Shell Game

In summer 2004, I saw an album cover in some British music magazine (Q, I think), and I've since forgotten the name of the artist and title. All I can remember about it was that it was made by a young, possibly British man in the early 1970s, and that he had had a drug-induced meltdown while recording, and took to wedging himself inside of a tortoise shell. The cover itself was the musician inside of said carapace, lying on a drab beach. I was thinking that the title was Tortoise or something like that, but that didn't turn up anything. I'm afraid that's all I remember; I hope it's enough!

Melissa In Maryland

Christopher Bahn responds:

This is Julian Cope's 1984 album Fried.

The lead singer of influential late-1970s British post-punk group The Teardrop Explodes, Cope probably drew his largest inspiration from Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett, both musically and chemically. His intake of LSD was the stuff of legend, by which I mean that there are a lot of stories about his eccentric behavior that sound almost too good to be true—like that he was obsessed with a collection of toy cars for the better part of a year, or that he invented a game called "sock" that involved putting a sock on his head and then climbing onto the roof of a moving car, and which had only one rule, according to Cope: "You mustn't die." Fried, his second solo album, was a commercial and critical flop, though it's gained a better reputation over the years, and it features two of his best songs, "Reynard The Fox" and "Sunspots."

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Cope had rocky relationships with record labels throughout the 1980s and 1990s, partly due to album sales and partly to Cope's vocally pro-pagan and far-left opinions. These days, Cope is still recording new music (self-released rather than coming through a label), but he's probably having a greater impact as an author, with several well-received books to his name on krautrock, Japanese music, and ancient megalithic structures, plus a two-volume autobiography, Head-On/Repossessed.

Sheer Madness

I can't remember the context in which I originally saw this, but I remember sometime in the mid-'90s seeing an ad for a "new type of movie" which basically played upon the concept of those "choose your own adventure" novels, wherein the reader directed the story based on what decisions he wanted the character to make. The advertisement I saw showed that these films would be shown in theaters equipped with a little device on each seat, and after each scene, they would give the audience multiple choices for what the main character should do next. Then each member of the audience would vote, and whatever choice got the majority played that scene, and so on.

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I distinctly remember how the commercial/advertisement/whatever for this showed the audience at the theater really getting into it and laughing hysterically (what fun!). Part of me wants to believe that it may have been a lame comedy sketch, but nevertheless, this advertisement exists somewhere, and has been eating at me for a decade now.

Nick N.

Scott Tobias

The "movie" (quotations mine) in question is 1995's Mr. Payback, a 25-minute comedy played three times in succession so audiences could sample the many different ways the reputedly lame story could play out. Here's how the system worked: Participating theaters were made "interactive" through the installation of four laserdisc players—laserdiscs being those comically oversized discs that presaged the DVD— and three-button joysticks on the armrests, where you'd normally put your drink. At various points in the film, the action paused so the audience could choose what they wanted to see happen next. (Commence obnoxious shouting and spastic button-mashing as the tally rings up on the screen.)

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In flagrant defiance of movie-theater decorum, the film's introduction encouraged audience members to talk, shout, and "generally act as if [they] were raised in a barn"; the effect, according to many critics, is that the more boorish in attendance would have the strongest influence on mob rule. The film follows Mr. Payback (Billy Warlock), a bionic man who metes out punishment to the villains who have wronged his clientele. His clients include victims of city-hall corruption, racial bigotry, and sexual harassment—the latter being the most popular with audiences—and Mr. Payback could be directed to torture his adversaries in various ways, from lighting their pants on fire to forcing them to eat a pile of monkey brains from a dog bowl to subjecting them to the toxic horrors of "flatulence mode." Needless to say, this PG-13-rated thingamabob wasn't terribly appropriate for the children who would make up its likely target audience.

Reviews weren't kind. Critics were up in arms about the very possibility of movies as an interactive experience, and the reputedly dreadful film—written and directed by Bob Gale, Robert Zemeckis' writing partner on 1941, Used Cars, and the Back To The Future trilogy—gave them plenty of ammunition. Most of the reviews emphasized the astonishing crudity of the wall-to-wall language and the scatological humor, which made it not only inane but actively unpleasant. On a hilarious clip available at the new At The Movies archive, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert ventured up to suburban Chicago to see it and interviewed various mouth-breathers in the audience who enjoyed it, including one who put it on par with Forrest Gump.

