Thursday, November 28, 2013

Fast Food, Robots, and a Lesson in the Proper Use of Non Sequiturs

Some things just stay with you. 

This one time, Rybone ordered a Spicy Chicken combo at Wendy's and it had a tomato on it.  Now, the Spicy Chicken sandwich, besides being a beacon of edibility in the otherwise deadly landscape of debauched and largely indigestible fast food fare, typically comes topped with both lettuce and tomato along with the white, totally non-jizz-like sauce.  Ryebone, however, has an unnatural, irrational hatred of tomatoes that borders on psychopathic rage.  I asked him to explain it once, and he got this crazed look in his eye, a cross between a man pushed passed the brink and a rabid animal about to rampage.  Through his rage he sputtered something about how tomatoes "rob a man of his goddamned virility" and that bisected or sliced tomatoes look like "some weird fucking space vaginas" coming to "suck your soul out through the tattered shreds of your asshole."  He then proceeded to light his pubic hair on fire and put it out in a bowl of Ranch dressing, something he described as a "purification ritual" between howls of what I'm still not sure were pleasure or pain.  I once saw him throw a chair through a third story window at a party at the mere suggestion of ordering a pizza with tomatoes on it. 

One time I pointed out that it was funny that although he hated tomatoes so much he seemed to love ketchup.  By the time the police arrived, Rybone had already dismantled most of the stove and was - as I was later informed - dangerously close to completing his homemade flamethrower, with which he had planned to burn through the bathroom door where I had barricaded myself to "see if I was OK" and not "cleanse my impurity with the Holy Flame" as we had previously stated.      

The Wendy's Incident, though, is the one I remember most.  Ryebone had just finished unwrapping his Spicy Chicken sandwich by the time I sat down.  He said nothing.  He got up from his chair with the kind of frightening calm usually reserved for mass murderers just before a spree or religious leaders before recounting the more dictates of their god or gods.  He walked out to his car and came back into the restaurant a few short minutes later.  Perhaps it was because of his eerie calm that there wasn't a mass panic when he walked in holding a crowbar and a face decorated in red "war paint" that turned out to be the unwilling contents of a ketchup bottle he kept in his trunk "just in case."  In fact, it wasn't until he walked calmly back to our table, raised the crowbar over his head, and proceeded to beat the living shit (metaphorically speaking) out of the sandwich and the rest of the table that people began to flee the restaurant.

I had just enough time to salvage my own Spicy Chicken as I dodged out of the way of that frenzied deluge of hardened steel and unfettered hatred.  By the time Ryebone had finished, the entire table that had so briefly offered us refuge was little more than a pile of splinters, french-fries, and assorted foodstuffs.  Though he was still breathing heavily from the physical exertion, the calm had returned.  He quietly reached down, picked up a handful of debris, walked up to the counter, and held out his hand.  The fragments dug into his hand so the terrified cashier was face to face with this bloody mess, and I'll never forget what Rybone said:

"I'm sorry.  I'd asked for no tomato."

Calm.  As.  Fuck.  As if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.  Later as we drove away, I dared not look at him except for short, furtive glances.  In one hand he held the steering wheel, and in the other a blood-soaked Spicy Chicken sandwich with no tomatoes, which he ate slowly and methodically.  It was then that I realized that I still had the tattered remains of my own sandwich clutched tightly in my frightened fist and decided that it was better that I should eat it than risk awakening the beast again. 

More than any other of Ryebone's rampages, that one sticks out in my mind, but I'm not sure why. 

It's like that with a lot of things though, I guess.

It's funny the things that stick with you.  The random firing of synapses that passes for consciousness can sometimes take us down some weird twists and turns through the cavernous valleys and terrible peaks of our psyches.  One of the markers of true genius is the ability to recognize patterns in data where others see merely chaos.  We are the pattern-making animals.  Though sometimes where we draw these connections remains lost to the swirling mists of thought and time.   

I'm not exactly sure why or how, but one of the most memorable cultural markers that I can recall and that often recalls me is a public service video for the War Amps organization, which is basically just a bunch of assholes who selflessly help out child amputees.  Jerks.  Like a number of other organizations, the War Amps people put together a multimedia information campaign to help disseminate their vile message of charity and goodwill to the unsuspecting masses of Canadian television viewers.  Unlike other campaigns, however, this one included an awesome video featuring one of the awesomest depictions of cybernetic organisms ever given the chance to make sweet, dirty love to the eyes and ears of its audience.  Check it out below:

I'm not sure whether there was some subliminal message embedded in the original commercial to which I was particularly susceptible or whether those amputee-loving freaks over at War Amps somehow stumbled across the essence of genius in what might otherwise have been a typical, boring public health announcement, but for some reason the image of Astar has been firmly embedded in my consciousness. 

