I think I saw,
Something I’ve never seen–
I saw a thing,
That couldn’t possibly have been.
I think I saw,
Something I’ve never seen–
I saw a thing,
That couldn’t possibly have been.
In the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Last Action Hero, the lines between reality and fiction are blurred as an archetypal “magic ticket” allows the characters to pop into (and out of) films themselves (for more on “popping in and out” of things read Godel, Escher and Bach).
An Action Replay is a cheating device for computers and gaming consoles that wedged in-between the game and the machine and let you input codes that could grant invulnerability, the ability to walk through walls (we spoke of this unsacred power, called “no clip”, only in hushed tones) and whatever else you can think of.
In a way, the Action Replay was like the magic ticket from Last Action Hero.
In Last Action Hero there’s a bunch of action-movie rules that allow Arnie to perform death-defying feats without feeling pain (or taking bullet damage). In a horror movie, y’all know better than to say “I’ll be right back!”
In video games there’s heaps of rules, like:
The “real world” (this one) has plenty of rules as well and we’re especially good at thinking up names for them, like “Common Law” and “The Laws of Thermodynamics” and “Thermomix Instruction Manual”.
But here’s the thing: in movies the rules can be adjusted. Sometimes this rule-bending is embedded into the story itself. Other times the characters might have an innate awareness of “the rules” and thus be able to bend them to their advantage. Sometimes, as in Last Action Hero, there’s a magic ticket involved.
In video games you can use an Action Replay or input a bunch of button presses on your controller, or, if you’re feeling especially brave, you can type”no_clip” into the console.
What’s out there, beyond the darkness? Does one see Truth? The Face of God? Or merely more emptiness?
Here, in “real life” the rules are much harder to break. But lordy, how we try.
We build Large Hadron Colliders. We read self-help manuals. We gaze into crystals and and cast nets and cast runes and cast faces in bronze and cast “hot new talent” in “spectacular retellings of old family classics”.
Each thing that we build is a ritual; every word that we speak is a spell.
My intention is for this new ongoing column to be a sort of Action Replay for reality. Or, if you will, the… Last Action Replay.
I’ll “pop into” (as it were) popular (and unpopular) culture–films, books, music, games, realistic papier–mâché animals and more, in order to examine the way in which all of these things reflect upon us, others and, indeed, upon the very nature of the universe that we inhabit.
(Full disclosure: there probably won’t be papier-mâché animals; although, through self-fulfilling prophecy, I may have inadvertently ensured it.)
In an attempt to unpack such an idea I will first attempt to draw a parallel between the underrated classic Arnold Schwarzenegger film Last Action Hero and the Action Replay cheat code device. Because the Action Replay was kind of like the magic ticket from Last Action Hero.
Action Replay image from “Centre for Computing History”
Mario Falling GIF from “Mario Jumps But Can He Make It”
Sing us of the stone risings,
Like tooth buttresses of forgotten kings,
Much larger than man but with smaller souls,
Souls now wasted stain the land.
Giant kings once ruled and killed,
The mountains are their graves,
Rising cold to bleak grey sky,
While beneath them Craedus stalks its prey.
Centre of it stands a tower,
Unexceptional, not special, not this one,
But atop that spindly, darkened spire,
A red light flickers, always does.
The Craedus lives here, Ulterkaad,
No purpose served, no quest is won,
This is an empty, hollow place,
A howling place that’s nearly done.
A storm rages softly, soothing end-song,
The Craedus walks on, slowly now,
No sun lights passage, cold earth, cold souls,
The Ulterkaad lives on and on.
Now Craedus comes to mound of stone,
Once encouraging, human home,
It sifts through rubble, seeking nothing,
It finds a box that’s itsalone.
And in that box sits mounds of paper,
A pen with never-ending ink,
The Craedus inspects discovery, wondering,
About its words it stops to think.
Then tentative, strokes slow at first,
Craedus tells us of it first,
Of who it is, or who it could be,
And its forsaken, cursed course.
Course winding through the Ulterkaad,
Forgotten land where evil ruled,
And evil captured, so remained,
Locked in tower, trapped by good.
But such great evil touches much,
And poison yet remains,
The Ulterkaad grew poisoned such,
And poisoned, Ulterkaad remains.
The Craedus then is doomed to watch,
To warn nobody of escape,
To prowl and walk this haunted wasteland,
To live a hopeless, tortured fate.
For centuries enduring such,
Its old life is forgotten now,
There is no way to break the curse,
The small crowd bustles below a crooked banner, missing letters so instead it reads “H*P** BI**H***” like some ancient invocation.
