Blog Archives

It’s A Fork-Off : Tasting The World’s Foulest Food

If one should ask me what use there was in climbing, or attempting to climb the world’s highest peak, I would be compelled to answer ‘none.’  — George Mallory

You know those awkward moments where you’re at a friend’s dinner party, or at a restaurant, and something is placed before you that you don’t like the look of? Where an internal battle rages – whether to offend your host and pass, or munch down on it anyway, come what may? That decision governed by the answer to one and only one question : “How bad could it be?”

I know how bad it could be. I’ve tasted it. Twice.

Several years ago, while I was still living in Australia, I heard about Hákarl. “The world’s most disgusting food-stuff that you can eat and still live” was how I remember it being described. Put in less-poetic terms, it’s putrefied shark meat, it’s from Iceland, and it’s absolutely awful. Growing up a very fussy eater, somehow in my adult life I have swung the other way – trying everything, just in case there was something amazing out there I hadn’t tasted, making that a personal mission. You name the body part, bizarre root vegetable, I’ve probably nommed it down, or at the very least, wanted to. But to suddenly be aware that the adventurous culinary path did indeed have a limit? I had to try it.

Of course, at the time (and probably still today) it was nearly impossible to get the putrefied (i.e. cured by shoving slabs of poisonous shark meat underground for several months) flesh of a Greenland or basking shark past Australian quarantine officials. Even if that were something easy to do, the noxious, rotting, urea-dripping, formerly poisonous carrion would need to be transported cold all the way from Iceland to Sydney – something which sounded a little out of my regular food-curiosity budget.

I look at this photo and feel pity for my past-self : that perky thumbs-up brimming so much optimism and naivety, with no way of comprehending the horrors that were about to befall its owner, or the trail it blazed for my future taste-depravity...

I look at this photo and feel pity for my past-self : that perky thumbs-up brimming so much optimism and naivety, no way of comprehending the horrors that were about to befall me, or the trail it blazed for the future taste-depravity…

Flash forward : late 2013…

Now based on London, I found myself sharing the office of a food industry startup in the midst of a promotion involving insect recipes. Naturally, during the course of the ‘crazy stuff we’ve eaten’ discussion that ensues when one is sharing a plate of ant tacos and cricket pad Thai with a couple of gents, the conversation turned to Hákarl.

A lightbulb suddenly tinked on – I was now living close enough to Iceland that maybe, just maybe, rotten shark was something one could procure without much drama.

Sure enough, I was right.

Within minutes, someone in Iceland was packing 100grams of the stuff into a box full of cold packs, my address plastered on the front. It arrived. It was eaten.

How did it taste? I’ll get to that in a moment…

Jump to last Friday…

Working in a different office on the opposite side of town, the Swedish gentleman sitting beside me posted a video of a bunch of non-Swedes failing dismally at eating Surströmming. I remembered seeing the Australian comedy duo, Hamish & Andy, doing a piece about it – the Swedish equivalent of Hákarl (if I may be so bold) except it’s rotten herrings, it comes in a can, and is a lot easier to get hold of. After my experience with Hákarl in November, I felt I had a story to tell, however with a proud Swede on my right, and an equally proud Norwegian on my left, the old rivalries (mixed with a dose of Australian bravado) meant suddenly Hákarl’s title of “world’s most disgusting food-stuff” was being brought into question.

A smarter man, second time around. Note: package was opened outside, not in the kitchen, and the opening of the can all took place inside the plastic bag to reduce spray. The safety bucket was a (fortunate) last-minute after-thought.

A smarter man, second time around. Note: package was opened outside, not in the kitchen, and the opening of the can all took place inside the plastic bag to reduce spray. The safety bucket was a (fortunate) last-minute after-thought.

Of course, nobody but myself had ever tried one of the two morsels in question — it seemed only right that I take the initiative to settle the discussion for once and for all. Getting hold of the Surströmming was even easier than I could ever have imagined it to be : there’s a Scandinavian deli only 100 metres from where we were arguing, and still a half an hour left before they closed for the day. You can probably figure out the rest.

So…

To cut a long story very short, I have now consumed both countries’ rotten seafood delicacies, and feel I’m now one of the few people out there who can speak with good authority as to which is indeed The Worst.

I took good notes during November’s Hákarl experience, and am still feeling very fresh from the recent Surströmming tasting, occurring mere hours ago (I can still smell it on my hands in a few places the soap ceased helping). Regardless of any question as to the clarity or errors that might creep into recalling two experiences now separated by a few months, there’s a clear winner.  Of that there is no question. In the battle between Hákarl and Surströmming for the title of “World’s Foulest Food”, I can speak with complete confidence as to which is indeed the worst. Rather than any further long-winded narrative, I’m going to table it, side-by-side, blow-for-blow, gulp-for-gulp :

(Note – I did attempt to shoot video for both tastings, but both attempts were met with bitter failure. Once those packs were opened, there was no mental space left for worrying about camera operation – if there were to be a next time, I promise to rope in a nostril-blocked friend to shoot.)

