A couple of weekends ago I got together with some old friends in the Poconos mountains in Pennsylvania. We rented a nice cabin in the woods, and these guys came in from all over. Some of them I only see every few years, so it’s a special thing when we get together. Near our cabin in the Poconos was this abandoned hotel. A friend took this photograph and it obviously used a filter of some kind but it kind of captures what it was like to stand and look at this building. This hotel touched on two things that are very interesting to me: 1) how people in large cities experienced leisure in years past, when opportunities for travel were much more limited; and 2) what happens to these large places for leisure when people start to go somewhere else.
Like most Americans, before moving to New York City I only knew of the Poconos from media references, maybe Lucy Ricardo talked to Ricky about going there for the weekend on “I Love Lucy”, or something. But I knew it as a NY summer destination. So there was an odd fascination in seeing this empty shell of a structure on this overgrown lot, thinking about what it might have meant in, say, 1935, when it was thriving. Seeing the overgrown drive up the hill and imagining people being excited for what kinds of adventures they would have on their stay. That sort of thing.
Obviously the first time I saw this abandoned hotel (once had 500 guest rooms, white table dining, ballrooms, all that) I thought “I would really like to go inside.” I share the contemporary obsession with “ruin porn,” and like to see spaces like this that are filled with memories and ghosts.
But there was something else going on this weekend in the Poconos: a guy named Eric Frein, who is apparently some kind of survivalist, shot two state troopers in the area, killing one. Authorities called him a sniper. And now he was in the wind and hiding out somewhere in the mountains, possibly somewhere very close to where we were staying.
It was a little surreal: there were several hundred police combing the woods, they had checkpoints on some roads, and we could hear choppers overhead. On our phones, we received alerts from the national weather service (apparently the platform used for conveying this information) urging people to stay inside, turn on all outdoor lights, and stay away from windows. The latter was especially creepy—stay away from windows because, the police say, there’s a guy out there who might shoot you through them.
I tend to play the numbers when it comes to things like this. The chances of actually encountering this guy seemed quite small. And yet, some of the checkpoints were just a couple of miles from our cabin, and some of the places we tried to go were closed because of the warnings. And there were those helicopters overhead. We could look off the back porch of this cabin and see that, yeah, those woods are pretty thick back there, and a sniper who knew the land and wanted to hide in them could do so pretty easily.
So one morning during this weekend we were standing on the road looking at this hotel, a little ways down from our cabin, and this photograph was taken. And then a pickup track came down the road and stopped. A dog had its head out one window, and leaning out the other was an old man who asked us what we were doing. He pointed out that this was private property. And we said “We’re just looking at this hotel, we rented a cabin down the road.” And he said, “Well, you boys take your pictures and move along. I’m the caretaker of this property, and everyone is supposed to be inside—there’s a killer on the loose!”
So we packed in the car to leave and I said to my friends: We’re in the woods and in the mountains. We’re looking at a very creepy abandoned hotel. If any place on earth is haunted, it’s this hotel. And suddenly a guy who identifies himself as “The Caretaker” pulls up in a truck and tells us to move along because there is a killer on the loose in the area.
So yeah, that happened.
Like many a popcult obsessed contrarian, I have always had an abiding love for the workhorse: the classic Hollywood or modern Hong Kong director putting out five or six films a year, the 60’s Soul label churning out amazing singles on an assembly line, the pulp writer delivering potboiler after potboiler in the face of ridicolous deadlines. People whose work seems all the more valuable because it isn’t dignified with the label of “art”, artists who (on some level) have managed to avoid the perils of preaching to the converted by hiding their messages in mass-produced so called trash culture. And of course the limits of what constitutes “art” and “culture” are always established by the ruling classes. But apart from that, there is also this belief that great artists flourish when limitations are imposed on them; that giving a creative mind some restrictions, like “it has to be 90 minutes long” or “you gotta have a monster in it” or “this must be done by Friday” is a great way to get them to push back, to create truly outstanding work because they know they have to get it done and they will try to make it more than mere product, if only to spite the machine. With creative freedom comes indulgence - and while some artists have managed to create truly outstanding work, there have been plenty more times where I wish there had been someone or something keeping them in line and keeping their personal obsessions from swallowing their work.
The elephant in the room, of course, is that this something has a name: capitalism. And while loving art whose contents and means of production are against your way of thinking is the bread and butter of most popcult obsessed leftists, I’ve grown progressively more wary of being quite as glib in my defense of these systems.
