Category Archives: fantasy

Mandy (2018)

If you liked Panos Cosmatos’ retro-futurist sci-fi/horror mind trip, Beyond the Black Rainbow, you’ll absolutely love his follow up film, Mandy. Even if you didn’t, Mandy is for you if you want the cinematic equivalent of a Black Sabbath collaboration with Lustmord. Equal parts surrealist Lynchian fever dream and low budget Clive Barkeresque phantasmagoria, Mandy is a heavy metal laden tour de force of postmodern pastiche. Its status as a modern cult classic is guaranteed. When a film features “Starless” by King Crimson over the opening sequence, you know you’re watching a movie that’s swinging for the fences.

Plot wise, Mandy is a fairly straightforward revenge fantasy that’s a grittier arthouse analogue to the gothic industrial urban fantasy portrayed in The Crow. Similar in tone to the foreboding mysticism of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising, the effectiveness of the film lies in Cosmatos’ expert pacing, psychedelic visuals, brooding soundtrack and ever escalating aura of cosmic doom. Like his prior film, Mandy is also loaded with esoteric symbolism.

As Red Miller, Nicolas Cage adds yet another iconic performance to an already eclectic and celebrated body of work. Is it his best? I don’t know, but it’s a supremely entertaining performance and he inhabits it with all of his Cagey charm. As he shared in an interview with Empire Magazine, Cage will go the extra mile to ensure that a performance has the right….spirit. There are at least a couple scenes which belong on a Cage career retrospective highlight reel. Miller is a lumberjack somewhere in what we presume to be the Pacific Northwest who lives a peaceful life of seclusion with his girlfriend, Mandy. In the titular role, Andrea Riseborough channels an equally iconic metalhead chick who is both an accomplished illustrator and avid fantasy novel reader. In her two pivotal scenes, she’s wearing a vintage Mötley Crüe pentagram shirt and Black Sabbath shirt from the Never Say Die period. Like Quentin Tarantino, Cosmatos is both attentive to detail and explicit about his sources of inspiration.

I wonder if Nic Cage is into the occult.

The film contains a lot of occult symbolism, and one of the most significant ideas is revealed during an intimate moment between Red and Mandy. Mandy asks Red to name his favorite planet, and he confesses that Saturn is his favorite. This foreshadows Red’s supernatural rampage to come and casts the overall story arc in a distinctly Gnostic light. Within the Western esoteric tradition, Saturn has a myriad of associations with Yaldabaoth the demiurge, the Lord of Time and Death, the black cube, the devourer of children and the dominion of this world. Even the bedroom in which they sleep resembles a black cube.

Mandy is also reading a book called Seeker of the Serpent’s Eye. It’s a fake book, but it sounds like something that could have been written by Michael Moorcock or Robert E. Howard. As we hear Riseborough’s voice over, the film cuts over to an animated segment that’s a double layered reference to the 1981 classic, Heavy Metal. We see a naked woman who extracts a green orb from the corpse of some fallen creature. The green orb is the Serpent’s Eye, but it’s also a reference to the mysterious Loch-Nar that was the embodiment of all evil in the universe. I suspect this also ties into the reference to the demon Abraxas that will occur later in the film.

Under the crimson primordial sky a wretched warlock reached into the dark embrace. His fist closed around the serpent’s eye, strange and eternal. It glowed from within, strange and eternal.

Miller reads as a Gen X-er who has chosen a simple life over the materialistic rat race that was ushered in by the Reagan administration. As he drives home from a job, we hear Reagan delivering a homily which extols traditional American pieties. Miller promptly switches off the radio. I believe this was meant to be read as a boilerplate rejection of American conservatism and strip mall Christianity, but given how the rest of the film unfolds, I think the film can be interpreted more broadly as Gen X meting out a brutal vengeance against the false utopianism and plastic idealism of the Boomer generation.

Their life is torn asunder when a hippie Jesus freak cult discovers Mandy taking a walk through a normally untraveled country road. As the leader of Children of the New Dawn, Linus Roache’s Jeremiah Sand is a captivating amalgam of Charles Manson, Jim Jones, and David Koresh. Using a perfect combination of slow motion, colored filters, and a doom laden soundscape, Cosmatos imbues this meeting with a menace and dread that you don’t encounter often enough in contemporary horror.

