Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Horror, The Horrocks

An Interview With Sarah Horrocks. About Horror.
Tumblrable version here at this link here

From Horrocks' Tumblr
Most critics suck at their job. Few ever take the effort to push themselves past more or less dressed-up versions of "This part worked for me, this part didn't p.s. I went to college" and give you something to chew on even when you totally disagree with them--so I keep track of the good ones. If Dorothy Parker  says something about a play, if David Thomson says something about an actor, if Martin Amis says something about a novel, if Jeff Rients says something about games or if Sarah Horrocks says something about a horror movie, I wanna hear it.

Why here on an RPG blog? Here's why: in DIY D&D we talk about horror all the fucking time--when we talk about how a lot of Old School play turns D&D into a game of sneak-sneak-die, when we talk about atmosphere, when we talk about what and what isn't "across the line" in a game like Lamentations of the Flame Princess, or even when we just talk about how to make shit more metal. 

So it's worth consulting Sarah: she's agile, original, and precise (especially in analyzing how movies look), she avoids cliches while staying bloggily personal and conversational. Read her on a movie you haven't seen and you'll want to see it, read her on a movie you've seen and you'll see new things in it. Getting on with it, here's Horrocks talking horror:

Z: When did you first fall in love with horror movies?

S: It was really late.  I was a scared kid growing up.  I couldn't even watch like the scary episodes of Unsolved Mysteries without having terrible nightmares for months.  I mean I had nightmares without horror's help.  And I sort of carried that fear of horror into my early 20s even.  I started to dabble more into the genre mostly because of how depressed and terrible I felt in those years.  I was just coming out as trans, and was still massively struggling against depression, and I had no money--and against that I just felt numb.  I didn't know what I was going to do.  I mean I was writing then, but my sense was that nobody would ever want to read what I had to say. 

And so it was kind of a thing where it was almost like a self-harm kind of thing, where I wanted to terrorize myself

--I wanted to see how bad I could make it, by just confronting these things which terrified me or disgusted me--I mean I passed out in kindergarten on a trip to the hospital when they showed us how they took blood using a puppet.  

But I could just imagine the blood coming out of that puppet and what it would be like to have my own blood drained--so I mean, scared and weak stomached--and so at first horror was chasing this dark rush.  It's probably like that for other people, but when they're kids. To go through that as a young adult is weird.  

So I mean a large reason why I watched all of these movies was because in my comics, I know what I want to make, and I know that the stories I have to tell are horror stories--but I don't have the language for it, and by just spamming so many films at once into my brain, it would allow me to better articulate some of the horrors I feel day to day.  Plus, I mean there are so many great horror films that are a part of everyone else's lives, that I'd never seen...I felt left out!  I want to talk about Hellraiser 2, too, you know.
From Horrock's comic "Hecate Snake Diaries"
Z: So for a while there you were watching a gory horror film every day--did you find out anything that, overall, was true about horror?

S: Well I think moreso than most other genres, Horror is mostly the cycling of modes that the audience is familiar with going in--and because the modes are familiar, it produces a kind of hypnosis, whereby the details within those modes are more important.  Horror is a genre entirely of the details.  Which has I think made it very ill-suited to modern audiences which only care about how the plot comes together. So like in Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage--there's a killer on the loose, the detective of sorts, tries to figure out who it is, and how to stop them, yada yada--but what's important is that opening scene with the art gallery with the big windows and Tony Musantes trapped between doors witnessing the murder, as we watch him watch a girl bleed out. 
So much about the best horror is about the hypnosis of having you leave a wider context and live in as close to a singular moment as possible. 
And unlike many other genres, horror will happily be nonsensical to hit that spot.  Someone like Argento happily works in a dream logic that is hinged entirely on the sensations of a particular segment.  

Past that, I think horror is more rich than any other field in terms of women's studies.  This is one of the few genres where women are usually the focal point.  For a variety of interesting reasons--but I mean, all these nerds are trying to get a Black Widow movie--but that's never going to be as empowering as Ripley in Alien.  The final girl concept in general is a really enjoyable way to approach these films.  I mean so many issues of harassment, and space and agency get hit up in horror so directly--and there's a lot more empowering figures in these films than like noir or superhero or romance genres.  So I thought that was interesting.

Z: Here's something you said that I love:
"There is a relationship between horror and the things that make us happy in this life that I think culturally we are unable to appreciate...when we deny horror's role we end up with lying sack of shit art that contains no truth to it"
…I was wondering if you could expand on how you see horror as a kind of "responsible" art form, with something to say.

S: Well for me the only thing that's really interesting to me in life is beauty or more directly the sublime.  I say this because I think that the sublime is an aspect of death, and the awe that we feel in it's presence is the terrible processes of time and how it pulls all of the moments that make up our experience farther and farther away from us--and that the process of living requires a desire for beauty in some form in order to justify itself--but if we see that beauty as attached to an idea that exists outside of time, outside of life--and actually as an aspect of the end of our continuous experience--then we understand that it is the one singular experience in life, and everything is just it's shade.  And so I look for ways to find these sort of imperfect temporal occurrences of beauty in symbols.

I think I probably need to expand slightly what I mean when I say beauty is death, and then once I do that it will make more sense why horror is important.  So what is the experience of beholding beauty?  It is fundamentally the experience of our own deficits.  Our own mortality.  Our own imperfections.  It is something that is beyond our scope and makes us feel small and dying in it's presence.  It calls attention to the horror of the passing of our time around us.  When you see beauty as the sublime, it's the sensation of losing your breath.  I've heard before, the idea of death represented as a entity like you see death and death is so beautiful that you can't help but accept it.  Whether that's a light that you follow, or whether it's a beautiful form with an infinity of unfolding eyes--that experience outside of life is what informs beauty.

