Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas carols

Christmas is over, and with it goes the singing of Christmas carols. I like some of those songs, and like singing them, but there are some that I just don't get. "O Holy Night" for example is a popular favorite for its dramatic musical escalation, and because singers like to show off with it. But theologically I might argue that there wasn't particularly anything holy or divine about the night. Jesus was divine, yes, but the point of his incarnation is that he set aside his God-hood and became man. To me, Christmas is MUCH more significant when you think about it as just another night. It's just that a very important baby was born. But perhaps this is a minor quibble. It was certainly a significant night.

Another in a similar vane is "Silent Night". Now I get that it's a pretty song, and I'm partial to the sound of it in the original German. But there is nothing silent about a woman in labor! It's just one of many Christmas songs that present this idea of the world standing still when baby Jesus makes his appearance. It even goes so far as to say that godly light goes shooting out of silent Jesus' face!

Still other songs are enamored with the idea of singing angels. Hate to break it to you, but the Bible never says there were singing angels. In fact, I'm hard pressed to think of a time angels are EVER presented as singing in scripture. Maybe in Revelation somewhere. If you remember your Charlie Brown Christmas,
Linus quotes "and suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest" (emphasis mine). It was spoken. It was proclaimed. But never did they sing "that glorious song of old", nor did any mountains echo back the sound of "angels we have heard on high sweetly singing o'er the plains."

So where did this concept of singing angels come from? I can't be certain, but I believe a strong contributer to be the song "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing".

You see, that title by which we all know and sing it is NOT how it originated. The words that Charles Wesley wrote began with the phrase "Hark how all the welkin ring". Now, the immediate question for modern singers is "just what the heck is a welkin, anyway?" Glad you asked. "Welkin" is an old poetic word derived from the Old English which refers to the skies and the heavens above. This reading is much more in keeping with the words later in that stanza, "joyful all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies." It is the skies that are ringing with glory to the King. And if that weren't conclusive enough, Wesley specifically says "with angelic hosts proclaim", the same idea found in the gospel of Luke. Why would Wesley bring up angels here if the song began with singing angels? Because he never wrote singing angels. He wrote the much more lovely idea that the very skies were singing. At some later date, someone arbitrarily decided that "welkin" sounded clunky, and replaced it with the herald angels singing. I very much prefer the original lyric, and overall this is one of my favorite Christmas songs.

The only thing I don't like about "Hark! the [choose lyric here]" is that the second verse is full of horribly clunky rhymes. "Late in time, behold him come/offspring of the virgin's womb"? Ugh. It's also wordy for no reason at times ("hail th'incarnate deity!"). So when I was in college, I took the liberty of writing my own verse, and being very explicit about the incarnate Jesus. It is for this reason that my family can no longer sing the song without giggling. My minister father for several years refused to sing the second verse because it would make him think of my version. For your pleasure, or displeasure, my lyrics are as follows:

Christ divine, now human grown
Formed from God's Y-chromosome
Late in time, he comes to us
Sprung from virgin uterus
Son of Mary, bring salvation!
Bring her cervix to dilation!
Squeeze through her vaginal wall
So to give your grace to all!
Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King!

Friday, December 25, 2009

THE FILMS OF JAMES CAMERON: Piranha Part Two: The Spawning

When it comes to James Cameron, there are the films that everyone knows are in the canon: Terminator, Titanic, Aliens. But before all of those came the apocrypha: the little-seen and somewhat disowned low-grade horror film called Piranha Part Two: The Spawning. This was Cameron's feature directorial debut, a project which he claims to have been fired from not once but twice. How much of the finished product reflects Cameron's work is uncertain, but he does get full directorial credit. His breakthrough film, The Terminator, is based solidly in horror cliches and B-movie elements. It should come as no surprise then that Cameron preceded it with an honest-to-goodness B-movie.

Let me get this out of the way right now: this is a bad movie. It's a very bad movie. But it at least falls into that "so bad, it's good" category. If there is not yet a Rifftrax of this movie, there should be. The title suggests that the film is a sequel to Piranha, though nothing about the story at all suggests this. It's no more a sequel than Home Alone 3.

