Thursday, October 29, 2009

Culture Shock 10.29.09: 'Paranormal Activity' is disappointingly normal

I'd like to congratulate the filmmakers responsible for "Paranormal Activity." You made a bad movie, but you didn't spend a lot of money doing it.

Normally, someone would have to spend at least $100 million to make a movie that tedious, boring, mindless and overhyped. But you did it for less than the cost of my last car. Well-played, gentlemen. Well-played.

For a film advertised as one of the scariest horror movies of all time, you'd think "Paranormal Activity" could at least have made me jump out of my seat once or twice. But no. Or, failing that, it could have conjured up a pervasive sense of dread and foreboding. A lot of the best horror movies aren't really scary, but they are incredibly creepy, which is often better. A scary movie can lose its impact soon after the credits roll. But a movie that really creeps you out can stick with you long after you leave the theater. Sadly, "Paranormal Activity" isn't especially creepy, either.

The plot, such as it is, involves a young couple — Katie and Micha (played by Katie Featherston and Micha Sloat) — who experience strange goings-on in their house. Micha gets the bright idea to set up a video camera to record what happens while he and Katie are asleep. The footage from the first couple of nights includes some banging noises downstairs and a door that moves on its own. Spooky stuff, I'm sure.

But the supernatural activity finally begins to escalate once Micha begins taunting the spirit.

Everyone knows the score. The audience knows it. Katie knows it, and she tells Micha to knock off his juvenile antics. The psychic whom Katie calls in for a consultation knows it. But Micha keeps on acting like a doofus alpha male who isn't going to let something like a malevolent, demonic spirit push him around.

Like the worst horror movies, and the worst movies in general, "Paranormal Activity" depends on its main characters being complete idiots for the story to advance. The last thing you want in a movie dealing with the supernatural is for the supernatural element to seem more realistic than the characters' actions. For example, as soon as Micha gets footage of truly inexplicable things happening, you'd think he'd go public with it. He could try to sell it or at least post it on YouTube. But his response is to keep on calling the demon names. And nothing good can come of that.

Unfortunately, what does come next is telegraphed so far in advance that it fails to shock or surprise. And the only good thing about that is no one in the theater accidentally spilled a drink on me.

Far from the scariest movie of all time, "Paranormal Activity" isn't even the scariest movie of the year. For that, I suggest renting "Drag Me to Hell." "Paranormal Activity" elicits obvious comparisons to "The Blair Witch Project." Both are comprised of fictional "found footage" depicting supposedly supernatural events, and both films are extremely profitable, thanks to their low production costs and wildly successful viral marketing campaigns. But at least "Blair Witch," which also wasn't as scary as advertised, was sometimes creepy. "Paranormal Activity," not so much.

What a disappointment. Seriously, I haven't been this let down by a movie since "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." I guess if there is one thing I can say in favor of "Paranormal Activity," it's that at least it didn't tarnish fond childhood memories.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Culture Shock 10.22.09: Gap between art, science no longer so wide

If I'd been better at math in high school, I probably would have become a scientist.

When I was young, I was obsessed with cosmology and paleontology, which is a fancy way of saying I was really into dinosaurs and outer space. While all of my classmates were reading "Where the Wild Things Are," I was reading elementary-level books about biology and astronomy.

I taught myself to spell by memorizing dinosaur names and the nine (now eight) planets of the solar system.

In any case, my math skills were less than stellar, so eventually I gravitated from science geek to art geek. Still, I've tried to maintain something more than a layman's knowledge of science.

The conventional wisdom is that art and science are incompatible ways of looking at the world, separated by a Grand Canyon of misunderstanding, distrust and outright hostility.

Certainly that's the impression one gets from 19th century poet John Keats, who lamented that Isaac Newton had "destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to a prism."

The Romantic movement, to which Keats belonged, was a reaction to the scientific, rationalist philosophy of the Enlightenment, which had taken hold in Europe and America a century earlier. Today, in some circles, it's still fashionable to badmouth the Enlightenment, which, besides the scientific method, gave us the Declaration of Independence.

Newton, however, is getting his revenge. Neuroscientists and biologists are increasingly close to having a scientific understanding of why we make art in the first place.

Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran has speculated that some people are capable of creating great art because their brains are better wired than most for metaphorical thinking.

They may have more neural pathways, for example, between the part of the brain used for speech and the part used for identifying color. That could lead to a better ability to make associations between things that don't seem all that related, which is what poets do all the time.

The membrane separating science and art is not quite as impermeable as most people think, and it allows travel in both directions.