I think even though functionally the way we are using beauty culturally is to scare people into spending money, the presentation is generally as an affirmation of life, which I don't think is correct. 
There is an underlying horror to all representations of beauty.  Beauty causes hate.  Enmity.  Jealousy.
We warp the bodies of ourselves and the world around us and do horrible horrible things because of it.  And in fact, many of our standards of beauty are built upon famine, torture, and exploitation.

So I think this is where the value of horror comes in because it reminds us of death's place in beauty.  And the times when that horror has been most fully accepted--that our lives such that they are are build upon the terrorism of the experiences of others around us--these are also the times when art has been most potent.  The most prominent example in American culture of this is 1970s American cinema which I think most would freely hold without too much contention, as the apex of our film culture.

But what was that built upon?  It was built upon the crashed idealism of the 60s, the dead bodies of King, the Kennedy Brothers, the re-election of Nixon, the Vietnam meat factory, Watergate--our crimes had become impossible to ignore, and our cinema reflected that. 

And was better for it.  Because it was the closest thing to expressing the truth of any moment which is it's attachment to an attendant horror.  Sometimes quite directly.  I think that horror is the most exciting way to attack this kind of thing as well--because with horror we can transgress and be terrible--now where Horror starts to fail is when those transgressions have no weight.  But fundamentally, horror is the ritualized symbols through which we can debase ourselves enough to sometimes peak at really rich veins of the sublime.  I mean any genre can have it's possibilities--but I find with horror the probability of seeing something and being shaken in some way, is much higher.  The number of sort of one hit wonders in horror kind of attests to this.  Pascal Laugier can only make Martyrs and films which aren't Martyrs.


Z: So what's good about beauty? Or is beauty just like: full of bad things but basically just a peak experience in and of itself so, without those peak experiences: why live? Can we make a "sugar-free dessert"? Beauty that's harmless? Is that a good idea?
S: Everything is good about beauty.  I don't think it's the dessert, I think it's the main course, in encapsulates the most we can aspire to experience both from within and from without, in life--because it is death.  There's nothing harmless about it.  Even in it's most neutered form. The question is more how can we craft beauty, or replicate beauty--or what are the conditions that are most useful for it to be called into being.  So like a soap commercial with a "beautiful" face, how that works is by creating a gap between how you feel, and what is being presented to you with beauty--the fear of your lack in this presence--and of the attendant deterioration of beauty through time, is enough to induce the kind of panic that may make you part with a few dollars.  But that's a pretty low form, because it is so sanitized.  In a soap commercial, the form that is being presented as beauty has been market tested to appeal to the lowest common denominator, and has been scrubbed of any and all danger--it's barely beauty at all because of this.  Beauty in it's full bloom is terrifying.  It doesn't just induce a clutching of one's wallet--but your heart and breath can actually stop--you think about Stendhal syndrome, and those kinds of reactions to beauty--or congregations in a church who start speaking in tongues--that's closer to beauty in it's actual manifestation.  When we make beauty safe and controlled I think life gets a little more stupid.

Z: Is catharsis basically what we're talking about here? How does catharsis work?
S: I think the best horror films, what's great about them is that they don't give you catharsis.  The end of Wake in Fright just makes you want to saw your head off.  Horror works obviously with repression, like catharsis does--but at it's best, it's catharsis without release.  In Simon Rumley's The Living and the Dead, it just keeps getting worse and worse, and nothing ever gets better.  You just watch this family disintegrate humiliatingly, horribly, violently under the weight of mental illness, and economic ruin until there's nothing left.

To come out of a horror film and feel that life is more bleak, and that there is no comfort for us in the end--it's pretty great.

I do think in the slasher film genre there is catharsis, but it's because that genre is also so phallic.  You're kind of coming in with the idea that it will be this buildup, and then the girl will get off.  Weirdly the killer's sexual attention is largely thwarted in the end, he never gets release--but the audience by seeing the final girl escape, gets their relief.  At least until the sequel.

But not all horror falls into that category.  I don't think for instance that Trouble Every Day is cathartic.  Maybe In My Skin is cathartic?  It depends on whether you view self-cannibalization with the same self-actualization as the protagonist of the film. 

I think the high point of horror is probably before the relief from terror, if there is any--where the story is at it's bleakest, darkest peak--it can kind of float in that space for a moment---and that's the spot you'd like to live in forever as an audience--even if it is completely awful.
Z: Is that sort of moment like the semi-catharsis of waking from a nightmare and realizing it was just
a nightmare?


S: Of course, but oftentimes this convention is subverted.  In Nightmare on Elm Street, they always think they're awake and safe and Freddy's gone, but there's always that last bit where Freddy's like "nah, not going anywhere".  Don Coscarelli's Phantasm and Phantasm II play with that as well.  "It's only a dream"  Except in a horror film, it's oftentimes not.  

I think horror is on some level intrinsically about the notion that there is in the end no relief.  


Maybe the killer is killed like in Fulci's Don't Torture a Duckling--but the system, which is the real one creating the evil that is killing these children, is alive and well, and will continue to perpetuate.  Even when it's not a system, the slasher film from the get is set up with the killer just going away to jail.  Norman Bates wasn't dead at the end of Psycho.  At the end of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Leatherface and crew are still THERE.  Still waiting.  There is no relief, and I think that extrapolates out to a more realistic way to view the world, because we'd like to think, okay Hitler is dead, evil is gone--but Pol Pot comes around, Pinochet is making bodies disappear in a Chilean desert.  Murder continues to happen.  Molestation.  The rules of torture are rewritten for the sensibilities of our latest horrible incarnation.  This is an aspect of how our lives function.  Even something as seemingly innocuous as a Coca-Cola comes with a body count.  I mean the makeup that made so many women match the standards men created for them, was based on the experimentation and torture of animals.  Maybe capitalism has made the veneer of these transactions more palatable--but everything is still attached to an attendant horror, and it's only through feeling that horror in it's full weight that we can even approach the kind of truth that creates lasting beauty.  I mean like you said, what even is catharsis?  It seems like it's just one breath drawn among a lot of others.
Z: Do you think there's a difference between people who Don't Want To Be Reminded
of horrible things in their entertainment and people who Do Want To Be Reminded?

