Thursday, August 28, 2008

Less than Zero

I'm listening to Elvis Costello, and in the song "Less Than Zero" there's a line "Mr. Oswald with the Swastika Tattoo.", which brought to mind something that happened a few years back, at DragonCon, a big SciFi convention and geekfest in Atlanta.
I was in a room watching the show "Firefly", which had just come out on DVD, on a big screen TV, with great sound. Between episodes, we would all sit around talking about the episodes, and totally geeking out. Well, the host of the room was also in costume, an "Alliance Official", I think, and at one point he got too warm in the synthetic fibers he was wearing, and took off his costume shirt. On his right forearm was a tattoo of a Nazi eagle, with a swastika in its talons. To say that this changed my opinion of this guy doesn't even scratch the surface. I had to leave. I wish, now, that I had had the balls to ask him about it, but how do you bring something like that up? "Hey, nice tattoo, you Nazi bastard." To quote Jake Blues, "I hate Illinois Nazis", or any Nazis, for that matter. Sure, there's something about the obsessive, compulsive nature of SciFi fandom that attracts the type who latches onto an idea and won't let go, but you have to think that if you're that devoted to a cause that you'd mark yourself with it permanently, you're almost asking to get confronted about it, aren't you? Well, I just walked out. Confronting him wouldn't have done any good, anyway. He's already so far gone that it would be pointless. I almost feel like he was looking for an excuse to show off his tattoo. Maybe it was bait, but I didn't bite. Still somewhat ashamed of that, but at least all my teeth are still in my head.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

On the mental illness that is Torture Porn

This is going to be my longest post yet, and probably ever. It's something that's been bugging me for a while, and I kind of go off on a rant, even for me. Please indulge me, and I'll try to get back to funny, soon.

On the mental illness that is Torture Porn
In my high school, certain VHS videotapes got passed around, secretively. Among these were classics like “Death Race 2000”, mid 70’s porn like Marilyn Chambers’ “Insatiable”, which I’m sure we all read for the articles, and the “Faces of Death” series, whose tagline was “When only Real is Real Enough” (If Insatiable had a tag line, other than “Insatiable”, I can’t remember it. We can argue the effects of mid 70’s porn on late 70’s teenagers another day.). The FoD film series was nothing more than actual film, usually news footage of people being actually killed, (shot, executed, hit by trains or helicopters, torn apart by lions, etc… etc…) or of dead bodies, recently killed. To say it was anything more would be a ridiculous lie. I must say that the “entertainment value” of the entire concept of the second genre is beyond my grasp.

My small crowd referred to the kids who actively sought out, and enjoyed the FoD series as “The Gacy’s” after serial killer John Wayne Gacy. The Gacy’s would excitedly talk about the grossest, vilest, and most disturbing scenes from these films in detail only slightly less excruciating than what I assume actually watching the films would feel like. I can hardly forget the glee with which they used to describe a film of someone (a U.S. senator, if I recall) killing himself with a pistol in his mouth. The Gacy’s would get giggly and excited as they described the scene, seemingly a little “too excited”, if you catch my drift. As a rule, I avoided these people, and even the people they associated with for good measure.

Call me elitist, if you wish, but this is the era when guns were fairly readily available, and these kids seemed disturbed enough to not be trusted in general, and more specifically when they were hopped up on Torture Porn. It wasn’t called that then. If anything, the genre was called “Snuff”, after Snuff Films, which were films, supposedly made by the Hell’s Angels biker gang, where they filmed their members committing actual, premeditated murders. I never, thank goodness, ever heard of any VHS Snuff Films circulating via the underground backpack, but the FoD films seemed to fill that void for the sick people who find that kind of thing appealing. I consider these people to suffer from a mental illness. Sorry, but I do. To “enjoy” this sort of thing seems like a gateway to me. The kind of people who partake in it seem only a small step from hurting or even torturing pets or wild animals for kicks, which is widely recognized as a sign of a sociopathic, or even homicidal personality. (Don’t (please) get me started on the people who engage in dog fighting. All I'll say for now is that there's a very special circle in hell reserved for them.)

