File-icon-gray Fri: 11-02-07
Column: Puritan Blister #31
Preview of Dan Deacon and Jimmy Joe Roche's Ultimate Reality
Column by William Bowers | Digg this article | Add to del.icio.us

Time Warner journalism rarely misses a chance to go theistic while keeping a middle-minded watercooler-convo tone. Check out this chuckleberry opening from an October 24 story about the fires that recently devastated parts of the Eureka state: "It's hard not to conclude, at this point, that Somebody Up There Is an Arnold Schwarzenegger fan. How else does a muscle-bound guy with a heavy accent become a major movie star and then governor of Cauleeforneeah?" Lol, random! Dan Deacon and Jimmy Joe Roche are also guilty of exalting Schwarzenegger; their digital opera Ultimate Reality is a trippily hagiographic conflation of the star's most popular blockbusting storylines into a new dominant pansexual ubermyth. (Of course, Arnold's quest to outbulk most mere mortals was inspired by [gay/camp fave] Steve Reeves, famous repeat-portrayer of half-God Hercules, and Schwarzenegger's first acting role was the title part in Hercules In New York.)

Why I tend to take Arnold too seriously, as well: My steroid-abusing (and abusive) weightlifter father was a Schwarzenegger cultist. He dragged my siblings and me to each installment of Arnold's early oeuvre at various drive-ins, and passively quizzed us on the way home in his array of musclecars. Our household was like an 80s action movie, except that the property-damaging conflicts were between my hulking father, my competitively also-bodybuilding older brother, and my poor mom. I kind of just ate licorice in the corner and watched. Pops once told me, at a gym, "No son of mine has arms that thin." (I'd later learn that Arnold's dad verbally disowned him, too.) Mom loves to tell a story about the first time that she fought back against my father's violence; she had a choice of objects on the kitchen counter: a butcher knife, a hammer, and a copy of Arnold's Bodyshaping for Women. She elected to clock Dad with the workout book. Dad even broached multiple boundaries re: his displays of affection toward my sister. Which made her rendition of Holly Dunn's country hit "Daddy's Hands" during the talent portion at various beauty pageants-- the female equivalent of Dad's oiled bikini-bulge man-contests-- all the more creepy. And as an L.A. resident, she's now governed by Schwarzenegger, perhaps the prime example of the dude-wad culture she crossed America to escape. Dan Deacon's awesomely positive pappy-vouch during "Snake Mistakes" ("My Dad is the coolest...He does not break any Dad-rules") always crushes my heart.

The Deacon/Roche DVD largely honors Schwarzenegger's celluloid legacy in sequence. Even if shots from later showcases such as True Lies are spliced into the first segment's orgiastic celebration of Conan the Barbarian, they function as seasoning/foreshadowing. Roche's technique of taking the suddenly "authentically" vintage-looking surreal texture of VHS and slo-mo-ing it, or negativizing it, or flourescently recoloring it, or bisecting it via a center-screen mirroring effect, forces a womby logic onto the initial seven minutes. The cumulative result is way more A Star Is Being Forcefed Through a Merciless Interplanetary Vagina than A Star Is Born. The eminent motif (partially owing to the yonic implications of the Rorschach effect's symmetry-bias) is birth, birth, birth. I showed it to multiple people who were all like, "Whoa, those warplanes are forming crotches," and "these scenes depict all-male warrior-breeding." The film's first movement seems set on an inverse-Amazon world, like those lineage-y sections of the Bible chronicling only male offspringdom, as if bros could break water with each other back then. Girlie-men, indeed, as "Saturday Night Live"'s parodic Hans, Franz, and later Schwarzenegger the politician, would say.

One more quick memoir-ish detour: Mom left Dad for a refreshingly effeminate fellow, whose gay offspring, mustachioed/towering wrestling-obsessed mother, and mysteriously contoured breasts contrasted with my dad's trad machismo. And yet, Schwarzenegger was equally important to him, possibly as a manly substitution. Whenever a new Arnold vehicle debuted, his almost-sweet way of bonding with me was to suggest that we hit the local megaplex for a dose of Arnold's late-80s jingoistic transcendence of the laws of physics and physiognomy.

The second chunk of Ultimate Reality makes explicit the implications of Schwarzeneggerian gender-fuckery. Déjà vu, tho: I first typed for Pitchfork about Schwarzenegger's ladylikeness in a 2003 review of Thor's Triumphant, citing Conan's hairless body, chestiness, bracelets, and tiara. (The real Schwarzenegger's penchant for manicures got trotted out in many an article during the fad of diagnosing metrosexuals.) Last October, in a "Puritan Blister" column about ideological costumery, he surfaced again: "Drag...has to do with gender performance that is often cartoonish or 'extreme'...drag can go down within one gender: Dolly Parton and Arnold Schwarzenegger are equally as gussied-up in hyperbolic versions of 'natural' notions of their own gender as are, say, Annie Lennox in a pin-striped suit or RuPaul in sequins, of gender opposites."