S: Just focus and how they are kind of oriented for whatever reason.  I mean some people stay through the credits of movies to see who all worked on the thing and out of respect, some people stay through the credits to see Howard the Duck.  I don't think one way is better or worse than the other.  Good and terrible people on all sides of it.

Z: You've talked a little about metaphors for your (or a?) trans- experience in horror movies--can you go into that a little?

S: Well as I said, even getting into horror movies at the age I did, I think came a lot from the attendant pressures and alienation that comes from being trans in a culture without a clear seat for that at the table.  But I think more precisely, it made relating to the "monsters" of these films much easier.  Or even if not relate--at least pursue a more well rounded understanding of the contexts around which they have been created.  Which I don't think is a wholly trans-thing because I think that general thing is what draws a lot of people who feel ostracized from society to monsters.  But I do think that horror films become infinitely more compelling the more malleable you are with your sympathies. 


I also think in terms of a transwoman's experience, that--I mean there's a big cliff you drop off when you stop presenting yourself as male in this culture--

things get a lot scarier and the space changes quite a bit, and that's without even adding into it the trans side of it, which ups the danger even more--but so fears about men's propriety and violent need to control my body, kind of get this really ramped up presentation that I think maybe makes those themes even more vibrant.

I've often thought that a lot of transphobia actually has it's roots in misogyny in general, and that if that were cured (which I doubt it ever will), then transphobia would follow suit.  A lot of the freaked-outedness about trans people is usually about transwomen, and it's the same way that a lot of homophobia is about gay men--fundamentally what you are talking about is the fear that straight cisgender men have of losing what they see as their masculinity, and being subject to the same terrors that they on some subconscious level must understand they perpetuate on a daily basis. I mean think of how many murders of transwomen have as their starting point, a straight cis-male who is attracted to a transwoman, but because of how masculinity is constructed--that attraction undermines core parts of his identity, and that undermining drives him to crazy fucked up violence.  But he didn't himself put that idea of masculinity there.  It was every man he met, and ever man they met, farther and farther back through history.  Until the idea of masculinity can be rewritten within the culture in a meaningful way, dark shadowy streets are going to feel like they always have a killer lurking in them. One of the great things about a film like Ms. 45 is Zoe Lund as part of her revenge for being raped--just refuses to stay in the safe spaces that are set up for women.  She goes into all of these spaces where women are occluded, and just starts lighting dudes up.
Beyond all of this, the body horror side of horror is also really palatable to me, because first being trans there's this horror of this wretched form and body, which is kind of this constant obstruction to my ability to express myself societally, and then past that, there's the body horror of being a woman and all of the insane impossible standards your body is constantly judged short of.  Anything good about your body is always eclipsed by the things which aren't.  So a film like In My Skin by Marina De Van is truly beautiful because it is fundamentally about this feeling of alienation within your own skin, and the struggle not per se to morph one's body into something else--but to come to an understanding and an appreciation of yourself within the skin you live in. 


There's this wonderful moment in that movie where she contorts herself in front of a mirror--she's covered in blood and viscera, and this contortion is really this strange violent angle that we see only through a mirror--but fucccck if that's not my everyday. 

The lies of the mirror and how our perceptions are unreal.  Like I can't look into a mirror to see myself for more than a few seconds.  I have to see myself as a stranger in the mirror in order to be able to like...get out of the house.  So like you know when you just glance quickly into a mirror, and that slight lag while your brain links the image you are seeing to your identity--that's how the rest of the world sees you.  But the longer you look at a mirror, particularly if you have any kind of body dysmorphic issues--you can watch--I can watch myself change shape in the mirror--I start to focus on all of the areas about my face or body that make me feel insecure, and those parts grow and become more prominent--so even though the mirror is the same mirror as it was to start, by the end, the image is not.  Weirdly photographs don't seem as prone to this problem.  I can see a photograph of myself, and there's enough of a distance there that I can believe it.  Even if I know intrinsically that photographs are just the editing of the photographer--and if they pick this photo of you vs. another, it's one thing vs. another.  Each image is a different you.  Which is really strange.

But yeah, these are the horrors of being trans.  I think that they parallel so much struggles cisgender women have shows that they are probably caused in most of their totality, from the discomfort culture induces in us, and the fact that for instance if you are trans, your safety is dependent upon how you scale up or down from notions of cisgender women's beauty--if you look too good, you'll get attention from men who might not know your gender history, and because of that might react violently--if you don't look good enough, you might freak everyone out and also get hit up.  It's a sincere mindfuck.  But it wouldn't be QUITE as bad if there were accepted ideas of trans-beauty within the culture--but we'd have to expand our ideas of beauty, and there's no money in that right now(maybe ever).  The big money is in the tabloid freakiness of transwomen, so thus and thus.  Which is something you see unfortunately in films like Silence of the Lambs and Dressed to Kill--which are excellent--but rely upon this freakishness to unsettle their audiences.  I man even Psycho, Norman dressed up as his mother *shocking*.  You could make a case that the slasher killer has at his roots coding for transphobia.  Thank god Michael Myers came along.


 You know Silence of the Lambs probably set me coming out back at least 10 years.  I was mortified back then that that's what I would be. 

It's embarrassing to admit now, because now I don't really give very much of a fuck.  But I've talked to other transwomen about Buffalo Bill, and they've said the same sorts of things.  How crazy is that?  That's one powerful monster.  This is where I remind people that transwomen are way more likely to be the victims of violence than perpetuate it.

Z: Can you go  a little more into why you find these horror movie women more empowering than women in other genres? Is it about surviving (or at least facing) a sort of totally inimical world?

