Wild Wild West

By the time you read this, odds are I’ll be elsewhere, since tomorrow begins the first full-blown TC Trip of 2000. Once again, the destination is Western America, with Phoenix and Las Vegas the main targets. British Airways will be flying me out, and I hope the in-flight entertainment system doesn’t break down on the way, as it did last time — it is particularly irritating to see semi-random five minute chunks of a film, but such are the joys of what used to be Economy class, but is now called “World Traveller”. However, at current rate of air-mile collection, I should get into the BA Executive Club later this year – and not the scummy blue card anyone can get, a proper Silver one. I look forward to striking fear and terror into Executive Lounges around the world.

There are multiple facets to this trip, not least of which is preparation for eventual emigration. There are three big hurdles to be overcome: house, visa, and job. The first-named is largely a case of catching up with seven years of unexecuted maintenance, though given the current housing market, we could probably sell it in milliseconds for more than we paid for it. The job & visa things are inextricably intertwined, and Chris + I are still ploughing through the bureaucratic web of green cards and H1Bs, up to and including the possibility of marriage — a prospect that no longer quite sends me running and screaming, I may add, but I’d rather wait and do it for the right reasons! This has also caused some frantic searching: I know I graduated from Aberdeen University back in 1987, but do I have any bits of paper to prove it? Needless to say my mother, inevitably, came up trumps on that one…

There will, however, be plenty of time for pleasure, in a variety of delightful ways, including my third trip to Las Vegas. I doubt if I’ll ever be able to recapture the heady shock of that first drive down the Strip, gawking at olympic gold-medal levels, but it’s always fun to try. No doubt Chris + I will some time “predating”, Velociraptor-like, around the casinos, stalking the senior citizens who don’t know how the hell to play the fruit machines. Merciless and ruthless it may be, but it’s a jungle out there… Back in Phoenix and Tempe, there will also be the first baseball games of the year (I will finally get to see my beloved Arizona Diamondbacks play!), as well as the, er, local Scottish Highland Games.

There is something bizarre about this: I never usually bothered going to the Forres Highland Games, when they were in the park at the end of our road, but fly 5,000 miles and they suddenly become an object of great interest. I saw video of last year’s event, and the severely surreal imagery of people tossing the caber, while palm trees swayed gently in the background, takes a lot of beating. But home culture never seems so appealing as when you’re away from it — I remember an English pub on Sunset Boulevard serving draught Newcastle Brown Ale, and this Scottish ex-pat is far more patriotic than I was when I actually lived there.

But that’s part of the joy of travel. In these days of the “global village”, there is very little truly local culture, unless your idea of a holiday involves festering swamps and the casual fending off of cannibalistic natives. For a satellite- and Internet-handy individual, the world is shrinking and, so for this as well as other reasons, it’s very comforting to realise that I won’t be thinking of myself as emigrating, so much as coming home. After all, home is where the heart is,

See you in a fortnight!

Call of the Riled

STOCKHOLM, Feb 11 (Reuters) – A possible link between mobile phone radiation and Alzheimer’s disease is being tested on laboratory rats, the leader of a Swedish university research team said on Friday. Neurosurgery professor Leif Salford told Reuters, “I cannot say that mobile phones give Alzheimer’s. But we cannot rule it out,” Some medical experts have suggested that microwave radiation from heavy use of mobiles could cause brain tumours as well as serious side-effects, including headaches, nausea, tiredness and sleep problems.

Despite the above, there’s really no need for anyone to bother with any more research: even the most cursory observation around London reveals the that using a mobile phone immediately brings on Alzheimer’s. You can see the victims all across town, spouting their banal, irrelevant drivel and shuffling along as if crippled by an inability to walk and talk at the same time. Any similarity to Ronald Reagan is no coincidence. The only thing capable of draining as many IQ points is wearing a baseball cap backwards, which instantly reduces the wearer to the evolutionary level of a baboon. [Would it be cool and hip to wear your trousers back-to-front, or would that be the behaviour of a village idiot? Discuss…]

The trauma of mobile phones begins with the ring; back in the days when they all had the same sound, at least you could snigger as the entire top deck of the No.2 bus through Brixton lunged for their pockets, unsure whether it was their phone ringing. Now, they all play different tunes, but the new problem is this: there is no tune on Earth which is bearable when reduced to the beeping of a mobile phone. I think the worst aesthetic atrocities, to my tender ears, are the classical tunes: something intended to be played by a full symphony orchestra, is not going to sound anything byt painfully grating coming out of an electronic Mars bar. [That whirring sound you hear, is Mozart turning in his grave] After this, you have to listen to one side of someone else’s conversation, almost inevitably at the “I’m on the bus” level — of the hundreds I’ve overheard, I’ve yet to hear a single one that couldn’t have waited till the perpetrator reached home. And do not get me started on imbeciles who take their mobile phones into cinemas…that’s a whole separate rant in itself. Let’s just say that there are certain things which should only be done in private, between consenting adults, and phone conversations are definitely on the list.