Hákarl Surströmming
Ease of procurement Tricky and expensive. Easy and cheap, like heroin.
Feeling going in… Nervous dread, akin to a dentist’s waiting-room. Cocky. I was all: “Been there, done that – this won’t be worse… 80% of Hákarl at its baddest.”
Package Opening An immediate increase in the feeling of dread as an intense ammonia smell filled the room, followed by deep regret I hadn’t done this outside. Was very prepared this time, and thought I was really clever utilising the balcony. The fermentation pressure build-up in the can sprayed liquid out everywhere, but I’d done the reading, and did all of the opening inside a plastic bag. Still feeling cocky at this point – for about 0.5 seconds.
Initial Stench Terrifying. Very, very strong ammonia smell, mixed in with a smell that’s like the worst thing you’d ever smell down at the docks where fishing boats come in, multiplied by around 100. Stomach was fine with it – I felt a deep dread that I was about to eat what was causing the smell, but my stomach was behaving itself – no gags. Much, much worse than anticipated. Less ammonia, more of a shit smell at first, hints of sulfur, before hitting my nostrils with a overwealming assault of that ‘death’ smell. That, and a few hints of the same ‘where fishing boats come in’ smell – there were notes that were quite similar to that of Hákarl, but only a few. A very different beast. Involuntary gagging began within two seconds of the can opening.
Stench Growth The ammonia smell definitely got worse the closer you put the food to your mouth, but it did not change much over time, in either intensity or flavour. Once you know what Hákarl smells like – it makes you wish you were dead – find small comfort in the knowledge that that’s all you’re going to be dealing with. The smell only got worse over time, and changed its tone constantly. Just as you thought you were getting a handle on one aspect of it, something else would hit you. There were simply too many smells for my brain to cancel out or keep control of, all of them 10/10 horrible, all of them building over time.
Stench Linger-time I mananaged to clean the kitchen out fine, the smell gone completely within 20 minutes with the help of the stove-top extractor fan and some lavender-scented bathroom air-freshener. Unsure, though already the linger time has beaten Hákarl by a long shot. I can’t get the stuff off my hands. I made the mistake of trying to film the experience on my phone, and smudged some juice on the touch-screen at one point – my phone now smells too, even though I’ve wiped that spot down with several chemicals. I don’t think it’ll ever die from whatever it touched. How do you kill something that’s already dead? Oh god. Make it stop.
Appearance Clean-looking white cubes. Not scary at all while they were in their vacuum pack. Deceptively safe-looking until the point you snip open the package and let the smell out. Once the can was open, the contents looked exactly like what it was : a sludge of rotten fish. There was nothing appetizing about the presentation. Nothing. It looked as bad as it smelled. (Sorry, as it smells. SMELLS. Present tense. Make it stop…). At least it wasn’t pretending, not like Hákarl. Even if you can’t smell it, Surströmming looks like something you don’t want to eat.
Texture Rubbery at first, but more powdery/melty as you chew. Interesting texture. Exactly as you’d imagine sloppy, wet, rotten fish would be, complete with bones, skin, oily bits, sticky bits, gross bits, fins, lots of watery rotten-brine mixture…
First Bite I did as the literature suggests – placed the first piece in my mouth and inhaled deeply through the nose, experienceing the icy – almost menthol? – burn of the ammonia up my nostrils. Wholly unpleasant based on how terrible the smell was at this point, but an unexpected novelty element with the burning. There was a sense of danger in this – nothing that does what that gas did to my nose should be going inside my body. I could still feel the burn of it hours later. Oddly, the flesh itself didn’t taste so bad – not if you forget the smell for a moment. Just… fishy. The smell was disproportionately terrible compared to the taste by a factor of at least 1000. By the time I had the first piece in my mouth, trying to bite through the skin/bone/flesh, the juices splattering over my face and hands, my stomach had had enough. There was no time to savour or think about the experience. I knew I only had seconds left, as my chest was already hunched and heaving. The only strange thing I did notice was that the flesh itself felt almost fizzy on my tongue at one point, like bubbles in beer. This didn’t help anything. It was all wrong. All so very wrong. The smell. THE SMELL.
The Chew I took my time. The fact that I wasn’t already puking, and had survived the nostril thing, gave me time to note the textural change from rubber to powder as I got through it. It’s not like I was smiling though – this wasn’t pleasant. It was horrible. I kept thinking of that line from Harry Potter describing the experience of encountering a ‘Dementor’ – such misery that I wasn’t certain I’d ever feel cheerful again. My stomach was already fighting the experience very hard, way before the flesh even got to my mouth. I had to keep the chewing to a minimum. My time was up.
