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Sunday 29 April 2018

Hackerman & Cyberjesus

I don't think my housemate really intended for me to actually watch the films of Neil Breen when she introduced us as a household to him.

Via the medium of this video on Your Movie Sucks - a highly entertaining youtube channel that also introduced me to the monstrosity that is Cool Cat Saves The Kids - she brought us into a world of awful films, all created by and starring the same guy.

I endeavoured to watch them all, and let me share with you the insights that were visited on my brain, like the dreams of a man gripped by a horrible fever.

Four movies. Double Down (2005), I Am Here....Now (2009), Fateful Findings (2013) and Pass Thru (2016). All of them have similarities in thematic, all of them carry a similar overarching message that has little to do with the plot.

A thing that is worth mentioning: all four of these films were very much driven by Neil Breen. In the credits to the most recent two, he playfully lists false companies as providing things such as catering, lighting, sound design etc, then at the end of the credits, states that any company with an N or a B in their name was actually him doing it his damn self. He obviously puts in work on these films - we're not talking the Tim Burton "put my name on it and I'll give you ten million" routine. He's involved at all levels, for better or worse.

That is where the credit that is due runs out.

The four films can be roughly divided into two categories, and those categories are based on the character that Breen plays in them. Double Down and Fateful Findings both feature the personality that we will call Hackerman, and - you guessed it - the other two feature his other personality, Cyberjesus.

Hackerman is slightly different in Double Down and Fateful Findings. In Double Down he is some kind of super-elite special agent who is also a fighter pilot who has won "many medals". Here's a picture of the medals on his weird denim waistcoat:

Whereas in Fateful Findings, he is apparently an author, whose capability as a hacker who has "hacked into more information than ANYONE" comes from some kind of mystery source.

Either way - both of them are privy to a significant amount of secrets, involving corporate and political corruption, the mere knowledge of which is enough to make him a target. Both of them are possessed of a drive, an urge to fix things or make things right, which they manage to do, somehow.

Cyberjesus isn't from here. He has come to see what "The Humans" are up to - and he isn't impressed. In I Am Here....Now, he is first depicted covered in broken bits of computer, then as a caveman zombie, then as just Neil Breen who steals a junkie's clothes - come back to Earth to check up on the mankind that he created. In Pass Thru he is an AI that is projecting back through space and time to look at the human race like a kid in a zoo - who has some very interesting ideas as to how to make the human race not be shitty to each other.

We begin with the writing. As we so often do.

A commonality between Neil Breen and Tommy Wiseau is that they don't seem to...really know how people talk or act. Which is interesting. I don't know if the Breen Machine has the same life experience as Tommy but evidence indicates that neither of them have spent a lot of time hanging out...around people.  They just don't know how humans interact.

Now, being someone that writes scifi and endeavours to be somewhat inclusive in his writing, I am aware of the fallacy of the notion of only writing what you know. In this case, Breen doesn't write what he knows. Apparently he doesn't know anything about what he writes. Nothing at all.

His characters monologue a lot. The sentences they utter are often totally unconnected to the last thing that was said by another character that they are supposedly in conversation with. Their motivations are either a total mystery or so basic that they could be in a children's picture book as supporting cast. There also seems to be a total disconnect between what the character is saying and what they are meant to be feeling.

One unexpected benefit of this whole thing, though, is that his characters can be used to flagrantly tell you what the plot is, and what is happening now. Which is good, because the plot otherwise would be thoroughly impenetrable. I am still not sure strictly what happened in Double Down.

Another commonality: in the first three movies, there is a mystical rock. Usually a cheap doodad that Breen has seen in a store somewhere and thought would make a neat plot maguffin.

In Double Down it's a bit of cheap pyrite, which the main character believes has helped him cure a girl's brain cancer. (We don't know how he knows the girl's family, why he is eating dinner with them, or anything else.) It doesn't work, something we find out in a half-assed one-sided phone conversation later on in the film, and he seems surprised.

