El Camino!

The Breaking Bad movie El Camino debuted last night and it was refreshing to see more of what Jesse Pinkman alone brought to the Vince Gilligan mythos.

In my “reading” (and according to many other people) Jesse was the emotional and pro-social point of empathy in a defensive and calculating fictional world. After Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, moving to a more humane protagonist is a good decision.

This is given dimension by how a plot is typically set up to guide or provoke a character arc. One way to do this is through opposition. Walter White and Saul Goodman have important connections with other people that put them at odds with their negative character arcs….which paradoxically send them on their negative arcs.

Walter starts to cook meth for the benefit of his family and later becomes “the one who knocks”. Saul Goodman / Jimmy McGill turns his life around and gets a law degree to win the approval of his brother and later reconciles his reinvented self with his previous knack for petty crime. Vince Gilligan characters tend to start out enmeshed with others and end being isolated from them. Jesse Pinkman in El Camino experiences this formula from the opposite end.

Jesse is deeply connected to his friends, lovers and mentors and is on a path toward personal freedom while growing more deeply enmeshed with the world around him. I’m pretty sure me and most of the people watching the movie on launch day kept thinking that Jesse should run his ass off and never go back to any place where anyone would find him.

Instead he seeks out the few old connections he could go back to. He even touches base with his parents and the story’s final confrontation involves a welder that was hired by Jesse’s captors. Speaking of Jesse’s captivity, memories of Todd, possibly the member of the Neo-Nazi gang that Jesse despised the most, provide a pivotal plot point. In fact, two of his most important connections whom we know to be dead, Jane Margolis and Walter White, make appearances in rather emotional flashbacks near the end.

Jesse’s film ending with him both alone and more connected also opens the door for the first happy ending I ever saw in a Vince Gilligan story and it’s nicely convincing.

Also, as usual, the Breaking Bad creative team is great at creating a sense of place. Two of my favorite movies (which I still find difficult to watch at times) are Mysterious Skin and Boys Don’t Cry and, as someone who grew up in a low-income area in the early nineties, I was pleasantly surprised by how much those two films would get right with their set design or shooting locations. El Camino doesn’t tug on my nostalgia to the same degree but the Breaking Bad team nonetheless has delicious attention to detail, especially in the end at Kandy’s Welding.

I was watching this with my SO and during the shootout she told me that the welder has a holster that’s not meant to be drawn from quickly. It would have been a lil cooler if they took advantage of that but I liked the ending anyway. Like I said, the happy ending is a very welcome change in the Breaking Bad fictional universe. And it has a cool closing credits song ^^

Halloween Quiz re: Thinking Moon!

1. What is your favourite Halloween Movie?

Thaaat….is a toughie. Both my dad and one of my best friends like to watch Interview With The Vampire on most Halloweens so that instantly earns points. Hellraiser 2 is also a contender.

WAIT WAIT WAIT- there is only one acceptable answer at this point in my life- Over The Garden Wall!!!!!!!!!!!

2. How much do you enjoy Halloween on a scale of 1-10?

10!

3. What is your fondest Halloween memory?

Being in a haunted house for two years in a row with my best friend from high school. During the first year, I was a disemboweled corpse on an operating table and I had to lay in cold wetness all night to keep my organs looking realistically gory. The second year I was Jason and my best friend was Norman Bates in his mother’s dress.

Soooo….I was a mother whose serial killer alter ego was her son and my best friend was a son whose serial killer alter ego was his mother. Some kind of minds think alike, anyway ^^

4. Have you always been a Halloween lover?

Sure have πŸ˜€

5. How do you get into the Halloween spirit?

Just feeling the warmth of the sun combined with some cool breeze really does it for me. I also might drink some pumpkin spice deliciousness and play Silent Hill 2. Or maybe Strawberry Cubes! ❀️

6. What are your favourite Halloween decorations?

Fake body parts!

They also used to high key scare the shit out of me as a kid 0_0

7. What are your favourite Halloween / fall scents?

Petrichor! 😊

I also had this boyfriend a long time ago who smoked and briefly got me into smoking. I quit a long time ago, though. And it was around October. Soo I also associate the smell of menthol cigarettes with Halloween and I rather like it. Call me crazy πŸ˜›

8. Vampires or Zombies?

Vampires, easily

9. What is your weird/odd fear?

The undead have always freaked me out. Which is weird because I’ve been a total vampire fan girl since I was a preteen. But yeah, in media, ghosts and zombies can freak me out.

In real life…hm….the feeling of being watched.

10. What are you going as this Halloween?

Hmm…..either Jenova from Final Fantasy VII or a gender-flipped Riddler πŸ˜ƒ

11. Do you believe in ghosts?

Short answer is yes

Little Samson

Today I was treated to a chance to play a special NES rarity called Little Samson. Why this game didn’t blow up into a franchise is beyond me since it has got to be one of the most well-designed NES games I’ve ever played.

I feel like I should qualify this a little: by “well-designed” I mean neatly designed. Neatness is not the only measure of good design. The early Mega Man games, for example, do not take the time to carefully and systematically flesh-out concepts in a way that lets you easily build on one after another. Sequential concept elaboration is simply a design convention and there are other possible approaches.

As I was playing Little Samson with my significant other (whose video game library is gloriously encyclopedic) I had a thought that captured the nature of this distinction: if you want something with teeth right now, put in Mega Man 3 and start with either the Shadow Man or the Gemini Man stage. And yes, while most Mega Man games have a “rock paper scissors” affinity pattern that usually leaves a rather sequential path to quick victory, you have the choice of starting in one of several different levels.

Most people my age though, who didn’t have the benefit of guides back in the early nineties, relied heavily on trial and error. Which meant you would deduce things in a stage you were in no way prepared for and apply them to the platforming in other stages. Eventually these deductions would get you acclimated enough to the platforming and general level design that the easiest possible stage to beat through platforming alone would become apparent.

A less clunky way of putting this is that Mega Man games typically have non-linear design, which places a greater emphasis on trial and error and deduction. Little Samson, meanwhile, has a linear design.

The teeth come eventually, though. The opening stages are little more than obstacle courses that teach you the rudiments of handling the four player characters. These basically function as a tutorial that shows you the basic uses for each playable character’s specialized abilities.

So rather than confronting you directly with multiple layers of difficulty, like Mega Man, the ways to approach different obstacles are broken down for you in the beginning. It is up to you to determine where and how to use these strategies. Later, when the “real campaign” starts, you will normally find that the following stages will accommodate one of the player characters more than the others. This is the period bracketed between the first and second boss fights.

While the second fight is pretty hard, you may begin to be a little dismayed at what appears to be a flaw in the neatness of the design: the dragon pc will get you most of the way through the first two bosses. Which could tempt you to think that the dragon might be the all-purpose boss-killer.

Boss number three will immediately disabuse you of this, to say nothing of the third stage levels requiring more pc rotation than anything beforehand, with the dragon and the mouse being the most useful for the platforming and the golem being useful for some annoyingly persistent enemies. And for nothing else: the golem can barely platform at all. Then you fight a boss that’s unapproachable for any pc except the mouse with two hit points.

The third stage and the third boss are also a great opportunity to address how original this game looks. In fact, I don’t know of any other NES game that looks quite like it. Your main pc, Little Samson himself, reminds me of the child version of Son Goku from Dragon Ball. The sorcerer in the opening cut-scene also reminded me of Dalton from Chrono Trigger. What do Chrono Trigger and Dragon Ball have in common? Akira Toriyama!

