continued existence are because this guy was an Arkansas governor. If you zoom in on the picture, though, you'll notice that it doesn't say "to the Arkansas Governors." It says "to the Southern Soldiers."

In this post, I want to talk about the current debate in the US about tearing down the monuments to the Confederate States of America that are scattered all over the United States, both in the North and South. Specifically, I want to address the idea that the statues should be left up to remind us of a dark moment in our history that should never be forgotten. The argument goes that these statues are warnings of where we've come from.

This is a load of bullshit, and I would like to demonstrate why. But first, let me address some common myths about the Confederacy. It's not the point of the post, but will help provide context both for these statues as well as how our country views the CSA since the South continues to lie and miseducate about the Civil War.

Why Secede?


First: what was the point of the Confederate States of America?

Many argue that the South attempted to secede over states' rights. Or taxes. Or tariffs.

This is patently not true, but the easiest way to disprove this is to let the Confederates tell you themselves, in their very own Constitution:

“In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.” 
[...] 
“1. The importation of negroes of the African race from any foreign country other than the slaveholding States or Territories of the United States of America, is hereby forbidden; and Congress is required to pass such laws as shall effectually prevent the same.” 
[...] 
“4. No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.”

So, you could make the argument that the Confederates seceded over states' rights. But the question is, what rights? It was the "right" to own slaves. To own people. To brutalize black people and use them for free labor under the threat of violence and death.

Was Slavery On Its Last Legs?


Slavery was almost the entirety of the Southern economy and the threat of emancipation and abolishment terrified them because it would have meant ripping away the very foundation of their economy. But then again...maybe they shouldn't have had slaves in the first place, y'know?

There's also a claim people float that the South was in the process of freeing slaves anyway. James Lowen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me and Sundown Towns--the latter of which I read a few years ago and is FANTASTIC, tackled this myth and the previous in a great article a couple years back:
"Slavery was hardly on its last legs in 1860. That year, the South produced almost 75 percent of all U.S. exports. Slaves were worth more than all the manufacturing companies and railroads in the nation. No elite class in history has ever given up such an immense interest voluntarily. Moreover, Confederates eyed territorial expansion into Mexico and Cuba. Short of war, who would have stopped them -- or forced them to abandon slavery?"

Memories and Stories Cast in Stone


I want to preface this with a note: I am not an art student, nor a historian, nor an art historian, nor an engineer or a graphic designer. I'm just a dude with a blog who lives not far away from his very own Confederate memorial and who has Thoughts.

Carving something into stone (or molding it from brass or bronze) is a very difficult, very permanent process. Historically, statues weren't erected for nonsense. You won't find a statue from ancient Rome of some guy picking his nose. Statues were made to memorialize things of importance--to preserve them and have them last throughout time. Peasants didn't have monuments and statues erected in their honor--king's did.

"King Wenceslas" - Photo  Some rights reserved by Nan Palmero of Flickr
That's not to say that statues and monuments have to be uplifting. Plenty of statues and monuments depict dark, terrible, or scary things. For example, below is an art piece from Switzerland called "The Child Eater Fountain." This is a surprisingly not an uncommon depiction in art, although specifically what this statue is depicting is a bit of a historical mystery. Some theorize it's a depiction of Kronos eating his children, which is what I thought of when I first saw it. Others theorize it's just a depiction of a local ogre-like fairy tale to keep kids in line. Another theory is that it's an anti-semitic sculpture because, sadly, people have been terrible forever.

My point of using this statue (besides that it was easy to find under creative commons license) is that there is no ambiguity: the depicted creature is bad. They're eating babies. Eating babies is never good. The design is very straightforward.

By Andrew Bossi; sculpture by Hans Gieng (de) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
However, these statues of Confederates soldiers aren't depictions of cartoonish, terrifying, child-eating monsters. The Confederate monuments and statues have a very particular look about them. Namely, they try to mimic the statues and monuments of Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and other important historical figures in our country--which themselves are intentionally mimicking the style of ancient Greek and Rome.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words, How Many is a Statue?


Let's look at a few pictures for a moment.