In I Am Here....Now, it's a glass paperweight. You know, the round ones with the flat bottom and the bubbles in it. Maybe it was what brought him to earth - it is only seen in the Nevada desert where he "landed", along with his collection of doll's heads. Yes, you read that right. His collection of doll's heads.

In Fateful Findings, it's a smooth black glass-type thing. As a kid, he took it out of a magical mushroom on a magical day. It gives him the ability to walk through things like a ghost, which adds to his already uncanny powers of being Hackerman and also being the writer.

You see, Neil Breen is the writer, and the star. This means that, naturally, he is the subject of significant and positive female attention. I feel bad for any woman that appears in these films. Fifty fifty chance that you will end up in the scrawny chicken-wing arms of Neil Breen, because you are his love interest, or his prostitute friend, or just a nice girl, or the woman he's going to have an affair with, or the victim of a human trafficking ring, or...

Here, we start to see a pattern.

The plots of each of these movies loosely involve the world being a terrible place, and that being the fault of corrupt politicians, businessmen, lawyers and media. You know. Standard fuzzy badness. It's not a unique point of view, or even a rare one. How Breen deals with this fact varies from movie to movie, and appears to involve some things happening to inconsequential people before Breen saves the day through some vague sequence of events.

It's always the same people who need to be schooled, even if the methods change. 2D villains who are clearly street-level gang thugs, and rich people in suits. Credit where it is due, though - these individuals are almost always a spread of race and gender, rather than all of the rich people being white men. Again though, this is where the due credit runs out.

Double Down invokes a terrorist attack masterfully put together (somehow) by the Hackerman with a satellite dish connected to the back of his car and some old broken laptops. This leads to several (near literal) talking heads talking about what happened, talking about how it could have been terrible, and talking about how now they have to change everything.

I Am Here....Now takes a more direct and anti-capitalist bent, painting a street gang with assault weapons hanging out with a group of senators and lawyers like they're all buddies. Cyberjesus fixes capitalism and corrupt government by punishing people directly. When someone is an asshole he makes them go blind and bleed out of their eyes. He crucifies half a dozen people at the end of the movie. Which, according to his own narration, makes mankind better and solves a lot of problems.

Fateful Findings - after navigating its way around personal tragedy, ghost magic and Breen being an adulterous asshole - leads to a memory stick full of the most incriminating evidence ever being THREATENED to be released to the world. This immediately causes half a dozen of the most corrupt and bad people to commit suicide. (There's seven suicides in this movie, including Breen's own wife, while he is off cavorting in the woods with his childhood friend.) This, also, fixes mankind as all the corrupt people have been defeated.

It's Pass Thru that takes a distinct turn to the psychopathic, wherein the friendly visiting future-AI just....kills three hundred million people. All of those people that the AI has determined are harmful. Which is apparently literally everyone with an amount of wealth or power or influence, and also every criminal. Aside from a notable exception, who then shoots two innocents, but we'll let that slip.

Pass Thru is the movie that probably frames Neil Breen's thinking on this in the most direct way. He literally takes over a news network so he can shout his opinions at people. That the human race can be fixed as long as we are honest with each other. That anyone who disagrees needs to be deleted. That there is definitely a cure for cancer that hasn't been circulated. That he has now taken away all the harmful people and so the human race is ready to be saved.

But then, after making all of the human smugglers vanish, he then turns around and shouts at the refugees from various other countries and shouts that they need to "go home and fix their problems" rather than come to (presumably) America. He leaves the ex-husband of the attractive female lead alive, perhaps accidentally - the husband shoots the lead and her niece, tries to shoot Breen and fails and is then forced to shoot himself, just so Breen can bring the lead and her niece back from the dead. They're surprisingly chill with him, despite the fact that he has committed literally the worst mass murder in history. Three HUNDRED MILLION people.

So we're getting into more of this man's head. We're seeing more of the world he creates for himself when he has the ability to do so.

