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My father once told me about a Vietnamese folk-tale monster:  the ma lai nuốt ruột.  We were on Federal Boulevard, in the strip mall of Vietnamese restaurants and grocery stores.  My mother was shopping, as she did most weekends, stocking up on nước mắm and hoisin sauce and other thick, tarry substances that smelled of decay and sweet rot.

While she shopped, I spent my time in the Asian video rental store a few doors down.  Most of what they stocked were Hong Kong soap operas, these multi-volume sets that people rented by the pound.  I lingered at the horror movies, a single shelf.  I remember clearly The Gates of Hell.  On the back of the video case, an inset still of a pickaxe coming perilously close to a woman’s head; another with a corpse, its flesh sloughing off like oatmeal.  I wanted to watch this movie so bad.  I had come under the spell of ‘art-horror,’ which Noel Carroll describes, in The Philosophy of Horror, as a necessary feeling of threat “compounded by revulsion, nausea and disgust.”

One day, the owners of the store taped up a poster of a creature I’d never seen before.  On the poster, a woman’s severed head floated about a hollow body, entrails oozing down like candle drippings, and the large intestine dragging on the ground, glistening.  My father told me, “That’s a ma lai nuốt ruột.”  The ma lai nuốt ruột (roughly, to “hybrid-ghost gut swallower”) is a Vietnamese version of an vampire (in Thai, the krasue; in Malaysian, the penanggalan).  But it consists of only the head and intestinal tract.  The digestive system given malevolent life.  It sucks away the victim’s blood with its bladed tongue, and the dead person will rise to become another ma lai nuốt ruột.  To kill it, you either had to destroy the rest of its body before sunrise.

On the poster, it was a latex head, of course, held up by wires.  The viscera were coated in glycerin, rather than lymph.  But, I felt that strange combination of fascination and disgust.  The creature was real in a way that I knew that it was not real.  Carroll explains, “Saying we are art-horrified by Dracula means we are horrified by the thought of Dracula where the thought of such a possible being does not commit us to a belief in his existence.”

In Fiend Without a Face, the creatures that stalk the American-Canadian border are invisible.  They’re the materialization of thoughts; ideas that have been given form outside of the mind.  “Mental vampires,” one character calls them.  When they become visible, they appear as brains perambulating on their ganglia, similar to the ma lai nuốt ruột, but not exact.  We are horrified at our own thoughts.

I’ve never been able to track down the film from the poster.  It could be Witch with the Flying Head or Mystics in Bali.  But in some ways, I don’t want to find it.  I prefer having it out there, wandering, invisible, a thought detached the mind that spawned it.  It’s eating my brain, even now.


Yesterday:  Rain, great torrents of it, the sky filled with clouds overwhelming the atmosphere.  How many shades of gray are there? — gunmetal, battleship, grease.  In the light spectrum, the combination of two complementary colors produces gray.  Daytime becomes indistinguishable from evening and evening from night.  Gray is the wide swath of the achromatic color scale between white and black, existing in a line, rather than on a wheel.  Gray has no opposite, and grey is its own opposite.  Rain flashes gray as it falls sideways, kamikazes exploding on your skin, in your hair, on your clothes.  Sidewalk and pavement alike seem to float away.  In the street, puddles take on secret, unplumbable depths.  Cars prowl, waiting to drench unsuspecting pedestrians.  Symbolically, gray is associated with reliability, modesty, dignity, conservatism, old age, and practicality.  The British prefer to spell it ‘grey,’  but that’s because the British themselves are reliable, dignified and conservative.  In other words, gray.

Today:  Sunshine, with a chill breeze easily warded off by a light jacket.  On the New Jersey Transit train to New York, a crowd of rowdy sports fans, walking up and down the aisle, looking for a large segment of open seats.  They wore baggy t-shirts, and as they moved, they produced a polyester shimmer:  blue, with red and white stripes.  On their backs, the last names of people who were not them.  When I emerged from Penn Station, I heard the chant:  “Let’s go, Rangers, let’s go!” in the cadence previously reserved for the Yankees.  The area around Madison Square Garden was paved with fans, all dressed in blue, with hints of red.  They call themselves “blueshirts,” after the Rangers earned the name “The Broadway Blueshirts” in the 1920s.  Ten years later in Ireland, the members of The National Guard (also known as the Blueshirts) began greeting each other with Roman straight-arm salutes and limited its membership only to the Irish who professed Christian faith.

