Monday, July 18, 2016

Go Watch Stranger Things

2016 has been a messed-up year.

I probably don't need to remind anyone of that but it bears repeating anyway. 

How's it been for you? Every time I think 2016 is doing smacking me around it gets another lick in. But I can't really complain, given the endless ticker-tape of terrible news coming in from all around the world, so much so that it threatens to become routine. 

All hell has not quite broken out everywhere yet, not the way it has in Syria or the Ukraine, say, but it could only be a matter of time. I don't need to read the litany here; you're all smart people and know what's going on out there.

The Olympics, that beloved mash-up of mostly obscure and unloved sports and high initiate ritual, isn't looking like it will offer much relief this year, as Brazil is rocked by political scandal and bad omen.  

America's one-time great escape from reality, the summer blockbuster, is slipping from its grasp as studios focus their money and energy on the foreign market. This is why nearly every movie title these days has either a numeral or a colon in it. 

At some point Hollywood is going to run out of material to recycle and its competitors are going to catch up with its technology. Until then, it's nothing but remakes and sequels as far as the eye can see.

With more and more people shunning the multiplex, television is filling the (yawning, gaping) void. Many of the top writers in the business have migrated into TV, which offers more room to breathe than the hyper-controlled world of moviemaking in the 21st Century. 

And here's where we get to the flip-side of 2016.

Earlier this year I wrote about how a lot of the themes I'd been exploring here seemed to be coming to fruition and Netflix's new series Stranger Things is practically a tulpa in this context. 

It's basically a checklist of Secret Sun standbys, from remote viewing to alternate realities to human experimentation to old-school geekdom to the friggin' Clash*. 

It also ties into another theme this year, this theme of planetary retrograde. I've taken advantage of all these backsliding planets to recover a lot of things from my past and in that regard Stranger Things feels like a kind of punctuation to that process.

I binged the entire thing and have already begun my re-watch but I wanted to riff on my immediate impressions. Suffice it to say, it's been a sync motherlode, personally-speaking.

The story starts off with a Twin Peaks-type mystery; a young boy named Will Byers goes missing after riding his bike home from a friend's house one night. He comes from a broken home with a single mother who isn't entirely stable and has a low-paying job as a cashier. 

He's obsessed with Lord of the Rings and comic books and Star Wars and the rest of it, loves to draw and likes The Clash. He and his friends get bullied a lot by the "mouth-breathers" at school, who all think he's gay.

Yeah, you could say I related to young Will. Except I loved baseball when I was his age. 

And didn't play Dungeons & Dragons, mostly because it wasn't really big when I was his age and by the time it was I didn't have anyone to play it with. The comic store I worked in didn't even sell any D&D stuff at the time, just to give you some context.

If you've watched the show and have read this blog over the years, you've probably picked up on some of the other connections, like the peculiar nature of the Byers' living room. That seemed awfully familiar. A little too familiar.†

So was the general theme of bad shit happening to kids, something else I was all too familiar growing up with. Actually, just this past week I was talking about bad shit happening at a local quarry when I was young and sure enough that very theme pops up in Stranger Things.

Anyhow, as Will goes missing a strange young girl appears, who's apparently escaped from a secret government lab. Will's friends take her in and soon discover she's no ordinary kid. And so the game is afoot.

Stranger Things has been called a pastiche, and to be sure it wears its influences on its sleeve. There's a lot of licks lifted from E.T., The Goonies, Firestarter, Akira, Altered States and a whole host of other 80s classics. There's a healthy dose of X-Files and Outer Limits in evidence.

But there's a lot taken from lesser-known films such as Beyond the Black Rainbow (if you haven't seen it, do so) and especially Wavelength, a decidedly-obscure movie Secret Sun readers are probably familiar with

A lot of the themes the series explores are well familiar to readers of this blog, so much so that it very much feels like its producers have spent some time here (I first made the connections between Wavelength and MK Ultra). The Clash references almost feel like winks in that regard. 

Well, either way.

Speaking of MK Ultra, its star is Timothy Leary's goddaughter Winona Ryder, whose father was a Leary protege. 

Winona is now 44, which scares the shit out of me. Winona's had a hard go of it  the past several years, having fallen from grace several years ago after being arrested for shoplifting. Which means she's perfect for the role here and adds a spiritual connection to the source material that helps complete the circuit. 

In more ways than one, actually. 

It was refreshing to have something to watch, finally. My problem with most TV (or movies) these days is that I just can't get into the subject matter

I'm hard to entertain. I admit it. I've just consumed too much pop culture over the years. This series was pre-sell for me, there's no doubt about it. But I wouldn't have stuck with it if it weren't so well-done. I'm not really into things with kids but this was not a kids' show, it was an adult show that had kids in it. Big difference.

You'll notice I'm not going into the storylines or plot points in any great detail here. And that's because I want you to watch it. Once it's sunk in we can dive into the nitty-gritty and see if we can't parse some of the finer points.

Long story short: it's great. Go watch it.

* Not just The Clash but also a weird 1983-specific Clash sync. In one scene, we hear "She Has Funny Cars" by The Jefferson Airplane. One of the pivotal events of my youth- and certainly of 1983- was my purchase of the Casbah Club bootleg of The Clash at Brixton Academy. That album starts off with a lift of the drum riff from "Funny Cars." 

That's some pretty specific synchery going on there, especially since I bought the album at the same flea market I got a lot of old comics, including the John Byrne issue of The Comics Journal, artist of the issue of the X-Men that is repeatedly mentioned in the first episode of Stranger Things.

† Around the same time this story takes place (November 1983) I had my cop nightmare, which played uncomfortably like the abduction scene in the Intruders TV movie. It went like this: I was sitting with my mother and stepfather in the living room (aka the owl room) and we were worried about my sister, who was late getting home. 

Suddenly we saw flashing lights in the front window (pink and purple, significantly) and I went to get the door. There was a cop on the front porch but I couldn't see his face. As I opened the front door he took out his gun and shot me in the stomach. Or chest. I had a strange feeling of accomplishment after having that dream. Which raises all kinds of weird issues not unrelated to this series.