Albert Einstein was arguably engaged in artistic thinking when he imagined himself on a beam of light and thereby unlocked the door to a new understanding of space and time. The metaphor came first, the equations later.

More to the point, science could become as much an inspiration to artists as religion and mythology have been.

There is some evidence of that already. John Boswell has begun a project he calls Symphony of Science, online at So far, he has created two music videos spliced together from clips of Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Richard Feynman and other scientists. It's art for the Information Age, inspired by science.

Who knows? Boswell's work could end up inspiring a new generation of artists. Or even scientists, depending on their math scores.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Culture Shock 10.15.09: Want a good scare? Send in the clowns this Halloween

If you're still trying to come up with the perfect Halloween costume — something that will strike fear into even the hardest hearts — here is a suggestion.

Be a clown.

Sure, clowns claim they only want to make you laugh and cheer you up. But that's a ruse to lull you into a false sense of security. Clowns are creepy, and I'm not the only person who thinks so. Just ask Batman.

While in a costume shop Saturday, I saw a young woman nearly have a panic attack at the mere thought of stumbling upon an empty clown costume. Imagine how she might have freaked out had she encountered a clown costume with someone inside it.

Look closely. You can sense the evil lurking behind those beady little clown eyes. They try to distract you with those big, red, bulbous noses. But I know better. Look into their eyes, and you'll see. Pure evil, I tell you.

Like the fear of spiders, heights and enclosed spaces, the fear of clowns has a technical name. It's called coulrophobia. If you want some real nightmares, think long and hard about being trapped in a free-falling elevator with a clown and his pet tarantula.

None of this has been lost on writers and filmmakers, who have long exploited the creepiness of clowns. There's the Joker, obviously. And in Stephen King's "It," the title character appears in many sinister guises, but It most often takes the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. King has dreamed up a lot of scary things, but few compare to the image of a clown-faced Tim Curry grinning from a storm drain.

Scary clowns dot the Hollywood landscape, from "Clownhouse" and the extraterrestrial clowns of "Killer Klowns from Outer Space" to "Shakes the Clown" and "Patch Adams."

I know what you're going to say. "Shakes the Clown" was a comedy vehicle for Bobcat Goldthwait, while "Patch Adams" was a shameless, if unsuccessful, attempt to snare Robin Williams an Oscar. But watch them again. These movies reek of unmitigated evil. And "Patch Adams" is by far the more insidious of the two. It's pure propaganda for the Clown Industrial Complex.

How pervasive is this clown propaganda? It's everywhere. No matter where you live, you're probably no more than a few blocks from the clowns' most successful attempt at gaining your trust.

Yes, McDonald's seems like such a happy place, with its Happy Meals and such. But what is Ronald McDonald really up to? Why is his best friend named Grimace, which means a facial expression usually of disgust, disapproval or pain? And why do his Fry Goblin pals now call themselves Fry Guys? Was "goblin" giving too much away?

Burger King knows what's really going on. That's why after many years and millions spent on research and development, the No. 2 hamburger chain finally came up with a mascot who is even more sinister than Ronald — The Burger King.

Why are the two top fast-food restaurants in an arms race to determine which one has the scariest mascot, anyway?

And while I don't want to say all clowns are serial killers, there is the example of John Wayne Gacy, aka Pogo the Clown.

Think of that when you go to bed tonight. As for me, I can't sleep. Clowns will eat me.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Culture Shock 10.08.09: Phenix City man launches Rock-afire tour

People in Alabama understand obsessions, but most people’s obsessions here involve football.

Some dedicate entire rooms to their favorite football teams. They build shrines to the Auburn Tigers or the Alabama Crimson Tide. A few heretics even worship at the altar of the Tennessee Volunteers — and may soon resort to human sacrifices.

But in Phenix City, population 30,000, just west of the Georgia state line, one man has an obsession that is almost all his own.

Chris Thrash is obsessed with Showbiz Pizza, a family restaurant chain that, in the early 1980s, was the backbone of America's arcade culture.

Showbiz Pizza offered its customers — mostly pre-teens and their parents — pizza, video games and rides. But more importantly, Showbiz Pizza was the home of an animatronic band called The Rock-afire Explosion.

Now Thrash's obsession is the subject of an affectionate, bittersweet and thoroughly engaging documentary by Brett Whitcomb and Jason Connell. "The Rock-afire Explosion" is now available on DVD after a tour of film festivals nationwide, including last year's Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival in Birmingham.