Speaking personally, this movie scared the hell out of me when it first came out, so I'm relieved to see it in the Ask The A.V. Club dustbin where it belongs. As Ebert puts it, "movies act on you," not the other way around, and it was sad to consider that interactivity could be the wave of the future. Sony invested $1.6 million in making Mr. Payback, and an untold fortune in installing theaters with feedback buttons for the film's limited theatrical run. Fortunately, the gimmick died faster than you can say "Smell-O-Vision."

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Talk Talk

I recently watched a feature on the M DVD of William Friedkin interviewing Fritz Lang back in the '70s. It reminded me of Directed By John Ford by Peter Bogdanovich, and Truffaut's book-length interview with Alfred Hitchcock. My question is: Where are all the modern counterparts to these cross-generational discussions between directors? Who wouldn't want to watch 20 minutes (or more?) of Paul Thomas Anderson interviewing Scorsese, Wes Anderson talking to Coppola, or even (oof) Michael Bay sitting down with Spielberg? I guess film commentaries give directors a chance to free-associate about their work, but are there any other modern features to take the place of artists interviewing their predecessors in this open, informal (read: without publicists present to keep them talking about the current project) style?

Bob McLennan

Noel Murray gets collegial:

Funny you should mention commentary tracks, Bob, because that's where you'll frequently find directors hanging out together and chatting these days. Steven Soderbergh frequently guests on other directors' tracks, like the Mike Nichols commentaries for Catch-22 and Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, and the Lodge Kerrigan track on Clean, Shaven; the commentary for the sex, lies and videotape DVD is essentially a long conversation between Soderbergh and Neil LaBute. The recent DVD of They All Laughed features a commentary track by Peter Bogdanovich and Wes Anderson, and Hostel 2 features Eli Roth with Quentin Tarantino. Kevin Smith talks with Richard Kelly for the Donnie Darko DVD. The list goes on.

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In the print world, I recommend Cameron Crowe's interviews with Billy Wilder, collected as Conversations With Wilder. And the backbone of Interview magazine is still famous people talking to other famous people. So yes, those kinds of filmmaker-a-filmmaker forums do still exist, though you're often more likely to stumble across them than to find them by actively looking.

It's funny how we're interested in those kind of conversations, isn't it? Some of that fascination can be chalked up to the inherent attraction of two skilled artists sharing trade tricks for our benefit, but there's something else going on, too: We want the artists we like to be friendly with and appreciative of other artists we like. It feeds the unified string theory of pop culture if our favorite directors listen to our favorite musicians, who watch our favorite TV shows, etc. It's like they're all links in a chain, and just by asserting our mutual fandom, we become part of that chain too.

The Days Of Miracles And Wonders

There is a British comic book that I've wanted to read for a while that both Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman wrote called Miracleman or Marvelman, depending on which side of the Atlantic you lived on. I heard there were some issues with the publisher, (which I think was Eclipse?) that prevented it being reprinted in America, and then Todd McFarlane bought the rights to it a couple of years ago and it just disappeared. I was just curious as to whatever happened to Image reprinting the series, and if anyone who has read it could comment on whether it's worth seeking out. Thanks,

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Andrew Jay Leech

I recall a one-off comic story about a city where everyone was involved in espionage—it looked like Eastern Europe in the '60s, with a little noir and a lot of claustrophobia. The main character is a female agent trying to meet her handler and becoming increasingly more paranoid in the rather claustrophobic city. Eventually, it is revealed that the city exists for spies who can't let the Cold War go, as the world has moved on. It was a one-off story, and I think Neil Gaiman wrote it, but perhaps it was just in a collection he contributed to.