Sure, there are people who need them; if your job is of no fixed abode, then I can see the point. And if your car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, I’ll cheerfully admit a cell phone would be useful. But outside of a small set of similarly special circumstances, I’m baffled: my employer gave me a phone several years ago: it’s currently lying (I think – not checked it for months) in the bottom of my briefcase, with a dead battery. Put simply, if I’m not at home, it’s because I’m out doing something entertaining, and if that’s the case, I don’t want to be interrupted. I own no small children who might be bleeding from the eyes: whatever it is can wait. Even if TC Towers was burning down, what would I gain by learning about it this instant? [Unless, of course, I wanted to toast marshmallows]

Phone me when I’m in the middle of watching a movie, and you will get, at best, short shrift, and more likely the answering machine. For while increased communication is a good thing, that’s only on my terms. If we start behaving like a pack of Pavlov’s dogs, springing into action at the sound of a bell (or, more likely, a tinny rendition of the theme from Star Wars), regardless of where we are, we have become the servants of the technology, and not the other way round.

Incredibly Bad Film Show: Devil Fetus

Dir: Lau Hung Chuen
Star: Aai Dik, Lui Sau-Ling, Liu Pui-Pui

To mis-quote Twelfth Night, “Some are born bad, some achieve badness, and some have badness thrust upon them.” I think that Devil Fetus falls into the last category, since a good few of the people involved in this 1983 film should have known better, or would do much better later in their careers:

  • Producer Lo Wei directed Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury and The Big Boss, as well as being involved early on in Jackie Chan’s career.
  • Editor David Wu would go on to cut some of John Woo’s classic Hong Kong movies, including Hard Boiled, before moving to Hollywood and editing films such as Crying Freeman. But on Devil Fetus, he also did the music, though some of it sounds suspiciously like it came off the soundtrack to the Alien movies…
  • Director Lau had also worked with Woo, as his cinematographer, and would go on to shoot Jackie Chan’s Thunderbolt, as well as one of the most lyrical gun-fights ever — Cynthia Khan’s blood-spattered wedding in Queen’s High.

All good omens: so why is this film such a total mess? I think it’s largely a script which fails to convey the simplest information. You’ll find yourself rewinding to try and work out who did what to who: the plot description that follows should thus be regarded as a best guess, pieced together from a variety of sources. The film itself was not the most helpful of these, with subtitles which fell off the sides, and occasionally bottom, of the screen. However, even allowing for this, failure to mention when we leap forward a dozen or more years is somewhat inexcusable.

The film is based around the family Cheng, consisting of one grandmother, her two sons, their wives, and two grandsons. One of the wives buys a jade vase at auction; unfortunately, it’s possessed by the spirit of a Tibetan monk who advocate sex as religion (another point the subtitles make less than clear – I gleaned this nugget from a review by a Cantonese-speaker!). She’s soon taking the vase to bed and being humped by the horny spirit, much to her husband’s understandable distaste. But when he smashes the vase, his face rapidly gets covered in boils, and he decides to charge through a window. It was at this point that the films potential IBFS status became apparent, and it hardened when his wife suffers that horror-cliche, the Thrown Cat Attack, and falls down the stairs to her death.

At their funeral (I wonder if it’s cheaper to bury two at the same time?), the Taoist priest sees the demon foetus of the title erupting from her belly – its only appearance in the movie – and seals it in there with incantations, and dire warnings to Granny Cheng not to let anyone disturb the remains. You don’t need to be Nostradamus to see where that is eventually going to lead.

We are now introduced to Kent, a Kendo champ: it’s only when he returns to his family that we realise this is the same kid seen playing with toys previously. This is the point at which the film leaps forward a decade, without bothering to mention it – you’re left to infer it, though apart from the sons, no-one else looks any any older. He meets Juju (Lui Sau-Ling), a nebulous “friend of the family”, who is obviously the love interest. While picking Granny up for a party, they disturb the urns: anyone who didn’t see this coming needs a white stick.