So, superhero comics. A pretty good place to start if you want to tackle these contradictions. Because what drew me to them as a kid, more than the costumes or the battles or the soap opera theatrics, was the sense of a continuity, of these characters continuing to exist in the same universe for decades and decades as countless creative teams gave them new twists and turns and supporting casts grew ever more gigantic. I was already subconciously applying this lens to the Disney comics I had previously been reading, and it’s still a big part of what makes me go back to the genre. Complaints of continuity porn are valid, sure, but as a kid, random references to characters and events that I had never heard of didn’t make these books seem boring or annoying - they just made me excited that there was so much more to learn.
But this kind of universe depends on a business model where the company brand is more important than the individual writers, artists and - most importantly - creators. And how long is the list of individual talents, the people responsible for the actual stories that have brought me so much joy, that this industry has swallowed up and spit out? Jack Kirby, Siegel & Shuster, Bill Finger, Steve Ditko, Gary Friedrich, Steve Gerber, Bill Mantlo, the list goes on and on. And sure, you can justify all of this pain away, if you think that something legal and consensual is automatically also ethical, regardless of what power dynamics are at play. But what happened to Kirby and Gerber and Mantlo and all of them strikes me as very fundamentally wrong regardless of whatever fucking contracts they signed.
These things take their toll, and a company’s output is not unrelated to its relationship with its artists. DC Comic’s dearth of creative voices in the recent past is surely related to its focus on Brand (via company-wide crossovers) over individual artistry; Marvel’s modern renaissance is closely connected to giving individual writers and artists more and more creative freedom (though it should be noted, as Sean Howe points out in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, that most of the company’s heavy hitters also balance their company work with creator-owned properties, where they can let loose with their artistry - sort of a comic book equivalent to the Soderbergh/Linklater model of filmmaking).
The crossover event, almost always written by comittee and featuring all of a company’s characters teaming up to fight some common menace, is emblematic of a company valuing brand over individual acheivement, since it inteferes with every individual title’s timeline and forces creative teams to put their narratives on hold in order to fit in references to whatever cosmic menace the company has dreamt up this time. It has also become one of the most hated elemnts of the modern comics landscape, as far as serious fans are concerned: a lot of whizz bang “nothing will be the same again” marketing with no real juice or substance to it. DC Comic’s self-parodic streak of Crisis events, where it seemed that the universe was being rejigged ever other year, has to be counted as some sort of low point in this regard.
And here’s where individual artistic acheivement comes into play once more: I neither know nor care what Marvel’s Original Sin crossover is about, apart from something about every character finding out something in their past they didn’t know about. Fantastic Four, a title that I still have on my pull list more due to forgetfulness over Matt Fraction no longer writing it, is dealing with this premise in the most hackneyed manner possible, with some guff about the Thing being angry that the Human Torch is actually responsible for an experiment trying to get him back to human failing, a premise so creaky that I feel like I’ve read it a thousand times already, even if it hasn’t appeared in this particular constellation before. Meanwhile, Daredevil, which has been a total delight due to Mark Waid’s assured, humanist writing and Chris Samnees’s spectacular, dynamic art, quickly pulls a switcheroo where the character’s memory is actually false, and then uses this a springboard to introduce Daredevil’s mother, a badass nun turned environmentalist activist.
Would they have introduced that character anyway? Was it something they had to shoehorn into the event, would it have proceeded more organically if they had done so at their own pace? Probably. I don’t have to like the system. But I’ll always tip my hat to those who can play its game well enough to deliver quality work.
‘Germ Free Adolescents’ by X-Ray Spex
Been thinking about Poly Styrene a lot recently for some reason. #punk
I love Comedy Bang Bang, a lot, on some days it is my favourite podcast. And any episode featuring Jessica St.Clair and Lennon Parham is a special treat. But I couldn’t get through this, and I have to ask - is there any sort of local Marina del Rey subculture that Katie and Kimmy Wong are supposed to belong to, that makes their portrayal something more than the straight-up racist garbage that it sounds like?
(Every now and then shit like this happens in the podcasts I consume, and knowing that most of the people I follow in that medium are more or less right on, and that the weekly or in some cases daily grind of podcasting leaves less time for reflection than cinema or literature, I try to be charitable about this stuff, perhaps also in fear of being the jacobin SJW stereotype that I can be easily seen as.)