The Swallow Nothing exciting: I swallowed. I stood there in that cloud of ammonia stench, bracing myself for something worse to happen, but nothing did. I felt truly horrible, staring blankly, trying to recover from the ordeal. I questioned why I’d done this in the first place. The smell filled my head and soul, and I couldn’t escape it – that ammonia death smell was inside me now. I was its bitch. My time was long over by the time I got up to swallowing. As I began to swallow, the retching began. I continued to try, and believe at one point I managed to get the mouthful about half-way down my throat, but it wasn’t long before I was bent over the plastic bag puking Surströmming back into the can. Then, an extended period of dry-retching. It took about a minute before I had the presence of mind to force myself away from the source of the smell, which was doing most of the ongoing damage. As for the herring, I doubt I digested any more than a fraction of a gram of the stuff in the end. My body simply said “NO” to Surströmming.
Immediate Aftermath I felt dirty and afraid. I wondered when the sickness would start. I wondered why I’d put myself through that. I wondered how far away the bin would need to be from my house so that I never had to smell that ammonia/fishy stench again once I threw it out. I thought about my own mortality, and how fragile life was. There was no time for reflection. As soon as I’d finished puking, I ran inside, gathered five or six plastic bags, and set about wrapping up the source of the death-smell. That stench was just seemed to keep growing in volume and menace similar to the black-cloud monster thing from ‘Lost’, spreading out like a nuclear fallout that badly needed to be contained, and fast. There was a desperation and urgency to removing all trace of it from my house, from my life. I was down the street within 60 seconds, where I carefully placed the six-times-wrapped-but-still-opened can upright at the bottom of a bin that I wouldn’t smell when they emptied it. I feel sorry for those garbage men. I really do, but this had quickly become a self-preservation issue, consequences be damned.
Extended Aftermath My skin felt greasy all afternoon, and I had a sort of ‘after-smell’ going on for the rest of the day. My nostrils felt like they were a little sunburned, and along with the slight burn feeling, a very slight ammonia smell lingered, though that could have been in my head. I still can’t bring myself to remember the precise smell of Hákarl even now – it was a scarring experience, and one I’d rather not repeat. I’m mostly just hoping that I don’t end up in a discussion where somebody claims to have found something worse to eat than Surströmming. Surely this is the limit. It was for me at least. I don’t think I’m going to get over it for a while, though fortunately as I didn’t digest any of it, I don’t feel sick or anything now. With the Hákarl I felt a bit funny all afternoon, but with this, if I could get the last of the smell off my fingers/phone, I’d be feeling no adverse physical effects now, only mental ones.
Overall Feeling There is no reason for people to feel they need to eat Hákarl for anything other than a dare, or to discover their persoal extremes as I have. It was wholly unpleasant. However, now that I have tasted Surströmming, I can at least appreciate that there was a certain degree of ‘crafting’ in Hákarl. The smell, as bad as it was, was an interesting one which felt ‘human made’, almost like it had been created in a lab. Regardless of how repulsive the smell is, looking back now I feel like there’s some intent behind it in a strang sort of way. Plus, for to keep the title of World’s Worst, it needs to actually taste bad. It didn’t taste that bad – it merely smelled bad. If you pinch your nose and eat Hákarl, it’s nowhere nearly as bad as pinching your nose and eating Surströmming. There is no reason for people to feel they need to eat Surströmming at all, ever, for any reason. If I had to chose between eating Hákarl every day of my life or eating Surströmming one more time, I would still go with the daily shark. It was horrible in so many more ways that Hákarl wasn’t. I walked away from the shark dish in November feeling like I’d touched the edge of the Universe, but in reality, I hadn’t come even close. This is by far the worst thing a human can ever eat. I’ve accidentally eaten dog-shit before – this was worse. I’ve accidentally sipped some urine that had been congealing in a plastic drink bottle for several months – this was worse (but only just – in a remarkably similar ball-park). Don’t try this, thinking it’s going to be cool. It’s not going to be cool trying something so gross. It’s going to be horrible. You are going to vomit. You are going to wish you’d never gotten yourself into this in the first place. There’s no silver-lining to the experience, apart from the thought that perhaps, eating it with Swedish locals, already fully tanked on very, very strong clear spirits, you’re just drunk enough that you keep more of it down than I did. Horrible. Words can’t describe it.

