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|Saturday, September 6th, 2008|
|Rod Serling at the University of Missouri
Yesterday, I posted some excerpts from interviews conducted for the campus radio program University Close-Up in the late 60s and early 70s. One interview was so good that I transcribed it in full (except for the questions, which were summed up by a narrator anyway and are summed up even more by me). So here it is:
Rod Serling on University Close-Up - April 30, 1970
"My two teenage daughters informed me, and continue to inform me, that my taste in the muse are decidedly anachronistic. 18-year-Jodi makes the point with almost deadening repetition and consistency that only Rod McKuen speaks to the moment and at the moment. She eschews everything written back to the time of the Greeks as irrelevant. Oddly enough, or perhaps not so oddly, these teenage daughters have somewhat pointed the way towards what I ought to talk to you about tonight, and that's the relevance of the arts and the mass media to the times. I find motion pictures currently being judged by college students not necessarily by what they say or how they're said, but rather - 'do they relate to the time?'
Now relevance is indeed a perfectly legitimate criteria by which an reasonably intelligent college student or for that matter anyone else can sit through a film or a television play, but where I part company with the young generation - and this includes my daughters - is when I find relevance is becoming the only criteria by which they come up with a qualitative conclusion. Now I imagine that 'Ode to a Grecian Urn' has no relevance to today's ghettos, and William Shakespeare even with his prescience can hardly be quoted in any debate having to do with 20th Century social disorders.
But because they aren't relevant does not necessarily mean they are unimportant, or that they are not craftsmanlike, or that they do not contain both truth and honesty. Simply that if we are to worship at the shrine of relevance, and assume relevance is scotch-taped to a calender, we consign to ignominy some inspiring literature written over the years that may tell it like it was, and in doing so come very close to telling it like it is. See if you can distinguish between the agony of a young man in uniform in 1942, say, with the agony of his father or older brother twenty years later.
Not too long ago, I was conned into seeing a film called Easy Rider. Once again, that beloved bane of my existence daughter Jodi assured me that not since the Old Testament has anything been written that is so altogether world-shaking, important and so uniquely definitive. So at her behest and at the behest of my own students, I went to see Easy Rider. And as much as said to Peter and Dennis 'do with me as you will, young men. Move me, titillate me, doing something to me.'
Well, they did something to me. They left me with an unalterable feeling that Mr. Hopper and Mr. Fonda should open up a Honda agency in Beverly Hills and get out of acting business."Mr. Fonda, who is an altogether charming and attractive young man, rides back and forth across the screen with all the facial mobility of a cigar-store Indian." Mr. Hopper, conversely, it seems, has a Vocabulary numbering about 16 English words, all of them prefaced by quote 'like, man' unquote.
And through the welter of this pretentious, dull sameness, I did manage to detect a plot, a theme if you will. Young men who ride motorcycles carrying heroin to pedal in southern cities and are put down by Southern bigots in lunch counters have a special, tragic stature. They represent the generation of the deprived and the misunderstood. Well, I'll grant you that beards and the longhairs and the peace beads are indeed misunderstood, and they are short-changed, and they are put down by an older generation that has neither the patience, the understanding or the sensitivity to read the pulse of the young and to understand that their sense of honor is no less real than ours."
But to devote an hour and fifty-odd minutes to a prolonged motorcycle ride through scenic countrysides and idyllic communes while they cart addictive drugs across state lines turns me on not a whit. I can sympathize - and do sympathize with the victims of legitimate prejudice, but to shambling, smarmy repetitive men like Captain America and his sidekick I can't conjure up even a short sob, let alone place them in the hallowed halls of legitimate, tragic personages. But I make a prediction here that ten years from now, Easy Rider's contribution to the cinematic art will be just about as vague as Abbott & Costello or an old March of Time or a vintage newsreel.
Now not all contemporary films that are so-called relevant are Easy Rider. Midnight Cowboy is a classic example of a movie with a point of view. And while I'm not familiar in real life with anyone similar to its leading characters, I felt for them. The Graduate is another such film, Z is another one, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is yet another. Now each one of those films talked of people and often of places that were literally outside of my experience. Their success, their honesty, lay in the fact that they made me care, that I was somehow able to feel and understand.”
Question from the audience – Given its dependence on sponsorship, why do you think TV could speak out against those same advertisers?
"For the same reason that newspapers feel no compunction about putting in an editorial against the US steel company raising its prices. Should television show any comparable timorousness in laying claim to some points of view of their own? We have so historically become wedded to a concept of sponsor and program that we have allowed sponsor to take over the thematic value of any program. It is, of course, part of the strength of a program that they can relate it to a product - The Kraft Music Hall, The Dinah Shore Chevrolet Hour, etc.
But that is incorrect and it's improper. The entertainment portion of a commercial television show should be absolutely unrelated to the advertising portion thereof. And indeed, one of the problems, one of the things that has proven such a desperate drawback to all television is that we are currently sharing the stage with such a foreign entity. You can put out the greatest Arthur Miller play on television, and 12 minutes into it, out come dancing rabbits with toilet paper.
I recollect most vividly, for example when ABC put on The Robe and about 30 seconds after the crucifixion, out come the Dove commercials. Where does taste stop? They are so concerned with offense. They don't want to offend with controversy. But they don't mind a whit offending with a distortion and with a tasteless intrusion of a commercial product with a religious experience."
Question – Why do you feel that movies showing the youth of today in communes, as flower-children, and showing human love and 'doing your own thing' are not relevant?