Though they are properly viewed as a representation of cults like the Children of God, the Process Church of the Final Judgment, or the Branch Davidians, Children of the New Dawn will be seen simply as a proxy for all of Christianity for most viewers. For the average person who watches Mandy, they’ll see no distinction between Jeremiah Sand, Pope Francis, Joel Osteen, Billy Graham or John Hagee. At the end of day, the theological distinctions between these individuals may be negligible, but the fact that this film can present such a lurid caricature of Christianity and get away with it says quite a bit about how effectively Hollywood has both hastened and capitalized on the decrepit state of the Christian church in America.

Jeremiah is obsessed with claiming Mandy as a new concubine/disciple so he summons Ned Dennehy’s Brother Swan to his side. “You know what to do,” he says as they exchange a knowing look. Sand asks if he has the Horn of Abraxas and Brother Swan offers a smile of reassurance. He sends Brother Swan on his way and then summons the mind controlled Sister Lucy to his room for ritual abuse.

Brother Swan drives to a clearing in the forest with his dimwitted lackeys in tow. He walks into the field and pulls out what appears to be an ocarina. With a name like the Horn of Abraxas, you expect something like what Tibetan monks play, but the ghostly melody that emanates from the instrument is sufficiently creepy. Up until this scene, Cosmatos has been skirting the edge of reality, but this is the point when it tips over the edge into madness. After Brother Swan admonishes his dimwitted lackeys to shut up and wait, a demonic biker gang that looks like leftovers from the Hellraiser universe emerges from the forest. Astride very loud motorcycles and ATV’S and decked out in infernal, post-apocalyptic bondage gear, you just know some bad shit is going down. Their entrance alone is one of the film’s best scenes and reveals Cosmatos’ visual panache. Upon their arrival, Brother Swan offers a jar filled with a gelatinous substance that’s some kind of highly concentrated LSD paste which will figure prominently in subsequent events.

Mandy is abducted and Red is bound with barbed wire. Before she is brought before Jeremiah, she is dosed with LSD and intentionally stung with some nasty looking giant insect. In a parallel of Beyond the Black Rainbow, Mandy presents a charismatic hippie-esque cult leader who uses drugs to seduce and control his subjects and to artificially enhance his promises salvation and spiritual liberation. I believe both films open a window of insight into experiences and events which shaped Cosmatos’ worldview. Since drug induced mind control is a prominent theme in both films, the question over whether these experiences involved mere observation or his own trauma and emotional distress is an open one.

As she is escorted into their inner sanctum, she’s wearing the 44 jersey we see on Miller in the film’s opening. IMDB claims this is either a reference to Reggie Jackson, Mark Twain or serial killer, David Berkowitz, but I suspect it’s a Crowley reference. In chapter 44 of the Book of Lies, there is a ritual called the Mass of the Phoenix. The ritual calls for the consumption of a “cake of light” which includes bodily fluids. Nothing resembling this cake is eaten, but I suspect Mandy herself is the cake of light. Both Miller and Sand represent two different but pure expressions of the Luciferian ethos of Do What Thou Wilt. This above all else appears to be the film’s overriding message.

Sand is modeled after Manson, and like Manson, Sand is a failed musician who uses music as a method of mind control. In yet another Cosmatos masterstroke, Jeremiah pulls out a vinyl record of his own music which features an original folk prog track called “Amulet of the Weeping Maze” that sounds like an outtake from Jon Anderson’s Olias of Sunhillow. Sand hoped that the drugs and the music would elicit the feelings of ecstatic reverence that it apparently inspired in his flock, but Mandy’s reaction was not the one for which he hoped. For the transgression of humiliating Sand, Mandy is subjected to a horrific execution while Red is forced to watch. Cage channels a level of emotional anguish that’s pretty wrenching.

From this point forward, Mandy takes on a supernatural, post-apocalyptic fantasy horror vibe. The film suggests that the drugs aren’t just tools for mind control, but are a simultaneously a portal into other dimensions, a source of superhuman strength and a conduit for demonic hallucinations. After Sand and his minions leave him in his state of despair and trauma, Miller frees himself from his barbed wire bondage and sets out to exact his revenge. He takes on the quality of a superhuman, Saturnian dark avenger.