 

The final result?

Surströmming is, by far, the world’s most foul thing designed to be eaten by human beings.

Congratulations, Sweden, and IN YOUR FACE, ICELAND!

The Swedes have this one completely sealed. There’s something truly horrendous about Hákarl that I don’t want to take away from our Icelandic friends – it *is* incredibly horrible, and I love the crazy way it’s prepared – but the fact that I walked into the Swedish sitting thinking it might be easier, only to be uncontrollably gagging within seconds of the can hissing its vile stench out into the world? No. Just, no.

Hákarl is definitely a 10-out-of-10 experience for people looking to expand their culinary horizons all the way down into the darkest depths of putrefied-shark depravity, and that’s fine. If you can get your hands on some, knock yourself out. Have a laugh with your friends. Brag about it, as I did, on Facebook. But know, deep in your heart of hearts, that while you just gulped down an ammonia-soaked 10-out-of-10, that just across the sea, there lurks an eleven

Don’t do it, folks. Either of them.

I feel dirty.


Top 10 Reasons Why ‘Die Hard’ Is A Better Christmas Movie Than ‘Love Actually’

There comes a point during every Christmas holiday where an inevitable war for the remote is fought – a battleground nobody wants to speak about at any other time of the year, one which divides families, ruins relationships, and regularly results in bloodshed. You know what I’m talking about: The Die Hard vs Love Actually Christmas Movie Stand-Off. Naturally, I have my own feelings on the matter, and despite you likely having yours, I’ve decided it’s time we all put this matter to bed for once and for all, proving (most decisively) that Die Hard is by far a more superior Christmas film than Love Actually:

 

Two very different Rickmans...

Case in point : the two very different Rickmans…

1. The Rickman Factor

Both films are blessed by the inclusion of Alan Rickman, but he’s WAY cooler as Hans Gruber than as weak, womanising Harry. Also, Hans is far more Christmasy – he even performs a memorable Santa impersonation at one point.

Ho. Ho. Ho.

 

I can’t even… I just can’t…

2. You (Mostly) Get A Break From Ridiculously Insipid Child-Actors

Christmas entertainment is vicious time where practically everything on television is packed full of horrible child-actors. There are only a few insignificant seconds of terrible child-acting in Die Hard, as opposed to Love Actually, with entire sub-plots, musical numbers, and several minutes packed full of children dressed up as cute animals. Eww.

 

3. Die Hard Embraces Multiculturalism

In McTiernan’s opus, characters with English as their second language went to a lot more effort to ensure they could directly communicate with people of other cultures (even if it happened to be down the barrel of a gun). In the Kurtis film, the same rely on shrugs, sheepish grins, and don’t seem to care about blatant mistranslation and the significant cultural offence this may or may not cause those around them. I’d call that “naughty” not “nice”, as opposed to Die Hard’s foreigners who took the time and came prepared.

 

4. “The Quarterback Is Toast”

The only toast you ever get in Love Actually involves cheap, miserly-poured sparkling, often accompanied by depressing moaning or attempts at infidelity.

 

5. Die Hard Has Better Retro Value

While Love Actually may have Bill Nighy, it does not contain any actors from legendary 80’s classics including The Breakfast Club, Ghostbusters and Magnum PI. It doesn’t even try. That’s just not in the spirit of the season.

 

6. Love Actually Isn’t Actually A Christmas Movie

The complete chronology of events in Die Hard take place during the one, long Christmas Eve. Love Actually is spread all over the calendar, some of the earlier scenes quite possibly taking place closer to Halloween than late December, the final airport montage obviously taking place the following Easter*

( * I can’t back this last point up, though I swear there’s someone holding a toy rabbit in one shot.)

 

7. Die Hard = Less-Questionable Casting

The producers of Die Hard managed to cast actors far more believable at playing authority figures and Americans. Also, the new associations between Hobbits and pornography invoked by Love Actually doesn’t sit right with me at all – Christmas gets enough midget action as it is.

8. More Explosions

There are no explosions in Love Actually. Not one. There isn’t even a helicopter crash.
Seriously. It’s like they’ve completely forgotten the true meaning of Christmas.

 

 

9. Stronger Female Role-Models

Love Actually is brimming with old-school 1950s female stereotypes, whereas 100% of Die Hard’s major female characters represent a much more modern approach to gender roles (eg. Holly and her high-powered executive position within Nakatomi, versus Natalie who doesn’t fight back at all after being sexually harassed and unfairly dismissed from her job).

Okay, okay… to be fair, while there is only one major female character in Die Hard, she still kicks more ass than half the Love Actually women. Further, I’ll put $50 on the table right now that says Bonnie Bedelia would beat Keira Knightly in a straight-up fist-fight. Think about it.

 

10. Die Hard Has A Better Ending

In its closing minutes, Love Actually (disrespectfully) brandishes a Denise Richards cameo, a terrible non-Chrismas Beach Boys song and truly horrendous and tacky heart-shaped graphic montage. A travesty, as opposed to Die Hard – a classy ‘Let It Snow’ Christmas play-off as the camera pulls out over the mist, mere seconds after this shot :

 

In Conclusion…

I think that’s all settled then, don’t you?

###


10 Epic On-Screen Music Moments

Someone recently asked me if I could name my favourite musical moments in film – a classic all-time top ten. Tough call. There are so many to choose from, and even if we tried to narrow things down by saying “only films which aren’t musicals”, we’d still be left with a fairly solid list to start culling down.

For now, I’m not going to bother with the ‘all-time’ tag. Too tough. Plus, this is the Internet, and even though by next week my list will have completely changed, I’ll still be tried and executed by the court of Google for crimes of bad taste I’m unknowingly committing today.

So my list for today, in no particular order:

1. Wayne’s World : Bohemian Rhapsody

It’s iconic, it’s a cliché, but honestly, what is there not to like about it? The mark this one scene left on an entire generation still stains this killer Queen track to this day, none of us likely to ever hear the smashy guitar solo without feeling the urge to headbang. The film may have dated a bit now, but the epic opening is timeless. Even better in French…

2. Buffy – They Got The Mustard Out

There’s far too much back-story to explain here (like, six seasons plus six episodes preceding) but in short: a demon has come to town and is sucking everyone’s lifeforce by making the townspeople involuntarily sing and dance ’til they burn up in a ball of all-singing all-dancing flame. I know this isn’t a “movie” by any stretch, but in the stand-out episode of this classic Whedon series, this small interlude still makes me laugh. Quintessential ‘if life was a musical’ moment if ever there was one.