In the two Hackerman movies, he has a childhood friend who was apparently the same age as him, who he loved very much and loved him back. In both movies, the women they grow into are clearly so much younger than him that I can't help but wonder if he has some kind of early-onset aging condition. Maybe that's a tradeoff in being a hacker, he literally traded away his entire twenties and thirties.

He also fixes a bunch of social problems, sometimes just by existing, by standing near people, or by waving his hands. He cures a guy of cancer and being wheelchair-bound - and also apparently of being old, as he is replaced by an actor perhaps a third of his age - in I Am Here....Now.

He has friends, and people who like and respect him. How he knows them isn't ever explored. The dynamic of their relationships - not really a thing that is explored either, or that makes any sense. It's like they are just his friends, now, and they have to deal with that.

And here we get to the nugget of it.

Breen's movies are when he gets to be the him that he wants to be. He gets to act out all his fantasies - of being liked, and loved, and desired, of being a talented and valued man who is also mysterious and respected and feared. Of bringing down an establishment that scares him as much as it confuses him, of ending corruption however complex or nonsensical.

People like him, girls want him, and he gets to save the world.

That is who Neil Breen wants to be, and so whenever he makes a movie - that is who he is.

In a way I sympathise with him. I want to be able to fix the world. I don't want it to be scary and confusing and complicated and many different shades of evil. I want it to be clean-cut and simple, and to always know who the good guy is and who the bad guy is.

Would be nice, wouldn't it?

The best may be yet to come though, because according to IMDB... there will be a new Neil Breen movie this year.

Sheer Breenius.

Sunday 22 April 2018

The Stopwatch

What happens when a creature with a specialised diet loses access to its food of choice?

One must adapt, of course. Which is easier for some creatures than others. Easy for an omnivore to start feeding more on vegetation, for example, than for an insect that relies exclusively on blood to find nutrition in tree sap. It is this specialisation that can lead to an extinction. When crunch time comes around, and blocks start getting knocked out of the food pyramid, survival relies upon the ability to stand upon what's left.

That doesn't really apply to us any more, of course. We've done a lot to ensure that we have quite a wide net to cast out, and if chickens suddenly vanished from the face of the earth, we wouldn't all starve to death. Aside from the chicken farmers, obviously, they'd be pretty fucked - but that's a byproduct of industrialised life, not so much a rarefied diet.

Money, though - money is a rarefied thing.

And there's so many ways of getting money out of us. So many ways of having us make money to be taken.

It's a pretty good setup. People make stuff. The stuff gets sold. People get paid a small percentage of how much the stuff gets sold for. We've talked about this before, through the medium of cake-making. Classic surplus value argument, right?

Here's the thing: there's only so far that model can be pushed before you are paying the people making the stuff absolutely nothing. Which leads to a problem, because a lot of these places are making things that get bought by the kind of people that work at the place in question.

But I may not have to worry about that, right? Because you can afford to pay your people absolutely nothing - OTHER people will come buy your product and keep your business in the black.

As long as everyone else doesn't get the same idea, right?

What happens then? What happens when nobody is being paid a damn thing, but you still need them to buy your products in order for you to survive?


Well, I mean, that's what minimum wage laws and benefit systems are for, surely. To keep people spending even if they don't have a great job and even if their employer wants to make them work for basically nothing.

A lot of businesses claim they can only stay in business if they pay minimum wage and if that ever goes up, they will be in trouble. This makes my eyebrow twitch. But no matter, that isn't my topic for today.

How do you keep people poor as possible while still taking their goods?

You work out new and interesting ways to take their money, ways that they are required to use.

Nestle owns a shit ton of drinking water. Right near Flint Michigan specifically. If you weren't aware, Flint still doesn't have clean drinking water, which is pretty friggin third world if you imagine how much money will be spent watering golf courses across the US in the next week.

You need water, so they buy the water, and they sell it on.

Whenever you move house, or buy a car, or have to sign a piece of paper for basically anything, charges show up. Handling fees. Charges for the company that deems you worthy of helping to help you, before any other charges are taken out of your wallet.