I've been trying to track it down for ages, It's not in any collection I've seen recently, but I'm almost sure I got it from the library. (In the UK, sadly, so no asking them…) Thanks,

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Simon

Tasha Robinson has your miracle right here:

Last things first: Simon, you're describing an issue of the comic that Andrew was asking about: Miracleman in the U.S., Marvelman in the UK. In America, at least, the installment you remember was featured as one of two self-contained stories and a serial in issue #21. It's called "Spy Story," and it was written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Mark Buckingham (who went on to fame with Fables and Hellblazer) and D'Israeli. (Scarlet Traces, Kingdom Of The Wicked, etc.) After Alan Moore finished his arcs on the series, Gaiman took over, and his run consisted of stories like this one: short, mostly unconnected tales taking place as Miracleman and his family are working to turn the world into a utopia. Part of this involves taking people who can't adapt—spies, for instance—and… well, Gaiman puts it far better than I could. To quote from the relevant scene, where the protagonist finds someone who will finally answer her questions:

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"My colleagues are engaged in a grand and wonderful task. It is given to them, dear lady, to perfect the human race. To usher in a golden age. They have cured the sick, and made the insane well. They have abolished crime and war. But at every step, they confront new challenges to be overcome, philosophically and actually. For example, one of the hardest groups of people to rehabilitate are members of the community that I was once a part of—commonly known, for reasons that now escape me, as intelligence… People who voyage forever through a milieu of deceit and double-dealing; to whom treachery is as natural as breathing, and for whom lies and subterfuge are the only truths. My colleagues couldn't make any of you happy in the world outside… They offered you paradise, but you rejected it. So we took you outside it. We removed you like a malignant tumor."

If you're lucky enough to track down a copy, you can find it in the Miracleman trade collection Book Four: The Golden Age. But that can be fairly difficult, since all the Miracleman trades have been out of print for years, and in spite of various rumors that one company or another was going to reprint them, it's never happened. When will it happen, asks Andrew? Oh, Andrew. You apparently have no idea what you're getting into. Rather than trying to answer that question in full here, I'm just going to point you at Wikipedia's extensive rundown on the rights situation. Super-short version: The rights are tangled all to hell, with at least five people claiming they own the characters. Frankly, I wouldn't expect a resolution any time soon.

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So is it worth paying sometimes-prohibitive prices to get your hands on copies of the series in trade or comic form? Well, that depends on how much money and/or patience you have, doesn't it? Copies of all the comics and books frequently pop up on eBay and the like, so it isn't that hard to track them down, but as Moore and Gaiman's fame has grown, and as it becomes less and less likely that we'll see reprints any time soon, those copies have gotten significantly more expensive. Still, if you're patient and determined, you should be able to get the whole series together.

Personally, I think it's worth it. The first two trades are fairly hard on the eyes, with difficult-to-read, cramped lettering and dark, claustrophobic art. And the story wanders a little. But if you happen to be an Alan Moore fan, it's another vital example of how he breathes new life into the superhero genre by recreating and recontextualizing existing characters—in this case, a classic British superhero—and rethinking how a typical four-color origin would actually play out and affect a hero's psyche in an even slightly more realistic setting. It's a deep, resonant, complicated series. Also, it's phenomenally dark and creepy, intensely violent on both a physical and an emotional level; its ideas about the horrors a villain with Superman-level powers could potentially perpetuate have rarely (if ever) been equaled. That aside, if you were intrigued by Dr. Manhattan's evolution to godhood in Watchmen, you'll probably enjoy seeing Moore develop the roots of that idea in Miracleman, as the title character comes into his full power and learns what being superhuman really means.

Some A.V. Clubbers I've talked to about Miracleman are less enamored of Gaiman's later run on the series, which as mentioned above is more episodic and less mythic, almost a series of small conceptual character studies with punchlines. But I love the way Gaiman gets into the corners of the world Moore created, offering a ground-level view of a world being changed by super-beings—basically, being made into a more perfect place than most imperfect people can accept, since those changes completely redefine how their worlds work. Some people fight the changes, some suffer quietly under them, and some are redeemed by them; each story is different narratively, tonally, and artistically, and I think they really highlight Gaiman's range and creativity. I particularly love "Notes From The Underground," a story narrated by one of 18 copies of Andy Warhol, created as an alien experiment that's never fully explained. The way Gaiman gets into Warhol's persona, as well as the persona of an alien clone/android/replica, is just a wonderful thing, as far as I'm concerned.

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So is Miracleman worth seeking out? As far as I'm concerned, hell yes. But as with any piece of art, what you get out of it partially comes from what you bring into it, and who you are. Your mileage will vary, Andrew, based on what kind of comics you like, and whether the effort and/or cash you're going to have to put in to pick up the series will just whet your appetite for it, or prompt you to expect it to live up to an impossible standard.

Next week: PAL vs. NTSC, a lesson in bookbinding, and more. Send your questions to asktheavclub@theonion.com.