"I don't say, mind you, young man, that I'm right and you're wrong. You might be right and I might be miserably wrong. All I submit to you is, at this stage, at this conjure in our society, we cannot respond to the evils of Earth by putting ourselves in a shrub-enshrouded commune. Nobody's gonna cure cancer that way. Nobody's gonna bring up world peace that way. Nobody's gonna respond to poverty that way. It's grand, doing your own thing. God love them. Let them do it. But don't go through this pretense of being God's Loved Ones, because that's simply not true. You're copping out, you're retreating from reality, and you're not facing reality (Applause)."
Question – Could you share your thoughts about the television ratings system?
"I think ratings system is some sort of mad house arithmetic that has no bearing on anything. When the ratings service represented by the Neilson services, etc. etc. went in front of the Federal Communications Commission in Washington two years ago with charts that looked like something out of NASA explaining how they can interview ten people and have that statistic reflect the taste of ten thousand. And throughout all this welter of charts and arithmetic and insanity, certain clear-headed members of the commission said 'what do you mean by that?' and they literally could not answer and walked away tails between their legs making an admission that it was balderdash, it was nonsense. And yet, that was on a Friday and on Monday they were still quoting ratings.
Case in point, and altogether interesting of late - look at the two shows that were just canceled by CBS, The Red Skelton Show and Petticoat Junction. Now, I yield to no man in my admiration of Red Skelton, as a comic, as a mimic, etc. But I thought it was getting pretty tired. And Petticoat Junction I refuse to allow to be shown in my home. I have a queasy, aged stomach that responds a little negatively to these kind of thing. Now my kids can go over to the neighbor's and watch, but I don't want them to watch it in my house.
Now, these two shows, apart from their questionable entertainment value - or indeed, say that they're entertaining - had massive ratings, both of them. And it's conceivable that Red Skelton could have gone on ad infinitum. So why did they take them off? Because suddenly the network begins to realize that the arithmetic approach to television is not the key concern. It's who watches, who buys the product.
That's why they're losing shows that appeal to the middle-aged and the older. Who's buying nowadays? It isn't them. You don't buy much on social security. From 25 to 35, that's the group, get them. And they're not watching Red Skelton. Which is suddenly - the ratings suddenly, whether they exist properly not or authentically or validly isn't the question anymore.
Another great case in point, the most singularly, historically, popular show ever done on television, in terms of percentage of people watching , was I Love Lucy. On the night Lucy had her first baby, it had literally the largest audience - larger than the moonshot, larger than the Presidential Election, larger than everything - Lucy having her baby.
On the night they took that rating, it so ran away with competition that historically in terms of percentage of people watching we've never come close to it. And yet, during that period, the sponsorship's sales - Philip Morris, they were the sponsor - their sales dropped. Figure that one out!"
|Friday, September 5th, 2008|
So I found out earlier this week that the University Archives here at Mizzou house a complete run of a fifteen-minute campus radio show that ran in the late 60s and early 70s called "University Close-Up". I looked through the show list the other day, requested several episodes, and spent a couple hours earlier today listening to them. Many of those segments are, naturally, campus figures talking about campus issues like new developments in the School of Agriculture and the revolutionary use of motion pictures in a "Family Life" class.
Most of the shows I listened to were interviews with or speeches from some prominent figure who visited the university. Here are some highlights -Singer Andy Williams in 1968
talking about how much things had changed in popular music recently: "For a band singer, like me - that's what I call it, a band singer - it used to be you went into a studio with an arranger, and he picked out the songs, maybe twelve songs. You recorded maybe four songs in a session, and the sessions were three hours long. You can't do that these days; The Beatles changed everything. They spend four months in the recording studio, and they do all kinds of sonic tricks, and we can't keep up. And all of the young singers now are writing their own music. I used to call myself a pop singer, but I'm not that anymore. . . . I did just meet with the Beatles. I was in London - not for a meeting, but for something else, but while I was there, I met with them. I'm doing some specials this year, and I met with the Beatles about maybe doing one of them together."
That didn't happen, obviously, but it blows my mind that it might have.New York Times humor writer Russell Baker in 1968
: "Washington is the biggest factory town in America, and like in any factory town, every time you get a new boss, you get a new way of doing things. Every time there's a new president, you change your whole way of life in Washington. When Kennedy was elected, everyone started hanging French Impressionist paintings in their houses. 'Kennedy loves French Impressionism,' they all said, so they hung up French Impressionist paintings. And daiquiris. Everyone started to drink daiquiris. That gave me heartburn. I was drinking scotch & soda - we all got to drink scotch & soda under Eisenhower - and someone said to me, 'What are you doing? Kennedy likes daiquiris. We all have to drink daiquiris now.' So for me, the Kennedy administration was three years of heartburn. And you had to learn how to fall into a swimming pool with your tuxedo on and come up smiling. Head colds. Well after that we got Johnson, so everyone took down the French Impressionist paintings and replaced them with buffalo heads. I burned my buffalo head right before I left. It had begun to get fleas."Also Baker:
"Every day I go into a big giant box, get into a little metal box, go up seven floors and sit in a box all day. When the day is over, I get into a box on wheels, drive miles out in the country, go into a box, where I take off my tie, put my feet up and watch a box. Why do I this? Why am I living in boxes, waiting for the final box?"That Girl star Marlo Thomas in 1970
talks a lot about helping out with underpriveleged youth and a star's responsibility to do what she can to help society. It's about what you'd expect from Marlo Thomas, but I really like the bit where she says "I'm crazy about the teenagers. They aren't creeps or law-breaking people. They just need something to do, and if you ask them to help with the smaller children, they will. Like everyone else, they need something to do."Talk show host David Susskind in 1970
talking about the Vice President of the United States and his tendency to blame television for society's ills: "Television is blamed because it's so visible. When Agnew wants someone to lash, it's a good visible target. So are movies with the new permissiveness with nudity and obscenity."