The movie opens with a couple who are just reasonably attractive enough for cheap late-'70s porn deep-sea diving. They come upon a sunken ship, which they view as a perfect opportunity to... have sex. The girl suddenly appears having removed her bikini, then she grabs a big ol' knife they happened to be diving with and cuts her man's speedo off (I'm sure he was silently praying the knife wouldn't slip). So now the two almost-pretty people are nekkid under the sea and ready for some lovin' sea mammal style. But rather than just get to it, they take a moment to REMOVE THEIR BREATHING APPARATUSES! And so, as these two idiots are kissing underwater with what little air they have left, they are attacked by mutant fish. It's supposed to be scary, I guess, but it's not. Who even cares if the fish get them; these two morons are going to run out of air on their own any minute anyway. What this opening does do is reflect the standard '80s genre cliche that having sex will soon get you killed. Therefore, as an opening to a bad '80s horror movie, it's pretty expected and not the worst thing. The best part of the sequence is the water filling with red as the two are attacked and bleed out.

After the opening titles, the film has little more to do with what we saw in the tease. In a nutshell, the plot concerns a beach resort that holds a party every year when some native species of grunion spawns in it's ocean (that's the "spawning" of the title, which will never be referred to again). The people run down that night and get all the fish they can, and have a big fish fry. Only this year, instead of grunion, the beach is mobbed with mutant fish; some sort of pirahna or grunion species that the government has secretly cross-bred with flying fish to be a weapon. That's right: the government is using its resources to create weaponized fish. This is one step away from sharks with frickin' laser beams on their heads. Anyway, these fish have gotten loose or something and, after a few Jaws-like encounters where some swimmers are found dead, they attack the beach and kill a whole lot of people. So then our heroes swim down to the sunken ship where the fish apparently live and blow it up. That's the movie.

As is to be expected with a film of this nature, most of the characters are cardboard cliches with little to do other than to either move the plot along or to illicit an immediate audience reaction. There is a stodgy ship captain and his beautiful daughter who exists only so the young male character can kiss her, the boy's mother (who is of course seperated from his father) who uncovers the truth of the fiendish fish plot, and the minorities who get slaughtered. The actors who fill these roles are no better than the types they are playing. Several appearances from an older woman who spends her time flirting with a hunky resort employee are just embarrassing and do nothing for the film at all.

There's Mal, a stuttering nerd who is conned by two bikini-clad babes. Is this character supposed to be comic or not? Are we supposed to laugh at him? Because as things play out, we end up feeling bad for him. He's a cook who catches one of the girls stealing food from the kitchen for a party she's throwing. She says if he doesn't tell anybody, he can come to the party and get it on with her and her friend. Mal not only heartily agrees, but insists that he cook the whole meal and bring it with him. When he arrives at their boat, they take the food and then laugh as they pull away and let him jump in the water after him. I do not understand the purpose of this subplot. Is Mal just the comic relief? If so, the movie fails here, as the pathos tempers the humor. Or instead, is this supposed to be a way for the audience to hate these girls, and thus be glad when they finally eat it — sorry, are eaten — in the end? The latter seems to be more successful, but I question the movie's mean-spirited attitude toward the Mal character.

The plot begins moving when a diver is found dead and their bodies are taken back for examination. They have been killed by the evil piranhas or grunions or whatever they are. Then, when the body is lying there, a fish comes out from inside it and attacks one of the medical examiners! Fish continue to attack in strange ways. If I recall correctly, they seem to bite holes all over the victim, and then sit inside the body solely to jump out and attack someone later.

It's silly, but not nearly as silly as the epic climactic attack. While everyone waits eagerly for the spawning grunions so the fish fry can begin, the killer fish arrive and fly at their victims. The effects here are very poor, being noticeably fish puppets on sticks or wires. The sometimes attack perpendicular to the body, which is physically impossible. And when I say they fly, they don't just leap out of the ocean; they flap their enormous fins and buzz around like helicopters. The attack goes on... and on... and seems sillier with each passing second.

The one redeeming feature of this movie is Lance Henriksen, who plays the woman's husband. Unlike everyone else in the movie, he has a character, or at least Lance plays it like he does. Lance doesn't bother trying to play the reality of killer flying fish; instead, he hopes to keep his emotional focus on the woman he still loves. He never feels like a good actor slumming in a terrible movie. His performance lends the only real human element to an otherwise nonsensical picture, and Cameron so enjoyed working with Henriksen that it led to his being cast in several subsequent Cameron films. There is an everyman quality to the performance that reflects some of the same work Henriksen would do later on Millennium; no matter what the craziness is around him, he focuses his energy on the people his character loves. Millennium worked because Frank Black was not just out to fight demons and serial killers; he did everything to keep the darkness away from his wife and daughter. Henriksen brings a similar sensibility to this movie. Maybe it would have been different if his character had to fight off a flying piranha; he never does interact with the fish.