Tomorrow:  The world will be seen through a color that brings to mind urine or jaundice, darker than yellow, not quite orange.  Lars Von Trier achieves his palette for The Element of Crime by using sodium lights, the same lights found in truck stop parking lots or supermarkets.  Occasionally, a burst of blue appears, but not of the skies or of sweet water:  the blue of broken machinery, of televised propaganda.  Filmed in ochre light, everything in the film appears sallow and craven, dreamlike and decayed.  In Color, Victoria Finlay traces ochre pigment to Australia, where, a decade ago, it was a heavily-traded commodity and even further back, 40,000 years back, to when the Aboriginals used it in their drawings.  British anthropogist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown identified a common character amongst many of the tribes spanning the continent:  the snake Kurreah, known elsewhere as Takkan, Wawi, Numereji, Yeutta, Borlung, Wanamangura, or Ngalyod — the serpent of a thousand names.  This snake, they believed, had shaped the land, given places names, and distributed water into gullies and channels.  This was the snake who moved through water and sky both, revealing itself as a rainbow — the serpent delivering color to the world.

Americans who watched the moon landing talk about it as a moment they’ll never forget.  They remember every detail:  how old they were, the television on which they watched it, the room in the house where it was playing, what their mothers had made for dinner that evening.  Very few moments in American history achieve this mythic status, and most that do revolve around tragedy:  Pearl Harbor, Kennedy’s assassination, 9/11.

But the moon landing heralded something different:  the world had woken from a dream and discovered that it was true.  For All Mankind, with its images of the Earth from space, of astronauts at play, conveys the kind of marvel the idea of space travel must have in the late 60s.

Alas, being born until 1974, I came late to all that.  Much of the awe had been lost to history and progress.  Everyone remembers Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, but who remembers the second team to summit Everest?  Besides, once you’ve watched one countdown, you’ve seen them all.

My sixth-grade teacher tried to re-excite us about space travel.  Halley’s Comet, after all, was returning.  She assigned the whole class to write reports on the comet.  I researched how the comet has been seen, throughout history, as an omen:  Mark Twain, for example, was born on the day it appeared in 1835 and died on the day it next appeared.  On black construction paper, I drew diagrams of ‘Why solar winds matter!’ and renderings of what the comet would look like head-on.

When my academic rival, John, used appliqué letters to make his report look like a newspaper, she held up his report and exhorted us all to do the same.  Further proof:  once something has been done, the second time just isn’t as special.

But in the grand scheme, Halley’s passing seemed inconsequential.  I stared into the night sky, searching for where it should have been.  But the ambient lights in Aurora were too much for such a distant light.  If I saw streaks in the night, they were more likely to be planes flying into nearby Stapleton airport than a comet that I wouldn’t see again until I was 86 (if I was lucky).

In any case, Halley’s Comet paled in comparison to just a month earlier — I was sitting in class, doing busy work designed to keep students quiet for minutes at a time.  Our principal came over the Intercom.  Solemn and gravelly, he announced that the Space Shuttle Challenger had exploded.  The silence in the classroom extended outward over the whole school.  No one knew what to say.  We looked each other, and then at our teacher, who was never in the running to be the first teacher in space, but we could imagine her, in that moment, as Christa McAuliffe.

Later in the week, I asked my father, who was teaching for Denver Public Schools at that time, if he would have gone on the Challenger, even knowing that it was going to explode; space travel would never again seem safe, filled with wonder.  But without hesitating, my father answered, Yes.  In a heartbeat.

In grad school, the de facto point man for my group of friends, A___, assigned us all superpowers and corresponding code names.  C___ became ‘The Deconstructor,’ able to use his aporetic powers to destroy bullets by demonstrating that they’re simply texts with irreconcilable and contradictory meanings .   I was ‘The Persuader,’ who could cajole almost anyone into doing his bidding.