(Now I’m kinda torn…does he look more like Dalton or Piccolo…?)

Turns out, the art was done by someone named Yuko Nakamura, for whom I can find no other credits. Which is unfortunate because there are some delightfully wild style variations.

The figures in the palace at the beginning, with their robes and headdresses, look almost Babylonian. Rather like your Toriyama-esque main character, there are some sprites that have a cutesy chibi vibe, like the bubble-breathing diosaurs. The pink dragon pc also reminds me of Icarus, the dragon Gohan adopted in Dragon Ball Z: The Tree Of Might and the different villainous sorcerers all sort of look like Piccolo. The second boss looks like a cross between a dinosaur and a Giger-style xenomorph. A later boss on transforms into a huge dragon that takes up most of the screen. Later levels have large purple cartoon hands reaching out of the ground along with stone corridors with Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Against any expectation the prior levels and creatures may have furnished, the third stage either looks like an alien planet or some sort of cutesy Mordor. Big’ol starscape in the background with vanishing platforms that either look like chemicals or energy with glowing heads that shoot projectiles. And when the long vertical wall platforms become more common you really tend to rely on the mouse pc.

So you’re doing precise platforming while you’re dodging energy projectiles with a mouse with a standard HP limit of two hits. With the same mouse, you also have to win a boss fight with a sorcerer made of floating demonic skulls with lil bombs like the kind Samus Aran drops with her morph ball. On an alien planet. I did say the teeth come eventually.

Which is another interesting gameplay elaboration. All pcs have different max HP limits. My SO and I were utilizing a quick-save feature that wasn’t in the original game (don’t ask ’cause I ain’t telling :p ). So the quick save may have made this seem like more of a feature than it was meant to be, but I noticed that I was trying to anticipate future pc rotations.

If I noticed that I was relying a lot on the mouse with two HP, for example, I would collect as many HP buffing power-ups as I could so my mouse wouldn’t be a one hit kill. I really started hoarding the HP buffs in stage two when I realized the blue bastard boss fight is best approached with the dragon and therefore needed that pc to have a higher max HP than is standard.

This feature also holds true for other power-ups as well. Every pc has its own unique health bar which means they all need to be healed individually. This calculation is deepened by the fact that you don’t simply lose the pc and keep playing with others when they hit zero: you die if you reach zero in any form. So you need to be thinking of which pc will receive what power-up when you find it.

The music also changes based on what pc you’re using which, at times, can be a lil bit annoying. Which is too bad since the music is pretty good in general.

From the opening tutorials, you learn that the golem, mouse and dragon are the most specialized playable characters with Little Samson being “a jack of all trades, master of nothing”. It’s normal to use Samson early in a stage while you’re assessing which specialization(s) will suit the stage best. Which means you spend a lot of time listening to Samson’s music, and that can be pretty grating. I really prefer a full immersion experience with music and sound and everything happening when it’s supposed to, but while I was playing the third stage I actually muted the game.

That was kind of a disappointing time for that to set in since so many design choices really come together beautifully in the third stage. Not that it’s anything more than an annoyance. If it gets to you that much you can just switch characters. And anyway the final level has its own music regardless of which pc you choose.

Speaking of the last level, Little Samson has a final boss fight that will make you hopelessly dependent on your ability to memorize jumping patterns with the character with the least HP because they happen to deal the most damage (unless you’ve collected buffs). In a few different puzzles and situations you can rotate transformations for alternate dodging and attacking but not this time.

(THIS fucker X_X)

On the other hand. It is also possible to use different characters as meat shields and adroitly switch back to the mouse in time to spam with your morph ball bombs. That’s what my SO did after I spent several minutes fixating on jumping, which actually worked like a dream.

(Then we got a nice lil cliffhanger going on post-credits with this guy flashing on his throne after the four sorcerers wink out of existence)

After we beat the game, my partner showed me a bunch of images to use in this blog as well as some footage of our play through. On one recording we could hear my voice saying “this is simultaneously one of the cutest, weirdest and hardest things I’ve ever played.”

Which is an assessment that I stand by. The difficulty is pitch perfect, it plays fair and it combines a handful of influences from Mega Man to Mario while having a character that’s all it’s own. I remember, when I played the third Mario game, I was in disbelief that it was actually available for the NES- it looked like it should be a SNES game. Little Samson‘s graphics are nearly at the same level of sophistication, especially with cool little gimmicks here and there like rotating sprites. I’m gonna be jonesing on how cool this is for awhile and I’m still surprised that this game didn’t pick up the momentum that it should have (yeah I know it was released just as the SNES was getting off the ground but it’s not fair D: )

It Chapter Two review

Over the weekend I saw It Chapter Two with my significant other and I couldn’t have been more satisfied. Like many of us, I remember the made-for-TV movie starring Tim Curry very fondly but there’s no getting around the fact that it mishandled the novel’s ending. In all fairness, the novel does have famously challenging ending, but the dialogue and animatronics in the early adaptation are just terrible.

While Tim Curry’s performance was truly creepy and convincing and was an undeniable strength, I don’t think Curry could carry the whole weight of the film himself. So as a fan of the book (my favorite King story after The Dark Tower novels) I’m just very happy that there is now an adaptation that treats the source material with reverence while maintaining its own strength as a film.

I realize that not everyone perceives this balance. Negative reviews typically state that the film was too long and packed with too much meandering minutia. I, however, was very pleasantly surprised with the streamlined pacing and editing.

It is a book that regularly moves back and fourth between the events of 1957 and 1984 so, since the two recent films cover the events chronologically in separate halves, a lot of structural re-interpretation is necessary.

One thing that might strike a fan of the novel as odd is that the beginning of the second film feels very much like the earlier chapters of the book with Mike Hanlon making his phone calls to the other Losers.

All of these chapters have somewhat long digressions that paint vivid pictures of the Losers as adults before getting to the phone call and it’s consequences. In It Chapter Two, each one moves very quickly and we find ourselves at the meeting at the Chinese Restaurant in short order. At this point I was actually starting to worry that the film might be awkwardly short, which luckily isn’t true.

A necessary part of these structural changes is that the scenes must serve different structural functions than they did in the novel. In the book, we don’t get the restaurant scene until the middle after we’ve had several very long and dramatic 1957 flashbacks. As a middle chapter featuring the reunion of the main characters, it does the job of tying together several plot lines and giving the reader a sense of overall perspective over the sprawling events that have happened so far.

In It Chapter Two, the restaurant is continuing the introduction of the adult Losers, giving the audience time to get to know them before proceeding with the story proper. As far as the audience is concerned, the adult Losers are new characters they need to be acclimated to.

While we’re on the subject of the restaurant scene, the fortune cookie apparitions were vastly improved over how they were presented in the original novel (this film actually improves on a few different things that King handled awkwardly which we’ll definitely be getting to).

Each cookie has a separate part of a message that the surviving male Losers are struggling to put together while Beverly is becoming frantic listening to them argue. Beverly is actually our affective anchor in this scene- pretty much the viewpoint character. The tension of the hysterical arguing builds quickly and then stops to breathe before the monsters in the broken cookie shells hatch. Absolutely delicious pacing.

This is also our first glimpse of another way in which It Chapter Two improves in its source material: Beverly as an adult is handled far better than in King’s novel.