[At this point, the interviewer brings up a quote from another news personality saying, essentially, that Agnew is evil and will destroy television.]
"I don't agree. You need Agnew. He's welcome. American mediocrity has a face to it. It's all in one face now. Spiro Agnew is all that's lousy and wrong in American life. Before, it was a theoretical proposition."2001 author Arthur C. Clarke in 1970
predicting what life will actually be like in the year 2001: "Satellite communication will be everywhere, and everyone will connect through satellite hookups. Cities as we know them will no longer exist, because they won't be necessary."
I was hoping he was going to say more on that subject, but he really didn't. He mostly just talked about how 2001
doesn't have any messages, because he doesn't believe fiction should have any, saying "If you have a message, send it Western Union. Fiction should tell a story."
Anyway, I hope you got as much of a kick out of that stuff as I did. I transcribed one interview in full, but I'm saving it for tomorrow because it deserves a full post.
|Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008|
I’ve been watching The Wire: Season Two lately, which reminded me that I never posted about a TV-related theory of mine. I’ve never seen another name assigned to this before. If you have, by all means, point me to it. I dug through TV Tropes for some time, but I couldn’t find anyone documenting this phenomenon.
As you may have guessed from the title, I call it Sophomore Sprawl. Technically, I suppose, it’s a variation of the Sophomore Slump, but it’s more specific. Sophomore Sprawl occurs when a series which is tightly focused in its first season tries to do too many things in its second.
The Wire is a perfect example (spoilers follow). In the first season, everything – absolutely everything – revolves around the investigation of drug dealer Avon Barksdale by a Baltimore Police detail. We get plenty of character moments along the way, but we’re watching either the cops or the criminals at all times. It was about as pure as a narrative can be.
Season two, on the other hand, is all over the place. We’re following Barksdale and his associates both in and out of jail, getting up-to-date with the members of the police detail (who begin the season scattered at various jobs), and watching a new set of characters working at a shipping dock. It’s not that the show is worse than it was in season one, necessarily. It’s just juggling several different stories, which it didn’t try to do before.
Other examples abound. Veronica Mars season one is about Veronica tracking the murderer of her best friend Lily. Season two is about Veronica trying to figure out who caused the bus crash, and also who killed a gang member, and also about the aftermath of the arrest of Lily’s killer. Lost season one is about the survivors of a plane crash on a mysterious island. Season two is about a group of people living on an island where they have a fully-stocked research station in the ground, and a creepy other group who have apparently lived on the island for several years.
All my examples are recent, you’ll notice, and the reason for this is simple – until the last decade-and-a-half or so, TV shows didn’t have much scope at all. They established a formula and stuck to it. That’s not a criticism; it’s just true. Only recently have things shifted to a model where the status quo is expected to change.
But it does point to a possible explanation for the prominence of sophomore sprawl on TV these days – shows aren’t built to last forever anymore. The storytelling engines (to borrow a phrase from John Seavey) of these shows are designed to tell one story. (Lost excepted, of course. It’s more likely that storytelling engine was designed to leave many unanswered questions when the show fell victim to early cancellation.)
The first seasons of these shows are very carefully crafted – the creators likely spent years developing the concept to their satisfaction. For obvious reasons, the second season can’t have the same luxury – it has to get out there. This is often the cause of the “sophomore slump”. But why, specifically, does it cause sophomore sprawl?
When developing the second seasons, the creators have to deal with threads leftover from the first season as well as move the story forward. Consequently, they don’t have adequate time to fully address anything and the shows give off the appearance of having bitten off more than it can chew.
Again, I certainly don’t mean to imply that sophomore sprawl indicates a complete loss of quality. Rather, it usually amounts to a creative wobble early in the season before producers figure out how to effectively balance all of the storylines. Lost recovered quite quickly, as did The Wire.
I’ve been using the same few examples repeatedly in this post, and that’s where you come in. Is this not as much of a trend as I think it is? Can you think of other examples of sophomore sprawl?
|Monday, September 1st, 2008|
|AT&T is humanity's worst enemy
If you're reading this, chances are high that you use the internet. You might, then find this Vanity Fair article
interesting. It's an oral history of the internet, told by those involved. I was assigned it for class, but it's a good read.
The early parts, where yound bearded scientists do things like link one computer to another for the FIRST TIME EVER, are a little dry. It gets really interesting around part five, where average people start using the internet. The founders of sites like Amazon, eBay, and Craigslist all show up and offer a nice behind-the-scenes look at something I'd never really thought about before.
Sorry about all the links recently. Tomorrow I'll have actual content, I swear.
|Sunday, August 31st, 2008|
|The producers come into the room, people start cryin' and stuff
It might be ironic and hip to make fun of Saved by the Bell
, but I have no intention of doing that. Indeed, the show was really awful, but everyone knows that. So why dwell on it? Rather, I just want to point out the existence of E! True Hollywood Story: Saved by the Bell:
It's fascinating, to me, to watch those involved talk about the show years later. Creator Peter Engel and other crew members seem to think it was a clever and creative show. Dustin Diamond, here, just seems kind of perplexed about the whole thing. Haley Mills seems kind of embarassed, although she shouldn't - her work as Miss Bliss was typically fine. And Dennis "Belding" Haskins reveals that, even though the part was written for someone "over fifty and black", he knew he had to have the part.
Anyway, there it is. It's pretty entertaining.
|Saturday, August 30th, 2008|
Sorry for the lack of updates recently. I moved to Missouri for grad school a couple of weeks ago, and I didn't get back in the habit of posting. Well now I am getting back in habit. To mark my return, here's a link -
with the number one song for each date in history. Apparently the number one song on the day I was born was "Like a Virgin".
