Monday, September 30, 2013

WPIX Saturday Movie Marathon

It is amazing to think how television has changed in the last twenty years or so: the growth of premium channels having original content (can you believe The Sopranos was only the second original drama on HBO?), the spread of quality programs on basic cable (the best generally on FX), and the proliferation of "netlettes."  Where once there were the big three of ABC, CBS, and NBC, now we have the big four (including Fox), as well the CW (itself a hybrid of the now-defunct UPN and WB), and marginally MyNetworkTV (though the Wikipedia page for MNTV explains that it is no longer a network). 

We used to change cable channels with this.
Dial things back twenty years ago (for the younger members in our audience, a dial was a circular tuning device used to change television channels before there were remotes).  In the New York metro area, there were three network stations (channels 2, 4, and 7 for the big three) and a whopping three independent stations (channels 5, 9, and 11).  As a boy of 11 or 12, first starting to see things in the world in a brand new way (ladyfolk I mean, though an appreciation for violence counts too), there was but one destination on the dial/button box/VCR worth sulking away into your room for back-to-back movie badness:  WPIX Channel 11 and it's Saturday Movie Marathons. 

To be clear, this wasn't really lascivious material that they showed.  But when you're of the right age, and the (porn)wold is pre-internet, a Channel 11 movie was the way to go.  The movies tended to be pretty awful.

I vaguely remember one that was either Conan the Barbarian or one of many ripoffs.  The key moment was when a woman clad in a fir bikini was attacked in what probably was a rock quarry.  There was swordplay and many baddies died, but in the end a net was thrown over her and off she went.

Another movie that I do absolutely remember seeing was The Legend of Billie Jean.  I saw that movie from start to finish, seeing how ordinary kids in an ordinary town (hey, like me!) can find themselves up against cruel and evil adults.  Billie Jean ends up cutting her hair and becomes an outlaw symbol of what happens when you push a kid too far, man! 

It was inspiring, monumental, and indeed legendary--at least, at that age, the drivilish crap felt that way.  Billie Jean does get point, though, for being a source pre-Simpsons employment for Yeardley Smith, to whose name I won't attach a link, because you know who she is.  She played a young character, perhaps a few years older than my own tender age at the time.  After some moment of violence directed towards the kids in a car, everyone is checked for injuries.  All appear fine from whatever had ailed them (gunfire, perhaps?), but then Yeardley discovers blood!  In a moment played for both knowing comedy and coming-of-age, the erstwhile girlish Billie Jean (now inspiring outlaw lady) explains that Yeardley's character has now started... the menses.

As you can see, Channel 11 revealed the mysteries of the universe to me.  Strictly speaking, WPIX Channel 11 doesn't exist anymore: the 1980s and early 1990s saw its ratings fall to 6th (of 6) in New York City, and the slide was compounded by the rise of WYNC becoming Fox 5 once that network launched, as well as the departure of the Yankees to basic cable.  That made "Channel 11" ready for a change, and when the WB netlette launched, gone was Channel 11, replaced by WB 11; more recently, it's become CW 11.  I suppose they show better fare since becoming the New York flagship for those little networks that could, and I suppose too that crappy movies are a-plenty between all the basic and pay cable options.

But still... I miss the safe, secure knowledge that on a Saturday such as this, with cold rain falling from a gray sky, I could have, in my boyhood, turned on Channel 11 to see Death Wish 4 (sans the violent parts and language) followed by Far From Home and the promise of seeing Drew Barrymore in a bikini.

Monday, September 23, 2013

"I Can Fly, I Can Fly, I Can Fly!"

Most video games are about something.  It's why we love them, after all: save the princess from Bowser (each game); save the different princess from Gannon (each game); get back home; rule the city; and so forth.  Indeed, in those glorious years of youth, it is the story that makes us love those games: we become Mario, Link, and every other hero.

Yet there is one game of my youth that I loved, one that carried with it such a sense of freedom--of wind whistling by, of cool air all around, of ultimate control--that it was no matter that it was intentionally designed to have little story at all.

Pilotwings, a launch title for the SNES, where players find the joys of flight and the greatest challenge of all: gravity.

As a side note, I had fought, and fought hard, to get SNES the Christmas it came out.  Mom, as opposed to video games as she was MTV, cable television, and too many friends, was my main nemesis for a battle that lasted from the summer until--shockingly--my brother and I were given SNES two days before Christmas because my tightwad parents were also taking us to Disney World for Christmas.  (Ever drive from New Jersey to Florida at 55 mph in a tiny car with parents whose in-drive meals were grapefruit juice and granola?  Joy.)  It was a pretty amazing holiday; never again have I invited friends over before Christmas to play with the single hottest toy on the market that year. 