For most people concerned with such things, when asked to conjure up iconic images of cybernetic beings might spout off a few of their favourites, including the T-800 or T-1000, Lieutenant-Commander Data, C-3PO and R2-D2, Robocop, the Cylons, Johnny 5, Bishop from ALIENS, the Daleks, Transformers (or their K-Mart equivalent, Gobots), Bender Bending Rodriguez, the Mars Rovers (incidentally, also an awesome name for a celtic/folk/techno band), Mechagodzilla, the replicants from BLADERUNNER, or Keanu Reeves. 

But for me, Astar is right up there with the best of them.  I'm not sure why, though.  Maybe it was because I encountered the imagery at a pivotal point in my cognitive development as a child.  Maybe it's because the commercial was done in the days before CGI, and the character had more substance compared to some of the computer-generated garbage heaped upon the heads of audiences today.  Maybe because Astar is fascinatingly asexual.  Maybe it's because of the seemingly awesome scope of this cyborg's abilities: Astar is extremely agile, has some kind of anti-gravity capabilities, has some kind of advanced radar or other sensors built right into his/her/its skull, and has some amazing regeneration abilities - including (and, as far as we know, not limited to) being able to immediately reattach severed limbs simply by putting them back into place and allowing for some time of spontaneous or conscious molecular bonding.

Or maybe it's because of the mystery that cloaks Astar like a Jedi robe.  Somehow, the makers of this commercial unwittingly stumbled across the recipe for creating an engaging cultural artifact that so often eludes big name film makers of today.  I have to believe that they came across it unwittingly because this was just another PSA for just another organization that featured a robot jumping through a tunnel of terror trying to avoid various video game-style hazards and ending up dismembered.  No marketing executive at the time would have thought, "Hey, let's design a really cool commercial with an awesome robot to help engage children and teach them about ensuring their bodily safety by showing them the permanence of human amputation through the use of a negative example."  More realistically, they were just like, "Kids love robots.  Give us some money."  They didn't really give a shit.  Which makes the Astar commercial even more remarkable.  Despite their almost certain indifference, the makers of this ad managed to include the exact balance of substantive detail and narrative ambiguity to tantalize and engage a burgeoning imagination.  The marketing execs were probably just throwing out random ideas:

"Come on, what can we do to make this robot thing 'cool?'"

"We could, uh, make him, uh, gold?"

"A couple cans of gold spray paint.  That's cheap.  Good.  Anything else?"

"Well, uh, maybe he has satellite dishes for ears?"

"Fine, fine, whatever."

"Maybe he can fly?"

"Jenkins, you idiot!  We don't have the budget for that.  You're fired!"

"Wait, wait… What if he could just jump on the walls and ceiling.  We could just turn the camera upside down or sideways for some scenes.  You know, like in the old Batman TV show."

"Genius!  Kids ate that shit up with a spoon.  Promote this man."

"But, uh, you just fired him…"

"Well then re-hire him."

"Yes sir."

"Alright, let's start production on this bad boy.  But first, the whores!"

Astar is still fascinating to me because he/she/it was not victimized by the Midichlorian Dilemma.  In the STAR WARS prequels, George Lucas tried to explain the Force by saying it was the result of microscopic organisms called midichlorians.  Besides the fact that it was unnecessary exposition, it destroyed the ambiguity of a key feature of the universe he had created and took away from the audience's ability to effectively and enjoyably engage with the text.  By filling in all of the blanks himself, Lucas left no metaphorical handholds for audience members to latch on to by destroying the entire fucking mountain.  If you strip away all mystery, if you pull back the curtain, if you completely spoil the illusion then you take away all pleasure.

Astar is captivating to me now in the same way that Boba Fett was originally captivating to many STAR WARS fans before Lucas et al. starting trying to fill in his back story: there is just enough detail to cling to in order to give the character substance but enough ambiguity surrounding the character that my sense of wonder is left in place.  Who built Astar and why?  What was he/she/it doing in that corridor?  Was he/she/it looking for someone?  And if so, was it to help them or to hurt them?  Was he/she/it a bounty hunter?  A law enforcement official?  A rogue agent in the universe just trying to get survive in the chaos?  Was he/she/it an advanced prototype?  Or merely one of thousands being pumped off of an assembly line daily?  Why does he/she/it have such amazing abilities and what are their true extent?

It is probably for the best that the nature of my fascinations is never revealed for it is in that rift in comprehension that wonder is preserved.  One of the greatest tragedies is learning too much about one's own inner workings.  Though I'm not exactly what sure what part this random 30 seconds of video about a robot plays in the tangled web of my consciousness (and, perhaps, it's better not to know), I know that it is nonetheless integral.  I have to trust in the connections that my brain and I string together and hope that they end up being greater than the sum of their parts.  I have no other choice.


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