Back at the party, the birthday cake turns into worms, although the only person who notices is the one we see eating the worm-infested cake in close-up, and the family’s pet dog gets possessed by (we assume) the evil monk. We now enter Psycho mode, with the dog as Norman Bates, stalking Juju while she sings selections from Strauss and Rogers & Hammerstein in the shower. Kent arrives just in time to slice up the dog with a handy samurai sword, but when the dog is buried, the spirit leaps into his younger brother Kwo Wei, with a dazzling array of visual effects, unsurpassed since…since..well, you know that screen-saver where lines bounce all around the display? In comparison, that’s a masterpiece

Kwo Wei begins to behave a bit strangely. He digs the dog’s corpse up and eats its entrails. He tries to kill Granny. And just to show what a total lunatic he has become, he puts on women’s clothes. This behaviour, as well as trying to drown Juju, and slaughtering a servant (whose body he keeps under the bed for purposes I’ll gloss over), leads his concerned relatives to consult the Taoist priest once again. He soon susses what has happened, and reveals that you need eagle’s blood to slay the spirit. So he summons Kwo Wei, and the duo engage in a battle of dodgy optical effects, and even worse filmic ones, with techniques that look a good quarter-century out of date. I suppose this could be a homage to classic fantasy movies – if so, it sits somewhat uneasily with the corpse-raping (oops, was supposed to gloss over that).

With the priest dispatched, Daddy follows, attacked by a cloud of dry ice. Actually, he meets his end in the sauna, the room collapsing in on him, crushing his head in spectacular, if highly implausible, fashion. Mummy is next for the chop, levitating round the room over a carpet which is bulging for no apparent reason. I suspect the idea was to evoke berserk spirits; it’s so obviously people pushing it up from underneath, they’d have been better off not bothering. She too gets chased by furniture, and the mirror seeps blood in one of the film’s occasional genuinely eerie images. Kwo Wei is now drinking gin straight from the bottle – does his evil know no bounds?

Kent and Juju return home to rescue their mother; while Kent tends to her, Juju goes to call for help. The phones are, inevitably, out, and the lights rapidly follow. Juju runs round screaming – everywhere she goes, Kwo Wei is there already. Kent’s attempts to fight his brother are foiled by the latter’s ability to teleport, though since he can’t be hit even when he stands still, this seems like overkill. Granny turns up with a bowl of eagle’s blood (the movie is unclear over whether this is a standard item in Hong Kong kitchens) which she drops. Just as Kwo Wei is about to kill everyone, Juju drives a spade through him; because the spade has lain in the spilt blood, it causes…I can’t believe I’m about to write this…a series of flying heads to sprout from his neck, which Kent decapitates with a similarly-smeared sword. This triggers stop-motion footage slightly reminiscent of the climax to The Evil Dead. Credits roll. The End.

The early 80’s were something of a golden era for Western horror, with the likes of The Thing acting as a showcase for new-found special effects techniques. Devil Fetus clearly springs from these, with nods to others already mentioned. However, despite a gratifyingly serious tone, the gulf between idea and execution is too enormous to bridge. However, it’s hard to deny the energy that goes into it, and the cheerful lack of concern over trivial things like story-telling can only endear it to the viewer.

Hell to pay…

I don’t know.. Is it me? Am I getting too old? I have to admit, Jim’s last editorial sparked a little blaze inside me when I read it. Enough of a fire to get me up off my ass to add a little more fuel to the fire he started burning in last week’s drum.

There are so many things happening in this world, and we are evolving into who knows what, and what irritates me more than anything on this planet are people that can’t take responsibility for their own actions (or inactions), and have this overwhelming need to blame someone else, something else…draw the attention away from them for the moment and have the light shine on something that may be nothing more than a “colouring” for their psychoses. Like the movies.

Columbine was a perfect example of the need to blame something else just because two kids went psycho who would’ve probably gone psycho and blown away their school, whether they watched The Matrix or not. Jim tells me that John Wayne Gacy was a Disney movies fan. How weird is that? Does that mean that just because we ‘ve seen The Little Mermaid twelve times, we’re probably psycho-pedophile-killer-cannibals? And watching The Matrix doesn’t mean we’re gonna go out with automatic weapons and blow schools away — unless we’re seriously disturbed in the first place. Then we’ll do it anyway, whether we watch Disney or Linda Lovelace.