  Some rights reserved by Marc Flores on Flickr
This is a statue of George Washington. He was the first president of our country, general of what would become the Army of the United States. He was obviously a very important figure, not just for his leadership in the Revolutionary War and secession from Britain, but also in his leadership of our country for our first eight years.

He even established the tradition of a president stepping down after two terms. 

Fun fact, we call the leader of our Executive Branch "president" because he turned down the idea of calling the position "king" since we had just fought a war to get away from a "King George."

That statue is a fitting tribute to a great man. There's a conversation that can be had about the fact that he owned slaves, as did most of our Founding Fathers, but there's no questioning Washington's legacy and importance in US History.

It's really common to depict kings, soldiers, and generals on horseback--for a lot of reasons. Horses are generally ridden into battle, which makes the rider look like an active leader as well as like a courageous warrior.

Depicting a figure on horseback also makes for a dynamic, interesting statue.

Horses are often considered noble creatures.

And, of course, it makes the person on horseback look taller because they are literally above everyone else.

Below, I placed the statue of George Washington next to a statue of Confederate General "Stonewall" Jackson. Explain to me the difference between the two statues.

Left:   Some rights reserved by Marc Flores on Flickr | Right:  Some rights reserved by rjones0856 on Flickr
How is the statue of Stonewall Jackson on the right depicted any differently than George Washington on the left? If I'm to believe that the Confederate statues are a warning, how is the Jackson statue a warning? In what does it indicate a warning, or any negativity? Both men are sitting atop horses, are placed on pedestals, are sitting up straight, their heads held high, their eyes gazing forward as they survey the horizon.

Let's look at another statue.

Left:  Some rights reserved by Jim of Flickr | Right:  Some rights reserved by Eli Christman of Flickr
Look at these pictures of Robert E. Lee, Commanding General of the Confederate Army. These are different photos of the same statue from different angles. Again, just like in the previous pictures of Washington and Jackson, what is the indication that this is meant to be a warning of some grave past mistake? Lee is portrayed as classically empowered: astride a horse, straight back, head held high. Even his face is carved in a gentle, sensitive manner. He doesn't look evil. He looks thoughtful and kind.

Let's talk about something else: all three of these statues--in fact, many of the Confederate statues --are all literally placed on pedestals. This is a very, very common way to display statues since they are meant to be memorials, after all. It's where the phrase "to put up on a pedestal" comes from in the first place.

But what does that phrase mean, again? According to Dictionary.com, it means "to glorify or idealize."

The only types of figures we generally put on pedestals are figures we want to elevate to higher status--both literally and figuratively. For example, look at this statue of Abraham Lincoln from Scotland that commemorates the Scottish soldiers that fought alongside the Union in the Civil War.

 Some rights reserved by Ronnie Macdonald of Flickr
Abraham Lincoln stands nobly at the top of the monument--again, back straight, head high, eyes gazing into the distance. Meanwhile at the BOTTOM OF THE PEDESTAL, a recently freed slave is gazing up at Lincoln in what is supposed to be deference and praise, but honestly looks like suffering and subjugation to me. Either way, it's very clear from the placing of the two figures who has the power and who does not. The placement of those figures is basically symbolism 101.

Compare that Lincoln memorial to this memorial depicting slavery in Zanzibar, Tanzania, Africa.

By David Berkowitz [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Here the slaves are all chained together. They're prisoners both of their chains, and their lack of limbs which could be interpreted as a lack of personhood.

Rather than being placed on a pedestal, these figures have actually been dug into the ground. They have a sort of anti-pedestal going on, reflecting, among other things, their severe lack of power as well as the cellars that they were kept in.

The "Lost Cause" of the Confederacy


All of these myths that continue to be perpetuated about the Civil War--that the North forced the South into conflict, that the South just wanted states' rights, that the war was really about taxes and tariffs, that Robert E. Lee was actually a kind man and not a racist at all, that slaves were actually happy, that a lot of Southern folks fought to defend their land against the cruel war-time tactics of the North--ALL of this stems from a misinformation campaign that began not long after the war ended by the South. The myth of the Lost Cause was an attempt to recast the Confederacy as this scrappy underdog standing against the crushing, unstoppable juggernaut that was the United States Army.