Go over your bank balance? Charges. Then charges on top of those charges.

The US already has a horribly bureaucratic but thoroughly lucrative engine for extricating cash from individuals for medical treatment - even emergency medical treatment. And even the tiny little "luxuries", such as a mother being able to hold her new baby. Money, just bled right out of people that have no choice other than to spend it.

This places a significant percentage of the population of these countries in a situation wherein a single breakdown of income would be literally catastrophic - and after the debt collectors have had their way (another industry built on profiting from apparent necessity), there's no more there to go back into the system. One more individual, one more household that can't buy the products that are sold by the company that laid them off.

How many of those does it take for a system to crash?

Well, interestingly, we already have a model for that. Back in 2008. The amount of sub-prime mortgages that fell through was actually fairly minor, in order to trigger a financial crisis we've been dealing with for a decade.

The stopwatch is ticking. The parasitic nature of the extraction of money from working folks to other folks keeps going, but sooner or later, the host creature is going to collapse.

Long enough to fill some people's pockets, for sure.

Who cares what happens to the rest of us?

Monday 16 April 2018

The Starry Night

Take a look at this painting.

Just...look at it.

Vincent Van Gogh painted it in 1889. It's a view from out of his window at the asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in the south of France - somewhere between Montpelier and Marseilles.

The thing is - it's also kind of not the same view. The church is different, for one thing; in fact the entire town is plucked from the void. It does also bear mention that - at risk of sounding obvious - the night sky just doesn't tend to look like that.

What Vincent was painting, therefore, wasn't just what he was seeing. It was what he was thinking.

We are all familiar with Van Gogh's ear, obviously. The exact circumstances that led to him severing it - either in part or as a whole isn't known - are less well known. It seems to have been the end result of his artistic relationship with Paul Gauguin, leading to an acute mental breakdown. It may sound extreme but - to finally be painting with one of your most respected peers, who ends up treating you like some kind of insolent child... we have all heard the advice of never meeting your heroes.

What followed was months of treatment, and to-and-fro between the yellow house he had shared with Gauguin and the hospital. Vincent suffered from hallucinations, and was known locally as "the red-headed madman" - the citizens of the town had the house shut, and he was forced to stay in hospital.

It was by his own admission that he entered the Saint Paul asylum in May 1889.

Imagine how it must feel to look at the world through eyes coloured by those experiences. To not only be unable to trust one's own mind and senses, but to be ostracised for it. Perhaps, if there had been sufficient support and treatment, his relationship with Gauguin wouldn't have deteriorated to the point of self-mutilation. The understanding of the working of the human mind is incomplete today, let alone 130 years ago; and our treatment of the mentally ill today hasn't necessarily improved very much, even if the science has.

So when we talk about what Vincent was thinking rather than what he was seeing, this is what we mean. All his paintings from this period of his life are distinct - put them together with his other works and even the absolutely uninitiated (like me) could pick them out as being different. The world through the eyes of a man at war with his own mind. Which makes the precision of the turbulence in the air all the more impressive and striking - the painting can be used as a model for fluid dynamics, and nobody is quite sure how.

The eye is drawn all around the piece, too. It never settles. You can stare at a specific detail, but always you are drawn on - across the town, up the cypress, up into the night sky, to the moon,, down to the brightness of Venus (which was actually in the sky at the time), across the sweep of wind and light, and back down to the town.

It doesn't show us what it feels like to be in that state of mind - how frightening, how awful it must be - but something about it echoes that deepest recess inside of us, that shadow within our skull that threatens to obliterate reason and agency. Something about the sweep of the strokes in the sky, the town nestled beneath the light of the moon, the looming cypress, the luminescence of the stars that seems to bleed liquid-like into the porous sky around them.

It's like what is there, but shifted slightly off-kilter.