Some people, though, didn’t go quite so far, but got into the Slasher genre, mainstream movies like Friday the 13th, or Nightmare on Elm Street. I have personally only seen a couple of these, and that was enough for me. The gore was fakey, and corny, and whenever some teens started making out, you knew that they were going to get killed in a fakey, gory way. It was almost quaint, by today’s standards. Nancy Reagan once said that we need to teach our children that sex equals death. She really did.

If the Faces of Death films and the Slasher films had a baby, it would be today’s ultra-disturbing genre: Torture Porn. Representative examples of this genre are the Saw series, and the Hostel series, and their ilk. I will admit that I have not personally seen any of these films. As a rule, I avoid situations where I would see suffering. My instinct, when I see suffering, would be to help the person, and stop their suffering, not to revel in it, even if the person is depicted as a “bad guy” who “deserves” the pain they are being subjected to. From the accounts of others, and reading about these films, it is apparent that whatever small vestige of plot they have is just window dressing for using the most state of the art special effects to show people trapped by torturers, who slowly, extremely realistically torture them until they are near death, and then bring them back to torture again, until they eventually die. And the torturers are not even trying to exact information, they are just engaging in torture because they enjoy it. Then the tables predictably turn, and the torturers become the torturees, and they are slowly, extremely realistically tortured to death by the people they were torturing. Nothing about this sounds attractive or entertaining to me in the remotest way. Even more disturbing is what is happening to the people who are watching these movies. They are being desensitized to the suffering of others, especially victims of torture.

Whatever macabre tortures these movies depict, they kind of make waterboarding seem not quite so bad. Which is certainly convenient for a government trying to justify torture, isn’t it? If one believed in conspiracy theories, one might even suspect that this genre is being encouraged by covert government support of depictions of extreme torture. One might even go so far as to suspect that television shows like “24” where torture is routinely depicted not only to be effective, but be the only thing that is effective, were supported by close associates of the current administration. Oh, in that one you would be right, of course, the creator of “24” is a huge supporter of W, and his policy, overt or covert, that torture works.

I heard a commentator, on NPR, I suspect, saying that on 24 the terrorists are routinely tortured until they give up the location of the bomb in the “ticking time bomb” scenario that is used to justify torture, and that he would like to see a more realistic depiction, where the terrorist confesses to Jack Bauer that the atomic bomb that is about to go off is at a location on the east side of the city, and when he gets there, the bomb goes off on the west side of the city. To put it simply, torture never works, never, ever, especially with fanatics like the ones we are dealing with. They want to die, they want to succeed in their plan, and the last thing they would ever do is to give away the plan, before they die. Confessing, even under extreme torture, would defeat their purpose, wouldn’t it?

The softening of attitudes toward torture put forth by the Torture Porn genre can only serve to encourage a disconnect between people and their own humanity. And once you’ve lost your humanity, it's very, very hard to get it back. And sadly, more and more of these sick, deeply sick films are produced every year. There seems to be no end to the Saw franchise. Maybe I just don’t get it, but then again, maybe I just don’t want to. And I sincerely hope that I never do.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

How far we have come

In 2008, children are sent home from school for having a keychain in the shape of a gun. Some are expelled for a day.

In 2008, a man is not allowed to board an airplane, because he is wearing a t-shirt with a picture of a Transformer robot on it. The reason is that the robot in the picture is holding a large gun.

In 1966, the Mattel company sells Mattel Agent Zero M Sonic Blaster 5530. It is given a "not acceptable" rating by Consumer Reports because it uses compressed air to fire a blast of air and sound at 157 decibels. The product is not removed from the market. Man, I wish I had one of them.

UPDATE: Please don't combine the 5530 with this: