Issue #199: Surface of the subterranean

I watch a lot of bad movies. This has always been true. As an undergraduate, I even wrote a paper about it for an aesthetics class. Yes, I take a perverse pride in the number of strange, obscure, and shitty movies I have seen. I sometimes seek them out. But this past week, I watched eight terrible movies not on purpose. In order:

Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021)

Jungle Cruise (2021)

Free Guy (2021)

The Strings (2020)

A Classic Horror Story (2021)

Hypnotic (2021)

Fury of the Demon (2016)

In the Heights (2021)

I know. I can’t say I expected these all to be as bad as they were. It speaks to my predictive capabilities. Both Venom and Jungle Cruise were significantly worse than my already-low expectations. Venom is an incomprehensible mess that, much like the previous film, seems to be unaware of the cinematic developments in big budget filmmaking since 2007. Jungle Cruise is a two hour movie based on an amusement park ride. What kind of psychopath would ever come up with something like this? I expected Dwayne Johnson quipping and got bizarre, anachronistic slapstick instead.

I’m sad to say that Free Guy, a long commercial, was the best of the whole bunch. When Robert Allen poses the question in Channels of Discourse (1992) as to whether audiences would ever willingly watch a feature-length advertisement, I must regrettably count myself among the number who would.

The next four are categorized as horror films but failed to deliver any interest or tension. The Strings doesn’t know what kind of movie it is and frequently confuses itself for music video behind-the-scenes footage. A Classic Horror Story might have been the most interesting of the films, so clearly influenced by Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods (2011). It involves influencers (great), meta-commentary, and some okay visuals. Hypnotic is just a Lifetime movie with delusions of grandeur. At least they didn’t kill Dulé.

Finally, Fury of the Demon, only one of two films I watched older than 2021, is a real head-scratcher. It’s a mockumentary about Georges Méliès with about half of the film’s sixty minute runtime dedicated to actual facts about Méliès and his work. Then, it shifts to the discussion of a (fictional) occultist who may or may not have directed a film, in the style of Méliès, that causes people to become rabidly violent upon watching it. Apparently some have praised this film for its ability to blur the lines between fiction and reality. I figure, if your movie is just a series of inane, made up “facts,” which inspire no strong reaction of disbelief from the audience, it is pretty easy to convince someone something like that is real. A cinematic accomplishment? I think not.

I also watched In The Heights. The less one might say about it, the better. Lin-Manuel Miranda must be stopped.

A better week would have involved watching low-budget stinkers. They are usually much better than the mostly mass-market atrocities I subjected myself to.

The latest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Hawkeye (2021), came to fruition this week as well. Only two episodes in, I am not sure how I would judge it against the other Disney+ Marvel offerings. I can say with certainty, however, it is the most interesting of the five shows. Instead of forcing viewers like myself to draw blood from a stone (which I didtwice), Jonathan Igla’s series endeavors to offer something other than plot beats and punching. There is an actual idea being worked through in the first episode, and not by accident.

Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), the powerless archer who rubs shoulders with Iron Man and the Hulk, is forced to face with the limits of his humanity. He is bound by it in a way his Avengers ‘colleagues’ are not. And it is not just the limitations of his physical capabilities, but also his moral fortitude. In the intervening time between Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019), Barton donned the alter-ego of Ronin and spent his time systematically killing criminals rather than benevolently imprisoning them or whatever the hell Captain America does. This moral lapse, paired with the fact that in Endgame he bears witness to the sacrifice of Black Widow in order to secure the final cosmic Macguffin (Infinity Stone), leaves Barton with a Giant-Man sized case of imposter syndrome.

Igla does a great job in getting this across. Barton abandons an Avengers-themed musical halfway through, not because he is insulted seeing his heroics reduced to dance numbers but because he doesn’t feel like a hero himself. He flinches at his after-show meal getting comped by the restaurant owner for having “saved the city.” In the second episode of the season, “Hide and Seek,” Barton has to secure the lost Ronin costume from a cadre of New York City LARPers who are first responders as a day job. When Hawkeye confronts the firefighter (named Grills) who is wearing the blood-stained Ronin suit, Grills begs Barton to take a dive in a LARPing sword fight. “You’re a real superhero,” Grills says, “this is the closest I’ll ever get to being one.” From Hawkeye’s perspective, though, it’s Grills who is the hero and Barton who is the LARPer — uncomfortably playing the role of Hawkeye more than ever.