The uneven way that Beverly is written in the book is particularly annoying to me since she starts off on such a strongly sympathetic and memorable note. Her vulnerability is expressed differently from the other male characters for both overt and understated reasons. Beverly’s personality contrasts with the rest of the Losers in the role her father plays in her fears and anxieties. Most of the Losers’ have fears that are deeply impacted by their parents except, perhaps, Richie (and his dad still seems frazzled from his energy level).

Ben’s mother dismisses his emotional needs by playing to his emotional eating, Eddie’s mother has MΓΌnchausen syndrome and has convinced him that he has imaginary illnesses, Bill’s parents blame him implicitly for the death of his brother and Mike is dogged by his father’s feud with Butch Bowers.

Beverly, meanwhile, has an alcoholic father that works long hours and sexual abuse is implied. She comes and goes from home as she will since her father is often either absent or indisposed.

In modern terms, she’s a latch key kid. So while she lives in fear of her father and his unpredictable violent outbursts, she has nonetheless experienced more independence than the rest of the Losers and is better at spur of the moment decision making.

Perhaps for those two reasons, she has natural chemistry with another Loser of contrasting influences: Richie Tozier. Richie is impulsive to the point of being socially obtuse but is also a compulsive attention seeker. Both Beverly and Richie also seem to have a kind of easy access to solitary autonomy which may come from their respective alienation. This rapport between them is one of the strong, early indications that Richie’s manic sense of humor protects a serious vulnerability of his own.

This shared alienation between Beverly and Richie (largely during the theater scene) is one of the original novel’s most successful moments of subtlety. It’s an exchange that perfectly exemplifies showing and not telling.

Perhaps, since King pulled that off so well early on, he felt compelled to avoid explanations with Beverly as an adult to the point of making her obtusely blank- nearly featureless at times. For whatever reason, King could only write one chapter with adult Beverly doing interesting things on her own initiative and it was her first appearance.

While we’re on this subject, I think It the novel had two big experiments with characterization: Beverly Marsh and Henry Bowers. At least, the characterization of Beverly and Henry is executed differently than nearly all other characters in the book.

I’ve already outlined a few reasons why Beverly stands out from the other Losers during the childhood segments. As an adult, King seems allergic to lucidly pinning down character mechanics with Beverly. Like I said earlier, it’s possible that, since he succeeded so well at showing instead of telling with Richie, Beverly and Ben at the theater, that he became anxious about being too frank. The memory that Beverly has of orgasming at the sight of birds on a power line is particularly obtuse. At the risk of sounding misandrist, it almost seems like something a man would think who believes that female sexuality is fundamentally mysterious and therefore portrays it as a series of non-sequiturs.

Granted, lots of things seem very mysterious on a subjective level, but no other character gets the same explicit attention paid to their budding sexuality that Beverly does (a possible exception being Patrick Hockstetter). When Beverly is an adult, it’s as if Stephen King wanted very badly to get into her head but couldn’t quite pull it off. To me, it looks obtuse, but it’s also very possible that every single nuance is intentional, which is why I singled Beverly out as a glaringly experimental character.

It Chapter Two got rid of the unnecessary ambiguity along with a narratively distracting love triangle between Beverly, Bill and Ben. With a film this plot-heavy, anything that can be streamlined should be and the straightforward romance between Beverly and Ben really worked for the best. A shadow of the love triangle was maintained through Beverly’s mistaken belief that Bill wrote the “January Embers” poem and the kiss at the end of the first movie, but in general Beverly and Ben are the only two members of the romance.

Jessica Chastain also brought a personal magnetism that made her portrayal of Beverly an intuitive point of empathy for the audience along with Bill, Mike and Richie. The script for It Chapter Two also allowed Beverly to maintain her lucid apprehension and independence from childhood.

Streamlining the romance between Beverly and Ben is desirable not just for keeping stray plot threads to a minimum but also because the meandering, unclear portrayal of her sexuality and romantic pulls in the book is weirdly sexist. Or at least weirdly sexualized. Once or twice, novel Beverly will say things like “you were all my boyfriends back then” or something equivalent that is unclear enough to not be taken literally but romantic enough for the possibility to be real.

This seems to allude to the sewer scene at the end- an explanation that barely makes it any less weird than if it had none at all. I also don’t feel like I need to spell out why hyper-sexualizing the one female protagonist is regrettable and slovenly. And then there’s a sexual encounter between Bev and Bill whose plot or character function has never been clear to me. Given how visual the scene was, though, I can only assume it was important to King himself. Not to mention, Beverly’s easy relaxation into the romantic and sexual sharing between the male Losers (*giggle* male Losers) has no consistency with her childhood characterization. All of this is blessedly absent from It Chapter Two.

While Beverly in the novel is an experimental character, she’s an experimental character with rather few risks (to say nothing of that memorable little scene in the sewer). From a trope / narrative standpoint, she has no inherent tendency to rock the boat, but the experiment fails in spite of that.

Henry Bowers, meanwhile, comes with a handful of glaring narrative risks. The first and most obvious of these are his flirtations with becoming a one-dimensional spooky villain. The last time I read It, I remember thinking that he was on thin narrative ice in the scene with the rock fight. Especially when King tries to highlight his growing instability by describing him, as he hangs from a fence he’s climbing, as a “baleful spider”.

In the childhood segments, any sympathy Henry elicits is purely by implication. One may conjecture that he was unlucky and tormented by virtue of having a physically and psychologically dangerous parent, not unlike some of the Losers, but we scarcely see much of that from Henry’s own point of view. As an adult though, we get to see behind Henry’s eyes for the first time.

So far from the bristling menace of the childhood Losers, adult Henry is a terrified, vulnerable patient at the Juniper Hill mental hospital outside of Derry. From Henry’s perspective, we are given an interesting kind of characterization. Henry does not have the same kind of internal dialogues the other characters do: every word formed in the privacy of his own mind is clothed in the voices of others.

At its most abstract and generalized, this happens through the voice of the moon (Pennywise, obviously, but Pennywise can only work with what a mind is ready to offer her). Henry’s self-torturing thoughts happen in the imaginary voices of the Losers. Later, with the magic of Pennywise, Henry encounters an undead version of a childhood friend, Belch Huggins, that was constructed from his imagination.

And none of these imaginary vehicles for his thoughts have a two-way exchange with him: they either berate Henry or give him orders. While he is in a car with Pennywise, disguised as Belch, he starts to wonder if Belch holds him responsible for being left to die as a child. Henry attempts to apologize and the apparition simply turns its head and says “Just drive the fucking car.” This is as close as Henry ever comes to succeeding to “talk” to one or his mental mouth pieces.

Assuming that we often talk to ourselves in ways we are used to being spoken to, this clearly comments on the relationship between Henry’s internal life and how it’s been shaped by others.

While adult Beverly came out better in It Chapter Two than she did in the book, adult Henry rather lost out. Which is unfortunate considering how well-acted he was as a preteen in the first Muschietti It movie. The actor did just fine but the direction and editing just didn’t seem to have a lot of room for him. To the film’s credit, I was truly freaked out when Henry tracked down Eddie. I knew that Eddie survived the encounter in the book but Game Of Thrones has tempered my expectations of the willingness for on-screen adaptations to kill characters who don’t die in the source material.

Luckily, though, good pacing was the only reason to be startled by that scene. Henry Bowers’ involvement in the plot ends shortly afterward when Bill Hader’s Richie Tozier plants an axe in the back of his head as he attacks Mike Hanlon.