I don't know if there is any comfort to be drawn from it - that doesn't seem to be what the painting is for - but I, at least, value the piece as a means of stepping outside one's own worldview. A way to see the sky at night as a totally different thing to that which your eyes show you. To demonstrate that not everything runs parallel to your worldview.

I'll see this painting in the canvas, one day. I'll stand in front of it, and I'll see how it looks from that different angle.

Slightly off-kilter.

Sunday 8 April 2018

Down Here

(You should probably be warned: this one is about depression and various other mental health issues. If you aren't in the frame of mind to read it, no offence taken. I've written plenty of blogs that are about something else. Try this one, which is about the Fermi paradox, and where all the aliens are.)

So. Hello again.

People will often talk about how depressed they are, and I can almost guarantee that - unless it is said in jest - the person in question isn't suffering from depression.

I don't mean to gatekeep. It's just such a small word for such a heavy condition.

Heavy. That's a good descriptor.

Something that comes up with fair regularity when I talk to fellow sufferers and survivors is that only the people who have been there - or are still there - can really grasp you, when you talk about the condition. Which I daresay is true of a lot of this really heavy stuff. It's true about a lot of experiences - how do you really convey how it feels to parachute jump to someone that has no frame of reference? So of course it would apply to mental health, to traumatic experiences.

In terms of depression, heavy is a good term, because it makes literally everything feel heavier. The process of achieving anything, pushing for anything, even going anywhere, even doing basic things, just takes that much more effort. You know when people talk about how hard it is to get out of bed in the morning? Imagine that, but it isn't because bed is lovely and cosy and warm. It's because actually galvanising yourself to stand up requires a literal self-pep talk and takes half an hour. Because your door is all the way over there, and everything else is all the way out there, and then you have to deal with this, and that...and it's all so god damned tiring.

I was having difficulty deciding what to write about today - while trying to drag my carcass out of bed - because every topic I half-settled on seemed so big, and so looming, or so trivial and so unimportant. And that was something I had to do after I got up, which in and of itself seemed like a task fit for Hercules (not one of the big ones, just like shovelling the shit out of the Augean stables).

So why not talk about that?

Then I wondered if maybe talking about depression was a bit much for a Sunday lunchtime. Do people really need my perspective on this illness again? Is it something that should be read? Something that deserves reading?

That's what made me decide to do it.

The thing is, with exposure comes understanding. Just like anything else on earth. I can't write about what it is like to run an Olympic marathon, or raise children, or earn a million. This, though - this I can talk about. And the more I and others talk about it, the better others who don't suffer can understand.

It's a neat little encapsulation of an experience; sitting there at the end of my bed, willing myself to move, and knowing now that this very moment is my topic.

That's what it is like.

It's a duality. A split motivation. You know you want to do the thing, you have to do the thing. The thing requires being done. But doing the thing is beyond you and you know it. You want to not have to. You desperately want to not have to even make the decision either way.

A common thing for people with non-diagnosed depression to think about themselves - or be described as by others - is lazy.

It gets used as an invective, as a pejorative. It gets used as a weapon, against ourselves, by others against us. Mostly because people like to believe that mental health is something that can be fixed by well-wishes and just Not Wanting To Be Like That, that way they don't have to worry about it. Which is ridiculous.

The guy missing two legs and one arm - if we expect him to do everything as quickly as someone with a full compliment of limbs, we're frankly mad. How could we think that? It's cruel and idiotic. Likewise, we don't expect the person undergoing heavy chemotherapy to be as full of energy and drive as anyone else. To do so would, again, be cruel and idiotic.

But depression is a mental health issue, so it pretty much gets ignored. It gets equated with people just being a little bit sad, and nobody can understand why being a bit sad can stop you doing anything.

The spread of knowledge, people's grasp of the situation, the illness for what it really is, has greatly improved in recent years. At least, as best I can tell. There is still the stigma, though. How do you talk about it? How do you talk about it to people that don't know? Especially when actually doing so is one of those aforementioned tasks, that seems all the more insurmountable from the bottom of the cliff.

Well, this is what I'm doing about it.