In truth, most of these monuments in the US started going up around the 1900s--just long enough after the war for a lot of people that fought in the war to start dying off and for everyone else to look back on the war with somewhat of a degree of separation. The pain wasn't immediate anymore, the conflict starting to haze with time.

Statues began being erected again in the 1950s and 1960s in reaction to the Civil Rights Movement as an attempt to intimidate the black population into silence rather than speaking out. It's why the arguments around Confederate statues and flags have begun resurging in response to Black Lives Matter and our current political environment, which so conducive to white supremacists.

Perhaps you think that I'm reading too much into these statues, that these statues of Confederate generals in and of themselves are harmless and I'm being too artsy fartsy reading symbolism into someone standing on a pedestal or sitting on a horse. Maybe you maintain that we can just add a plaque that says "actually the South was racist" and completely change the way the statues are perceived.

What about the statues that depict the Confederates as literally blessed by angels and gods?

 Some rights reserved by Spencer Means from Flickr
The above statue is titled "To the Confederate Defenders of Charleston: Fort Sumter, 1861-1865." The statue is described as a Confederate soldier and his wife, but the Confederate has been depicted as a Greek warrior similar to Achilles or Hercules. Meanwhile, his wife is depicted in the style of a Greek goddess, similar to Athena. She's bestowing a blessing on him as he heads into battle to "defend" Fort Sumter from the Union.

So, now the Confederates are literally being placed on the level of Greek heroes and their cause was blessed by the gods.

 Some rights reserved by Ron Cogswell from Flickr

Above we have a statue that depicts a fallen Confederate soldier from Louisiana. He has been wrapped in the Confederate flag, and a literal angel--"the Spirit of the Confederacy"--flies above the fallen soldier, sounding its horn to honor his sacrifice.

Like...I mean...c'mon, y'all.

But What About Our History???


So we have soldiers that fought AGAINST the United States and FOR slavery being depicted as Greek heroes and blessed by divine beings, meanwhile, slave rebellions in the US are memorialized like this:

Photos by Mike Stroud, November 15, 2008 from the Historical Marker Database
This is a single sign in an empty field that commemorates an attempted uprising by our enslaved people. Why are we not valorizing these fallen heroes and other important black heroes? Why are town squares not built around Martin Luther King, Jr, or Malcolm X, or Harriet Tubman? Why instead are they built around literal traitors to the United States.

Hey, maybe build a monuments to people like Erastus Hussey, who was an abolitionist, one of the founders of the Republican Party (before the parties' beliefs flip-flopped), and someone that helped slaves escape through the Underground Railroad.

Look at how awesome this statue below is! Erastus and Harriet Tubman are sneaking people into his store to keep them safe. THOSE are heroes. THOSE are people this country should be proud of. THOSE are people worth having town squares built around.

And for the record, the figures below are valorized using the the same rules as the Confederates statues I showed above. Harriet Tubman and Erastus Hussey are both standing tall, heads high, staring into the distance, shielding the slaves huddled in the back while they scramble to safety. But notice that this statue isn't placed on a pedestal like the ones above. Interesting...isn't it?

 Some rights reserved by Battle Creek CVB from Flickr
In summation, slavery is America's original sin. It is the cancer that we never fully dealt with. From almost the moment that the Civil War ended, white supremacists have been spreading misinformation to muddy the facts about the war and to misrepresent why we fought. Erecting monuments to the Confederacy honors people that were traitors to the US, who defected for a racist, brutal, horrifying system.

Attempting to argue that statues of the Confederacy are a warning is disingenuous, at best, as everything about the design of these statues valorizes them and promotes the depicted individuals into near godhood. A simple plaque stating "actually, they were bad" would not be enough as the entire design would contradict th plaque. It would be the weakest Band-Aid to stick on the problem without actually dealing with the issue...which is the problem the US has had all along: not actually dealing with the problem of racism and slavery in a meaningful way.