Which brings us to another noteworthy point of departure from the book. Like many stories in the haunted village sub genre (Silent Hill, Twin Peaks, ‘Salem’s Lot, etc.) the town itself constitutes a character of sorts.

In It, this was largely conveyed by the Interlude chapters that were written as journal entries and research documents done by Hanlon, with coverage of past visits Pennywise made to Derry. These Interludes gave us the story of the fire at The Black Spot, a World War II era bar for black military personnel. Mike’s father was a private stationed in Derry at the time and was present for it, and fans of The Shining may recognize a younger Dick Hallorann among the survivors. The Interludes also contain a retelling of a shootout prompted by the arrival of the Bradley Gang in the twenties and the explosion of the Kitchener Iron Works decades later.

Essentially, we get to know Mike as a narrator before we see him as a child become the seventh and final Loser. It Chapter Two attempts an inversion of his leader-scholar status by having him appear slightly unbalanced and maybe even dishonest. One narrative function this provides is that Pennywise is able to use Mike’s omission of the dangers of the Ritual Of Chud to drive a wedge between the Losers near the end and add a bit more drama to the final battle.

The way in which Mike learns about the Ritual itself helps streamline the plot somewhat, even if it partook of the wise visionary Native trope. Mike was able to see the arrival of the creature separate from the other Losers and relayed it back to the rest of them as adults. Specifically, to Bill, who later clues everyone else in. This enables the introduction and explanation of this concept to be an exchange between characters rather than just straight explication.

The Ritual itself was also portrayed very effectively: the Losers are separated into different, specialized temporal nightmares that they need to overcome in order to face Pennywise together. This is very good visual language that pins down something from the book that’s would have been nearly impossible to film otherwise.

I would almost go as far as to say that the visual unfolding of the final confrontation with Pennywise does more than supply images for the film to hang its hat on: it is potentially more compelling than what the novel describes. At least, it is more lucid and more accessible. Since the plot revolves around how Pennywise manipulates the fears of the Losers, the approach of desperate personal nightmares puts each character arc and it’s resolution on full display.

Speaking of character arcs, this might be a good time to mention the re-imagining of Richie Tozier.

Speaking purely as a fan of the book, I felt very validated by him being portrayed as gay. And his homosexuality is more than just hinted at in the film.  When we see Richie revisiting the heart he carved at the kissing bridge, it contains R+E, and there’s only one person that E could credibly be referring to.

As a fourteen year old reading the novel for the first time, I gravitated toward that interpretation simply because every character had conventionally heterosexual yearnings except Richie. I began to wonder more about it later since Stephen King seemed to struggle with fleshing out the specific nuts and bolts of the fears within Richie that leave him open to Pennywise.

When five of the Losers speak about Pennywise for the first time in the Barrens, they all share a story except Richie.  In a later flashback, we hear about the Paul Bunyan experience, which seems almost startlingly pedestrian after Eddie’s leper, Mike’s giant bird, Beverly’s bloody sink or Bill’s bloody photo album.  Even Ben’s recollection of the mummy is more interesting than the Paul Bunyan statue.  And it took until nearly half of the book to get to it, as if King knew it was something different but couldn’t quite pin down what.  If there is a commentary track on the DVD of It Chapter Two with Stephen King, I’d be interested to hear about anything he says about the process of creating Richie, although the plainness with which his homosexuality is made clear was probably a decision made by the screenwriter.

So it appears as if Stephen King wrote Richie knowing the way that Pennywise would exploit his fears would be different from the other Losers but wasn’t sure how exactly.  Richie’s mysterious but exceptional qualities continue to be apparent when the final confrontation starts and Richie’s onslaught was the attack that really turned the fight in the Loser’s favor.  Then there’s the easy access to independence as a child that seems to lead to a platonic bond with Beverly on top of the fact that he’s the only male Loser that doesn’t seem to have ordinary heterosexual desires or fantasies.  I’m not saying that homosexuality is the only thing that ties all of these traits together but you gotta admit it would fit the bill.

While I definitely have to cop to being happy over my adolescent fan theory being validated, I can see how this might not be totally welcome, especially since they chose to follow the book with Eddie’s death rather than going all the way with the romance.  And since many of the events of the book were switched around to serve new functions in this film, the murder of Adrian Mellon at the very beginning could prompt some viewers to look for a deeper LGBT thread in the film.  One of the Losers turning out to be LGBT could predictably satisfy that instinct. This was less of an intuitive prompting in the novel since it’s placement there was clearly intended to bookend the timelines with Pennywise’s first appearance in each: it begins with Georgie in 1957 and with Adrian Mellon in 1984.

In the end, this second half of Andre Muschietti’s film adaptation surprised me with how closely it followed the plot of the original book, stood on its own as a film and even improved upon the narrative weaknesses of the source material.  With so many book-to-film adaptations falling flat, something like It Chapter Two is a refreshing reminder of what could be done with the right creative team.

Death & Flamingos by Sopor Aeternus

Last October, I became a huge fan of Sopor Aeternus and The Ensemble of Shadows when a close friend linked me to Sopor Fratrem Mortis Est on YouTube and the playlist continued with A Strange Thing To Say.  So I couldn’t help but be super hyped when Anna Varney-Cantodea released another Sopor album last February.  I read about it some weeks before it was due to be released and I instantly coughed up the fifty-odd dollars for a hardcopy to shipped to me from Germany as soon as it was available.  A lot happened between then and now, though, both with my living situation and (apparently) with the package itself.  After getting forwarded from another place, I finally got my hands on my beautiful, textured hard copy of Death & Flamingos.

I felt nervous about this album at first because this was to be Anna’s first frank step into rock.  Black metal, specifically.  She’s definitely did loud music before.  I mentioned A Strange Thing To Say and I found some more rhythmic, electronica-infused material that was originally supplemental to La Chambre d’Echo (currently available in the huge anthology called Like A Corpse Standing In Desperation).  I’ve also found that I really enjoy drawing while listening to her debut album, Ich Tote Mich, which has the original version of Do You Know My Name, which you might, arguably, compare to lo-fi industrial.  Might.  I also went through a phase of really enjoying Les Fleurs Du Mal, which was a stark departure from most of Sopor’s MO for a few reasons.  It’s definitely a loud album and her lyrics are way more light-hearted, snarky and raunchy than usual.  At the time that I heard it, I would have called it the Sopor album with the most “drag” or camp influence.

I suppose….it still might.  If Les Fleurs Du Mal hasn’t lost that title to Death & Flamingos, then the two albums are closely sharing it.

Not only does Death & Flamingos whole-heartedly embrace electric guitars and rock drumming, but it’s also very snarky and very conversational.  In the liner notes, Anna writes “This album is based on an interview.”  And it definitely shows.  Being the tactile weirdy that I am, as soon as I received this album in the mail I immediately took it out of the shipping box and carefully inspected the booklet, which is itself the CD case (thick card-stock cover, backing and spine, with a disc sleave at the end).  At first glance, the lyrics don’t even read like song lyrics so much as snatches of conversation.

The song Spellbound starts with the words “Ideally…well, obviously” and Kinder Des Teufels starts with “I never had my  tonsils removed”.  One of my favorite points of contrast here is one of the songs that I find particularly re-listenable, Coffin Break.  Opening lines: “I do take offense / I won’t excuse this point today / it’s such a hurtful thing to say”.  It’s instantly (well…almost?) obvious that this is framed as a response to something that was said by someone else earlier.  But it actually flows really well.  The Boy Must Die also has a few lines that sound “stream of consciousness” that actually turn out to flow quite naturally once Anna starts singing.