Ultimate Reality's midsection opens with a lengthy expositional scroll that is initially a "straight" synopsis of the unborn-scion-stalking plot of Terminator 2, essentially a time-traveling abortion parable. But then the placards blend storylines from Schwarzenegger's sci-fi action films with his "family" movies such as Junior, Twins, and Kindergarten Cop; the joke being that to cinematically/demographically "domesticate" Schwarzenegger, who had turned his whole body into a veiny boner, was to emasculate him to the point of transgendering him. So now, according to Ultimate Reality: One macho Schwarzenegger is journeying through reality portals trying to defend a female Schwarzenegger who gives birth and goes on to run a schoolhouse that is being threatened by an alien hunter lurking in the woods outside. Our hero dons dresses and wigs, and in a scene yanked from Total Recall, a woman's whole shell. The goal, sayeth the scroll: "Protect the man-womb."

A second scroll sequence complicates the Schwarzenegger-as-supertext conceit further, even violating its logic to include Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure and The Matrix, and the audience gets a sense that the whole thing's an elaborate goof, albeit one that archly mocks the serial strainings of the Star Wars sexology and the impenetrable exposition sequences of contemporary info-dumpers such as Smokin' Aces, while hearkening to filmed adaptations of literary works from the pre-talkie era that wouldn't make any sense, even with summary cards, if one wasn't already familiar with the originals. For example, the colorized shorts on the Silent Shakespeare DVD can seem as chaotic as Ultimate Reality's montages in Predator-vision.

As the film's depicted modes of transport evolve from horses, through 18-wheelers and motorcycles, and into spacey telepods, the body is portrayed as increasingly untenable: It's stressed, stretched, warped, and torn apart. The finale blends the deaths of Schwarzenegger's T2 brick-and-mortar cyborg with Robert Patrick's CGI-revolution-catalyzing "character," powerfully looping shots of Schwarzenegger's incidentally poignant gazes, and climaxing with the "thumbs up" gesture that the supposedly martyred robot is still sentient enough to make at Eddie Furlong. The hyperdramatic context of Ultimate Reality highlights the nonsensicality of Schwarzenegger's raising his highly evolved opposable thumb at that point: it's Roger Ebert's reduction of critical discourse to "like" or "don't like", it's a phallic affirmation as cosmic positivity, it's how my brother would let me know he was kind-of-alright after Dad threw a television at him, it's punk/postmodern detachment: I am writhing in molten earthmaking ore; I'm being fucking annihilated, but no worries, it's awesome. Only flashing the hang loose sign could be more perfectly absurd.

Oh yeah, the music: is tremendous. Deacon, assisted by the drummers from Ponytail and Video Hippos, manages to combine M83 swaths, NIN brooding, Phillip Glass autism, Silver Apples/Brian Eno oscillations/trills, Keith Emerson mooginess, Mancunian dance-grooves, and Yankee-Doodle-assed 80s-movie patriotic keyboard awfulisms into a Zen totalitarian cheeseloaf that, for my money, tops LCD Soundsystem's recent commissioned fitness symphony. (When I went to see Glass perform his own video-projection epic Monsters of Grace, a crowdmember even stormed the stage to Arnold-ly challenge the composer to a fight.) You'll hear baby gulps, Billy Squier bashes, and noisy fifes, every bit of which complements Roche's percussive, onslaughty assemblage. (Certain ears will pick up connections between Deacon and the original vintage keyboard nerd who shackled himself to obsolete visions of the future, Michael Iceberg, that lovable freakish synthesizer-architect of Disney's Tomorrowland, who shared Deacon's pyramid fixation, and, way before Daft Punk, performed inside a huge glowing triangle.) What manner of Gouldy damage could this man concoct at a reg'lar piano?

As "bonus tracks," Ultimate Reality includes the video for "The Crystal Cat" and a 2002 performance by Deacon and Roche proving that their aesthetic was intact long ago: It would have been a YouTube sensation. Deacon's sporting a green wifebeater and is loosely wrapped up a la Gary Wilson's infamous mummy-bondage. Roche is decked out in the tight coveralls so curiously common in 80s films featuring boogie-ing American worker-utopias despite our Cold War anti-communism. Roche apes the jazzercise moves of a thousand lesser Fondas while Deacon plays dorkily upbeat riffs and improvs "posi" 80s-film-cliche carpe-diem-fucked lyrics. Behind them is a flea-market flag that overstates militarism in a way that any PR firm would find impolitic. That's the whole deal of "The Crystal Cat", too: pursuit of The Tacky Sublime-- via doorags, coonskin caps, ponytails, mullets, sweatsuits, non-anorexic bodies, and crazy-eyed threatening clowns.

Even though Ultimate Reality could be considered a shroomy drug reel honoring a Republican hero from Nancy Reagan's "Stop The Madness" video, Deacon and Roche don't seem that ironic about these textures; they come across as earnestly invested in blending 1960s psych backdrops, 70s noise-pop experimentation, 80s caucasiana, and 90s trancey rave kitsch, but not as kitsch, necessarily. One person's pop-clogged regurgitations are another's hallowed iconography, reckon. The gamma-ray imagery and music of Ultimate Reality pummel their audience so rapidly that the effect is kind of...soft and fluidic. This DVD is an absolute confection, an assault on highbrow's skybox, as illegal and libertarian as Girl Talk or a tent-booth vendor of Hilfiger knockoffs, and as uncouth as bringing a bowl of cheeseburgers to a pretentiously culinary potluck. It's meticulous and slapdash, fascinating and fun. It's Trashaqatsi.


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