No, I don't have any jokes about that, thank you very much.
|Sunday, August 10th, 2008|
|Animation is the king of quality
Rotten Tomatoes posted this list of the worst-reviewed movies of the last ten years the other day. It's kind of depressing to remember that someone paid money to make those movies. Also included, though, is the best reviewed movie of each year. Those, to me, are a lot more interesting. If you don't care to click on the link, here's what they are:
1998: The Truman Show
1999: Toy Story 2
2000: Chicken Run
2001: Monsters Inc.
2002: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
2003: Finding Nemo
2004: The Incredibles
2006: The Queen
Look at that list - according to the collected opinions of the nation's film critics, the best movie in six of the last ten years has been animated. And not even just animated, but a big-budget studio cartoon feature. It's not that other big-budget studio movies never get positive reviews - Lord of the Rings is represented on this list, and The Dark Knight might very well end up as the best-reviewed champion for 2008 - but they don't get them as consistently as animation.
Now, five of these six movies are Pixar, of course. Other studios simply don't put out the same kind of quality product that they do. But Chicken Run is an Aardman movie - their first feature of, thus far, three.
I don't know what I'm trying to say with this post. Animated movies are the best, I suppose. And Aardman should make more movies.
|Saturday, August 9th, 2008|
|My favorite Python reference ever
My father, as a general rule, does not make pop culture references. He doesn't think they're funny, and he often calls his sons "stupid" for "talking about that crap all the time".
Every once in a while, though, he'll make reference to a TV show or movie without warning. When he does, it always makes me laugh for three reasons. One, I don't expect it. Two, his delivery is, as always, stone-faced and straight-forward, like he's talking about algorithms or something. Three, his references never quite make sense, which makes the attempt even more amusing.
Today I was sitting at the table with two slices of buttered bread on my plate.
My dad sat down next to me and said, "Hey, Two Breads. Instead of Two Sheds. Two Breads."
He sat there like a statue. I went nuts. Then he smirked.
Well played, fatherly one. Well played.
(Here's the sketch he's referring to, by the way -
|Friday, August 8th, 2008|
|12 Monkeys for only $14.95?! I can't turn that down!
This Onion AV Club feature about the Golden Age of DVD reminds me that I had been meaning to post some things about the decline of DVD anyway. It also made me think about the last ever post at DVD Journal, which is just about a year old.
Both articles make similar points – DVDs used to be new and exciting, but now they’re old hat. Film geeks could barely breathe when the format was new, waiting to see what wonder would come next. Now we have high-definition discs, digital downloads, and all kinds of things that make DVD seem as old and tired as 78 RPM records (Hey, it was the only comparison I hadn’t seen anyone else make yet.)
Both pieces say most of what I would have to say on the subject better than I could, but what amazes me while reading them is how nostalgic they make me feel. Excuse me for a while, then, while I ramble on about how much DVDs have meant to me over the years.
I remember seeing Roger Ebert’s TV mention of the Fight Club 2-disc special edition in the summer of 2000 when I was 15 – it blew my mind. Commentary tracks? Documentaries galore? Deleted scenes? I had no idea DVDs had any of that stuff. Up to that point, I had assumed they were just like VHS, only with better quality and widescreen picture. I decided right then and there that I was going to get a DVD player as soon as possible.
I bought my first DVD player in December of that year – a big giant Toshiba that offered a friendly LCD “HELLO” when you turned it on and had a screen saver of a whale for some reason. I had to buy it for myself, because my dad said that DVDs were stupid and a waste of money. It cost me $140, but I didn’t care. In those days that was cheap for a DVD player, and anyway I would have paid a thousand if I’d had to.
I also bought the Toy Story Ultimate Toy Box three-disc set featuring both movies and a disc of special features. It was the perfect place to start. Two terrific pictures, looking clearer and more amazing than I’d ever seen them. And the crew from Pixar in their prime, completely geeking out over getting to share all these cool behind-the-scenes stories with people at home who didn’t get to work at Pixar every day. I ended up watching the commentary track for Toy Story 2 about four times. I had gone crazy for the fifteen-minute featurettes on Disney VHS tapes in the ‘90s. Here they were, amplified a thousand times. I was in heaven, and I loved every single second of it.
After seeing how great Toy Story could be, I started buying up my other favorites as quickly as possible – This is Spinal Tap, Young Frankenstein, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. They might not have been as stuffed with extras as the Pixar stuff, but they had plenty of good stuff. Spinal Tap, you may recall, had two completely separate special editions – the MGM one, where all the extras had the band in character, and the long out-of-print Criterion one, with features about the actual making of the movie. I bought the former as soon as I could, and my brother Christopher paid a ridiculous amount to buy the latter for me on eBay. I felt like he had given me a kidney.
It wasn’t just extras that had me hooked – DVD was my real introduction to the concept of seeing movies in their original aspect ratios. In particular, I remember watching Ghostbusters and being blown away by how many gags worked better when you could see everything as intended. Yes, Ghostbusters. I know it should probably be Star Wars or Lawrence of Arabia or something, but it wasn’t. It was Ghostbusters. So there. In any case, I was a complete widescreen zealot in high school – preaching the evils of pan-and-scan everywhere I went.
I quickly became known as “The DVD Guy” in my class. Just two weeks after I bought my DVD player, I got two copies of my all-time favorite movie - Duck Soup – for my sixteenth birthday. That same day, my friend Jason lured me away from the scene of my surprise party with the promise of watching the new Chicken Run DVD. I was late for the party because I insisted on staying through the end of the credits.