And I’ll get to the other songs soon enough, but for now, Coffin Break: the subject matter is, in a strict sense, a simple topic that I think a lot of queer people could relate to.  This being the lifelong messaging, both overt and understated, that we are diseased and insane and the lifelong struggle many of us have with it.  Speaking personally, I’ve lived with suicidal ideation as a regular fact of life starting from age thirteen or so until maybe about two years ago.  When a thought pattern sticks with you that long, it wears deep paths in your head and it’s influence can be felt long after the problem goes down in its intensity.  A certain kind of combative self-talk can be tempting for this reason, and sometimes, in the right circumstances, can even be helpful: if the whole natural world is against you and needs you to die, then why not stand your ground and kill everything else?

It’s not the least understandable thing to think if you’re trying to resist a lifetime of conditioning with little to no resources.  And the song Coffin Break is pretty much about that, exactly.  The use of camp is really successful in these lyrics as well.  As with most of the album, there are some really blunt rhymes.  Intentionally blunt, probably, and intentionally contrasting with Anna’s more expected poetric lyric construction: “Why should I put a bullet / in my beautiful head? / why not get rid of the vermin / and kill everyone else instead?!”.  Talking about putting a bullet in her “beautiful head” makes the subject matter approachable through a little bit of camp while also personalizing it: an idiosyncratic word choice that sounds unique to a person lends credence to the “I” in “why should I”.

Anna fleshes out the thought with:

If I had the power,

I would create the quiet earth

I would erase all human life

From this and every other universe.

 

On any given day

I’d push that button most happily…

Then Anna drops her singing voice and says, conversationally: ” ’cause I’m a homosexual.”  I’m sure this could be read very differently, but stuff like this really sells the blunt, memoir-like format of the album to me.  The snarkiness of that tone shift does what many other singers couldn’t do with a guttural metal roar.  The song (to say nothing of the album) is definitely a blood-letting, but this kind of humor enables her to show ownership (or mastery) of her pain while at the same time bluntly validating the whole reason for the internal dialogue.

This effect is also achieved in the first song with singing in it, Kinder Des Teufels, which is a pretty direct telling of a story many fans have heard Anna tell in one context or another: a traumatic and possibly dissociative out of body experience she had as a child while being anaesthetized.

In order to achieve the honesty that quality memoiring demands, one needs to be absolutely at peace with their vulnerability.  It’s best to lead with, not only the most painful thing, but potentially the most discrediting thing.  And the two tend to go together.  Often our most powerful experiences, both agonizing and ecstatic, are things we have a very hard time describing to other people.  And if you pull off the godlike task of describing it, then you’re faced with the more horrifyingly gigantic prospect of legitimizing it.  I hope you weren’t burnt out from all that self-interrogation you did just to be able to open your mouth about this, because we’re only just getting started.

The words that precede our first taste of the chorus seem to address this very anxiety.  After an outline of the surgical out of body experience, she says “I’ll tell you something far more interesting / childhood is a fleeting thing, / but trauma stays”.  She expects not to be taken seriously and uses this as an opportunity to emphasize why it is serious.

While this album is abundantly snarky, it’s not without earnestness.  The song Van Dem Tode Traumen Wir has some superficial sonic resemblances to a few different moments from Mitternacht, which has got to be the perfect opposite-equal to Death & Flamingos, being open and earnest in exact proportion to the combativeness of Death & Flamingos.  Tode Traumen Wir is a simple meditation on how your internal validation of yourself is more real than any outside validation, which moves on to album’s final songs, Death Waltz, Charnel House and Mors Ultima Ratio (to only name the songs that have lyrics).  All of which deal with the more angsty side of cosmic and social indifference.  Death Waltz and Mors Ultima Ratio are particularly tongue-in-cheek and campy about it, though, which is consistent with the album’s use of humor to take ownership of pain and anger.  I also just love that I now own an album that has the line “worms will eat your face” πŸ˜€

All in all, I’m very happy with this album, both on its own and as an elaboration in Anna Varney-Cantodea’s body of work.  Before I got this CD I was regularly listening to POETICA- All Beauty Sleeps, which sets the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe to music, while writing.  POETICA is also a very earnest album, so the difference of this new release hit me particularly hard.  Luckily, though, in a good way πŸ˜‰

Approximations of filmmaking in other mediums

As a prose writer it’s easy for me to get attached to my sandbox mentality.  When you hit your stride with a story, you luxuriate in your solitary ownership of the process so much that it could potentially spoil you for anything that requires any diversification.  Just lately I’ve been skimming the RPG Maker website since I’m way too much of a wuss to actually get a real engine and attempt ground-up game design.

Not that it was ever a terribly good idea to go into game design completely on your own in the first place: in the eighties and nineties, a game we would consider simple by modern standards would be a neck-deep passion project of a small handful of developers.  The fact that the Mortal Kombat games were pioneered for 16-bit arcade cabinets by two people may have been uncommon for the time but by today’s standards it’s almost Herculean.  Being a total Final Fantasy fan girl, I’ve been following the development of the FFVII Remake and the FFVIII Remaster with bated breath and the developers have said repeatedly that video game development is rapidly reaching par with filmmaking as the most expensive and collaborative of art forms.

This specific comparison has been on my mind lately because I recently finished playing through a game called The Space Between that I first found out about thorugh John Wolf’s YouTube channel.  Put simply, The Space Between is completely narrative driven; no puzzles, no combat, no normal video game mechanics of any kind.  Your job is simply to move through the linear story through exploration and dialogue.  In other words, it’s an interactive short film.

In the last few years (going on decades) this has hardly been unique: we’ve all heard of the TellTale Games along with Quantic Dream and Dontnod Entertainment: interactive video game “films” have pretty much blossomed into their own genre (to say nothing of visual novel games).  Most of them, though, typically rely on a combination of polished graphics (whether that’s attempted photo-realism or an emulation of hand-drawn art) and exploiting opportunities to work in more conventional gaming mechanics into the cinematic narrative.  Telltale Games produced two Batman games that use elements of stealth, puzzle-solving and beat’em up combat.  Life Is Strange relies on puzzles and Vampyr is an action-RPG.  These games also typically have ordinary and recognizable situational and narrative cues that give you a pretty clear idea about where things are going.

With films, there are definitely several precedents for auteurs forgoing these expedients:  something like Elias Merhige’s Begotten or David Lynch’s Inland Empire require you to take it in like a painting or a sculpture.  These films are almost purely visual with little to no use of narrative craft.  When I was in college I encountered a helpful way of describing this in an essay by Tania Modleski about cinematic excess.  According to Modleski, cinematic excess is when the visual content overwhelms or outpaces the narrative content.  According to this model of filmmaking as visual art and narrative craft, mainstream film is basically a hybrid medium: stories are largely what people are looking for from a mainstream film, making them a combination of literature and graphic art.  A “pure” film, with no emphasis on literature, would probably be something like Dali’s Andalusian Dog, since it’s a series of images that are held together by a thematic thread but has no frankly expressed story.  Begotten and the films of Kenneth Anger could also be classified as “pure” filmmaking with little to no reliance on literature.

Before I go on, I just want to bottom-line the fact that Modleski’s breakdown is meant to be descriptive and not judgemental: something that uses visual presentation along with a story is, in the most literal sense, a hybrid of literature and graphic art.  Even dramatic writing is a sort of hybrid since, along with its visual presentation, drama and theater often have their own academic and artistic partitions.  A novelist and a playwright are not interchangeable.

