Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Ask The A.V. Club - April 25, 2008


Yes, Virginia, There Is A Crazy Claus

HBO in the '80s not only brought the Box Office to your Home, it apparently also caused a collective amnesia on youngsters, as no one I know remembers the name of this damn movie. It's about an (I want to say) Australian or Kiwi schoolhouse class being kidnapped/held hostage by a masked group of thugs, led by a man dressed as "Father Christmas." The thugs lead the class and their teacher out of the schoolhouse, and they eventually end up hiding out in some cave. What I remember most clearly, besides the super-creepy "Father Christmas," was that the teacher led her students in a rebellion against the thugs, jumping "Father Christmas" and killing him. In the final shot of the movie, you see that they've not only killed "Father Christmas," but the classroom now has a keepsake of their ordeal: his heart in a jar.

I used to think I was just crazy and imagined this movie as a toddler in a Cocoa Krispies-fueled fever-dream, but SEVERAL people recall the plot I'm thinking of. But none can recall the name of the movie. I was once told that the movie I'm thinking of was called Dominion, but countless Google and IMDB searches on both that title and the plot synopsis have proven that that's not the case. Please tell me I'm not crazy. What the hell movie am I thinking of?


Chris Mincher also enjoys his Cocoa Krispies:

On October 6, 1972, in Faraday, Australia, a normal day at the village school was interrupted when two men stormed in with a shotgun and herded the 20-year-old teacher and her six students into a van and sped off, aiming to collect $1 million in ransom—thus forming the basis for Gabrielle Lord's 1980 novel Fortress, and the 1986 Australian movie by the same name. And what a gem of a flick it was.


The film's setup is almost identical: A teacher and her class (nine students this time) are taken hostage by gun-toting thugs wearing masks from children's stories, with ringleader "Father Christmas" taking top creepiness honors with a Santa Claus disguise. Held for ransom in a cave, the group attempts to break free—it involves a suspenseful underwater escape—but is later recaptured at a farmhouse, where their abductors' ruthless, violent nature becomes evident.

It's also where Arch Nicholson's film transforms into an unexpectedly intelligent, Lord Of The Flies-style morality tale that's heavier than the movie's campy tagline ("The innocents have tasted blood… and they liked it!") suggests. Told that planned executions of students would speed up payment of the ransom, the desperate group makes a second daring escape that results in the accidental death of a kidnapper. Having lost their reservations about killing, and now armed with self-made spears, the class—more and more resembling tribal warriors at this point—takes refuge in another cave, turning it into a booby-trapped fortress and planning their final stand against the men. Who holds the conch now, motherfuckers?

Things get bloody, but Fortress never becomes a horror movie. From the animalistic nature of Father Christmas' murder (by which point the children are, for all intents and purposes, violent savages), to the final heart-in-a-jar shot, the end sequence gives shocking clarity to the film's themes about group survival: When investigators later show up to question the teacher's account of the ordeal, her students perceive them as a threat, and eerily transform into a pack that intimidates the officials into a hasty exit.

Although the original movie poster—with crazed-looking kids holding weapons, and a leggy teacher in ripped clothes screaming while firing a shotgun—suggests a flick every bit as cheesy as any other bad '80s thriller, Fortress found remarkable effectiveness, with a strong cast and believable characters that aren't just easily identifiable stereotypes.

Fortunately, Wildebeest Sounds Just Like Chicken

I like nature shows, and one of the best bits is the sound. There's always lots of crunching of wasp mandibles, tearing of wildebeest flesh, and soft whooshing of owl wings. It really makes you feel like you're experiencing things on the scale that the animal experiences them. Lately, while I was watching Planet Earth, it occurred to me that maybe it's all a sham; maybe there's some kind of naturalist Foley artist on the production team tearing cabbages in half for the big hyena-feeding-frenzy scene. So that's my question: Is nature-show sound real?



Donna Bowman has never recovered from the sound effects for an old radio show about army ants:

No, of course they aren't real, Andy. Not that they aren't effective, goodness knows; anyone who got all squoogy at the exoskeleton-clicking in Microcosmos or the sound of wind over feathers in Winged Migration can attest to how well they convey the illusion that we're right in the midst of the animal action, far from the human world. But given that most of the sound effects for movies about humans are created in post-production, how likely is it that the soundtrack for nature documentaries are captured live?