It’s an old parlour game, of course — a chestnut amongst college students who like stretch out hypothetical questions before them like a red carpet.  But for nerds, geeks and dweebs alike, the question takes on a particular resonance.  A superpower isn’t merely a neat trick one — it’s a replacement for an identity.

Take the X-Men.  I was reared on them.  At one point, I had a subscription, and every month, I waited patiently for the mailman to deliver my copy (I was also concerned that he might fold the comic in order to fit it through the mail slot, which would irrevocably diminish its resale value; eventually I found it easier to visit a shop — plus, that way, I wouldn’t have to wait a month).  And I daydreamed about – – as most young comic book readers do, I imagine — about what superpower I would have.

But just one!  How to choose?  I was able to narrow it down to three:  1) the ability to walk through walls, à la Kitty Pryde (a manifestation of a desire not to be excluded?); 2) the ability to turn invisible (a desire to go unnoticed?); 3) the ability to fly.

Indeed, in Brazil, this third ‘superpower’ is what low-level bureaucrat Sam Lowry finds himself daydreaming of:  his mechanical wings gliding through the clouds so that he can rendezvous with a diaphanous woman.  It’s the desire for escape.  (In the documentary What Is Brazil?, Gilliam describes how he came up with the idea of Brazil:  on a visit to Port Talbot in Wales, he noticed that the sand on the beach had been blackened by years of coal shipments trundling across it on conveyor belts.  He went on to imagine a man at sunset, sitting on that beach, surveying the black expanse around him as the song “Brazil” comes on the radio next to him.)

I didn’t have a dystopian, bureaucratic state-corporate apparatus from which I wanted to escape — high school in Aurora, Colorado had its drawbacks, but mistaken renditions were not a daily worry.  But what high school student doesn’t dream of escaping his surroundings?  Of flying above the familiar landscape towards something more exotic?

Of course, flying would have its drawbacks.  How do you keep bugs out of your mouth?  What about the lack of oxygen?  If you’re flying fast enough, wouldn’t the air pressure keep you from breathing properly?  How quickly would your arms tire of flapping?  But that’s the thing about daydreaming:  it arrives unencumbered by reality.  It’s only when you try to bring those dreams into reality (like poor sam Lowry) that the trouble sets in.

Armageddon:  the bête noire of the Criterion Collection.  When I explain what the Criterion Collection is to friends who aren’t familiar with it, I rattle off the usual suspects:  Kurosawa, Truffaut, Fassbinder, Hitchcock.  But each and every time, I leave out Michael Bay.  His name slips my mind.

The rabid fans of the Criterion Collection have conflicting feelings regarding Armageddon:  more than a few think that having Michael Bay in the Collection legitimizes his brand of filmmaking:  big, noisy, and hyper-masculine to a fault.  Others see Bay’s presence as “guilty pleasure,” the cash cow that funds overlooked gems.  But why can’t it be both?

As to where I fall on the Armageddon divide, that question has already been answered.  In the summer of 1998, when it came out, I had already chosen the other “killer asteroid” movie, Deep Impact, over it. My small, reptilian brain casing only has enough room for one apocalypse at a time, and Hollywood has a penchant letting similar films compete with each other — witness 1997’s battle royale between Volcano and Dante’s Peak.  This cutthroat release schedule is the entertainment-biz equivalent of Godzilla vs. King Kong.  Except that no one wins.

Why I saw Deep Impact instead of Armageddon, I’m not sure.  It might be that Deep Impact came out first.  Or it could be my innate distrust of Bruce Willis.  Or, it could simply be that I snuck into the film after watching something slightly more reputable.  While I was living in Washington, D.C., I did this often:  paying to see one movie and spending the entire afternoon wandering from one theater to another, taking in whatever spectacle happened to blossom after the trailers.