It took me a while to start up on Are U Talkin’ U2 To Me? because, even though I’ve always enjoyed U2 on a purely aural level, I had also been taught from early childhood that they are A Bad Thing, and even at the height of my embracing of the Classic Rock canon I could never get over their fundamental grossness, so the thought of two comedians I enjoy earnestly dissecting their ouevre was none too appealing. I got on the bandwagon once I realised that 80% of the podcast is just Scott Auckerman and Adam Scott fucking around, but I’ve actually started to appreciate the moments where they’re analysing the albums. It’s interesting to follow career trajectories, even of artists you dislike, and it’s a bit of a nostlagia trip for me to hear names like Rick Rubin and Daniel Lanois tossed about so much, a reminder of the times when I cared about - or at least pretended to care about - modern Rock music. And, you know, I still dig U2 on that purely aesthetic level of epic soundscapes, and I feel like they can be more creative with it than their followers (from Coldplay to Arcade Fire) have ever been.
But I am thrown for a loop whenever either Scott points out a certain lyric as being subpar. It is very confusing to me that two minds as finely attuned to comedy as these two do not realise that there is no such thing as an unembarassing U2 lyric.
Ripper fetishism is the grossest thing about London tourism.
I’ve made this comment elsewhere, but I’ve gradually come to realize that notorious cases don’t so much have anything about the killers in common, as they do an institutional lack of respect for the victims.
Put another way: killers happen. “Serial” is a factor of how much law enforcement gave a shit re: whether these people existed in the first place, and to what extent they eventually start giving a shit.
From Hell cannot be exempted from Ripper fetischism by any strech of the imagination but I do think that, amongst all the masonry and architecture and time travel shenanigans, the main thing I took away from the book was the horrible, dehumanising conditions that the Ripper’s victims were exposed to. A book that combined this with a stronger focus on the woman’s characters - the kind of detail that the “Guardian” article alludes to - could be something really special.
I’m also reminded of Robert Downey Jr’s best scene in Zodiac, where he rants at Gyllenhaal to forget about the killer and move the fuck on with his life. You can sort of spot the scene from a mile away - in a conventional Hollywood film this would be the moment where the protagonist, after many set-backs and seeing no one trusts him, suffers the final indignity of his one and only ally losing faith in him; a perfect prelude for a comeback story where he triumphantly solves the case in spite of everyone’s dismissiveness. But since you know from the get-go that the Zodiac killer ain’t getting caught, Downey’s speech gains a different dimension:
Do you know more people die in the East Bay commute every three months than that idiot ever killed? He offed a few citizens, wrote a few letters, then faded into footnote…
"Yeah", is what I thought to that, and if you start thinking about how little a serial killer matters within the larger picture of crime and murder statistics, you can take that reasoning further and imagine how much of a nothing it is compared to those who are suffering from starvation, poverty, police brutality and other perils that those who do not have the protection of the State are exposed to. But of course those problems aren’t sexy and puzzle-like as a homicidal maniac taunting cops through the phone is, so we fall for it every damn time.
Example #85643678645 of our society valuing individual agency over any sort of structural thinking, I guess.
You know the supposed gaming community keeps crying about why women aren’t liking their favorite hobby. I’ve been playing games since ID was Apogee - the days of Wolfenstein 3D and Commander Keen - but I’m not a ‘gamer’ because I’m a Transwoman. I steadfastly refuse to get on…
The Cinefamily trailer for The Outside Man, a 1972 French thriller set in Los Angeles. Not safe for work-ish.
I like how the first thing in the trailer is ‘As seen in Los Angeles Plays Itself’, since this movie was near the top of the list of stuff I convinced myself I absolutely had to see based solely on its appearance in that documentary. (Second only to The Exiles, actually.)
I tracked a DVD copy of this down when I was going through a phase of researching 70’s French sub-Melville crime thrillers - neither as sociologically nor as aesthetically interesting as what Italy was producing along the same lines during this era, but still a neat little sub-genre to dig into. It was the first time I watched a French film without subtitles; the fact that there is almost no talking in the whole damn thing helped me out a lot. The other flick it was packaged with, a Rififi cash-in from 1962 called Rififi À Tokyo (not as gleefully batshit as that pitch makes it out to be), posed a more considerable challenge.
Anyway, Un Homme Est Mort is great for your existentialist hitman thrills and Long Goodbye/Point Blank LA sunshine noir shots, check it out.