From a stage overlooking Showbiz Pizza's main dining room, The Rock-afire Explosion sang songs, cracked jokes, delighted children and annoyed parents. The band's members included the restaurant's mascot Billy Bob (a bear), Fatz Geronimo (a gorilla) and Mitzi Mozzarella (a mouse). All were given life by an elaborate network of gears, electronics and air pumps.

As a boy, Thrash told himself he'd someday have his own Rock-afire Explosion. Now 33 years old and married, he finally does. And he is sharing it with the world.

He purchased one of the last remaining Rock-afire Explosion sets from Orlando-based Creative Engineering, assembled it inside a building in his backyard and filmed the band's reunion performance for YouTube.

It turned out Thrash wasn't alone. Before long, his videos of The Rock-afire Explosion were an Internet sensation among thirtysomethings nostalgic for their long-lost youth.

Yet, as much as Whitcomb and Connell's film is about Thrash, it's also about Aaron Fechter, the founder of Creative Engineering, inventor of Whac-A-Mole and creator of The Rock-afire Explosion.

Creative Engineering's fortunes fell along with Showbiz Pizza, which purchased bankrupt rival Chuck E. Cheese, took on the Chuck E. Cheese name and then phased out The Rock-afire Explosion when Fechter refused to relinquish his Rock-afire trademarks and copyrights.

In the old Creative Engineering factory, tools and equipment gather dust, untouched for 20 years. The last Rock-afire Explosion ever made sits in crates, waiting for some nostalgic buyer to come along.

Meanwhile, in Phenix City, Thrash and his wife have opened The Showbiz Pizza Zone, where a new generation of children and their thirtysomething parents come for pizza and arcade games. And the Rock-afire Explosion still plays.

This time, I bet, the parents are less annoyed.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Culture Shock 10.01.09: If lying didn't exist, we'd have to invent it

Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.

As my favorite TV doctor is fond of saying, everybody lies. But what if everybody didn't lie?

Take that a step further. What if nobody ever lied? That's the premise of a film opening this weekend.

"The Invention of Lying" is set in a world that's exactly like ours — except that everyone always tells the truth. No one even knows what a lie is. But that changes when Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervais, creator and star of the British version of "The Office") invents lying.

Mark quickly realizes the advantage his discovery gives him. If nobody ever suspects that you're telling them something less than the unblemished truth, you can get away with anything.

But our world doesn't work that way. Here, despite injunctions religious and otherwise, everybody lies some of the time. And if there's one problem I see with "The Invention of Lying," it's that a world without lying almost certainly wouldn't look anything like ours. It might look like Vulcan, but even Mr. Spock has been known to exaggerate from time to time.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant claimed that people should never lie. He was all about sticking to rules that could apply to everyone at all times — categorical imperatives, he called them. Lying all the time wouldn't work because for a lie to be effective, people must usually tell the truth. (This is why no one trusts used-car salesmen and politicians.) Therefore, Kant said, we should tell the truth all the time.

Some subsequent philosophers have tried to finesse this so Kant doesn't appear to be saying, for example, that it's wrong to lie even to protect someone from a murderer. Then again, other people might simply conclude that Kant was a rule-obsessed sociopath.

Anyway, Kant's bizarre fetish for sticking to rules regardless of consequences — "even if the heavens fall," he said — is why he is best known today, outside of academic philosophy, as Friedrich Nietzsche's favorite whipping boy.

Without lying, our ancestors never would have made it past the Stone Age. Lying is the axle grease that makes civilization run smoothly. Think of all the "white lies" we tell to avoid hurting people's feelings or getting punched in the face: "Your baby is so adorable." "No, those jeans don't make you look fat." "That was the best sex ever."

Sometimes, people just can't handle the truth.

A world without lies is unthinkable. Fortunately, lying is a skill we pick up early. By age 5, a child understands the difference between what he believes to be true and what others believe to be true. And that's when children start blaming siblings, or the family cat, for things like broken vases and flooded bathrooms.

But parents are hardly blameless. When telling their children how to behave, parents act like dear old Kant. But in practice, parents are no more truthful than their offspring. A study published in the September issue of the Journal of Moral Education found that parents lie to their children all the time, particularly when it comes to the existence of magical creatures like the Tooth Fairy and a certain "jolly old elf."

All magic is lying. Magicians Penn and Teller admit as much; it's part of their act. That's why they have little patience for flimflam artists who try to pass off magic tricks as something supernatural. In such cases, I'm with Penn and Teller. I'm all for the truth coming out.

But lying has its place, too, and we couldn't get by without it. That's the honest truth.

Would I lie to you?