3. Magnolia – It’s Not Going To Stop

A couple of hours into this fine, multi-threaded film by Paul Thomas Anderson, at arguably the bottom of the rollercoaster for each character (of which there are many, their pitfalls very dark and deep), they suddenly break into song. I found it an odd, uncomfortable moment when I first saw the film, but have come to love the craziness of it. That, and I’m totally down with Aimee Mann as a rule. Great movie. Tom Cruise was robbed of an Oscar that year (the only thing I’ll still defend him for).

4. High Fidelity – Let’s Get It On

Say what you will about Jack Black and his music career nowadays, but when High Fidelity came out and he got up and belted out this classic Marvin Gaye track, not many in the audience knew he could even hold a note. The setup throughout the film is perfect – the boisterous all-talk music-snob, getting up at the make-or-break moment for John Cusack’s character, then nailing the shit out of the song to everybody’s complete surprise. We all know Black can belt, but every time I watch this bit I still buzz.

5. South Park Movie – Uncle Fucker

You have to remember that when this film came out, nobody had *ever* heard the South Park kids swear. After sitting through a fairly lame, tame opening scene or two (wondering why the hell I’d paid to see it on the big screen)  we were all suckerpunched by this sweet puppy of a song. I remember laughing so hard a little bit of wee came out.  What still gets me to this day is how superbly overdone and polished everything else (apart from the lyrics) is about the track – a fantastic arrangement littered with nods to many famous musicals, perfectly executed. And farts.

6. Beetlejuice – Day-O

I was torn between this song and the one from the closing scene (which I think I honestly prefer), but I think this has to win out on style points, memorability and the fact Tim Burton managed to combine both demonic possession and Harry Belafonte in the same scene. Another song I cannot hear in any other context without thinking of plates of shrimp grabbing people by the face and beating them up.  

7. Donnie Darko – Head Over Heels

I love a good “geeks and jocks” scene in any high school movie, but because Donnie Darko isn’t your average teen flick, its G&J gets an equally special treatment. The kick-ass Tears For Fears track introduces the viewers to practically every character in the film (we haven’t met yet) in this glorious steadicam sequence, wordlessly telling us everything we need to know about them all. Brilliant. (UPDATE – had to change this clip over to someone’s remix of the music video and Donnie Darko clip because of a copyright notice from FOX – alas, you’ll have to watch the movie to see this scene in full!)

8. Reservoir Dogs – Stuck In The Middle

Who doesn’t like a spot of easy-listening while they’re maiming tied-up policemen? Not much to say about this that hasn’t been said elsewhere before, except that it’s another song forever linked to this gruesome visual…

9. The Big Lebowski – Just Dropped In

Fine, okay, so I’m getting quite 90s heavy on this list in general, but hey, you promised you wouldn’t judge!  Just shut up and watch the clip. It’s Kenny Rogers for crying out loud – show some respect! This movie moment is so full of awesome I don’t even know where to start.

10. Muppet Movie – The Rainbow Connection

Awww… Kermit sitting on a log all by his lonesome, strumming on a banjo, singing that song. If that’s not a perfect way to round out this list, I don’t know what is…

 


Glass Half Full

Mission accomplished : moved countries. Since early November, we’ve been camped out in various temporary apartments, hotel rooms, family fold-out couches and sky-beds. This week – finally – the transition is complete; lease signed, keys picked up, and a flat moved into. Life can move on, albeit with a small several-thousand-kilometre shift.

Was it hard? Not really. Would I do it again? Most certainly. Any of my apprehension about moving to London has disappeared amidst a smooth roll back into vfx work (Double Negative) after a successful writing break (major draft done, hardcore edit stage begun). That aside, it’s just great being here – back in a city with a decent enough population density that you can service, pretty much, your every whim when it comes to food / services / convenience / culture / technology / interconnectivity, and suddenly half my daily tech/online arsenal has just taken a major upgrade hit. It’s great being back in a city with one of my oldest, bestest friends. It’s great not only being excited about the future, but re-envigorated with the things I’m still going to be doing in the meantime while the master plan plays out. It’s great that both of us have landed gently on our feet (well, one at least, in the case of my metatarsally-challenged other half) and that it won’t be the case of one suffering in a homesick, whiny pit while the other shines and thrives. I love our new flat. I love the boris bikes. I hate the pessimistic media (which I’m avoiding most contact with like the plague) and hate that people don’t treat each other very politely as strangers here (and the shitty, over-priced, sometimes-horse-substituted meat produce). It’s not perfect, but it’s mostly ticks, not crosses, and certainly more ticks than Australia has been offering up for me these last couple of years.