But I didn’t just stick with my favorites. In high school, I bought just about every movie I saw and even slightly enjoyed – I remember taking trips to Best Buy and leaving with six or seven movies. Most of these were completely superfluous. By the time I graduated, I had copies of Catch Me If You Can and All That Jazz and the Matthew Broderick movie The Freshman and many other things that I never watched once I owned them.
I did, however, watch the extras for those movies. I was a special features fiend. I tried to watch the extras for everything I owned. And by “the extras”, I mean everything. I didn’t skip over production notes or storyboards or trailers. I couldn’t risk missing even one piece of neat information about a movie. Of course, insisting on watching everything didn’t combine very well with buying DVDs at an unreasonably fast rate – I soon fell fifty or more titles behind in my extras-watching.
Even with all the DVDs I had, I (like all geeks in those days) still had a wish list of things I wanted to see released – Back to the Future, Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Godfather, a non-flipper version of Amadeus, special editions for Casablanca, Aliens and most of the classic Disney animated pictures. These were just the tip of the iceberg, of course. The list went on and on and on. Eventually I got most of them. Anyway, I remember screaming like a small child in October of 2001, when Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Godfather trilogy were released just two weeks apart.
It was shortly after that, in fact, that the animation boom hit. Disney released the first wave of their Disney Treasures collection that December. I excitedly bought the two collections of shorts – Mickey Mouse in Living Color and Silly Symphonies – and excitedly ignored the other two. I was even more excited two years later when the first volume of Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes Golden Collection came out. Here I was, sitting in my own house, watching entire discs full of short cartoons.
By the time I went to college, I had a collection that was the envy of all my geek friends. I was constantly loaning movies and TV shows out to people. In fact, I used my obligatory college dry-erase board to keep track of who was borrowing DVDs from me. I was the DVD king of my neighborhood, and nothing in the world could have made me prouder. I genuinely felt like I was accomplishing something by being DVD Guy.
So why has that feeling faded in the years since? I mean, I still love DVDs. I buy them sometimes, I enjoy watching extras whenever I get the chance. But it just isn't the same. And I'm not quite sure why.
A big part of is exactly what those articles talk about – DVDs aren’t exciting anymore. The thrill of seeing The Indiana Jones Trilogy on the shelf in 2003 has been replaced by the skepticism that is the only possible reaction to the Repackaged to Tie In with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull edition of 2008. There’s nothing new happening anymore. I have most of the movies I want, and if I don’t, I could probably go buy them.
Also, I eventually realized that I simply had too many. All those unnecessary discs I bought in high school that never got watched? They became an easy way to make a little money back once I graduated college and had rent to pay. Sure, I only got rid of the ones that I probably shouldn’t have bothered buying in the first place, but I was still reducing rather than enlarging my collection. In high school that thought would have been unconscionable. That’s reality for you, I guess. It’s always spoiling my fun.
Maybe getting in to comic books as a college freshman made my enthusiasm for DVDs lessen. Here was a new, exciting thing; just as DVDs were starting to seem less than revolutionary. I might have owned Who Framed Roger Rabbit? for a couple years, but Watchmen and Kingdom Come were staring me in the face, and they were brand new.
I suppose it was none of those things. I suppose everyone has those things they did in high school that they get nostalgic for when they can’t recapture the same sense of excitement. In my case, it happens to be DVD collecting. I guess I’m just a lot nerdier than most.
|Thursday, August 7th, 2008|
|You are who you choose to be
Today I re-watched the greatest Superman movie ever made. I hadn’t seen it in a few years, and I had forgotten just how well it captures the essence of Superman as a character – he’s an inspiration, a shining example to be looked up to. More recent takes (not just Superman Returns, but also the animated Superman: Doomsday) have tried to humanize Superman, to the point of making him fallible and even normal.
For whatever reason, the makers of those films wanted us to look at Superman and say “This fellow is just like me.” Today, though, I remembered once again that Superman isn’t just like me, and I would do well to try to be more like Superman. He would never think of himself before others, this movie makes a point of telling the audience. Superman will do whatever it takes to save the day, no matter how dire the situation for him.
What movie am I talking about? Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant from 1999.
No, Superman doesn’t appear in the movie. But the ideal of Superman plays a key role, and his presence is felt all over. Early on, young Hogarth shows his metal friend several comic books. One is about an evil robot named Atomo. Another is an issue of Action Comics. When Hogarth explains that Superman always helps other people, the Giant decides that he wants to be like Superman.
Another plot thread concerns the Giant discovering death. After seeing two hunters shoot a deer, he decides that he hates guns and killing.
Later on, Hogarth wants the Giant to be Atomo when they play, but the Giant has other ideas:
His defense mechanisms triggered, the Giant realizes that he, too, is a type of gun – the one thing he never wanted to be. As the picture reaches its climax, the military fires an atomic missile at the Giant. Rather than allow everyone in the town of Rockwell, Maine, to die, the Giant heroically flies to meet it in midair. As he soars up to his death, he remembers that he has a choice to make. He can be a gun, or he can be something more. He can be Superman.
More than any of the actual Superman movies, that scene sums up for me exactly what makes the Last Son of Krypton a great character – just by existing, he inspires people to give everything they can for the good of others. By focusing on the man, other movies lost the ideal. By showing how the ideal affects a big giant robot, The Iron Giant reminds us of the man.
|Wednesday, August 6th, 2008|
|Dr. Looney's Remedy
Every time I see a TV ad for or read anything about Pineapple Express
, I hope anew that James Franco and Seth Rogen are going to sing this in it:
That would probably be amazing.
|Tuesday, August 5th, 2008|
|Horcruxes are fun
So I've watched the trailer for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
several times the past few days. A few notes:
1) I think it does a terrific job of establishing the mood of the story, which is tremendously dark (if you've read the book, you know it doesn't have a happy ending). But what strikes me about the trailer is that, heading into the sixth movie, whoever edited it assumes that the audience knows who Dumbledore is talking about when he says "the most dangerous dark wizard of all time". Sure, we see a flash of Voldemort, but we're never told that he and Tom Riddle are the same person.