And when you get to thinking about it, you realize that most documentary footage isn't shot in total silence with an attentive sound man wielding a boom mike, ready to catch the soundscape. They're shot from helicopters, jeeps, blinds, or other non-studio locations—not the best conditions to get pristine sound, or sometimes any sound at all.

But you're really asking a different question, aren't you? Once you stop to think about it, it's obvious that the sounds on nature films are probably not recorded simultaneously with the pictures. It's possible, though, that real sound is captured in the field and later mated to pictures that were shot at different times—and that, in fact, happens. Just as sound-crew members record "room sound" on any set after filming is done, to create an ambience that can be mixed with any dialogue or sound effects that have to be dropped into the film in post-production, documentary crews are constantly recording the ambient sound of the environments in which they film. Documentaries need maximum flexibility in the editing room, so they collect plenty of sound from their locations—be they city streets, quiet parlors, or African savannah—that they can layer over pictures for seamless audio transitions.


The sounds of animals, however, aren't always as easy to match up. Dangerous or rare creatures may be filmed from a distance with long-lensed cameras, with no chance of getting the authentic sound in the field. The animals' distinctive noises might be later recorded with a captive population at a zoo, wildlife preserve, or breeding ground. Just as with other sounds used in film and radio, massive sonic libraries are often the source of bird calls, monkey screeches, and other natural noises.

But the stuff that really makes the documentary come alive—those rustling leaves, pitter-pattering ant feet, clicking mandibles, tearing of prey—those are all fake. Fakey fake fake. Your vision of hyena-rampage Foley is right on, Andy. Neal Romanek wrote an article for TVBEurope about the immense BBC documentary series Planet Earth, where he described a Foley artist ripping tape off a gaffer's case to simulate a monkey tearing the husk off a coconut.


Most high-profile nature-documentary Foley work is extremely sophisticated—so much so that it made you wonder whether it could possibly be real. It's essential to the effect of the film that we are placed in an alien sonic world, immersed in the sounds that give that visual space dimensionality and movement. Consider the case of the underwater documentary. The "real" sounds of the underwater world wouldn't be nearly enough to make us feel as if we were there. Just as the opening credits of Star Trek added a "whoosh" as the Enterprise flew by, even though there's no sound in outer space, the sound-design team of Blue Planet added little burbles as fish swam past the cameras, even though a hypothetical person swimming in that spot wouldn't hear any fish fly-bys.

Real or fake? With documentaries, that's almost always the wrong question. Most often, they have to become more fake in order to become more real.


Square To Be Hip

What exactly is a hipster? Do these people actually exist, or are they merely grist for angry message-boarders looking for phantom "hipster douchebags"? Does the modern hipster have roots in the 1950s beatnik types described by Norman Mailer and others, or is it a peculiarly modern institution? I ask because a friend of mine from outside the U.S. heard the term and asked about it, and I began to wonder if I knew myself beyond some kind of pejorative stereotype.


Patrick Galligan

HDB Noel Murray breaks it down:

Patrick, you're basically right about the origins, though slightly off on the time frame. The term ostensibly dates to the '30s, derived from "hep," used in jazz circles to describe someone up on the latest sounds and styles. "Hep cat" evolved into "hipster" in the '40s, then "hippie" in the '60s, each time gaining a slightly different connotation, although the essence of the meaning has always been the same: a hipster, traditionally, is someone on the cutting edge when it comes to his or her taste in popular culture. (And the "popular" part of that phrase is key, since hipsters aren't necessarily highbrows.)


As for how it became a pejorative term, well, that's partly a function of the democratization of the media in the Internet age. Blogs and message boards have given those who've long been disappointed by the movies and music that they've been told to like a forum where they can vent at the trendsetters. But the use of "hipster" as an insult is also a function of the nature of hipsterdom itself. In an attempt to stay au courant, the modern hipster has moved beyond the traditional hipster model, to the extent that it's hard to know now whether the "hipsters" are the ones listening to The Arcade Fire and The Hold Steady, or the ones rejecting those bands and re-embracing Journey. One thing you can be sure of, though: 90 percent of the time, people who use the word "hipster" are probably hipsters themselves.

Spoilers Ahead, OMG!