Red seeks out the one man who can supply him with the weapons of vengeance he needs, and that man is named Caruthers. He is played with the slow burn gravitas of Bill Duke, and he evinces the steely cool of a man who is completely comfortable with the idea of taking a life. It’s a vibe that one gets from quite a few actors in Hollywood, and it makes you wonder whether or not it’s acting. After acquiring a crossbow from Caruthers, Mandy goes completely batshit as we suddenly find Miller in a metal forge. In what is by far the film’s greatest scene, we are treated to Nicolas Cage in mirrored shades making a battle axe by hand from molten steel. This scene is worth the price of admission all by itself. Besides being an utterly outrageous weapon, it’s also intentionally shaped like the ‘F’ in the Celtic Frost logo. Since Celtic Frost famously featured Giger artwork on their album To Mega Therion, I believe this is another meta-reference to Crowley.

Armed with his mythical Luciferian battle axe, Red ingests the LSD paste and sets out on his quest for retribution. We’re treated to some brutal combat scenes mixed with dollops of black humor. Just when you think the Celtic Frost battle axe couldn’t be topped, Cosmatos scores another victory of sheer excess by giving us a chainsaw duel. After dispatching the demonic bikers and delivering a gruesome comeuppance to Brother Swan, Miller’s bloody trail of corpses finally leads him to the Temple of the Children of the New Dawn.

The Order of the Trapezoid.

The film concludes with the inevitable confrontation between Miller and Sand, but Cosmatos sets it up with a long march through torchlit tunnels and grinding doom fanfare that is completely epic. You’re rooting for Miller, but what Cosmatos is ultimately serving up is just another serving of black hearted negation and nihilism. The Luciferian dark avenger vanquishes the corrupt Jesus cult leader. The penultimate vision of the film is seeing the chapel crucifix burn as the triangular A-frame is engulfed in flames. It’s tempting to think Cosmatos was showing us that the god of the Children of the New Dawn was actually Satan in first place. But I don’t think that’s what he was saying. There’s a vague sense of cosmic justice being delivered, but it mostly feels like he wants to revel in the smug satisfaction of watching his Christian straw man get crushed and burned. There’s nothing wrong with art that’s a descent into the abyss, but when that idea comprises most of the messaging coming out of Hollywood, it feels a tad malevolent and misanthropic. Don’t get me wrong. This film is among the finest of its kind, and if you have any appetite for what Cosmatos is serving, this film is unparalleled.

The author wishes to thank Eddie for offering his deep insight on the symbolism contained in this film.

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Wizards (1977)

I suppose I’m no different from others in that I hold the belief that the pop culture of my youth is vastly superior to today’s. I’m at a point where all I see is an odd mixture of hyper-PC agitprop and a mind numbing conveyor belt of destructathons that are bereft of meaning. Or a combination of both. Admittedly, my elders undoubtedly held the pop culture of my youth in disdain, but I still perceive a sharp contrast between then and now. Among the films for which I reserve a great deal of affection is Ralph Bakshi’s animated sci-fi fantasy epic from 1977, Wizards. In contrast to the sanitized, monolithic preachiness found in the messaging of today’s animation, Wizards is a relic from an era where liberals were trying to transgress the boundaries of cultural norms and it actually felt rebellious. That’s not to say Wizards is devoid of ideological programming, but it is remarkable to observe how yesterday’s radical vision would never see the light of day in today’s climate of supercharged cultural politics.

Wizards is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi/fantasy reimagining of the story of Cain and Abel stripped of its theistic underpinnings. As hard as it tries to conjure its own moral mysticism engaged in an epic clash of good and evil, it retains a nihilistic inertia at its core. Though it is satisfying on its own terms as a work of fantasy, the fact that it is a piece of cultural programming with a presumed youth oriented message requires that we evaluate its merits. When you open your film with a monologue which reengineers Genesis, you’re not exactly making agenda-free entertainment.

The world blew up in a thousand atomic fireballs. The first blast was set off by five terrorists. It took two million years for some of the radioactive clouds to allow some sun in. By then, only a handful of humans survived.

In place of some kind of creation event, Bakshi is giving us mass annihilation while suggesting the concept of eternal return. Man is trapped in a deterministic wheel of time which is marked by an inescapable struggle between the forces of technology and magic. Why bother even trying to make the world a better place if mutual mass destruction is an inevitability? The reference to five terrorists is also an interesting piece of predictive programming because Bakshi is already hinting at the world of independent acts of terrorism we currently inhabit. Whether it’s a reference to a past act of terrorism like the Munich Massacre or the Entebbe incident is an open question.