The young man steps up to the microphone. It’s too tall for him to reach without a milk crate to stand on, but he doesn’t have a milk crate so instead he wrestles it down. He’s not so young as he looks, but he wears most of his scars on the inside, so you can’t really tell.
“Is this thing on?” he says into the microphone.
“What’s he saying?” says somebody at the back of the room.
Off to the side somebody jostles with the cabling, plugs something in and give the thumbs-up.
“IS THIS THING—OKAY, GOOD,” says the man with the microphone. “FIRSTLY, I’D LIKE TO THANK YOU ALL FOR BEING HERE TODAY. IT MEANS A LOT.”
The crowd claps, politely.
“IN MY TWENTY-FIVE YEARS I’VE LEARNED A THING OR TWO, AND I’D LIKE TO TAKE A MOMENT TO SHARE WITH YOU SOME OF THOSE THINGS.”
Silence. Somebody coughs. The speakers connected to the microphone buzz. Beyond the room, in the distance, something else is buzzing too. But that’s still too far away for anyone except the dogs to hear.
A piece of paper comes into the man’s hands as if by magic, but it’s not really magic unless you count having pockets as magic. “OKAY,” he says and looks out, however briefly, into the crowd. He checks his sheet of paper again. He says “OKAY” again. Somebody is tapping their foot.
“Do we get a feed after this?” somebody asks. A cough. A cleared throat. A sneeze buried in a tissue.
The buzzing is louder now and it’s not so much buzzing as a THWAP THWAP THWAP which—as everybody knows—is the sound that a helicopter makes.
“THE FIRST THING I’VE LEARNED,” says the man with the microphone. A door to the left of stage opens and somebody steps in to interrupt.
“They’re on their way,” they tell the man with the microphone and the THWAP THWAP THWAP is even louder now, as though the helicopter is hovering directly overhead.
“TERRIBLY SORRY,” says the man with the microphone. Then, again, without it: “Terribly sorry,” and as quickly as that he is ushered out the side door.
The stage is empty.
So I find myself surrounded by the paraphernalia of my childhood hobbies, now obscure to me as strange measuring instruments viewed through a grimy window.
And yet–locked away inside, I possess the occult knowledge required to have them yield their purpose to me.
Which one of us–the tools, or the man–would ultimately be fulfilled by this process, I could not tell.
Momentum carries me out of the water. Forwards, forwards, toppling. Something scratches my leg—a rock, or a stick—I don’t care. All I care about is moving forwards.
The sand beneath my feet feels so comforting that for one maddening moment I consider burrowing into it; gorging myself on it. But I can still hear the ocean at my back. It rumbles and roars. It reaches out with foamy white fists, clawing at the beach. It drags the sand away in layers, revealing the shapes of long dead, sideways things—crabs and fish and squid.
I feel the spray. Little more than a mist it still burns my skin like acid. I scream but make no sound. I stumble forwards. Forwards. How far must I run to get away from the sea?
I limp across the sand, past stones and overturned logs, until I reach a wall of trees raised up on a stone outcropping. The solidity of the rocks is comforting beneath my wrinkled palms; the geometry and dryness of them stark contrast to the wet, roaring horror at my back.
I clamber up the rocks and inhale the smells of the jungle. Great spiders hang down heavily between the trees, their markings like tribal war masks. I swat the spiders away. Here, amongst the cicadas and the rustling leaves, I finally rest.
But not for long. Beyond the trees the ocean still calls to me; it calls me back to that that uncanny, churning vastness beneath the waves. That terrible void.
I peek out from behind the tree. Sheets of water glisten as they glide up the sand. Back further, the ocean heaves and the waves grow higher. I watch one wave rise high above the rest and come crashing down towards me. I step back even as briny salt water spray lashes the trees.
I need to keep moving.
The jungle is filled with tiny blades. Serated branches and stings assail me at every step. The prickles and stingers and bugs cling to me like the decorative baubles on a festive tree.
I use vines to pull me up in places where the rocks are too steep. There is a cave near the top of the hill, set back from the edge. I frantically scrub off the detrius of the jungle as I descend into the darkness.
I do not want to sleep, but unconsciousness claims me. My body is broken and bleeding. The pain is too much. I dream of the thing that pursues me, the one-beneath-the-sea.