I have a question regarding spoiler etiquette. Specifically, around the time Zodiac was released, I had a friend scold me for revealing that they never catch the killer at the end of the movie. I'm a bit of a serial-killer buff, so maybe I assumed this was common knowledge, therefore not a spoiler. Isn't the reason it was made into a movie because the case went unsolved? Later on, another friend yelled at me because I revealed that in American Gangster, they were smuggling the heroin in coffins. This is something of a reveal in the movie, but is it really a spoiler? The "cadaver connection" was all over the headlines when it happened, and anybody could have read the "spoiler" on Wikipedia before production on the movie even started. Am I supposed to not spoil the end of 300 by revealing the outcome of a battle that happened almost 2,500 years ago? Where does it all end!? Should I avoid telling people that Julius Caesar gets killed in the HBO series Rome? You can see how ridiculous it gets. I guess I'm asking if there should be a statute of limitations on spoilers. Should I be accused of spoilage just because my friends aren't as up on history as I am?



Tasha Robinson wants you to know that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's dad:

Spoilers are a tricky question, David, because what constitutes one is pretty much a matter of taste and experience, not to mention context, timing, and your own personal level of give-a-shit-about-other-people. I pretty much default to the guideline we periodically preach here at The A.V. Club: Try not to be a jerk. And accept that you can't please everyone, and that someone out there will think you're a jerk no matter what you do.


What does "not being a jerk" entail when it comes to spoilers? Obviously, people's mileage will vary. But frankly, you sound like you're skirting the jerk line here, at the point where you're angrily justifying spoiling a current movie by saying "But this was all over the headlines 30 years ago…" Unless you're in your 50s, there's a good chance that your friends weren't avid newspaper readers in the '70s, or that they don't remember every possible detail of Frank Lucas' life, and could still be surprised by how the film addresses those details. And anyone who gets on your case about spoilers is probably not the kind of person who delves deeply into historical events just before a movie about them comes out, so "But you could have read about this on Wikipedia, if you had just now been researching it!" isn't likely to hold water with them as an excuse.

And consider this: Everything out there is new to everyone out there at least once. It doesn't matter if you're talking about a real-life event that happened 20 years ago or a film that was made 30 years ago or a book that was written 100 years ago—someone that you know hasn't experienced it yet. As stunning as this is to contemplate, not everyone around you is up on the outcome of every 2,500-year-old battle. And there was a point where you weren't either. And here's where timing comes in—you might have found it neat if someone had told you the story of the Battle of Thermopylae at some random point when you were a kid, but you probably would have appreciated it a lot less if that same person told you about it while you were midway through reading Frank Miller's 300. Or walking into the theater to see the movie.


Which means the nice thing to do (at least when dealing with your friends, whose good will you presumably actually care about) is test the waters first—ask, for instance, if they know anything about the Zodiac killer, rather than leading with "Hey, you know that murderer who David Fincher just made a movie about that everyone's excited about because they don't know the guy never got caught?" Ask "Did you read the graphic novel?" or "You know how this ends, don't you?" on your way into 300, rather than telling everyone who's excited about it "You won't like it nearly as much when they all die."

All that aside, I agree that people have gotten waaaay too sensitive about spoilers, and it's fairly annoying to, for instance, not be able to discuss a book or a film in a public place or an online forum without someone wailing that you shouldn't have given away some piece of information or the other. At some point, people need to take responsibility for themselves, and accept that just because they personally haven't yet gotten around to seeing, I don't know, Harold And Maude, doesn't mean that everyone in the world is obligated to talk about it in vague, pussyfooting terms forever. So while you shouldn't be a jerk about giving away the ending of things, the people bitching about spoilers need to remember to not be jerks either, and not to assume that all public discourse should be carefully padded to their personal level of familiarity with pop culture, history, and the world at large.


My personal feeling is there's a sort of "statute of limitations" on spoilers, but when it kicks in really depends on where you're revealing them, and why. Deliberately being an ass (i.e., spamming every Harry Potter site or Web thread you can find with a list of who dies on what page in the last book) is always verboten, as it would be in any other area of discourse. Talking about the end of a movie with other people who have seen it, in a public forum? The people who are protesting that, in fear that their virgin eyes might happen across it, need to suck it up, get a helmet, etc.

The key point is, though, that the statue of limitations resets where it relates to newly released media. Yeah, I read Prince Caspian 25 years ago, but with the movie about to come out, this isn't the kindest time to be telling people how the book ends. Generally, people care most about spoilers when they relate to something they're just about to see or read, especially something they're looking forward to. And proper spoiler etiquette mostly means being sensitive to the forum, the moment, and the wishes of the people around you.


Next week: Tasha takes a vacation, and the column does too. Ask The A.V. Club will return May 9. In the meantime, send your questions to asktheavclub@theonion.com.

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