Obviously Pilotwings is secondary to Super Mario World (still amazing) and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (still huge).  But neither game, and few others ever, treated the player so maturely.  Here you go, whispered the game, have a plane.  Fly it.  Crash it if you want--you'll start again.  Go faster, go slower.  Get the points, ignore the points.  Land on the left runway, land on the right runway.  Do what YOU want.

Sure, to be fair, you couldn't move on without hitting a baseline of cumulative point totals.  And moving on was oftentimes worth it.  The level that best suits this topic, that trance-like was the rocketbelt.  (Why they called it that and not a jetpack, I don't know.)  Those levels, particularly the first, were the closest thing that an 11 year old boy in the waning years of Bush 41's presidency could come to the tagline "you'll believe that a man can fly."  Controlling the man, you could shoot straight up, or vector your rockets to move horizontally.  Throw in a few well-timed blasts, and it was easy to fly all around the board.  There even were "bubble pockets," (at least, that's what we called them) which allowed you to land and bounce up again. 

I imagine the game has held up relatively well, but I cannot imagine how many countless hours I had friends over playing Pilotwings.  It was during a certain sweet spot in life, and in video games.  Would an 11 year old play a plot-less, no-shooting, no-collecting, no-story game now?  I doubt it.

I feel privileged, then, to have gotten that SNES for its first Christmas, to have gotten Pilotwings at our local Toys-R-US, and to have spent so much time mesmerized by flying.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Cinema's Nightmare

A bit of logic can place one of the most terrifying nightmares that I had as a child.  I was on a well lit room, filled with uniforms minding their stations.  Down the middle of the giant room was an elevated walkway.  It allowed the man in charge to see everyone working.  It prevented the uniforms from seeing out of the window to the black of space; it reminded them that they were beneath that man in charge.

I found myself on the far side of the room, near the windows.  Somehow, no one noticed me; thus is the logic of dreams.  Suddenly, the doors on the other side opened up.  He was flanked by grey uniforms on either side, though it wasn't needed.  Everyone knew him.  Everyone feared him.

His voice boomed out, calling for me.  "Where is he?"  The voice was tinny and deep.

I ducked as best I could behind the walkway, laying down to avoid being seen.  The walkway, high enough for a man to stand behind at a control panel, wasn't even big enough to hide me.

Darth Vader started walking towards me.

I woke up, terrified.

It's a rare villain who can be iconic, cool, and the stuff of a child's nightmare.  I think that much of Vader's nightmareish cache comes from the fact that the original Vader (the New Hope/Empire/Jedi iteration without a known backstory) is that he's like the shark in Jaws: he's bad because he's bad because he's bad.  (That he turns out to be bad and the dad, that's just extra grist for the mill once the viewer his his or her teens.)

I would argue as well that the farther past one's first decade one gets, the less outright scary Vader gets.  One reason is doubtless that the movies have been seen over and over, lessening the fright they can cause.  But a larger reason is that we the audience learn to justify Vader as a character.  The outfit is cool: black leather, a cape, a mysterious helmet.  The voice is singular gravitas with a dehumanizing sound.  The powers are enviable (don't you wish you could shut someone up by pinching your fingers together?).

Yet when one is under ten?  Mystery is uncomfortable, the voice is uncomfortably authoritative, and the powers mean any childish mishap could result in quite the punishment.  (I don't mean to make Vader sound overly paternal, nor to overly lay in Freudian sentiment about my own father, who is hardly any of these things.  But Vader = Father, afterall.)  Vader is the opposite of those first ten years: the opposite of finger painting, sunny rooms, new toys.  He's cold, powerful, and his toys consist of a hyperbolic chamber and a holo-platform.  

It's odd: after a bit more than three decades on this earth, I can only easily remember three dreams I had as a child.  In one, I was in a field with a tree that was on fire.  In another... a witch was trying to boil LeVar Burton in a giant black cauldron.  (Don't ask.)

And there was this: the image of Darth Vader slowly closing the space between him and me on the bridge of that Super Star Destroyer, headed straight for me.

"That boy has to be around here somewhere!"

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Plus 12

The film opens with a foreigner. He is describing his plans to break in. Soon we learn that others have joined him in his bizzare "quest." Most have come from outside the United States. Each has his role. It has been an idea for years, rehearsed for months, and at last the day has come. The film's black and white recreation of the day at hand shows them speeding towards their destination: the World Trade Center.

The whole idea behind the Ph.Geek project is art. It's almost always the art of pop culture, and sometimes it ventures towards nacho-cheese art, delicious and bad. Yet at its best, Ph.Geek is about the very best of pop culture, the snippets that strain against the bonds of the popular and venture into true artistic expression. I hope then that it isn't trite, that it isn't disrespectful, that it isn't simply wrong, to today, of all days, reflect on a place where popular culture and national tragedy meet.

It is on this day that I am rewatching Man on Wire, the masterfully understated documentary released in 2008. It is about Phillipe Petite who, in 1974 along with his crew, broke into the still-being-constructed Twin Towers and erected a wire from roof to roof.

The next morning, Phillipe walked between the towers.

His story is remarkable, and the documentary is wise to recreate the planning and break-in as a black and white heist movie narrated by the interviewed participants. It makes the deed tense and exciting, adding a palpable layer of cinema to the documentary.

Even more remarkable is the decision for the film to be consciously un-9/11. It offers no discussions about that day ten years ago; it suggests no connection. Yet beneath the surface, at the height of the film's subconscious, it is there. After the stark title card, we see all-too familiar images of the pit at Ground Zero: the dirt, the trucks, the concrete retaining wall. But it is not "Ground Zero" we're seeing--it is the new construction zone to the yet-to-be towers. We see the familiar metal exterior on the ground--but they are from archival footage, being the unfamiliar metal lines to a building that was not built yet.

The plot of the documentary moves to Phillipe's story. A young French man in a French dentist's office, he saw a magazine article talking about how, one day, these towers would be the tallest buildings in the world. Old Phillipe, the one of today, explains that at that moment he knew he had to walk between the towers.

And thus the film starts to capture his joy. Why did he feel this need? He tries to explain it, largely in vain: he has always been a climber, and he has always gotten in trouble for climbing dangerous things. This central question is something that the documentary doesn't answer... perhaps because there isn't much of an answer. Why does the painter paint, or the player play? It's the art of it, and we come to learn, and see through old home movies, that Phillipe's art is climbing upon and staying upon a wire. He does it for the joy of it, and he does it because few can.

The crux of the thing is, of course, not meant to be a plotted climax. That wire walking between the towers was planned is shown before the title card; that it was attempted is a matter of historal record from 1974; that Phillipe does not fall is never an option, as we meet him in his present, quite-alive state before we even know what he did. The surprising thing, however, is that the film captures everyone else's joy. We see the crowds gather in lower Manhattan; we hear the cheers for him, the applause as he eventually is brought out of the building in handcuffs. His strange, curious act put smiles on faces, and brings unexpected happiness to people witnessing something that would never be seen again.

Thus Man on Wire is the film I'm watching today. If the goal of terrorism is for us to be fearful of the thing at hand, then the film offers the opposite. It tells the tale of a group of foreigners who sneak in and hatch a plot at the World Trade Center... one that is done for art and joy and happiness. It is a tale of a man who walks, with is own two feet, solidly in a place on this earth where no one will ever go again.

And he does it to make himself, and others, purely happy. No other reason, no lofty lesson, no message. To simply walk between two buildings... to look down at the successes of humanity... and to bring about a happy smile on a clear, bright day between the Twin Towers.

Monday, September 2, 2013

What Usta-be Is No More (A Fiction)

I guess I was never the most popular kid, even before Z-day. It's not like I was an outcast or anything... I jut never seemed to be the center of attention, the first one picked for kickball, or the life of the party.

Part of me kind of selfishly thought that it would change when Z-day came... looking back, anyway. Z-day kind of snuck up on you depending on where you were in the country. From what I've heard, it's not like it was even one day. A lot of people say that it all started in Colorado last July 1st or 2nd. I met a guy from Kansas who said he heard it came from Mexico in June. There was a little girl from Maine who got a bad bite. Before she had to be put down, she said it must have come from up north in the middle of the summer.

But anyway, once we figured out what Z-day was, we were awful scared. The first few nights were the worst: boarding up the door in the basement, hearing all the usta-be people kind of drifting by, not quite quiet, but not quite making noises either. Like I said, just drifting. That was pretty scary, knowing that they were out there. Mr. Mase, he used to have himself an ugly cat named Dave... you know, before Z-day. Mr. Mase, we don't know what happened to him, but one of those first nights we sure know what happend to Dave the cat. He got cornered by the garden wall by some of the usta-be people. Even these months later, I can still hear the sounds of that poor old cat screaming and meowing while the usta-bes ripped and chewed and pulled and ate him up.