I try to be immune to Hollywood blockbusters, but part of their charm is their inherent ridiculousness.  Michael Bay recognizes it — on his commentary track, he explains the reason his asteroid-exploration vehicles have machine guns was because of the Mattel tie-in:  trucks with guns sell better.  Ben Affleck, on the same track, compares the über-patriotic scenes of Americana to a commercial for Miller Genuine Draft.  So even if I groan during the ‘heartland of America’ sequences, I also duly note an increased heart rate as the Russian space station is about to explode, threatening to take the poor cosmonaut with it.  (Ben Affleck, I don’t care so much.)

With Deep Impact, all I remember is end of the world:  Téa Leoni embracing her father as the mile-high tidal wave comes to consume them.  1998 was my last summer in D.C.  Soon, I’d return to my parents’ house in Denver, that momentary post-collegiate freedom swallowed by economic necessity (also:  an extravagant trip to Vietnam).  At the time, I didn’t feel like embracing my parents in the face of the cataclysmic destruction of my God-given American lifestyle, but if I could kill a few hours wallowing in some harmless, ear-shattering blockbusters, why not?  No one watches these movies pretending they approach anything to real life.  Real life waits outside the theater, waiting to clobber you over the head, like the piece of asteroid the crew don’t manage to destroy.

Funny:  I’d always assumed that, in the future, there’d be nothing but techno (see, for example, the subterranean rave in The Matrix Reloaded).  But Godard loves defying expectations.  So, in Alphaville, instead of the futuristic soundtrack one expects from a film nominally set in the future, we get ominous horn stabs as Lemmy Caution goes about his dirty business.  (Of course, Kraftwerk doesn’t put out Autobahn until nearly a decade after Alphaville — so while supercomputer Alpha 60 has the vocoder thing down, it still needs to work on the bangin’ beats.)

There is, however, a more explicit reason why I link Alphaville with techno.  During my “industrial” phase of high school — my junior and senior years — my music collecting began in earnest.  I kept an index card of band names that I wanted to check out between the pages of a dictionary.  I came across most of these on Teletunes, a music video show that played in the wee hours on Denver’s secondary PBS-affiliate, KDBI, or on the local “alternative” radio station, KTCL, long before it got gobbled up by Clear Channel and changed formats.  In bookstores, I scanned the magazine racks for angry, glowering Germans who wore studded leather jackets and stood pouting with their arms crossed.  That, I thought, has got to be a cool band.

So with this, I hunted down Laibach.  I knew little about them except that they had released an album, Kapital.  So I made a pilgrimage down to Wax Trax to pick it up, not knowing that Laibach is Slovenia’s second-best export after Strast chocolates.  Indeed, the band is probably best known for their possibly Leni Riefenstahl-inspired version of the Beatles’ “Across the Universe.” On Kapital, I was drawn to their militaristic rhythms and Wagnerian bombast.

But the track that most grabbed my attention was “Le Privilège des Morts,” an ominous track with a deep sub-bass and a distorted, computerized voice speaking French.  With my busted, high-school French, I understood maybe every other sentence, but listening to it — with headphones late at night, lights off, eyes closed — evoked suffocation, claustrophobia, especially with the repeated last phrase:  “La porte est blockée.”  I didn’t realize it, but “Le Privilège des Morts” was composed primarily from snippets of dialogue and sound effects from Alphaville.  The song takes its title, for example, from Lemmy Caution’s first interrogation by Alpha 60.  When Anna Karina reads from Paul Éluard’s Capitale de la Douleur, mid-song, she whispers it like a cri de couer, and, when they lift the condemned man’s speech on the diving board wholesale (before he’s dismembered by synchronized swimmers, no less), I didn’t comprehend the man’s harangue, but I knew some bad shit was going down.

So when, almost a decade later, I finally watched Alphaville, it was a moment of déjà vu (possibly déjà ecouté?).  I didn’t experience the film as much as I re-edited it to fit my memory of “Le Privilège des Morts”:  Here’s where this bit came from.  Oh, so that’s what that meant. I don’t Godard would mind, given his own penchant for cobbling together disparate parts — detective noir, science fiction, futurist architecture — into a memorable, haunting whole.