This little rant is courtesy of last night. I was driving my son and his friends home from their YMCA jaunt. There they were, three of them in the back, two 15-year olds (survivors of the Chaparral High School Pseudo Hostage Crisis) and someone’s little brother, tagging along to be with the big guns. And me, the invisible driver. Oblivious to all the happenings in the back and, apparently to them, not listening to a word they were saying. But I was… Listening very carefully. And I heard things that I never remember hearing as a child growing up with my boy cousins. I know that boys tend to be more aggressive around their peers, but I never remember hearing such intricate detailing of how they were going to kill one of their classmates in a most gruesome manner. Throwing him into a bathtub of boiling water, then tossing in 7 or 8 toasters (“so it would hurt real bad”), then, for good measure, a couple of cameras and a blow dryer just to make sure he was dead. All this said in the presence of the nine year old – I’m sure he was seriously impressed and followed by a hysterical impression of Terence and Phillip fart jokes from the South Park movie.

I was seriously considering the possibility that perhaps there was something to the ravings of the radio talk show people, screaming that kids are influenced and will act on things they’ve seen at movies. But I did something that radio talk show people don’t do. I asked the kids outright. I turned to them and asked them about the situation they were describing. I asked them, if the opportunity arose and they had the means with which to make that scenario real, would they put this boy they hate into a bathtub of boiling water with a crate of electrical appliances? Would they want to see him dead? The answer was “No way. We just like talking about it ’cause it makes us feel better.” My point exactly: harmless violence. Releasing the tension like the steam out of a pressure cooker.

And I know these boys get to see all the gory, violent, horrifying films they want. But what makes them different from the psychos who saw the same movies and kill/rape/maim/cannibalise/torture? Simple. They’re not psycho. Just lumped in with the same group because of a common interest they share.

But God help that kid at Chaparral they hate so much if they were psycho!

Chris Fata
North American Ambassador,
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Trench-coats and body-counts

When I went across to Arizona last October, I was looking to buy a long, black leather trench-coat — like so many clothes, they’re a lot cheaper in America, and so it seemed a good chance to get one. But I soon discovered that post-Columbine, long black trench-coats have become an under-the-counter article — you just don’t see them in shops. Sure, they still exist, but they’re a special order item. In fact, you need a licence to own one, and the background checks are considerably more stringent than for any automatic weaponry.

Actually, that last bit is an exaggeration, but the black market in black clothing is not the only cultural change to take place in Arizona since the Trenchcoat Mafia had their day in the sun. In the first four weeks of the year, no less than 18 schools were threatened with Columbine-style retribution; bombings, arson or good ol’-fashioned shooting sprees. The latest hit close to home, at Chaparral High School, which Chris’s son Robert attends. This started with graffiti in a bathroom, saying that everyone would die on February 3rd. Next, there was threats made to kill/rape/dismember a specific teacher – found in the supposed sanctity of a staff toilet. And then a gun was found on school premises. Whoever was responsible had a nice sense of threat escalation; a career in Hollywood script-writing beckons.

The authorities took no chances, and made February 3rd an optional school day. Robert went – armed with his mobile phone, so that at least he’d be able to phone-in an eye-witness account of the apocalypse to CNN [Interestingly, my old high school, Forres Academy, have just banned mobile phones as “disruptive”. Wonder how far they’d get with that in America?] Needless to say, nothing happened; well, Robert got hit with a volleyball, but this did not turn out to be the precursor to Armageddon. This is unsurprising, given the presence of enough armed law-enforcement, in a variety of flavours, to take over most less well-armed nations. You’d need to be a particularly stupid psychopath to take them on, after a marketing campaign that puts The Blair Witch Project to shame.

All these incidents have prompted soul-searching about the causes, from the blatantly obvious – “it’s power for the kids,” said the president of a security company – to the patently fatuous, with one “expert” suggesting it was partly due to Arizona’s nice weather, giving kids lots of alternatives to do on their extra days off. The responses to the threats have been similarly varied: the best one seems to involve bribery. At one school, they found a threat at 10:15, the principal offered a $200 reward after lunch, and the perpetrators were in custody by 1 p.m. That’s swift and to the point. It helps that the kind of losers who make these threats (not to be confused with those, more deserving of respect, who actually carry them out), are usually Johnny No-Friends, so that only mild inducement is necessary for their classmates to turn them in.

There’s no doubt, as mentioned above, it’s a power trip for an almost entirely powerless group to be able to cause so many adults to run around doing headless chicken impressions. And it’s not something that’s going to go away in the near future; no school is going to treat these threats with the seriousness they deserve i.e. none at all, simply because they would be totally crucified if something did happen — even if it was a meteor hitting the school. These days, the hypersensitive authorities tend to leap on even the slightest sign of “trouble”; so no matter how fine your grades, you’d better watch out with those English compositions…