S: I mean, it's some of that.  Getting pushed to your limits, to the point of hysteria, but still surviving--that you've taken this huge weight of the world on you, and like Marilyn Burns in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, you're covered in blood and screaming and laughing--but you've somehow come out on top.  I don't think other genres allow women to be strong, tough, and vulnerable in this way. And I mean there's just way more movies in the horror genre where the perspective is that of a woman's.  The slasher flick is not through the killer's point of view afterall, it's through the woman's.  Usually in other genres the majority of the work they get is as a capable sidekick, or a love interest.  If they are the central focal point, it is usually in the romance genre, but they don't get to have quite as active a role as in the slasher flick.  Or Lady Vamp films.

Z: And some people are going to be distracted because when a women dies they just think "Some dude wanted to see a women in a refrigerator" and their ability to connect ends there. Do other peoples' responses affect your responses? Does this question make sense?
H: Well the thing with horror is that while women die, they also oftentimes are the sole survivor.  And yeah most of these films are made by dudes, and like, in a Giallo film when you see a knife stripping a woman naked, and the camera and the knife stabbing in places where straight dudes want to look--I mean that's certainly a huge part of the genre.  But the cool thing with horror in the slasher flicks is that even though that stuff kind of brings dudes into see these films, at the end of the day they still end up dramatically rooting for the final girl.  It's one of the few genres that is popular with men, where by genre tropes they are forced to see things through the perspective of women.
But as far as other people's responses to anything, I don't really bother. I mean I have my friends that I care what they think--but I have never needed my tastes or opinions to line up with anyone else's. But past that, meh. Even when I write it's for myself, and people can follow me on it or not--but I'm just trying to keep it moving.  I don't have time for suckers.

Z: Does "exploitive" mean something in horror? What?

H: I don't think more than anything else.  I mean the Avengers is exploitative.  Nike Shoes are exploitative.  Maybe in horror exploitation can be more freely owned up to and explored with more depth.  I dunno.  I often find the term to be used to feign a civility that is almost always false in some way.  These are exploitation films.  These are oscar nominated films.  I know I'd rather watch the former. 

I think with trash cinema or trash art in general, there's often times a crude directness that gives voice to factions in society that are being ignored in more mainstream areas.

So a lot of the Lady Vampire films from the 70s would be called exploitative--but the women in those films have more agency than the sidekick women in these modern day action flicks.  And you think about something like Ganja and Hess which is this beautiful blacksploitation vampire film--that's as good as any sort of art house movie you would put up against it now or then--and that that was a space where black stories could be told, black faces could be seen and heard--and how that space didn't exist then, and still doesn't really exist now--but that's the exploitation film?  So I feel like the term is a top down evaluation from people who it'd seem wise to distrust.

Z: I'd love to hear about how you'd sum up the work of your favorite directors: Jean Rollin? Dario Argento?

S: Jean Rollin is like huge for me.  My comic Dysnomia is basically a 30 page love letter to his movies.  My friend Katie Skelly is actually making this super Rollin-esque comic right now called My Pretty Vampire.  Like why Rollin is cool--well first off, it's just that, he's cool.  But the great thing with Rollin, and maybe Jess Franco has a liiiitttle bit of this--but not as much as Rollin, is this dream like quality--he definitely approaches horror as beauty.  And all of his films follow these dangerous sexual women who exist antagonistically against these peripheral rather clueless men.  And I mean just the way he will set up shots and the mis en scene that he builds up.  Like the end of Living Dead Girl where Françoise Blanchard devours her friend and lover Marina Pierro against this spotlit castle bridge in this long shot long take that could almost be a shot out of a slow cinema thing---THAT is why I love Jean Rollin.  He does things like that, that are so fucking beautiful, I can't stand it.  I have to pause his movies sometimes just because the experience is so overwhelming.  He's just a succession of perfect.  Like when you see someone put something horrifying together that you feel within you--I mean that scene is imbued with so much emotion because Blanchard's desire to feed has overcome her passion to love--but she is cognizant of that transaction as well, but is powerless to do anything about it.  She is both surviving and watching her part in the death of someone that she loved so much that she came back from the dead for her!  And Rollin and his actors get that so perfectly, and to let it play out in this long shot--and to really let it play out--I mean it's perfect.  If I ever make anything half that good!
I mean I like Argento a lot--but there are no horror directors who do it for me like Rollin.  You have to talk about specific films, like Possession, Trouble Every Day, In My Skin.  Or Argento's Stendhal Syndrome or Tenebre.  I probably like Argento on the same level as Fulci and Bava.  All of those italian masters are so predicated on the details and the visuals--they make really beautiful things.  I think the giallo in general is one of my favorite things just because it's this nexus of high fashion/luxury/excess, women, architecture, and gruesome nightmarish death.  I'm actually working on a comic that is very much inspired the feelings I have watching Mario Bava's best work.

It's interesting to sort of think about how the three might be different.  I think Fulci is more political.  His films are always kind of about the hypocrisies and failures of communal systems which allow--or almost encourage horror to take place.  In his movies, backs are turned, old women spit at you, doors and windows are closed--and everyone is complicit.  With Argento, he is a surrealist, he only cares about the dream, the hypnosis, his monsters are supernatural even when they are men, maybe especially so, and while he's thematically interesting, what I love about him is the power of his aesthetic--in a battle of themes vs. aesthetics, I will always end up caring about aesthetics.

With Bava, I think what I vibe most with him right now is he also has the aesthetic heft of Argento--but he also hates the rich in a way that someone like Bunuel could appreciate--and I think that feels really timely.  My two favorite Bava films are Bay of Blood and 5 Dolls for an August Moon--and both are just these greedy rich bastards beautifully cannibalizing themselves for some extra money.  I'm always down for that.  It's why the Exterminating Angel is my favorite Bunuel film. 

Oh we're going to lock some rich people in a room and let them be the monsters they are?  Sign me up.

And Bava does it with panache.  These gorgeous villas and spaces--the bay in Bay of Blood is beautiful, and all of the kill scenes are wonderfully staged.  And then you also have work of his like Shocked which I still roll over in my head.  I probably like the heights Argento gets up to the most, but Bava is close.  And Fulci's New York Ripper is absolutely one of my favorite movies.  It's almost like an Abel Ferarrra movie!

Z: Are there any comics that you feel tap the same kind of territory as your favorite horror movies?

S: Well I mentioned Katie Skelly's comic that she's making which she's been posting on her tumblr as it progresses.  I love Emily Carroll's horror stuff--but she's more like Junji Ito in that they're kind of classical horror in that Poe-Lovecraft radioplay way--it's delightful and I love it--but it's not exactly what I'm most into.  Sloane Leong's short body horror comics, are really cool, they're like on some new french extremity type vibe.  Suehiro Maruo's Ultra-Gash Inferno and the Laughing Vampire are definitely in the spot for me.  But really, not really.  Skelly's Vampire is the first thing I've seen that is coming from the spot I am.  Oh something like Saga De Xam--but I've never read all of that.  But I mean it's good. There's a lot of space for what I want to do and what I like.  Oh yeah, also Al Columbia.  It's still like 1930s/40s horror--but I like how it's fucked up.  I mean I guess him and Suehiro Maruo are similar in that way.  Though the transgressions of Maruo in terms of fluids and humiliation is stuff I'm really interested in.

Z: Can you talk a little about color and horror? Saga De Xam and Argento have this certain lurid post-psychedelic palette, while a lot of '70s films have a sort of warm underlying tone whereas new movies tend to have a sort of cool bluish thing going on. Is that something you think about?
S: Yeah.  Color is a big deal for me.  I don't know why.  I guess it's not for everyone, otherwise people wouldn't keep making comics and movies with aimless shitty palettes.  But I am really drawn to expressive color.  Like the first Alien has these deep blacks, which you lose yourself in, and they set off against these really sterile eggshell white rooms--and it is completely beautiful, and it works across thematic and dramatic lines within the film as a whole--and then you watch Prometheus, which is a film I like--but Ridley almostly completely tossed out the blacks.

So we finally see a thorough exploration of the engineer's place, and rather than the gothic black Giger paintings of the first film--we get this blueish greyish tones, which depower both the black AND the white--so the separation is muddled, the contrast is fucked, and nothing hits with that leathery bio-mechanical oomph that the first film had.

And I mean it's the same director!  What drives me crazy about a lot of modern films is that colors aren't allowed to express themselves anymore.  You watch like late 60s Godard, and he's just hitting you with primary colors like haymakers--directors now don't even think in color it feels like--and I'm speaking generally, but they just digitally tone everything into this grey bleaugh or amber bleaugh--and then comics copy that too--and I feel like if you're going to have something in color--throw those colors with bad intentions.  I want to feel them.  And with horror this is doubly important, because horror is always really effective in black and white, so if you make the decision that you're going to go color on horror--you need to have a reason for it, and you need to know why you are using this color or that color. And again, I'm speaking in generalities.  There are modern filmmakers in horror or otherwise who use color like they know what they're doing.  I saw this great Albert Serra film called the Story of My Death, which has these deep blacks and lovely browns and greens.  American Mary I thought had some great color stuff in it.  Antichrist.  There's a lot.  Just...not a lot.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Basilisk, Littler

Still fixing up my Monster Manual.

The spread on pages 24 and 25--with a competently done basilisk and a really quite nicely rendered behir about to petrify and electrocute each other, respectively--illustrates the problem with both of them.

They're both big lizardy things.  And since the game has dragons in it, big lizardy things risk eat into the terrifying and isolated psychological space that should belong to dragons alone.

I basically deal with this problem by making them really small.
A basilisk is just a sort of incredibly dangerous iguana--not so much a monster as a natural curiosity (thus Vornheim's basilisk fights, which take place in a closet). Also somebody--can't remember if it was wikipedia or Pliny the Elder--told me they're vulnerable to weasels and I believe them.

Otherwise the basilisk is an awesome monster with a cool name, plus I've already used like 3 of them in my campaign so I can't and don't want to change them much.

That crude sharpie drawing in the lower left is a sketch of some pre-lapsarian state of mythical equipoise where the medusa, cockatrice, catoblepas and basilisk stood mutually blocked from each others' gaze by the Egg of the World, which they all looked at, waiting to kill whatever emerged. How the clinamen that resolved this stalemate was introduced I haven't figured out yet.

(And yes, taxonomy pedants, we all know behirs--being salamandery--are amphibians).
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Thursday, October 23, 2014

An Attempt At A Review of D&D


If anything unifies all the experiences (and maybe nothing does) it's those cliches of the early levels--tavern keepers, scrimping for splint mail and ten foot poles, comically patchwork parties with the clerics next to half-orc thieves--not simply because they are a common starting point from which different games fork into mutually excluding orbits but because these early moments contain the maximum of the RPG's unique weapon: that constant intimation of potential. The moment when the door is not yet all the way open, when the clues have not yet jelled, when even the genre of monster is purely hypothetical. The million "coulds" of an isolated plinth in a square-plan stone place with 4 exits into 4 dark halls. 

On the first page of the novel when you don't even know what it's about "Walter stepped over a wheel onto the low, clean lawn…" what is it? What will it be? That's the RPG--except always, every chapter, because while the novel begins, imperceptibly but eventually, to list toward its themes (you know it is a book, you know it had an author, if the author isn't building to something you can stop paying attention to all the sandwiches and weather along the way), you know the RPG can't, even if it wanted to, proceed without scattering usable toys (the sandwich and the weather are yours if you want them), the potentia is always there, never quite dwindling into clarity because theme, or unity, or even meaning, implies an ending--and an ending is a limit. And the power of it is equal to the ability to suspend you in its limitlessness.

You are (and--when it's very good--can feel yourself-) standing continuously and absolutely genuinely on the brink of what art can only fake: the infinite.
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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Ontologically Ambiguous Banshee

click to enlarge
Out of the A's in my 5e Monster Manual, and onto: The Banshee.

Made some minor changes (I took a sharpie to the original illustration, stuck some hooks in her hair, threw on some random legends from wikipedia) and some bigger changes:

-The banshee wail breaks all glass and crockery in the area. So your potions will dribble all over your scrolls--though you may not notice right away and when you get home from the dungeon (do you have a home?) you'll be like "Fuuuck", and your roomate's like "What?" and you'll be like "I fought this Banshee and…""And all your sandwiches have Fire Giant strength now." "Yyyyyyyup".

-…or maybe you won't because maybe you'll just be dead because I changed it so you hear the banshee howl once and save or you're unconscious and then again and save or you're dead. Like Silver Banshee in the Superman comics it has to know who you are in order to kill you.

-Now Banshees do not suck: they are fine, gothic and creepy--but ghosts and ethereal undead in general suck in D&D because basically you just hit them with magic or magic weapons and that's not spooky. So I gave a lot of thought to how you'd deal with something ephemeral and semi-real

I put together that idea from the Silver Banshee about the banshee having to know who you are to kill you with something I got while I was reading Heidigger about how things only definitely exist relative to a perceiver and how the banshee is a kind of ghost so that means it's there but not there at the same time and so it's only relatively extant and we can only say we understand a thing's existence to the degree and in the ways we can test it…ok anyway:

Any quality of the banshee only exists so far as the first person in the party to test that specific quality is concerned.

So, like, only the first PC to hear the banshee (probably an elf) can hear it. Only the first PC to see the banshee can see it, only the first PC to physically attack it can hit it physically, only the first to use magic on it can use magic on it, only the first to make telepathic contact can make telepathic contact, etc.

So, very likely, you'll have the party having to cooperate to fight a foe they aren't certain is there--and the banshee can only focus on one party member at a time.

This lasts until the next night (only goes out at night, natchrly) or until one of the characters dies (the condition persists while a PC is unconscious)--in which case the next PC to test the creature can interact with it on the "taken" level.
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In othier news, f you liked hearing Mandy's Warhammer army of choice yesterday, Mandy did a post on her tumblr about what she wants to see more of in video games (nsfw)...

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Gender And Representation In Warhammer's Realms of Chaos


It was long ago. A Salt with a Deadly Pepa had just come out, Bad Religion had just done SufferDie Hard was in theaters--and nobody knew who Tzeentch was.

More than a decade earlier, Dungeons & Dragons--by fusing wargaming and SF fandom--had been be responsible for an influx of women into the hobby gaming scene. In three years, Vampire: The Masquerade would bring more in.

But this is wargaming and this is England, 1988, and Games Workshop was totally not doing that. And it's been that way ever since.


Why Pick On Warhammer?

Because by 1988 Warhammer had become basically its own hobby. After re-inventing tabletop wargaming for a post-D&D world with Warhammer Fantasy Battle (1983), they followed up with the one-two punch of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (1986) and Warhammer 40,000 (1987) (the game which still looms over the miniatures hobby like a bleak and shouldery god) that was powerful enough that GW could afford to create a chain of Games Workshop stores. A teenager could scour the yellow pages for a place to buy tabletop stuff, go in, spend 45 minutes, come out and get picked up by mom without ever seeing a copy of Dragon or Call of Cthulhu anywhere near the top shelf.

In miniatures wargaming, Warhammer stuff was--and still is--nearly the only game in town, dominating the vast central plain that separates kids and their role-playing games on one coast from bent bearded men and their historical wargames on the other.

With power this great comes responsibility--and when it came to getting women into wargaming, the Warhammer franchise's Girlfriend Index, a quarter-century later, is still miserably low.



Why Pick On Realms of Chaos?

RoC was quite unique when it was first unleashed on the world. It was the first GW product to have so much time and money allotted to the artwork.
-Tony Ackland

Warhammer has elves and dwarves and trolls but it also has Chaos. The baroque imagery of Chaos is the defining difference between the Warhammer mythos and the D&D one and that--because of the role of mutations as an excuse to convert and scratch-build miniatures--drives a lot of the mini-painting and modelling sub-hobby. The two Realms of Chaos books (Slaves to Darkness and Lost And The Damned) were central to building the Warhammer games into a coherent universe, and the lavish nearly-300 page books still stand as a high-water mark for mechanical richness, inventive writing, graphic design, and especially art in hobby gaming.

Without Realms of Chaos--which made the bad guys as interesting, playable and prone to internal strife as the good guys--the Warhammer franchise is just another '80s D&D variant with D&D in space tacked on. With Chaos, all the pieces of the Warhammer cult the Internet knows and loves and loathes slide neatly into place. Such sins as Warhammer commits trace back to this garden.

Personnel

Warhammer was nearly called Battleblade:  also, Warhammer was typed by Rick Priestley’s mum.
-Bryan Ansell

There were women around Games Workshop when RoChaos was gestating, but not a lot. Sixty-odd writers, artists and miscellaneous staff are credited on the first book, eight of whom are women--but none of them did any writing, illustrating or game design. About half worked on the short showcase of painted miniatures in the middle of the book--in addition to Trish Morrison, sculptor and co-founder of Marauder miniatures, three women (I think) painted minis: Suzanne Bladon, Katy Briggs and Lucie Richardson.

Only one female name reappears for the second book--Lindsey D. Le Doux Paton (now Priestley), previously credited as a typesetter, moves up to the writing staff for Realms of Chaos: Lost and the Damned. This makes a difference: while both books were loaded with the flavor fiction pieces Silver Age RPGs were so weirdly enamored of, the first one has nobody besides a nameless girl who "sniggers" while an old man's telling a Spooky Chaos story and an equally nameless woman who helps an artist summon something in some inscrutable way by "caressing" a statue, whereas the book Le Doux Paton worked on has a handful of stories that actually need the women in them in order to be stories.

The women in Lost and the Damned are mostly first-scene-of-the-horror-movie style sort of victim-protagonists: a blind woman's POV sets up the dramatic entrance of a skeletal champion, another sacrifices her husband to Nurgle for being too fat and then becomes the subject of a weird revenge as worms spout from his grave and turn her into a steed. Still: none of the women in these sidebars fight anybody, do anything particularly impressive, or know much more than anybody else.

There is exactly one gameable, named female character in all of the almost 600-pages of the two Realms of Chaos volumes. She is one entry in a list of 68 pre-generated chaos warband members: Jarea--a compatriot of Yrlman the Loose.

Lastly among the retinue is Jarea, a sorceress whose strange tastes have led her to Yrlman's side to learn the ways of pleasant perversity that he knows too well. But Jarea is far more powerful than Yrlman and is jealous of the favour he receives. For the moment she revels in her gnawing envy, biding her time--soon she too will take her first steps in the dangerous dance of Slaanesh's chosen…

So it's not much: an unillustrated jealous employee formerly in some creep's sexual thrall (would you say an ambitious male follower was "jealous"?--you'd probably just say he was "scheming" because that's a verb and so it's about what someone does, not an adjective about their emotions)--and she has an ant face. But she is Warhammer's first female chaos warrior. Hail Jarea, Shatterer of Ceilings.

I honestly doubt any of these stories (or lack thereof) per se turned off many potential female Warhammer players, or made male players take any extra effort to keep them out--you'd have to be pretty deep into the books already to notice them. They do, however, illustrate just how little it occurred to anybody at Games Workshop that there were girls inside the Warhammer world who did Warhammer stuff or girls in the real world who might want to do Warhammer stuff.

What does fail to turn young potential gamers off is seeing or not seeing themselves reflected in the art.
Left: dude, Right: dude
Also Not Appearing In This Book

Neither justice nor art are ever served by an artist making art about something they have no talent for  but once GW became both a corporate entity which openly did things just for the money and the largest voice in its entire hobby (and all the social spaces that entails) then the art directors and administrators become responsible for seeking out artists and writers who can do the things they can't.

If Adrian Smith insists the magnificent optical vortex he summons in that picture up there will dangerously unbalance if he drew in some tits, I have to trust him (he is, after all, an actual genius and I hate drawing guys, personally)--but it's preposterous to suggest the art director could find no decent and Warhammerable artist that was available to draw some woman on some other page.

In books stuffed with drawings and descriptions of dozens of creatures and societies, the number of missed opportunities here is amazing: centaurs are all drawn as guys, minotaurs are all guys, beastmen are all guys (despite how awesome and scary "she-goat" sounds), everyone involved in the Warhammer creation myth--the story of the Horus Heresy--is a guy, dragon-ogres are all guys (no rounded and distending green torsos), the Sensei--who possess a fraction of the Emperor's power and lead good-aligned warbands against chaos-- are only referred to as the Emperor's "sons", the word "coven" gets used a lot--and the leader of one is called a "magus"--with nary a "witch" anywhere (aside from the possibility of witch elves buried in the army list).

Crowning the casual archaisms (using "he" for everything, "Many wise men have been carried…""huntsmen") it's repeatedly pointed out that if your chaos champion does really well for a really long time he can become a daemon prince. And there's rules for daemon princes and point values and lots of pictures and generally just the word Demon Prince every third fucking page and nobody ever managed to think the words daemon princess yet somehow they do to remember note that wizard's familiars can take the form of "beautiful young women" as well as "sorcerer's imps and bizarre creatures"--and, oh yeah, the lesser daemon of Kweethul is a harpy. Women were treated not like audience members but like a sword & sorcery trope, in there attached to things just like snakes and snails and scorpion tails were.



Illustrations

There are two kinds of women in the Chaos art: sexy and not sexy.

Out of five or six-hundred pictures, here's pretty much every single not-sexy woman:





The vast majority, however, were very explicitly babes, which brings us rather neatly to...
Slaanesh

"Slaanesh was meant to be a sibilant, erotic, breathy, whispered/murmured sound. The models didn’t turn out quite as erotically charged as I’d hoped."

-Bryan Ansell

One of the first Warhammer games I ever played--when I was fourteen--was with a girl fielding an army of Slaaanesh--and the last one I played had a girl fielding an army of Slaanesh.
There are four chaos powers: Nurgle, Tzeentch, and Khorne, who are male--and Slaanesh, lord of depravity--who is both male and female.

So: 7/8ths male and almost* the only time Warhammer talks about androgyny it's in the context of evil. If  teenagers play you and you're the only game in town, that's a message, and it's obviously a fucked up one.

Slaanesh also dips into the whole sex-as-evil trope since there's no Good God of Sex but what're you gonna do? It's hard to imagine how anybody would do that without some very boring hippie shit anyway. Something about sex as transgression goes beyond passing cultural norms and gets into taboos about adult spaces vs family spaces and how authority and religion are always an attempt to control sexuality (because desire can and routinely does ignore and disrupt the oligarchic status quos these institutions are based on--see Romeo and JulietHamlet, all noir movies ever made etc) and so, basically, the idea of sex being somehow a disruption is just kind of always there because it is.

And anyway problems with this part of Slaanesh are pretty much part-and-parcel of the pseudocosmic 70s glam rock androgyny it grew out of--Slaanesh basically plugs into the same socket as Bowie, KISS and Manson:

Pastel and electric shades are the chief colours, although white is often used as well. These colours are also sometimes carried over into everyday wear, although they may be modified to fit in with current fashions. Regardless of any considerations, all Slaanesh followers wear garb of sensuously high quality.

….its troops parade in frivolous colours and clashing patterns, fantastic jewels and flamboyant costumes. The whole impression is that of a costume ball or masque rather than a battle…Its Daemons and warriors shriek obscene jokes to each other, disport themselves with the dead and laugh with pleasure even as their own lives are taken. Any sensation is, after all, to be experienced and enjoyed. To express horror is regarded as a dreadful failing, one that is sure to be punished by the lord of pleasure.



Slaanesh's creatures concatenate the sensual with the fucked--the mounts of Slaanesh are lean Gigeresques with phallic heads, "long, feminine legs" and at least 4 boobs running down the front, the fiends are pale insect-centaurs with whiplike tongues, and the greater daemons are Tom-of-Finland minotaurs with extra arms in studded leather. Many creatures of Slaanesh exude a musk that makes you want to stand near them, doing nothing.

And then there's the daemonettes--



The Realms of Chaos books are full of daemonettes and sexy babes for the best possible reason: the artists all liked to draw them. The artists all liked to draw them for the worst possible reason: it didn't occur to the art director to hire a wider variety of artists.

Regardless of the reasons they got there--Mandy will not roll without her daemonettes. Period. You can pry them from her cold, dead, feminist-gamer fingers.

Slaanesh and his panoply suggest a basic problem with de-sexualization. If you took away the daemonettes and replaced them with Female Champions in Reasonable Armor, you'd be inviting every woman and every feminist I've ever seen play Warhammer to leave the table. And that would be--in the most results-based and scientific sense--a sexist effect. Less women getting what they want, less women period. Suggesting the daemonettes are sexist or a problem is suggesting it's sexist or a problem to invite Whitney B. and Vivka V. and Mandy M. to come and play and be happy. And it isn't--not even a little.

A certain kind of girl really likes fielding an army of half-naked hellions in fetish gear--it happens to be a kind of girl I know a lot of. Unfortunately, it's pretty much the only kind you can be if you like having women in your army and you want to play Chaos.

There are thousands of male miniatures and male characters in the Games Workshop catalogue--for women it's the relatively recent Sisters of Battle, the egalitarian-but-enigmatically-masked Eldar, or the daemonettes and the rest of Slaanesh's slutty army. It's this asymmetry that's bad and sexist. The men in Chaos are about war or disease or mutation or fucking. The women are about fucking. You can be whatever you want, so long as it's a choice.

To put it another way: it's not Slaanesh's fault if the only women in the Realms of Chaos work for Slaanesh, it's Khorne's fault for not hiring more women.


The Distaff Powers

The easiest way to untwist the genderweirdness in the Realms of Chaos is just to do what most adult gamers reflexively do anyway: ignore it. But there might be more interesting ways.

Let's posit a few things:

We know the people of the Imperium and Old World are Orwellian satires of hidebound xenophobes invented by Thatcher-era Britpunks.
We know these people--Space Marine chaplains, Grey Knights, Keepers of the Black Library, etc--are the sources of most of the legends we have about Chaos.

So:

What "everyone knows" about the Chaos powers is also filtered through a comically backward worldview.

The fact is there are at least three other major chaos powers--with Beasts, Mounts, Daemons, Marks, Sigils and Gifts of their own, but these are spoken of only in the quietest and most secure vaults of the Black Library. The old men call them the Distaff Powers. The existence of warp beings even more powerful than the Emperor is disturbing enough--female creatures of such status are a downright obscenity.

One is Lolth, Queen of All Shadows, but the other two…?

…and there are probably others with no gender at all.
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This runs smack into the Shreyas Paradox (named after an RPG guy who actually believes it): If you reproduce a medieval (or any past) time period or mindset in a game, you're reproducing a time when people were oppressed--which might offend people. But if you change the past so it reflects contemporary values you're whitewashing oppression out of history--which might offend people.

But since you should only be gaming with people you trust to handle any conversation that might come up, this paradox doesn't matter.

p.s. Yes I gave this entry a goofy pseudoacademic title on purpose.

* Yes, there is the very neglected Liadriel. Try googling him/her.
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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Azer--"…as the fire devoureth the stubble, and the flame consumeth the chaff"

-Isaiah 5:24


Aaaaaaaaaaaanother sucky "A" monster. Possibly the absolute bottom of the barrel, the Azer is supposed to be a flaming beardy dwarf from the plane of fire. It's like the kind of idea a disembodied butt with wheels would have if that butt worked for TSR in the 80s and hated people who played D&D and could hold a pen and sucked.

Anyway, here's mine:
Click to enlarge
The Azerites are the victims of a cruel and innovative goblin joke dating from the 8th Agon: dwarf prisoners were given a hallucinogen that made them both susceptible to suggestion and immune to flame, then set their faces alight and sent them charging at their fellows.

While under the influence of the burning Serums of Liao, the Azerite is not only borne into a manic fury, but perceives all non-dwarves as goblins.

The early Azerites became addicted to the Serums, as did their descendants. These pyrolatrous tribes have only two moods:

1. Berserk
and
2. Quiet, tragic, coal-socketed staring at anything inert enough not to drive them berserk.

On the right-hand half of the yellow statblock you'll see d4 things that happen while you fight ignited Azerites (wood things explode in sparks, etc) next to that you'll see a list of 8 titles of various Azerite warriors, the 8th is simply called "Serums of Liao" because the serums are actually more important than the identity of the dwarf who bears them. "The Path" is likely the honorific for their Bad Fire Wizard. The rest maybe have extra weapons or drugborne powers related to their names.

Below that is a list of short term goals for a randomly encountered group of azerites-- 1-4 are things they want to sacrifice to the flames, 5 and 6 ("all die in flames and battle"(including them) and "convert infidels" are self-explanatory.

The "Lair Actions" beneath are proper Lair Actions but also just things you might find going on in there. I suppose I could call them "Lair Features" but it's my monster manual so whatever.

Also replaced the hammer with an axe because why would you ever not?
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