I'm talking about it, for anyone to read if they see fit.

I think, maybe, I ought to talk about it more.

Sure, it's daunting - but I'm not going to let that stop me.

Sunday 1 April 2018

Trash Movies, Terrible Movies, Awful Movies

So as I was trotting through Gosport High Street yesterday with my better half, we come across some DVDs on sale, which leads to a discussion about movies - specifically, about the grades of bad movies.

Now we can all acknowledge that there are movies that are objectively good, right? Like you can't claim the Godfather is a bad film. You just can't. You can dislike it, and that's totally valid - but it isn't by any definition a bad film.

We all want different things out of a film, however. So quite often we can admit that our favourite film ever is not the best film ever made. My favourite film ever is Aliens, followed by Blade Runner, Transformers: The Movie, the original Alien, Donnie Darko, Collateral, When We Were Kings - but out of them, I believe that Blade Runner is the actual best film I have ever seen.

And let's face it - we all like some movies that we have to admit are kind of trash. Commando? Gone In Sixty Seconds (yes, the Nic Cage one)? Any Rambo after the first one? Any Jean Claude Van Damme movie? Top Gun? Pacific Rim?

But then, there are also some movies that are only good because they are trash. Movies like the three scientifically proven worst movies of all time. Of course there are a lot of truly bad movies that are also great to watch because they suck, rather than in defiance of how much they suck - but the difference is that a lot of them were made knowing full well that they sucked.

No, a movie can only be truly horrible if it was made with the honest belief that it isn't horrible. The filmmaker is putting together something that he genuinely believes is good, or at least, worthy of actually being watched, consumed by other human beings as a non-ironic and non-awful piece of media.

Those three movies - Plan Nine From Outer Space, Manos The Hands Of Fate and The Room - were all made with the best intentions, and I love them a little for it.

Like, sure, Ed Wood probably didn't believe that he was going to be the next Eisenstein - but he didn't think he was taking a huge shit on the pages of cinematic history. Tommy Wiseau, though? In his head he was ALREADY the next Eisenstein, and the next James Dean or Marlon Brando to boot. Harold P. Warren made Manos because he was trying to prove to someone - over a coffee shop bet - that he could make a horror movie pretty much by himself.

Now something like Sharknado or Birdemic is awful but the person making it knew it was awful. That's an inescapable fact. You can't watch either of those movies without knowing full well that they were composed by someone effectively making a cinematic equivalent of a Twitter shitpost. They would fit into the trash movies that we enjoy despite them being trash, rather than BECAUSE they are trash. Lets face it, if The Room had any kind of competency applied to it, nobody would watch it.

So, we have trash movies, and we have terrible movies - but there is a third category.

Just as movies can be objectively good, movies can also be objectively bad, as previously discussed - but then, such movies can be bad and also entirely lacking any kind of merit. Any kind of saving grace, such as the unwitting hilarity of sex scenes involving the navels of the poor female star (I'm looking at you, Tommy), or an amazingly homoerotic volleyball scene, or one-liners that are worth watching the criminal misuse of Claymore mines ("Let off some steam, Bennett").

Some movies just...lack those. And those movies are just...bad movies.

Remember The Core?

If you've seen this movie then I bet you just made a face, and that face is the face you make when you think about movies as bad as The Core. It was truly a steaming pile of ass, a coprolithic gathering of moving images that made little sense and lacked any kind of artistic worth.

We can think of a few of those, right?

Like, it is no secret that I see the Bayformers movies as being truly disasterous. In the context of the fact that they came from a relatively rich universe with actual developed characters, the criminals responsible made a shitty series of disaster movies with all the warmth and character of a contact lens. Racist, sexist, lazy bullshit that doesn't look good or sound good.

So. The three categories of bad movie.

We have Trash Movies, which we like despite their being sucky. We have Terrible Movies, which we like because they are sucky. And we have Awful Movies, which we can't like even if we'd want to, because they suck that much.

Now time to start making lists...