In fact, Tom Riddle is never referred to by his full name at all. He's simply "Tom". Yet the trailer's sense of foreboding doesn't really work at all unless you know who "Tom" is and why he's important. That's remarkable, to me.
2) As much as I would have liked to have seen Richard Harris get to play out Dumbledore's story arc, the trailer makes me realize that he would have looked ridiculous in the flashback stuff in HBP
, a very Dumbledore-centric movie. Michael Gambon probably looks older than the character should here, but he doesn't look feeble
, which Harris invariably did in his last few years as an actor. Say what you will about Michael Gambon's Dumbledore, but he should capture the young man better than any of the other casting choices who were bandied about after Harris's death (Peter O'Toole or whoever).
3) Has there ever been a movie series that made it to six installments with this much of its cast intact? People seem to like On Her Majesty's Secret Service
, but it's still the first Bond movie without Sean Connery. Revenge of the Sith
had a few cast members from A New Hope
, I suppose, but not this many.
Other than that, how many movie series have even made it to six? Halloween
, Nightmare on Elm Street
, Friday the 13th
. That's about it, isn't it?
|Monday, August 4th, 2008|
|Is it my fault? Do I have this effect on things I like?
So I wrote this article
for Tough Pigs today, and while I was doing so, I started thinking -
The Muppets used to be a popular entertainment choice among the young people of America, and now they aren't.
The fan base is aging and shrinking, and no one new is coming in to pick up the slack.
Pretty much everyone knows what Muppets are, but many people think they no longer produce new Muppet stuff.
In recent times, the Muppets have gotten farther and farther away from what made them popular in the first place in an attempt to seem "hip" and "edgy" (Muppets Wizard of Oz
, of example, was full of pop culture references and mildly dirty jokes).
Weighing all of this evidence, I can only come to one conclusion -Muppets and Superhero Comics are the same thing.
|Sunday, August 3rd, 2008|
|Free Market Destroys the Universe
I'm sure I'm far from the first person to notice this, but I finally went to see Hellboy II
today, but in it, this happens (SPOILERS): Apparently, thousands of years ago, magical creatures made a pact with humans to leave each other alone. Now, a prince of Elves has decided he should attack humanity and reclaim the world. What made him decide that? Humans have spent too long tearing down nature to make room for "parking lots and shopping malls".
Two weeks earlier, Wall-E
featured a world in which, essentially, Wal-Mart had brought about the end of the world by expanding over everything. Two movies in the same summer about the evils of consumerism. That's kind of neat.
Also, they both have toys for sale. I've seen them.
|Saturday, August 2nd, 2008|
|TARDIS = Operating Room
So today, solidfoamsoul
and I somehow ended up comparing various Doctors from Doctor Who
to characters from M*A*S*H
. Here's what we came up with -
First Doctor (William Hartnell) = Colonel Potter (Harry Morgan). They're both curmudgeonly and old.
Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) = Radar (Gary Burghoff). They're both much wiser than they look.
Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) = ? (We couldn't think of anyone for this. Any suggestions?)
Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) = Corporal Klinger (Jamie Farr). They're both funny and awfully strange.
Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) = BJ Hunnicut (Mike Farrell). They're both straight-forward, genial fellows.
Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) = Charles Emerson Winchester (David Ogden Stiers). They're both kind of pompous and arrogant
Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) = Lt. Colonel Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson). They're both, initially at least, kind of befuddled and quick-tempered.
Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) = Margaret Houlihan (Loretta Swit). They are both women.
Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) = Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda). They both mask indignation and angst under wisecracking exteriors.
Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) = Trapper John McIntyre (Wayne Rogers). They both just love to crack wise.
We also decided that Dr. Sidney Freeman (Allan Arbus) is The Face of Boe, because they both specialize in advice. And Colonel Flagg (Edward Winters) is The Master, because they're both crazy and evil.
|Friday, August 1st, 2008|
|6 Best Comic Book Super-husbands
A couple of days ago, cracked.com released their list of The 6 Worst Comic Book Super-Husbands. As you can see, they’re all Marvel characters. That’s because Marvel loves to inject drama into their comic books by having their “heroes” be abusive or crazy or deal-with-the-devil-makers. DC, as a general rule, does not do that. Their heroes act like heroes. Here, then, are my humble picks for the 6 *Best* Comic Book Super-Husbands.
Honorable mentions, by the way, to Buddy “Animal Man” Baker and Adam Strange.
6. Clark Kent (Superman)
For a long time, Superman was hesitant to return the advances of reporter Lois Lane, but they finally got married in 1996. Since that time, he’s been as devoted to Lois as he always was to the citizens of the Earth. While crime fighting, he sometimes thinks up new romantic gestures for her, and he takes for an anniversary flight every year. Lois, as much as his parents or his upbringing in Smallville, keeps Clark human and down-to-Earth, and he knows how lucky he is.
5. Jay Garrick (The Flash I)
When Jay first got powers in 1940, he used them to win a football game and impress Joan Williams. It worked, and she’s been Mrs. Joan Garrick for over fifty years. They’ve had their ups and downs – she thought he was dead for six years, he brought home the hyperactive Bart Allen for several more – but well into their 80s, they’re still so in love that Jay can barely bring himself to stop talking about Joan, even at JSA meetings. They exchange glances that mean more than a thousand words between most comic book characters. Most of all, though, they depend on each other. It's possible to imagine one without the other.