The application to video games should be pretty clear: something like Pong or the very first Mario or Donkey Kong games are good examples of “pure” video games.   They have virtually no reliance on story-telling of any kind- all of the content is in the gameplay.  No one who has ever enjoyed those games has ever required narrative context for them to make sense. 

When video games became more mainstream in the late eighties and early nineties, fictional scenarios were implemented more and more to make them conventionally compelling, since stories are something we all have some familiarity with.  It could be argued that this was where the expectation that video games be as “real” as possible emerged.  Since then, the majority of popular video games, like popular films, have been literary hybrids according to the Tania Modleski analysis.  Clearly, Telltale Games, Quantic Dream and Dontnod Entertainment have become specialists in this hybridization, making it even more frank with their cinematic influence (not that they were the first game developers to be seriously influenced by film, obviously).

I’m bringing all this up because it offers a more streamlined way to talk about the use of narrative devices in video games. Specifically where The Space Between is concerned.  If video games have widely adopted literary hybridization with the same success that filmmaking has, then the recent popularity of linear, cinematic video games is a useful point of comparison.  Life Is Strange is a hybrid game and The Space Between is definitely, obviously a hybrid game.  But even between hybrids (and especially between ones influenced by film) there are degrees of specialization and craft convention.

If, for the sake of argument, we designate subgenres like Metroidvania and Soulsborne as the middle of the spectrum (since they often employ a vast, single map, mostly visual storytelling and a narrative pace that hinges on puzzles, combat and other ordinary gaming mechanics) then The Space Between easily lies closer toward the cinematic end of the spectrum. 

Like I said, the story is firmly linear and, as the player, your participation is limited to putting one foot in front of another until the end.  What makes playing this game different from watcing someone else play it is that, from a first person perspective, you have a deeper sense of immersion and participation (although your interactions and relationships are dictated by the script).  You hear things happening around you based on your movements and locations which gives the impression that your actions matter, that you are tapping on one side and something on the other side is tapping back (very literally in some cases).  One of the cooler instances of this involves…snipping sounds.

Lemme back up, and this where we’re gonna go into some spoilers (if you wanna close out of this and experience the game for yourself, I’ll include a download link at the bottom of the entry).  Your player character has had a lifelong relationship with someone named Daniel, apparently going back to childhood.  Potentially.  There are only so many ordinary ways where one ends up in a blanket fort with chairs, talking to someone on the outside.  I guess this doesn’t necessarily have to be in childhood.  It’s a flashback, at any rate.  So Martin (our player character) tells Daniel he doesn’t want him inside with him, but he doesn’t want him to leave either.  He asks him to put his hand on the blanket and Martin touches back.  Martin then asks if he feels his hand or the blanket.  This flashback establishes some basic thematic language and has a few parallel echoes later on.  It’s presented as fundamentally important for Martin but the specific nature of his relationship with Daniel is almost never frankly stated.  Almost.

During another scene that could potentially be a continuation of the flashback, Martin tells Daniel to get a pair of scissors and cut one hole above and another below.  When this flashback(?) ends and we’re back in the present, we’re standing in rows of sheets hung out to dry outside of an apartment building.  As you’re passing through the corridors of sheets you hear one snip.  A little while later you hear another.  After that, you glimpse a sheet with one hole near the top and one near the bottom.  If there was any doubt that was what it sounds like, later on you see a curtain sucked around a human outline with a hole in its face and another between its legs.

Since many of the flashbacks seem to be dropped during conversations with another character named Clara, it’s probable that Martin is actually talking about these events as you, the player, are shown them.  This possibility is emphasized even more later on when the momentum near the end picks up, when he says “Clara don’t do this” when eerie events that resemble his connection to Daniel start happening.  If Clara is doing anything, the only potential reason the player is given is because of what Martin told her.  The fact that the player has been in Martin’s POV during the mid-conversation flashbacks that show his story adds to the sense of participation.  Even after the sections where you are basically forced to sit in Martin’s POV and watch him talk, you are put in very ambiguous and tense situations that will not progress until you go where you have to go to trigger the events.

Essentially, you are shown a visceral vulnerability of the player character that may or may not have been vocalized before, then, following this huge, personal surrender, the protagonist loses all sense of control and safety.  Fear was overcome to let another person in, and then the fear was justified in spades.  You’re not even sure of the exact threat and you will not learn how badly you fucked up until you walk yourself into the worst of it.

Think of the cut-scene in the second Bioharzard game where your awful ending will not happen until you press a button, and you will press the button because you can’t do anything else.  That’s kinda what’s going on.

If The Space Between was a short film, the ending and the momentum that’s built up by Martin’s trust and his subsequent betrayal is where we would get the real payoff of the literary and photographic hybridization.  There is even a word from early twentieth century German film that’s easily applicable to this: expressionism.  Put simply, an expressionist film is set in a vacuum, establishes its own “rules” in the course of its story and needs no context.  David Lynch has probably done more heavy lifting than anyone than updating and localizing German expressionism for America with films like EreaserheadLost Highway and Mulholland Drive.  Those films are not set in a vacuum, but the real world locations that they are set in tend to not inform the internal rules of the “world” any more than a vacuum.  Usually, a psychological or emotional continuity takes priority over a literal one.  All of the visual cues and character decisions make sense, but only if you accept the subjective dominance of one specific character over all others, since the things that have emotional connotations for them will end up controlling everything else.

If The Space Between was a film, the ending is where Martin’s psychological continuity would start replacing the literal continuity in the foreground.  What makes this kind of narrative device different from, say, something like the Pink Floyd film The Wall which is strictly about a character’s internal life, is that The Space Between tries to draw your attention to an objective world that definitely exists but is still invisible.

The game begins with what appears to be a newspaper article about the body of Martin Melanson, a well-known architect, being found in a hollow within a wall.  So we have a definite statement of something happening, but everything else is totally subjective.  David Lynch has done similar things, such as in Lost Highway when Fred Madsen appears to magically change into Pete Dayton while he’s in prison.  Pete is released from prison and the story, through visual cues, seriously begins to look like a separate, parallel event to the Fred Madsen story.  What stops the viewer from firmly deciding that Pete Dayton is in a separate story is that he was followed out of prison and is being surveilled by two FBI agents from the Fred Madsen story.  The presence of the FBI agents are a constant reminder that, no matter how much this looks like a broken continuity, one thing is still chronologically following the other.  Like The Space Between, something is definitely happening in the real world, but the subjective continuity makes it totally invisible.

For film, this is an example of a well-established device that relies completely on the visual cues and the performances of the actors to overwhelm a frankly stated plot.  The plot is overwhelmed with a visual and dramatic continuity that still has a thematic relationship with the plot, even while leaving it behind.

As much as I enjoyed The Space Between, though, I couldn’t help but wonder: what makes this different from an interactive film?  Does its presentation as a video game actually bring any real hybridization, or is this simply a film via video game?

As previously stated, the orientation of the player in Martin’s first person point of view does much to differentiate the experience from that of watching a film.  Dialogue is used often but many of the essential stories told by Martin are shown directly to the player through flashbacks rather than through explication. The next difference may not be a substantial one but The Space Between utilizes the same graphics as early nineties PS1 games which has a few different consequences.