Two million years after the nuclear armageddon, actual humans remain mutated monsters. In the good lands, the “true ancestors of man”, elves and fairies, resurfaced. As humanity’s primeval ancestors, elves and fairies are apparently good by default simply as a result of their belief in magic and being in tune with nature and shit. At a big celebration, the Eve of this post-apocalyptic ancient future, Delia, is mysteriously drawn back to her home to give birth her immaculately conceived wizard twins. The moral character of Avatar and Blackwolf is apparent right away. Avatar is handsome and sweet and therefore fated to be good. Blackwolf is a surly and mean spirited mutant who apparently has nothing but hatred and malevolence in his heart. There’s no attempt to portray morality as something with an independent metaphysical reality in the divine mind. Instead, it’s simply biological luck of the draw and Blackwolf got the bad hand.

Upon Delia’s death, Avatar and Blackwolf engage in a cataclysmic struggle for global supremacy. Blackwolf is vanquished and is forced to retreat into the radioactive wasteland while Avatar presides over the peaceful land of Montagar. Just like every other piece of sci-fi or fantasy, Bakshi is solely concerned with the struggle for political dominion in this world.

Ensconced at his castle headquarters, Scortch One, Blackwolf begins his preparations for conquest. Using black magic, he summons a high command of demonic generals to lead an army of mutants who are initially enslaved through his Nietzschean will. Whether this period of research and experimentation in Blackwolf’s career of evil is Bakshi’s encoded reference to the alleged Nazi fascination with Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s mystical works is also up for grabs.

He then formed an army whose generals were called up from the black shadows of hell. Souls who waited for untold eternities for a new leader, Blackwolf’s tremendous power enslaved them all to carry out his will.

His armies lacked the motivation and inspiration necessary to carry out mass extermination so he sends his minions out to uncover the lost technology of the pre-apocalyptic world. Not only does he begin to build actual military vehicles and weapons, he harnesses the most powerful weapon of all: mass media. By unearthing the propaganda and iconography of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime, Blackwolf becomes a post-apocalyptic, mutant wizard fascist. Though the usage of technology and media is presented in a one dimensional way, this is arguably the great editorial masterstroke of Wizards. Bakshi himself is imprinting the one absolute moral negative in the postmodern, multicultural, materialist consensus: Nazism. In 2018, the spectre of fascism is perhaps the one and only universally denounced evil for anyone living in a Western country. In the wrong hands, a demagogue can use mass media to awaken the racial and national consciousness of the white race and drive them to commit unspeakable violence against Jews, blacks, Muslims, LGBTQIAPP2 folx, liberals and socialists. No one else is capable of comparable levels of evil though. Especially not communists. What’s less explicit is that Bakshi is using the exact same tools as Blackwolf to promote this very one sided view of evil, propaganda and the abuse of state power.

Analogous to Vaughn Bode’s futuristic killer in name and design, Blackwolf deploys Necron 99 to carry out an assassination against the president of Montagar. Pushing the envelope of the PG rating, Bakshi portrays prostitute fairies working their trade as Necron 99 plods through the streets of occupied territories. On his journey, he takes out hapless elves and fairies simply for their belief in magic. Apparently, only certain elves are willing to take up arms in defense of people and country. After suffering a devastating loss to Blackwolf’s newly propagandized and armed mutant forces and usage of media psy-ops, the elves quickly realize that the generations of peace are imperiled by this rising threat. Bakshi is also giving a voice to the rising tide of environmentalism and eco-consciousness that now comprises one of the pillars of progressive piety.

My children, the only true technology is nature. All the other forms of manmade technology are perversions.The ancient dictators used technology to enslave the masses.

Voiced by Bob Holt and living in one of Ian Miller’s surrealist castles nested amidst the pastoral bliss of Montagar, Avatar has become a curmudgeonly, cigar smoking facsimile of Peter Falk. He is joined by the voluptuous and highly sexualized fairy princess, Elinore. Wearing an impossibly skimpy outfit that has surely triggered an angry gender studies graduate thesis, Elinore is Avatar’s MK Ultra subject training for her initiation into the Masonic Lodge of Montagar. Upon hearing news that Blackwolf’s forces are advancing, Necron 99 guns down the president of Montagar who happens to be dressed like a harlequin. Even in the idyllic paradise of Montagar, the political leader is a clown. Another piece of predictive programming? You decide.

Mirroring an idea that would be duplicated in the Terminator films, Avatar reprograms Necron 99 to be their protector and rechristens him Peace. Avatar, Elinore and elven warrior Weehawk set off to Scortch One in order to save civilization from ruin. Magic is an unalloyed force for good, and it enables those who wield it to reprogram the technology of the bad people who only believe in technology. Or something.

Bakshi’s bleak cynicism reveals itself in the little vignettes of Blackwolf’s goons interspersed throughout the film. In one scene, two of Blackwolf’s soldiers seek the charity of religious leaders to feed their POWs. As they enter the temple, what they discover are relics of pop culture. When they finally enter the sanctuary, they find two priests/rabbis asleep in front of a tapestry of the CBS logo/eye of Horus. Bakshi is essentially telling you that pop culture and media has completely supplanted the role of religion. The two priests/rabbis manage to forestall captivity by invoking the necessity for prayer. They engage in an increasingly absurd pantomime of religious rituals which leaves little doubt over Bakshi’s utter disdain for religion. Their antics lull the soldiers to sleep, and upon awakening, they resolve to move to Plan B to fully secure control of the temple. After signaling to the soldiers outside the temple to initiate Plan B, the temple is blown to smithereens. Take that, religion.

Bakshi’s handling of Blackwolf’s belief in eugenics seems contradictory. He orders his unborn child destroyed because it would be a mutant, but he propagandizes his mutant armies with the belief that they will be the new master race. So either Bakshi is saying he doesn’t really believe what he’s saying to his own armies or that “bad” humans themselves are descendants of Blackwolf. As was originally established, morality is a biological certainty. The theme of mutation has been extended and inverted in recent years. Where Wizards paints it as physical and moral deformation, films like X-Men have elevated mutation to full blown hero status.

Wizards culminates in an epic battle between the remainder of the elven world against Blackwolf’s armies. He combines rotoscoped footage of older war films with an orgy of Frank Frazetta inspired fantasy carnage and death. It’s pretty gruesome for a PG, but it looks cool and it’s yet another example of how Wizards pushed the envelope. While this battle rages, Avatar and Blackwolf face off against one another in what amounts to a rather anticlimactic showdown. Given that the this was framed as a struggle between technology and magic, the manner in which Blackwolf is killed doesn’t make this chasm as irreconcilable as he originally presented it.

Once Blackwolf is vanquished, the armies lose their will to fight and Scortch One collapses and explodes as Weehawk declares that “The world is free!” It’s an idea that would be repeated that same year in a little space opera called Star Wars as well as films too numerous to count. It’s not a proper reflection of our post-national world, but the idea of vanquishing evil and liberating humanity by killing the leader and destroying his stronghold has retained its strength. But remember. It’s only a respite before the next iteration of evil on the eternal wheel of time.

In the end, Bakshi’s final message is summed up in the beautiful but despairing final song, “Only Time Will Tell”. It boils down to little more than Let’s Hope for The Best.

Elinore: [singing “Only Time Will Tell”] Time renews tomorrow. When we’ve used today. It will find the sorrow and wish it all away. Love can play a new tune. On this carousel. It may be tomorrow. But only time will tell. Somewhere in the darkness. There must be a light. Leading us together. Through the misty night. And maybe in the new dawn. We can break the spell. It may be tomorrow. But only time will tell. There can be a new dream. One for us to hold. Made with peace and hope and built upon the old. No one has the answer. To give away or sell. Tomorrow holds the secret. But only time will tell.

Despite its flaws, Wizards retains an appeal that I cannot deny. Whether it’s the psychedelic flanged synth swells, the orchestral battle funk, or the various Ian Miller background illustrations, Wizards still occupies a very special place in my heart. Like the two other sci-fi films from that year, Damnation Alley and Star Wars, Wizards has a vitality that transcends its narrative flaws. It’s both of its time and beyond it. The allure of magic and magicians has only taken deeper root in the public mind as the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises amply attest. But the fear of technological enslavement seems fully abandoned. If anything, the proliferation of transhumanist themed cyberpunk seems to suggest that technology and magic can coexist. I guess it’s just a question of whether or not you think that’s a positive development for civilization.

Schooltree: Heterotopia

When I heard that Lainey Schooltree was composing a rock opera, I could hear my own inner Boromir at the Council of Elrond. It was as though I had just heard the news that the One Ring was to be brought to Mordor.

One does not simply write a prog rock opera, Lainey. The black gates of the music industry are guarded by more than just Orcs. There is evil there that does not sleep. And the great Eye is ever watchful. It is a barren wasteland. Riddled with Arianna Grande and DNCE and Beiber. The very air you breathe is a poisonous fume. Not with ten thousand men could you do this. It is folly!

Never one to back down from an epic musical calling, that’s precisely what she set out to do. Fortunately for us, she succeeded and Heterotopia is the prog rock opera you’ve been waiting for. A project four years in the making, Heterotopia is a sprawling 100-minute epic which earns a place alongside Tommy, The Wall, or any other comparable effort you can name. Yes, it’s that good.

Heterotopia is a sort of metaphysical Hero’s Journey mixed with gothic fantasy. It’s a pomo Alice in Wonderland meets Lord of the Rings by way of Neil Gaiman. It’s a story of a down and out singer named Suzi who is disillusioned with the music industry, but finds her reality shattered when she follows a 100-legged cat down a rabbit hole into an alternate reality called Otherspace. While in Otherspace, she discovers that she has detached from her physical form and may not be able to recover her corporeal self. Worse, Otherspace is slowly being overrun by an encroaching darkness which threatens to enter the physical world and Suzi finds herself faced with an existential choice.

As good as it is, Heterotopia walks a very interesting tightrope. It has a seemingly populist heart, but it’s counterpoised by an overall vibe of gothic gloom. It may be a difficult pill to swallow for those expecting the kind of ecstatic emotional peaks one might reasonably expect from a rock musical. As a work of progressive rock, it’s an unmitigated triumph. Heterotopia is a cornucopia of musical riches for even the most rabid prog head. It has all of prog’s virtues and none of its vices. It has epic melodies, knotty riffs, angular rhythms, squiggly synth lines, dense harmonies, and plenty of odd metered nerdity. There’s also plenty of old fashioned arena sized, fist pumping rockage. None of it feels excessive, and all of it is ultimately subordinate to Schooltree’s impeccable instincts for songcraft. It is short on any kind of extended improvisation, but when the guitar jam and synth freakout finally arrive, it’s some serious lighters-in-the-air shit.

Schooltree’s prog bona fides are unimpeachable. She has clearly done her turntable homework. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is an obvious musical and thematic touchstone, but Schooltree hacks the prog genome and produces a refreshing and satisfying mutation of her own. Heterotopia reaches for the towering heights of Yes, Genesis, Queen, Supertramp and even deeper recesses of the family tree like Klaatu and Gentle Giant. I’m even going to second Jon Davis at Exposé by saying that Heterotopia bears some similarities to early Saga. One also detects the unmistakable DNA signature of Broadway musicals like Into the Woods and Jesus Christ Superstar coursing through its bloodstream. Musicals should be judged on the strength of the vocal storytelling, and Heterotopia doesn’t disappoint. Schooltree has an equal gift for the anthemic hook, the spectral vocal choir, and the spooky incantations of Dreaming-era Kate Bush. The songs are packed with hooks, but Schooltree always manages to subvert your expectations with a clever turn of phrase. The catchiness of the songs is offset by lyrics filled with ghosts, zombies, illusions, and pits of darkness. Schooltree is one of those artists who writes the most beautifully captivating melody or irresistible pop earworm, but when you listen to what she’s saying, the subject matter often belies the emotional tenor of the music.

The drama of Heterotopia centers around Suzi’s quest to reclaim her corporeal self. In order to achieve this, she must confront the fallen queen of Otherspace, Enantiodromia. The mythological surface of the piece is merely a vehicle for some rather morbid existential ruminations over the nature of consciousness, death, and free will. By combining prog, epic fantasy, and abstract philosophy, Heterotopia has certainly sealed a trifecta of high concept artiness. There’s a Nietzsche reference or two to be found amidst the Foucauldian mindfuckery. The central theme seems to revolve around the line between reality versus illusion, and the extent to which the latter shapes the former. Prog has always been a platform for big ideas and epic narratives, and this conjunction of mythic storytelling and philosophical speculation places Heterotopia squarely within the canon of classic prog.

All of which returns us to the unique position this work occupies. Prog enjoyed a cultural moment back in the 70’s and, to a certain extent, the 80’s. Nowadays, progressive rock of this kind caters to a niche audience. The type of prog that Schooltree is offering will doubtless please the faithful, but whether this particular delivery system will move the meter beyond the prog laity remains to be seen. It’s a Hero’s Journey, but the metaphysics are pretty abstract and the tone is very dark. Beneath the patina of mythological fantasy, Suzi’s tale involves what appears to be a standard dramatic arc tracing her fall, redemption, and resurrection, but it remains strangely suspended in a state of perpetual discord. Even when it reaches its conclusion, it sounds triumphant and the music signals resolution, but you’re left with lingering questions. Is this just one giant metaphor for Suzi’s alchemical transformation from the nigredo to the albedo? It’s possible. Suzi’s transformation is obviously meant to be a profound shift, but there’s something slightly underwhelming about it. This is where Heterotopia tilts towards postmodernism. Schooltree herself says that the central idea is that “reality is an illusion”, and this insight is supposedly what liberated Suzi to shape her reality. This is a fairly standard postmodern premise, and it’s an idea that has been explored pretty extensively in every corner of the artistic world for some time.

However, none of these concerns detract from the heroic achievement of this record. There is a level of ambition and flat out artistic brilliance in this work that simply cannot be denied. If this sounds like your thing, buy it now.

China Miéville: Perdido Street Station

If you have a taste for horror, fantasy, science fiction or just some virtuosic off-the-chain weirdness, pick up this book immediately.  Mr. Miéville has described his work as “new weird” and though it’s kind of dumb, I suppose it’ll have to do. What he’s doing feels new and original even if the influences are clearly evident. This is a next level genre mashup.

Squalid, gothic urban hellscape?  Check. Avian, insectoid and cactus humanoids? Yup. Bio-engineered mutants? Uh huh. A ghastly crime lord which would make Lovecraft squirm? Yes. A band of heroes embroiled in a tale of political intrigue trying to stave off apocalyptic doom? Got it. Dream eating moths which defecate psychotropic dung? Of course. Gonzo physics, chemistry, artificial intelligence, magic and some crazy shit about crisis energy? Sure. A dimension hopping spider which spews opaque riddle poems? Covered. Sentient mechagod which animates itself with junk from a scrapyard and speaks through a rotting corpse avatar? Got that too. Enough gruesome carnage to satisfy a rabid gorehound? Oh yeah.

Miéville’s imagination and storytelling gifts are dazzling. Perdido Street Station is overflowing with strange, vividly rendered characters and ideas. It’s the kind of material you could imagine being adapted for Heavy Metal. The cinematic detail Miéville brings to the world of Bas-Lag and New Crobuzon deserves special mention. The city is a character in and of itself and Mr. Miéville has succeeded in creating a fantasy cityscape which is simultaneously grand and squalid. 

Thematically, this book is essentially a meditation on choices and the impact our choices have on others. To a certain degree, it is also about the pursuit of individuality and the price you pay for that pursuit. Mr. Miéville’s politics are hamfisted, naïve, and cartoonish, but I’m not going to withhold my recommendation because it is such a flat out tour de force. Miéville is a self-professed Marxist, and he always manages to find ways to portray entrepreneurs and the pursuit of profit as morally degenerate. It’s dumb and predictable, but his novels are so good, it shouldn’t be a deterrence.

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies (2014)

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Yes, the final trip to Middle Earth is turgid and predictable, but it’s impossible for me to hate on this movie and series too much.

Blockbuster war films are great because they attempt to extract moral lessons when humanity is at its worst. While I commend the considerable effort, Jackson’s tiresome sops to the revolutionary spirit detract from from the traditional mindset that made LOTR click.

The LOTR series is already an anachronism in our age of globalization and multiculturalism. Jackson does indeed place emphasis on biracial love affairs and multicultural cooperation, but the world of Middle Earth is a world of racial and cultural distinction. The various nation states within Middle Earth are very proud of their cultural heritage, and are quite keen on seeing them continue. This entire prequel series was entirely dedicated to the dwarves reclaiming their homeland. Naturally, there is also great deference to elders, tradition, history and authority. In this respect, the LOTR series is deeply conservative.