The best picture I could find was John Watson’s terrific painting of Joan mending Jay’s boots, which is pretty much “Why the Garricks are great in a nutshell” and can be found here.
4. Jack Knight (Starman)
SPOILER Yes, for all of James Robinson’s 1990s Starman series, the title character is actually unmarried. But, at the end of the series, when his fiancé Sadie issues an ultimatum – super heroics or her – he chooses a happy life with Sadie in a heartbeat. He didn’t abandon his duty – he talked to other heroes to make sure his hometown of Opal City would be in good hands, and then he rode off to live an average, unexciting married life. He doesn’t whine about having responsibility. He gets his affairs in order and gives it up, all to marry the love for his life.
3. Wally West (The Flash III)
Much like Spider-Man, Wally West once made a deal with the devil. In his case, however, it was to save his wife Linda, not his elderly aunt who will probably die before too long anyway. And he outsmarted the devil and saved his marriage. That story was just one of the many times that writers have used Wally’s love for Linda as his driving force. He’s a man madly in love with his wife and, now, with his two children. Even more striking is the fact that he started his solo series (in 1987) as a care-free playboy. He started to mature after he met Linda, and developed into the upstanding icon we know today.
I gotta say, though, that I still think “Linda Park-West” sounds like an upscale neighborhood.
2. Scott Free (Mister Miracle)
Scott and his wife Big Barda are both fighters by nature – they both fought their way off of the Hell planet Apokolips, in fact – and they’ve been known to engage enemies together. He often expresses excitement and/or arousal at seeing his wife swing into battle. To me, though, Scott’s devotion to Barda was summed up perfectly in the late 1980s, when she decided she wanted to live a normal suburban life. They were clearly not suited for it, but Scott invested in the dream wholeheartedly, because making his wife happy was more important to him than anything else in the universe.
1. Ralph Dibny (The Elongated Man)
The world’s stretchiest detective didn’t work alone – he was always part of a team with his wife Sue – they investigated cases together, traveled the world together, even joined the Justice League together (they were credited as “Ralph ‘n Sue” on the covers for a little while in the early 80s). They bickered constantly, in the way only two people who know everything about each other can. Every year on his birthday, Sue would set up a mystery for Ralph to solve. More than any other guy on this list, Ralph’s wife was his entire world, and he was hers. When writer Brad Meltzer foolishly killed Sue in 2004’s Identity Crisis, the writers of 52 had no choice but to follow suit and kill Ralph off. They’re currently together again, working as ghost detectives somewhere in the afterlife. Not even death could tear their love apart.
|Thursday, July 31st, 2008|
|David Brent is the new Big Bird
A look at the "International versions"
section of The Office
Wikipedia page reveals that the British original has inspired five remakes in foreign countries (the US, France, Germany, French-speaking Canada, and Chile) with a sixth (in Russia) set to premiere soon. That will be six versions, plus the original, in just seven years since the series premiered.
The reigning king of foreign remakes is, of course, Sesame Street
, which has seen thirty-two different international co-productions
since it premiered in 1969. The Office
has quite a long way to go if it wants to catch up.
Of course, after Sesame Street
had been on four seven years (1969-1976), it had only inspired three other versions - in the Netherlands
, and Brazil
. The Office
has twice that already.
In conclusion, The Office
is on pace to have sixty-four international versions by the year 2040.
|Wednesday, July 30th, 2008|
|What does "definitive" even mean, really?
Well, there are only seventeen months left in this decade (have we decided what to call it yet? Is it “the aughts”?), and I think it might be time to start discussing what the definitive TV shows of the decade are. We could still see great movies, or albums, or books – those things come out as single entities. Any lasting TV shows that premier from here on out are unlikely to really find their footing until “the aughts” become “the tens”.
So what TV shows – one comedy and one drama – best sum up trends we’ve seen in American TV during the last eight-and-a-half years? It sitcom is easy – it has to be Arrested Development. That series has the one-camera/no-laugh-track format shared by shows like The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm, the cutaways and flashbacks found in Family Guy and Scrubs, and the same casual, assumed focus on dysfunctional family as Two and a Half Men and Malcolm in the Middle (which is different from 90s-style Roseanne “look how dysfunctional we are” shows where it was part of the shock. The newer series assume that all families are dysfunctional.)
It also uses sexual content not for shock value, but as background for jokes and character moments, much like shows from 30 Rock to Sex & the City (again, this is different from the 90s, where often the whole joke was “Hey, look. We’re talking about sex.”) Almost anything that marks a comedy as being “from the aughts” can be found in Arrested Development.
It’s harder to choose a drama. The past decade has seen no shortage of trends in TV drama. Shows like The Wire and Lost are dense with continuity and hard to begin watching in the middle of the series – each new episode depends on the viewer’s knowledge of what has come before. Lost and, to an even greater degree, Battlestar Galactica have shown that it’s possible to be a genre show and both be critically acclaimed and tell universally gripping stories. Shows as diverse as Six Feet Under, House and, again, Lost have shown a refusal to stick to a status quo, with situations and characters changing at a rate previously unheard of. Speaking of Lost one last time, it offers the most prominent use of time as a device – time on many shows is no longer linear, but bounces back and forth as suits the storytelling needs of the creators.
So far it looks like I’m going to say Lost is the quintessential aughts-era drama, but I’m not. While it would be a fine choice, there are a few other criteria that it doesn’t meet. First of all, we’ve seen a trend towards morally ambiguous (or downright evil) lead characters – Tony Soprano on The Sopranos, Vic Mackey on The Shield, Dexter on Dexter. Finally, the decade has been positively stuffed with procedural dramas – the CSIs, Law & Order spin-offs, Cold Case, Without a Trace, Bones and many others. If any show is going to sum up the decade’s dramas, it has to include elements of a procedural. Lost is a mystery show, but it doesn’t follow any procedure I’ve ever heard of.