After things settled down there were, you know, less people around. The alive people, I mean. A lot of the things that made us different weren't really differences anymore... and that was truer each day as there seemed to be less and less of us. Still though, I'm not top of the heap. I'm okay with that... there's a bunch of us who are trying to make due in this old basement. Eddy can outrun any of the usta-bes, and Naomi can go toe-to-toe with one of them, so long as she has her baseball bat.  

Me, I don't run real fast, and I know I couldn't fight one of them off of me. Everybody in the basement says that I should just stay away from the usta-bes, because they figure I'd be either eaten on the spot, or bitten and turned.  

They don't know my secret though--my sad secret. Round about mid-October, I was on chicken duty. I guess I should have mentioned that for some reason, the usta-bes never ever go after chickens. It's crazy, I know--they'll eat a cat in two minutes, but never a chicken? It's almost like a lousy half-joke. Anyway, we got us a chicken coup in the back of my house that Fran brought when she came to live in the basement with us. So there I was, on chicken duty one morning. It was a real bright day, the kind of day that almost makes you wonder if maybe Z-day was a dream. The kind of day where it's just time to go back to normal things like going to school and having alive parents and TV and electricity and life.

So I'm feeding the chickens and hear something behind me. I twirl around, and it was one of them, turned awful bad. His mouth was a black, oozing hole, his eyes were glassy wax, and his face and arms had this soft, bumpy, gray-brown look to it, like a pig that's been roasted then left out in the sun. I let out a cry, I think, but no one heard me. I backed away--there was nowhere to run. Then I tripped over the bucket of chicken feed and fell into the wooden side of the coup. I hit my head and saw nothing but stars... and when the stars faded, the usta-be man was coming closer and closer, that dark ooze-spit dripping out of his mouth. It was the closest I ever was to one of them. He smelled like a dead raccoon that I saw once--that deep smell of death. I knew that I was going to die--that part of me was going to get eaten up, and the rest of me would be like that dead, carved-out, maggoty raccoon.

I was frozen with fear on the inside, but I doubt I showed much on the outside. What was happening to me wasn't new: millions and millions and millions of people had their lives ended this way since Z-day a few long months ago. The usta-be hand came out at me, the stink pouring off it it, black flies lazily buzzing and flicking across its knuckles. My mouth was open, silently screaming only my breath. This was the end.

The hand was on my head. It felt like a greasy paper bag filled with jelly. Rotten, putrid jelly. But the usta-be didn't launch himself at me in hunger. Instead, his hand dragged across my forehead, and his own browning skull turned ever so slightly. If he was alive, I would have thought he was unsure and pondering. The awful hand slopped the other way on my forehead, and beneath the fear I had the vague feeling that he was looking for something.  

 Looking but not finding.

Those waxy, barely-seeing eyes flicked from me to something unseen beyond. Its head turned, and the hand flopped down my cheek, leaving a streak of putrid, rotten juice. He lumbered on, moving away from me. I was still too terrified to move, too terrified to even try and run. When he was half a house-length away from me, my wildly shaking hand wiped the stinking, black juice from my face.

Why was I still alive?

My hand dabbed at the juice-stink again... and then a dim, depressing thought started to form in my head. I stood up, not feeling exhilarated by my brush with dead, bur instead feeling alarmingly depressed. Even they didn't want me? I wondered if I should run after him--maybe he'd be hungrier if I showed a little more life.  

Even now I didn't have enough smarts for even a usta-be-man-turned-zombie to want to eat my brains?

Can you imagine what that feels like—to not be wanted by the living and the dead? Dejected, I picked myself up. For the first time since Z-day, I hardly looked around me. It felt kind of freeing. We were all so used to being on our toes every moment that we were outside the basement, it had become second nature. Now I didn’t even care.

I made my way back to the basement. Even though I was completely depressed, I still followed the rules; no sense getting a baseball bat to the face just because I was having a bad day. “It’s me, Red. I’m coming back in.” I said it loudly and clearly, so that they knew I wasn’t a usta-be. I heard the door unlock, and it opened a crack. Eddy was at the door as I slid by, hoping he wouldn’t smell the juice stink on me. “Hey, Eddy,” I said cheerily.

He half nodded at me. “Sup, Red.”

I looked around the dingy, dark basement. Naomi was vacantly looking out the small window. Fran was counting our canned food inventory for the thousandth time. Eddy said one more thing before turning to close and bolt the door.  

“Welcome home.”