Jackson exploits this veneration of authority to portray the various acts of defiance as virtuous. These individual acts of defiance occur very selectively and the agenda behind them isn’t difficult to discern. Remember, kids. Despite the fact that the societies of Middle Earth have built a robust heritage and culture over millennia, it’s the spirit of rebellion that wins the day.

Tolkien wrote these races as having rich and distinctive histories. Subsequently, they honor authorities and respect the hierarchical order of their respective monarchies, military leadership and aristocracy. Whether it’s dwarves, elves, orcs, or wizards, all action hinges on the commands of the leaders. The dwarves pay obeisance to Thorin, and the elves exhibit a militaristic discipline and paternalistic authoritarianism. Even Gandalf has some pretty bossy tendencies. The various races of Middle Earth do not make much allowance for the province of individual agency. In contrast to the respectful treatment Jackson gave these societies in the original LOTR, he puts authority in a less charitable light in this film. Obviously, people who hold positions of power can become corrupt, but Jackson seems to be making choices that conform to contemporary sensibilities.

The most libertarian moment comes from Bilbo in the film’s climactic battle. Bilbo insists on warning Thorin of an imminent attack and Gandalf demonstrates an uncharacteristic lack of faith in Bilbo.

Gandalf: It’s out of the question! I won’t allow it!

Bilbo Baggins: I’m not asking you to allow it, Gandalf.

Of course, Bilbo’s defiance ends up helping Thorin so we’re meant to see Gandalf as some shortsighted dolt. But when nearly every piece of pop culture promotes the same message around defying authority, it just turns this into humdrum pablum that blends with everything else.

The film places your sympathies squarely with the dwarves. They are the outsider race in Middle Earth and they’re the wandering Israelites seeking to reclaim their homeland. But they’re not without moral failings either. The film attributes Thorin’s moral lapse to greed. His obsession with Erebor’s existing treasure coupled with his weird obsession over the Arkenstone drove him over the edge. In place of one of the seven deadly sins, the “Dragon’s curse” is the great evil that befalls Thorin Oakenshield. Naturally, this provides an opening to administer a form of quasi-Marxist, crypto-religious preaching.

Thorin’s tightassery with Erebor’s wealth is indeed irrational. Granted, he’s a stubborn bastard who is pissed about the indignities he and his homeboys suffered in their period of exile. Covetousness does indeed have its downside, but flogging the old materialism fallacy is a little too convenient in an age where socialism is regaining purchase in the mind of the youth.

The most interesting stuff comes when it’s time to go to war. Fantasy gets off easy when it comes to rationalizing violence because the bad guys are so obviously bad. The underlying motivations deserve scrutiny because Jackson gets away with a full throated nationalism that would be scorned if seen as just white people. When the chips are down, what does Thorin do to stoke the troops? He invokes the blood connection to Durin and loyalty to the homeland! Erebor über alles, my dudes! Jackson inadvertently makes alt-right dwarves the sympathetic heroes.

The titular battle is actually waged over a contract dispute. Why Thorin didn’t just help the survivors from Laketown after Smaug had decimated the place boggles the imagination. Conversely, Thranduil’s quest for some ancient necklace seems wildly arbitrary yet strangely characteristic for a head of State.

Ironically, the destruction of Laketown brings out the best in the citizenry. The citizens of Laketown were helping one another in the absence of government authority and coordination. FEMA was not necessary. The moral reprobate was the Master of Laketown! He was the greedy fuck who absconded with the town treasury and was solely concerned with saving his own sorry ass.

The interracial love story between Tauriel and Kili felt like a forced and overwrought sop to multiculturalism. Instead of trusting their own individual instincts, they deferred to tradition and suffered. Jackson obviously wants you to see the downside of traditional norms and as a wedge of division.

It’s flawed, but entertaining enough. It suffers by not really having much more to say above and beyond what the LOTR series already said really well. Jackson feels like he’s coasting.

That said, Jackson clearly loves this material and it’s hard to gripe too much about such a towering achievement. It’s hard to imagine that anyone else could have brought this to life with as much vigor and passion.

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