After the attack on the beach, the decision is made to plant a bomb inside the sunken ship and destroy all the fish. The movie never explains why the fish seem to live there, nor whatever becomes of all the fish on the beach from that night (and actually, why did the normal spawning grunions never show up?). This sequence is reasonably successful as our heroine swims through corridors trying to evade schools of mutant fishies. I must also credit this movie for doing something I have never seen before. I've seen a lot of bombs in a lot of movies. There's always a digital readout with a ticking clock. Why this clock exists, I don't know. But the bomb in this movie, though it has a clock, does NOT have a countdown. That is, the bomb doesn't go off when it reaches zero. Instead, it's just a timer with a normal running clock! They plant the bomb around 6:12 or so, and the bomb will go off at 6:30. It was so refreshing NOT to see a ticking countdown! It was a way for the audience to know how much time was left while avoiding the real cliché. The bomb is simply programmed to go off at a certain time.

Without Lance Henricksen, this movie would have no reason to exist. The horror elements are not scary, character threads don't all connect, and the effects are laughable. What would make the government want killer fish anyway? This is not a movie that James Cameron says very much about. And yet, without it, would Cameron have ever directed The Terminator? Would we ever have seen Lance Henricksen in Aliens? When all is said and done, Piranha Part Two is an oddity on Cameron's resume; a predictable low-grade movie that is no better or worse than can be expected.

Monday, December 21, 2009


In anticipation of Avatar, I've been watching all of James Cameron's previous films. Normally, I would have seen Avatar opening day or at least opening weekend, but I was busy and all of the IMAX screenings are sold out anyway. I am not seeing that movie in a regular theater. But it has given me time to go back and review the film career of James Cameron. Some of these films I have not seen before.

Let's begin with his very first directorial effort, a short called Xenogenesis.
There isn't much of a plot to the main action of this piece; it's more of a special effects demo of sorts. In a futuristic environment, a young man tries to survive an attack from a giant robot, and his lady friend fights the robot with a large mechanical spider-like vehicle. For a minimal budget, the effects look very good. The integration of the live action with the stop-motion robot effects are almost seamless.

The film exists as a kind of in medias res tale as part of a larger story we never get. In fact, it ends on a literal cliffhanger, feeling like an old movie serial or a television episode (we get an executive producer credit after the blackout). It's sort of a shame we don't get more because the backstory is engaging. The movie opens with expositional narration over illustrations telling us of an android and the woman he loves. The title Xenogenesis bears no connection to the rest of the film, but it would be very interesting to know what sort of story Cameron had in mind for the broader picture. Watching this opening sequence, we realize what a fabulous illustrator and painter Cameron is as well. He spent years in the model department and various other levels of production design for Roger Corman's group. His concept art is really lovely.

Despite some of the lame acting and the lacking plot, one can see the seeds of other Cameron films on display. The expository teaser mentions a great cataclysm prefiguring Terminator' future war, as well as the cyborg element. The production design is stark and interesting. The spider robot controlled by the girl is an obvious precursor to the Ripley-in-the-loader scene from Aliens, and also slightly calls to mind the sequence from The Abyss where Bud is outside Coffey's sub and it is being rammed by the other sub.
Ultimately, it's a tease of the effects-laden career that Cameron will have as a director. I wish that one day he might return to some of these elements, and show us what sort of story he had in mind, because the action on screen pales to the story illustrated beforehand. Also, I've only seen this film online in a rough transfer; I wonder what the final text says after the credits, because it is impossible to make out clearly. Xenogenesis is not much of a movie, it's not even much of a real short, but it's a strong effects demo and a curiosity that should be sought out by Cameron fans.

welcome to the randomness!

Welcome to this mathom-house for my mental excrement. Herein will be contained my thoughts on various subjects. At times there may be continuing series of essays on certain topics I find interesting. I will also post film reviews and reflections on some television, especially the final season of Lost. However, there will always be a cornucopia of content here, unlike at Frack Galactica, which was set up exclusively to review Battlestar Galactica (and likely Caprica, if I get the urge). [If you hate BSG, or even if you like it, why not check it out, btw?]

Also, I should perhaps explain the name "Macaroni Waffles". ...But I won't. ha ha! Suffice it to say, nearly every good name under the sun has already been taken, but macaroni waffles are a creation of my own. So when I couldn't come up with a name that wasn't taken, I stuck a feather in my thinking cap and called it macaroni waffles.

That about covers it. Hope to see you again soon.