It’s been hard to find that routine stride this week – not settled, trying to move house, waiting on internet connections – and avoiding actual writing/blogging in the interim. Logistics tend to win in any battle between “sorting out your shelter needs” and “piss-farting around with the written word”; mentally, more than anything. But having said that, it hasn’t been stressful. It’s mostly been smiles, excruciating muscle fatigue (back at the gym regularly after nearly two months) and perhaps a little bit of a finger-up quiet smugness that we made it, and it wasn’t as hard as all that.

Now…. where were we then?


Five Fast & Furious Films

There’s an unspoken procedure I run through at the start of every new film project. I’ve noticed that many of the visual effects brood seem to do the same, each in their own ways. Something of a gee-up, a celebratory burst of enthusiasm toward the project, whereby we psych ourselves into the vibe of the thing by consuming some part of what may have come before. For instance, when starting work on The Great Gatsby last year I smashed through the book. Soon as I heard I was starting on Captain America: The First Avenger, I downloaded a few of the original comics to get some of the back-story of a character I was unfamiliar with. Same goes for Thor. Even when starting on Daybreakers, way back when, I rewatched the Spierig Brothers’ first feature Undead for kicks. It doesn’t help the shots go through any more smooth, it doesn’t stop any of us from getting anally-violated at the crunch-time end of the project, and doesn’t have any real bearing on anything. What I think it does do is make a personal connection with this thing that we know is about to soak up a lot of our life and our thoughts and our relationships and our sleep patterns for the next god-knows-how-long.  

So, cut to 2013, and I’m working on Fast & Furious 6. What to do? A series I’d snubbed completely when the first instalment appeared back in 2001, back when my self-righteous film-snobbery was at its outspoken peak. Then the sequel. Then the apparently-unrelated sequel to the sequel. Then the reboot/revival. Then the sequel to the reboot/revival. Starting the gig, I had a couple of choices. On the one hand, I could just abandon the regular vibe-up routine, and when I inevitably watch Fast & Furious 6 just to see our work, I’d see the film completely cold, no back-story, no nothing. Stand-alone. But that just didn’t sit right with me. The other option : watching perhaps the first to get the basic gist then the fifth – the one everyone says is good – started seeming quite appealing. But even that wasn’t sitting right. I knew what had to be done. There could only be one way to do this : properly, thoroughly and without shame. 

That’s right: film-snobbery be damned, I went all the way; sank a few beers, busted my Fast & The Furious cherry, then proceeded to slam my way through the entire series.

The verdict?  

Sadly, for those hoping for a one-liner that might sum up the 554 minutes of furiousness, there’s no short answer. That having been said, I found that because my expectations were generally quite low, and I did not at all attempt to intellectualise any of the stories, characters, sub-plots or physical impossibilities, nor be holding my breath for Oscar-worthy performances, mostly I enjoyed the hell out of them. Mostly…

Fortunately, for those who have skipped them, I can sum up the collective plots quite quickly :  

Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) knows how to drive cars fast, and is physically incapable of losing an illegal street race (unless on purpose). He and his merry band of similarly-extraordinary-driver friends, lovers and hot siblings, use their driving skills to occasionally take part in oddly-elaborate, vehicularly-colour-coordinated heists from time to time. The format of these is almost always the same : the team surrounding an unobservant (yet eventually heavily armed) truck (or train) driver and stealing shit off his rig, and occasionally the rig itself. Often there’s a rival gang involved in the story somehow, and they end up either losing the loot to them and getting shot at, then ultimately needing to race their cars again approximately 95 minutes later, gaining their precious comeuppance. To add to the mix, in the first film we’re introduced to Dom’s secret gay crush, FBI agent Brian O’Connor (played to perfection by Best-Actor-Oscar-award-winner* Paul Walker) (*Note: extreme sarcasm). He tries to capture Dom in the first movie, but in the end Dom ends up capturing his heart. In the second film (with Dom having fled the entire film) he’s now one of the criminals. In the fourth, he’s an agent again. In the fifth, a criminal. Honestly, I don’t even know what’s going on with that guy deep down, but what I do know is that apart from eventually knocking up Dom’s hot little sister, I’m still going to claim that the entire series is about Dom and Brian’s secret love-affair (a secret I’m hoping will finally be revealed accompanied by bright, spangled rainbows in FF6). 

That’s pretty much it, apart from the third film, The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift, which, being set in Japan, doesn’t have any real relation to the other films at all, except it’s about driving cars fast again, there’s an evil gang, and Vin Diesel makes a cameo in the last two minutes. It does, however seriously mess up the time continuum of the series, largely due to the untimely death of one of its major (guru) characters, Han (Sung Kang)…. but more on that later.

Overall, the Fast & Furious films can be quickly organised into the good and bad in exactly the same way as nerds have quickly classified the original Star Trek films, but in reverse. Meaning, for this series: first movie = good, second movie = terrible, third movie = good, fourth movie terrible. The fifth is by far the best film of the series. Even Rotten Tomatoes agrees, combined critical opinion reaching a whopping 78% approval rate. Putting that into perspective, the recently-released Les Misérables only did 70% on the same scale; sure, expectations may have been lower for Fast Five (especially after the dismal fourth film) but it’s still an impressive number and a genuinely enjoyable heist film. I’m hoping, for the sake of the work I’m currently doing being part of something eventually-awesome, that Fast & Furious 6 will buck the trend and be as good as the fifth. (Contractually speaking, I probably should stop right there and hold off giving any opinion whatsoever, flick you a non-committal, cheesy, double-thumbs up, and directing you to your nearest advance-ticket outlet.)