In that same episode, Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld), the Hawkeye heir apparent, berates Barton for his poor branding. When he protests, “not really trying to sell anything,” Bishop replies, “but you do anyway … inspiration, Clint.” For Hawkeye to inspire, his time as Ronin must remain hidden. And as he attempts to unravel the deception at the center of the series’ plot (involving a murder and so on) the tension builds as to whether he’ll be able to maintain the illusion of his heroism. The tension that the first two episodes makes clear is between his contrasting desires to maintain his heroic image and continue to inspire and simply blow it all up — to confess, admit his guilt of killing crime bosses and of letting Black Widow die in his place.

Anyway, this introduction will be longest segment of the whole letter. But I have some fun for all today.

Sneaker Obituaries

This weekend, my friend Rachel suffered a tremendous loss of a material object. Obviously the loss of the material has its limitations, but the scenario inspired me. Her vintage Prada loafers “crumbled.”

I remember the day she bought these fine pieces of footwear. For reference, before the accident:

This is an experience many vintage sneaker collectors can relate to. You are walking around, enjoying your life — you are most likely to be wearing your vintage shoes when doing something the most fun or significant to you — and you feel that unmistakable but indescribable feeling of a midsole turning to dust. You might end up with something looking like this:

How does this happen? Whether sophisticated Prada leatherwear or low-rent Nike trainers, any shoe that has a polyurethane midsole is susceptible to crumbling and cracking. It’s a distinctive phenomenon and has its own appeal. The threat of crumbling makes a wearable vintage sneaker all the rarer. There’s also something about the way polyurethane midsoles crumble that is eye catching in its own way.

Wired has done the most in-depth reporting on this phenomenon that I’ve seen, but there are plenty of other more recent accounts.

If you’ve had a vintage sneaker (or Prada loafer) crumble on you, you’re not alone. Rachel is consulting qualified cobblers for a resole or mold of the remaining, intact sole. I’ll be sure to bring you the latest.

Ambush: the Cro-Mags of New England Basements

Between 2014 and 2016, I was lucky enough to frequently see the regional raw punk (or noise punk, whatever you like) band, Ambush. The videos that exist online today hardly do justice to the musicianship and spectacle the band brought in that span of time. Although I am sure being in the audience at any of these gigs was a wholly different experience. The fact remains that Ambush is very good.

During the period I was seeing them the most frequently, they were a band that never overstayed their welcome. We’re talking eight minute sets leaving nothing but a broken mic stand and ringing ears in its wake. I’ve always thought a band, particularly a hardcore band, that plays short sets projects an enormous amount of confidence. There’s no reason to play a ton of songs. The few that you’ll blaze through in whatever span of time should leave enough of an impression. That was totally true in my experience seeing this band.

This kind of hardcore, popularized by Japanese bands such as Gai, Confuse, and later D-Clone and Zyanose, has plenty U.S. exemplars. Before Ambush, Lebenden Toten and Nerveskade were standard-bearers for the style with EEL as one of Ambush’s contemporaries. Though Ambush never enjoyed even close to the success of any the other examples — nor were they as active. Lebenden Toten is still kicking around today, the longest running of the bands by far.

This is hardly an exhaustive list, of course, just the surface level of a subterranean genre.

Having seen D-Clone (actually — with the Cro-Mags…), Zyanose, Nerveskade, EEL, and Lebenden Toten all at least once, Ambush always did something for me that most of these bands did not. Don’t get me wrong, I love them all. And, to be clear, Lebenden Toten is the GOAT, few bands even come close to as good. But Ambush still stands out. Maybe it’s just the regional loyalty. But it was also because they were unexpected. With all of these other bands, I knew what I was getting into. I didn’t know shit about Ambush the first time I saw them. I’ve tried to maintain my blissful ignorance; you’ll notice a dearth of details about the band itself and its members in my writing about them.

But their contribution to this genre is unmistakable.

Ambush’s last activity that I am aware of was a Japan tour in 2019 in support of a discography, Progression of Evil, that came out the same year. There are some videos from the shows. They look good.

I’m hoping Ambush plays again sometime. But if they’ve got something in the works, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. I’ll just see the flyer and be surprised.

Weekly Reading List — The Zero-Degree collective remarks, “the world of leftist publishing experienced a small but palpable upheaval” upon the acquisition of Zero Books by Repeater Books, the initial custodians of the publishing imprint. I can’t weigh in on this dispute with too much conviction, but I find Zero-Degree’s analysis convincing. — Speaking of not weighing in with too much conviction, Tariq Goddard also released a statement about Repeater’s purchase of Zero. How’s that for non-biased reporting?

If I was in charge of deciding what all metal music would sound like from this moment forward, it would be emulating Quest Object Project’s It’s Danger (1986):

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Until next time.

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