When I wake up the water has receded away from the trees. Spread out across the beach like oily, glistening entrails, are heaped piles of seaweed. There is so much of it that the sand can barely be seen beneath. There is a thick, salty tang in the air that makes it hard to breathe.
The water, it seems, cannot reach me here. But I don’t have the energy to celebrate. I barely manage to crawl away to toilet myself. I return to the cave beset with stomach cramps. My body is covered in perspiration and even the slightest hint of a breeze makes my teeth chatter.
I need to light a fire, but I have no way how. I need to eat but the only thing I can find nearby is a fallen coconut that I can’t break open. I chew on some of the stringy fur that clings to the outside of the shell and it doesn’t taste good.
I am very sick.
Sometime in the afternoon a breeze burrows down into the cave. I shuffle to the entrance and look down at the waves. They look so far away. I am so hungry.
I try—again—to break the coconut, but I can’t even lift it. My skin is grey. I have a wicked headache that pounds all my thoughts flat leaving only thin delirium.
The sky turns orange as though the sun has been punctured and is bleeding. The ocean has grown still and looks very dark. The beach has been strangled by even more seaweed. As I watch it twitches in the breeze.
I drift off somewhere between sleep and almost-death. I awaken, feverish and clawing at myself. I need water and the absurdity of that thought makes me laugh huskily. I look down at the beach and notice even more seaweed than before.
Now the seaweed is clinging to the front row of trees. It stretches between them, hanging down from the branches like heavy, unwashed hair. It jiggles and shakes as I watch it. It quivers in the wind.
But there is no wind.
The seaweed is sliding wetly between the trees. It slithers up the rocks and into the cracks between them. In one place it gathers in a lumpish, squirming mass and begins to rise up into the shape of a man.
I claw at my face. I glance about and see only the coconut. I frantically gather it into my arms, clutching it against me like a baby while I gather my breath. It takes every effort for me to raise it up higher—above my head—as high as it can go. My arms are shaking.
I close my eyes. I can hear the wet slurping of the seaweed as it comes to the entrance of the cave, but I won’t let it take me.
I drop the coconut on my head and it cracks.
Think of a nail; like you’d hit with a hammer.
Work as hard as you can to form that image in your mind.
Contemplate the length–maybe one or two inches; and the metal it’s made from (iron, most likely).
Hold it in your mind’s eye, and then: with your mind’s hands.
Touch the point of the nail with the end of your finger and notice that it’s sharp enough to prick your skin.
Bite down on it–feel the unyielding metal between your teeth.
Imagine a nail; like you’d hit with a hammer.
Focus on the simplicity of its shape. Ignore, for now, its purpose.
Vanish it–then bring it back. Practice doing this, until it becomes second-nature.
In the coming days and weeks and months, I want you to cast your mind back to the nail you’ve created. Touch it–turn it over between your fingers–conjure it up (again and again): make the nail as real as you possibly can.
Think of a nail, like you’d hit with a hammer.
Put it aside: but don’t forget about it.
You’re going to need it, soon enough.
George Michael is smiling, but his smile is one frozen–trapped–inside this snow globe of sadness.
He sings of an eternal “last Christmas”, never clearly defined. Such is the way in which the song is dragged along by the arrow of time and comes to be about every Christmas.
This Christmas exists only as suggestion; a promise that the woes of the last will not be repeated.
This year, George sings, to save him from tears, he’ll give his heart to someone special.
And yet, as the world spins and another winter’s snowfall begins; the lights blaze up all gold and crimson; the speakers crackle tinnily and, again, his voice–cheerful despite the sadness–again he laments, again:
Last Christmas: I gave you my heart.
The very next day: you gave it away.
This year: to save me from tears.
I’ll give it it to someone special.
It would not be so bad perhaps, if we could believe him. Yet clearly he mourns for the love that was lost–the love of last Christmas. His determination to “give his heart to someone special”, rings hollow–the forgotten dream of a promise yet fulfilled.
George is carrying presents. Creeping through the snow like some bronzed, idealised Father Christmas. The gifts are wrapped with ribbon and topped with bows, but they are mere props to enhance the illusion.
The truth is: those presents are empty.
Or, if they contain anything at all, perhaps it’s explosives with which he will seek to shatter the glass of the snow globe at last, to escape from this self-imposed purgatory, this seasonal time-loop of Christmas Cheer.
George will not explode the presents: he cannot. Because he is only an image.
And just like the static figures in a snow globe he will remain on the shelf, gathering dust, until another year passes and, again, it is taken out and shaken up (again) to remind us, forever to remind us, of “Last Christmas”.