The big question is whether or not I felt like this entire endeavour was 554 minutes of my life well-spent. Short answer : yes…ish. I feel now that I judged the first film too harshly when it came out, but that’s the kinda guy I was. It’s cheese. Total, unadulterated cheese, but as it isn’t pretending to be anything other than what it is, I feel I should retroactively give it a free pass and call it fairly solid-yet-mindless entertainment. The racing scenes are pretty cool. The story is predictable, but the characters are (mostly) likeable, and it’s all just shitty enough that you can laugh at the utter dumbness of it all without finding that same dumbness offensive. Except, say, the second film. Even the title is offensively dumb : “2 Fast 2 Furious”. A terrible use of numerals. I’m still glad I saw the film – it sets up a couple of characters who come back later on, but overall it was terrible. Where the first film was about a solid 60% for me, the second was in the low 20s. 

The third? Back up there in the 60s again. It didn’t matter that there weren’t any characters we knew in there. The racing scenes were genuinely tense, and made much more interesting by the Japanese setting, the different driving style featured (more about drifting aka. skidding cars around inside a car-park tower) instead of the same old street-races, and as quality “formula” it was spot-on. 

Except the character of Han, and the fore-mentioned disruption to the time continuum. See, that’s where things started getting strange. I get what probably happened. They made the third film a completely fresh start – new characters, new country – after what was probably a terrible box office to 2 Fast. They killed Han off (sorry, spoiler… oops) in the third act, even punctuating his death with the appearance of Dom/Vin himself in the final scene, there to pay his respects to his old friend. Whom we’d never met in the earlier films. There was some history there, but we never saw it. Perhaps they thought “oh well, the second film was terrible, we’ll just pump out any old shit for the third, and none of that needs to make any sense”. But then, suddenly, BAM, the third film does well enough that they decide to make a fourth. What do they decide to do? Bring most of the characters back from the other films, even setting it (apparently) earlier so that Han can make an appearance in the first scene.

This is where things get confusing. There’s a really clumsy scene at the start of the (DREADFUL) fourth film, where the team has to go their separate ways – to “lose the heat” after a big heist. Han drops some line about wanting to go back to Tokyo, where “they’re doing all sorts of crazy shit”, or something. It’s a clean-cut out-point for the character – he could happily leave at that point, disappear to Tokyo, where we assume the events of the third film would then play out. No harm, no foul. But NO. What do they do? Bring Han back in the fifth film with yet another clumsy line about needing to get back to Tokyo thrown in. Really? REALLY?!? Then to add insult to injury, Han is clearly seen quite alive and well in the trailer for Fast & Furious 6, still not dead. What the hell? When is Tokyo drift actually going to take place? How many more films will Han keep making his appearance in before he finally goes back to Japan to face his fate? 

What those of you who have seen the films are probably thinking at this point is that I should just drop the whole issue of Han and the time continuum and just accept it with the same degree of belief-suspension as I did with everything else dumb in the series. When that petrol tanker bounced over our heroes at the start of FF4, or when Dom and Brian were able to survive that high-velocity fall into the lake at the start of FF5 from a height much greater than the minimum required to commit suicide off a bridge. Or when the super-Marine character played by The Rock in the same film decides – despite being the person most committed to upholding the law in all the world, unlike Brian – to put his badge down for a few minutes, commit a robbery with the crime-team, and murder a man in cold blood for the LOL of it. Or even when I was expected to understand that Brian had actually had enough sex with Dom’s hot little sister so as to get her pregnant, as opposed to Dom himself. (Seriously, there’s far too much pouting and mincing between those two. It’s like Sam and Frodo all over again, only with bigger pecks and slightly less-furry feet.) I should just drop the whole Han-time-issue and just go with it. I should, but I just can’t. 

I’m sorta hoping we find out he came back from the dead. Oh, which is another thing this series seems to like to do. I haven’t even mentioned Michelle Rodriguez’ character of “Letty” yet, Dom’s girlfriend in the first film who dies (off-screen) in the fourth film, only to turn up in a stupid cameo-moment in the credits of the fifth. Yeah, so apparently she’s back in FF6… and she’s not happy!

The Fast & Furious movies are a sprawling mess. There are stupid moments in them that are so stupid that afterward you can’t believe you’re still watching. Then, in the next film, they get even more stupid. Your intelligence will be assaulted. Any feminist bone in your body will be slapped around by how brazenly women are positioned as nothing more than extremely toned-thighed car accessories (or, in the case of the hot little sister, guarded over like a meek, unthinking possession). The laws of physics are regularly disregarded, and things explode far easily than they should. But there’s some part of me that loved that just bought it all, hook, line and sinker. I can’t put my finger on it. It’s not like you feel all that much toward the characters – Vin Diesel constantly drawling on about “…cause we’re family…” is about as deep as the emotions tend to run. But where it wins is in the high-octane moments: the ridiculous race-or-chase scenes very snappy and full of genuine tension, and there’s an infectious playful feeling in the action moments that you can’t help get sucked into. Each movie pretty much runs as action scenes split up by plucky comic relief, only spoiled by the occasional attempt at drama, and largely, the combination of action and humour keeps all five films afloat for the greater part.