One of them, which is admittedly negotiable, is nostalgia-tinged uncanniness for those of us that grew up with the PS1. It creates the experience of finding something startlingly foreign within something familiar. It also uses some commonplace technological limitations from that era to good effect. Most early PlayStation games used text-based dialogue to save information space and, rather like those very games, The Space Between‘s text dialogue allows the communication between characters to share the foreground with the atmosphere created by the music.

Which is to say, the dialogue happens within a sonic atmosphere rather than interrupting or embodying it like voice acting would. This, both for this game and older games, is a huge gain for the immersion. It’s this immersion that enables the player to be directly in touch with the subjective continuity as it takes over the objective one, making it an effective blending of cinematic trope with classic video game presentation. The first person player experience plays into the success of the expressionist structure.

Now….as cool as I think this game is and as much as I’m enjoying reviewing it, this review was not originally the point of this entry. What I wanted to talk about in the first place were ideas for filmmaking seeping into other mediums. There are a few different reasons for this.

The more selfish ones are, as the opening paragraph states, that I am growing curious about other art forms than the one I’m most accustomed to. So I’m skimming the more, shall we say, vanilla edges of game development. I’ve also had ideas for screenplays that I’ve been seriously excited about in the past but, realistically, filmmaking can be very difficult to get into. Which hasn’t stopped me from roughing out screenplays, but genuine difficulties exist. So perhaps it’s prudent to be aware of other expedients.

Was this what Christoph Frey, the mind behind The Space Between was thinking when he made that game?

I can think of some reasons why it may not have been, such as a wish to simply make an uncanny and dreamlike work of art, but if he was thinking about an alternative to filmmaking, I could hardly blame him. Alejandro Jodorowsky, a renowned filmmaker by any standard, struggled for decades to make a sequel to his 1970 classic El Topo and, recently, has decided that his vision was too pressing to wait any further on the convenience of the film industry. He then turned to an artist he trusted deeply and elected to make the El Topo sequel, called The Sons Of El Topo, into comics. I have read the first hard back English language volume, Cain, and Abel is expected to get a hard back English release later this year.

Being the pragmatic and opportunistic magpie that I am, I always jump at the opportunity to learn more about how my own ideas may benefit from similar adjustments. My recent desire to throw myself into RPG Maker started with a conversation with a friend about making our own video game together. My mind took off but at the time I wasn’t aware how obtainable RPG Maker software is. As I plotted the story out I realized I cared too much about it to let go and so resolved myself to write it as a novel. And then I saw the bad-ass retro SNES and Gameboy-style assets and skins on RPG Maker and now I just don’t know. So the pros and cons of different kinds of artistic hybridization have been on my mind lately, how a story may change from one medium to another. Especially since this particular story of mine is connected to the same world-building project of two different novels I have in the works.

Why not do both the game and the book? Good question, why not indeed. Neil Gaiman did a few different retellings of Neverwhere for different mediums. Butttttt Iiii dunnnoooo…..I like the idea of a creative exchange between different mediums that are all involved in the same project. Such things have their flaws, as the expanded FFXV and Kingdom Hearts universes attest, but…I wanna 😑

And, at least, I think the multi-volume El Topo saga indicates that success might just be obtainable on that front. Several things that had a very specific function in the original film, that worked specifically as cinematic techniques, have been translated to intriguing effect in the comic book continuation.

For example, the cross dressing and the seemingly random fetish imagery. Film, like theater, can get so subjective at times that you wonder if there is meant to be any actual context (I.e. expressionism). El Topo exploited this potential well. The protagonists’ transformation has a lot to do with a female phantom-self, a kind of Jungian anima, that may or may not actually exist. This female reflection is portrayed by an actress but, when she speaks, she has a male voice. Later, in a separate setting, an apparently female character also has a male voice-over when she speaks. Does the female reflection of El Topo exist in the same way that the named characters do? What about the same phenomena appearing casually in a different place?

The comic continuation has made it clear that least some of these things literally exist: male to female cross dressers do, in fact, seem to be common place. Particularly in the clergy. And that El Topo, post-martyrdom, is venerated by Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslims. This could either mean that El Topo has literally synthesized all of these religions into one or that this is a non-literal way of indicating that El Topo is universally revered in the fictional world. It is also now clear that the honey-combs that appeared at El Topos grave were not an illusory symbol but literally appeared as his dying miracle.

Another smaller but cool wrinkle is that the ghost of El Topo and the appearance of his sons are all meticulously drawn to resemble Jodorowsky himself in his performance in the original movie. Cain is identical to the violent pre-apotheosis El Topo and Abel is identical to post-apotheosis El Topo. El Topo’s actual ghost looks simply the way he did at the moment of his death. In the beginning, when El Topo’s final massacre near the end of his life is retold, the artist is very precise is recreating Jodorowsky’s specific facial expressions and it’s freaking beautiful.

The precise nuts and bolts there remain to be seen for English speakers, and my French is a little rusty right now so I don’t know if I’d be up to tackling the older digital versions of the French run. Another thing that has yet to be seen is whether or not the female version of El Topo will be revealed to have a literal existence after El Topo is dead- she was an essential character in the film and I would love to see her again in the comic.

So yeah. I find some of Jodorowsky’s words rather applicable to my current predicament: “There is no failure, only a change of direction”. Closed doors can definitely lead to successes of their own with the right mindset as he himself has made clear.

Link to the Ichio page where Christoph Frey’s The Space Between can be purchased-

https://chrstphfr.itch.io/the-space-between

listening to Spiders From Venus: Indie Women Artists and Female-Fronted Bands Cover David Bowie

Years ago, when I was first hooked by David Bowie, I went on an extensive internet scavenger hunt for any and all known rarities and curiosities, including bootlegs, album outtakes, literally anything I could find.  If I couldn’t obtain a physical or digital copy, I at least had this weird satisfaction knowing that certain stuff existed.  Sooooo inevitably, I learned about a compilation album called Spiders From Venus that consisted entirely of women covering David Bowie.  At the time it seemed potentially interesting but I didn’t dwell on it.

Nearly a decade later (just a few months before now, actually πŸ˜› ) though, I found a YouTube playlist that had every song from Spiders From Venus in sequential order and a little while later I was losing my shit over iTunes not having this in their digital library.  So inevitably I tracked down a hard copy, which I received in the mail yesterday.  I mean, seriously, this stuff should be way more easily obtainable than it is.  I know for a lot of people the very idea of a compilation album of covers of their favorite bands is kind of a gimmicky turn off, but as a die hard Bowie fan, I don’t think there’s a single weak spot anywhere on this disc.  Even though, inevitably, some tracks are more memorable than others.

Pitch Black Dream’s cover of Space Oddity has an ethereal, modern feel which I found welcome, but I also…erm…don’t really care for Space Oddity in general.  It’s like We Will Rock You by Queen or Marilyn Manson’s cover of Sweet Dreams.  It’s so well-known that it’s grating, even to fans.  I’ll totally cop to that being an irrational bias, but that being said, this is a decent cover.

However…The Man Who Sold the World, covered by Bug Funny Music Foundation, is a strong, recent favorite.  I mean, rather like Space Oddity and many other memorable, time-honored classic rock standards, it’s very simple, almost dangerously simple.  Simple ain’t bad, it’s just risky, and the hallmark of a good rock or pop musician is the ability to cultivate depth in a small space.  Because of it’s simplicity, though, Nirvana more or less did everything there was to do with a straight-forward, vanilla cover.  The live versions of the song from Bowie’s mid 90’s tours are atmospheric and ear-catching, but in a way they sacrifice part of the accessibility for the sake of atmosphere.  The Bug Funny cover, though, pulled off the dark science-fictiony atmosphere of the mid 90’s live versions while still keeping the riffy backbone intact.  And I love this woman’s delivery, whoever she is.  The wordless vocalizing at the end perfectly captures what she brings to the song. In general, I can listen to this repeatedly ( and have, since my disc arrived yesterday).

Joe K’s Kid covers Changes, which is one of the most starkly different from the originals.  The lead singer sounds very androgynous, with a slight masculine edge, which is fitting.  The electric guitar and the way the chorus is sung makes it sound quintessentially 90’s.  Like, ’94 alternative.  You know, slow verse fast chorus, like Where Is My Mind, Lithium or Today.

Kooks, covered by Andrea Perry- one of the less memorable songs, tbh.  It’s pleasant, but it doesn’t do much for me other than provide a segue from the 90’s-ish Changes to the whimsical cover of Moonage Daydream by Wendy Ip.  And that one is pretty strong.  It starts off sounding like a piano ballad which is amazing before the rest of the band chimes in.  The piano comes back at the end of the bridge which almost calls back to the fast, slow structure of the Changes cover.  I suppose it’s mostly strong- I feel like, by making it more of a conventional rock song in the middle, Wendy Ip missed out on the chance to do something a bit more daring.

Starman, covered by the May Hart Band, is another one of the better songs from this album.  It’s one of the songs I can listen to almost compulsively.  When I first heard The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars in my senior year of high school, Starman was one of the songs that I didn’t know what to make of.  One opinion I have that many older Bowie fans might take issue with is that I think his three glam rock albums from the early 70’s got better with each release.  Ziggy Stardust was a rough blueprint of what was to follow, Aladdin Sane was a stronger and more imaginative second draft and Diamond Dogs was the fully mature incarnation of Bowie’s glam rock swing.  I don’t know what it is about this cover that I like so much, though.  Maybe the camp is just more lucid in this version, or maybe the camp just sounds more playful.

Shesus covers Hang On To Yourself and it’s great.  I love the more jangly punk bands on this album, especially the ones that cover the glam rock material.  As odd as it sounds, Bowie’s glam rock meshes nicely with punk.  I suppose it’s no accident that Bowie discovered Iggy and The Stooges during an early American tour in support of Aladdin Sane.  The manic energy segues nicely into the more chill cover of Watch That Man by The Fur Ones, which has a softer vocal delivery that adds an intriguing change to the impact of the lyrics.

Yay Zeta Bane!  Covering Cracked Actor!  Freaking love ittt!!!  This is making me want to hear a female punk album covering Bowie’s glam rock material.  Very, very listenable.  I still don’t know what my favorite version of Cracked Actor is.  It’s sort of like All The Young Dudes in that nearly every live version is superior to the studio version (at least the studio version from ’73 or so that they put on Best Of compilations these days).  The Zeta Bane cover is probably in my top three.  The other two are probably from David Live and the soundtrack to the Ziggy Stardust concert film.

The spazzy bouncy happiness continues with Teagan and Sarah’s cover of Rebel Rebel.  The vocal delivery is freaking spot on.  It’s plenty loud and fast enough, but still has this distant quality, it makes me think of like…Screamin’ Jay Hawkins or Alice Cooper with a female singer.

ALL THE YOUNG DUDES!!!  SWITCHBLADE KITTENSSS!!!!!  THIS is the definitive version of All The Young Dudes, as far as I’m concerned!  I mean, that beginning: “You know what I like about living in California?  All the young dudes!” Aaaahhhhhh this song was always meant to be a punk song performed by a woman.  This cover, for me, is pure, auditory crack.

Essra Mohawk’s cover of Golden Years is decent but it’s roughly at the same level as Andrea Perry’s Kooks.  I also get the impression that the lead singer is trying to sound like Bowie.  For all I know, that could be her ordinary singing voice, but it seriously sounds like an imitation of Bowie.  However, it is making me wonder what Essra Mohawk sounds like when they’re doing their own material.

Boys Keep Swinging, covered by Aspyg, is one of the more stark re-imaginings on Spiders From Venus.  It resembles Joe K’s Kid’s cover in how dramatic the differences are.  Based on this example alone, Aspyg sounds like a stripped down, earnest electronica band before that stuff saturated the market with the likes of Owl City a decade later.  I know this song was always meant to be a sarcastic riff on patriarchy which makes it a bit more accessible with a female voice.  I do think the Bowie version was a master class in camp and irony, though.  On it’s original album, Lodger, it also had a nice thematic consistency with other songs like DJ and Repetition.

Next, Astrid Young, daughter of Neil Young, covers Modern Love as a folk ballad, and holy shit if she doesn’t channel her dad.  This one hit me in waves the first time.  First impression I was like “Ooohhhh okay, this is like Johnny Cash covering Hurt, we’re taking an electronic song and making it sound as acoustic and earnest as possible”.  And then, after you’ve been listening for awhile, the slower pace actually let’s both the music and the lyrics breathe a little, which changes the character of the song a lot.  Not that I like the original early 80’s dance song any less, but this is some good stuff.

As The World Falls Down, covered by Ce Ce Zen, EASILY reaches par with the original in my opinion.  When I first heard this I almost wanted to stop it and listen to the Labyrinth soundtrack to make a comparison, and then I realized I didn’t actually want to.  This version of As The World Falls Down and the Switch Blade Kittens’ cover of All The Young Dudes is the kind of shit that makes me want to start my own band just so I can cover these songs myself.

OH GOODY 1.OUTSIDE MATERIAL!  1. Outside is criminally under-rated and for a few years it was actually my favorite Bowie album.  I still think it’s up there.  Anyvay, Lunasect does a delightfully crunchy industrial cover of The Heart’s Filthy Lesson.  Along with Joe K’s Kid’s version of Changes and Aspyg’s cover of Boys Keep Swinging, the mirror of Bowie’s own androgyny is beautifully front and center here.

Oh there’s a second 1. Outside song?  DOPE.  Hallo Spaceboy, covered by First of June.  The piano sections of the original were some of its defining qualities, courtnesy of Mike Garson’s genius.  The dual emphasis on industrial music and acoustic piano is still present in this cover and First of June makes both halves their own.  First of June’s re-imagining of the piano segments are probably the most distinctive quality, though.  Like Wendy Ip’s Moonage Daydream, I feel like this cover could have benefited from a little more risk-taking.

Next we have I’m Afraid Of Americans, covered by Q.  It sounds like something that should be used in a dark science-fiction video game, maybe something with a survival-horror angle.  I get the impression that this would be a fun band to see live.

Last song- Afraid, covered by The Jenn Beast Band.  Very lovely capstone for the CD.  The main deviation from the original is a hazy, lo-fi surf-rock emphasis.  This is another band whose live performances I wonder about.

The fact that the album ends with material from Heathen reminds me of the long gap between 2003 and 2013 when it seemed like everyone had implicitly decided that Bowie was retired.  There was even a biography released in that interim that ended with the author wondering, tentatively, if Bowie was done being a public person.  Then The Next Day was the biggest and best blindside ever.  Which then…leads us into territory that might be better saved for another entry.

So yeah.  Spiders From Vensus is a solid tribute album, well worth the money if you can find it on eBay or Amazon.  I truly don’t see how this flew under everyone’s radar when it was released in 2003.  It might not be everyone’s thing, but if you like Bowie and female-fronted bands, this is absolutely worth a listen.