Would I recommend the series to others?

Maybe. Not as a complete, marathon-worthy set. But a selection? Yes. If you’d never watched one, you could watch just Fast Five and figure out the rest. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, watch the first and the fifth, or the first, third and fifth. There really is no excuse for watching number two or four. None. They aren’t as bad as Pearl Harbor, but they are both genuinely terrible films, the second so bland I can hardly remember it, and the fourth so boring (and cheap-looking, and, more to the point, for trying to be clever or “a real film” and failing so badly) that there is no other reason to watch them other than “Well, I wanted to watch them all, just like YOU did, buddy”.  

We’ve only got a few weeks of work left on Fast & Furious 6 now, and I’ve had a pretty fun time working on a pretty fun bit of the movie. I’ll be seeing it on the big-screen for sure; something I know my 2001 self would be cringing at. I mean, come on... it’s bad enough that I’ve written this many words about the series at all, but to openly, unashamedly say I’m happy to go see any movie with the number “6” after it? Statistically speaking, that’s asking for trouble, whatever universe you live in. 

Even if I hadn’t worked on it, I’d have to now anyway – I’ve come so far. And besides: how will I ever be able to watch Fast & Furious 7 if I haven’t seen number six? 


Tornadoes Only Come At Night

I’ve never seen one in person, but tornadoes are the most common recurring object in my dreams. These visions are always more vivid and detailed than most, and because I almost always wake right away, tend to be remembered more thoroughly than most.  Sometimes it’s just the one twister, turning up unpreempted in one of those rambling journey road-trips. Other times, I’ll be in the middle of some intense or difficult task, or perhaps a boring and repetitive one. Without warning, the supporting characters will get a look of dread and point to the window, or drop what they’re doing and sprint for the basement, leaving me to stare out the window at sometimes four or five (I’ve seen as many as ten) tornadoes bearing down on us with an unstoppable ferocity. Unstoppable, but beautiful; no matter what the level of peril, I’ll always take the time to stop and gape, marvelling at their form, always part of a larger composition which looks to have been set up by a master photographer.

Sometimes, I survive. Often it’ll be the case that I close my eyes in terror, cling to something while the wind whips, waiting to be impaled by the many swirling shards of wood or metal that always accompany the dream-tornadoes, and eventually the beast will pass. Other times, there’s no escape. One particularly memorable dream I was driving my old Volkswagon Beetle of my university days (named “Teddles”, just like this one if you’re interested) and was plucked off Brisbane’s gateway bridge by a particularly savage category three, then flung half a kilometre through the air. Getting a great view of the golf-course along the river through my windscreen as I plummeted toward it, there was no way out, and I made no attempt to get out, crushed like a c an. 

You’d probably assume a lot of the imagery that pops up may have been implanted there via all the famous Hollywood tornado scenes you’ll be familiar with – Twister of course (“…we got cows!…”) along with countless others; the twin-twister (alien-infested) madness of Hancock, the tender comeuppance at the end of Take Shelter (spoiler alert… I mean, “whoops”…), and the rather more ominous conclusion to the Coen Brothers’ rather brilliant flick, A Serious Man. The thing is, a lot of the times when I’ve encountered scenes such as these, I get goosebumps, not just at the on-screen terror, but that I have often seen it all before. Particularly the seven tornadoes in “The Day After Tomorrow” – I can remember having a dream in my early teens which was eerily mimicked in that film, replacing the L.A. skyline with the suburban sprawl visible from my bedroom window high up on the hill. 

The odd part is that I’m not at all phobic about tornadoes. Quite the contrary – I’d love to see one with my own eyes… from a distance. If anything, despite the occurrence of a dream tornado often bringing with it a mood of hopelessness, extreme dread, or a classic nightmare I’ll wake up from in cold shock, I’m fascinated by them and the human stories that come attached to their real-world counterparts. Like the famous POV phone-cam video filmed in a Joplin gas station in 2011… you never see the tornado itself, but the fear you take away from it is very real.

I had a tornado dream last night. Nothing special. I was at a party at a friend’s New York apartment, a quiet night in with a small bunch of people and wine. The tornado came down the street, visible right out the window. Cars were picked up, streetlights torn and tossed, and plenty of glass windows smashed by the usual flying shards of wood. Terrifying, but it passed, we laughed, we kept drinking. I remained quite calm.

Perhaps that’s what it’s all about? My brain feeding me an unstoppable terror just to see how I cope? Or perhaps it’s nothing more than a regular fear, the devil incarnate for a man of science. Regardless, I love them: being treated to a horror/action/adventure movie for free while I sleep sure beats dreaming about work…