If it isn’t Lost, what is it? What show combines all of these elements – heavy continuity, changing status quo, morally ambiguous hero, playing around with time, a combination of genre and procedural elements? Well, to find it, we’ll have to go back to the very beginning of the decade, when the WB was airing a series called Angel. That’s right, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s younger brother positively defines television drama in the past decade.
Look at the evidence –
- By the time the show had entered its third season, it was impossible to follow without having watched not only the first two seasons of Angel, but also the first three seasons of Buffy. If that’s not impenetrable continuity, I don’t know what is.
- The status quo on the series changed constantly. There wasn’t a huge amount of character turnover, but every single character was put through an avalanche of changes over the course of the series. This was best symbolized by the series’ two moves to a new home base for the main characters. It was a series that always moved forward, never stopping to put things back the way they used to be.
- Angel wasn’t the most devious lead character ever to appear on television, but he did kill when necessary, and in his previous incarnation as evil vampire Angelus, he was a brutal mass murderer. That persona resurfaces a couple of times during the course of the series, and he’s still our main character – even as he’s gleefully slaughtering innocents.
- That’s where the manipulation of time came in – the series spent a great deal of time flashing back to delve into the back story of Angel or other immortal characters.
- It has the genre elements, obviously. It’s a show about a vampire. As for universally gripping, it was never as popular as Buffy, but I think that’s mostly because it’s harder to get in to. Anyone can start watching Buffy, but only those who already know that they like the parent show will watch Angel, despite the fact that they’re very different stylistically. I'm going to say that it isn't about demons, because it is. But if Buffy was, at heart, a show about trying to make it through high school, Angel was a show about how you never stop trying to figure out how to be an adult. Everyone can relate to that.
- On the critical acclaim side, the show has had several books written about it in the years since it ended, and I know it is frequently used in college classes and the like.
- It’s not just a show about a vampire – it’s about a vampire who happens to be a private detective, which is where the procedural elements came from. Many episodes featured Angel Investigations working a specific case, which would be resolved by the end of the episode.
So as you can see, Angel is it, folks. Just a couple of final notes – like many series are now, Angel was shot in widescreen. It was one of the first such shows on network television. Also (SPOILER), it has an abrupt, cliffhanger-type ending with no resolution. Just like The Sopranos.
You might disagree with my choices. If you do, you should let me know what you think the definitive comedy and drama of the decade are.
|Tuesday, July 29th, 2008|
I’ve noticed a lot of unrelated (or tangentially related) sequels to old movies popping up lately. Things like WarGames: The Dead Code and Bachelor Party 2: The Last Temptation. Is this actually a new phenomenon, or have I just not noticed? I know direct-to-video sequels to newer movies have been common for years. Heck, American Pie and Bring It On have become franchises to rival The Land Before Time (and the American Pie Presents garbage bags at least all feature poor anything-for-a-buck Eugene Levy).
But this new breed consists of in-name-only resurrections of movies from twenty-five years ago – movies that weren’t tremendously successful in the first place. Oh, WarGames and Bachelor Party certainly have their fans, but it’s not like we’re talking about ET or Ghostbusters here. Of course, that’s it exactly, isn’t it? More beloved movies have a certain amount of credibility that the studios wouldn’t want to squander. I suppose these movies – ones that are kind of well-known – are the perfect ones for the nostalgia market.
Still, I have to wonder – who exactly is the intended audience for movies like these? All six superfans of the originals? People who recognize the names of movies they probably saw on cable one time? People who never saw the originals because they were too old? People who just plain wish it could be the 80s forever? In any case, it can’t be a very large demographic. And I haven’t seen any of these movies, but they can’t be very good, can they? Couldn’t the studios put that money into making something of value? Or, you know, give it to a charitable organization or something?
Because seriously, anything’s gotta be better than Slap Shot 2 starring Stephen Baldwin.
|Monday, July 28th, 2008|
I've been meaning for a while to post some of the pieces I wrote as a commentator for college radio. This one was written in April of 2007. It has some references to it being April of 2007, but don't let that distract you. Anyway, it's pretty silly.T-Ball? More like Commie Ball
Well, it’s April (once again, that's 2007 - author), and spring is here, and that can only mean one thing – yes, TV shows are new again until the end of the season! Lost, The Office, Gilmore Girls, a bunch of shows I don’t watch – all back until the middle of May. I can’t wait to see what happens on the island, at Dunder-Mifflin, in Stars Hollow. However, this piece doesn’t have anything to do with that, because spring is also baseball season. The MLB is in full swing, my friends. I’m sure Moises Alou, Reggie Jackson, Ted Williams and the whole gang are having a swell time hitting balls, shagging flies and running bases.
However, I’m not here to talk about them either, or even about the MLB. At a lower level, kids all across the country are getting ready for summer baseball, which should start up shortly after the season finale of Lost. There’s an organization for boys of every age – Legion for high schoolers, named after a team of DC Comics superheroes; Babe Ruth for junior high boys, named after that guy Benny Rodriguez dreams about in The Sandlot; and Little League for upper elementary kids, named after Little Luth, the mascot of the National Lutheran Youth Convention.
Well, based on the fact that I’m turning their names into terrible pop-culture references, it’s probably obvious by now that I’m not actually too interested in any of these levels of baseball. What I am interested in, however, is the lowest level of organized baseball play – Tee ball, for ages 6 through 8. T-ball isn’t regular baseball, of course, as it modifies the game in a number of ways, theoretically to make it easier for young children to play. Unfortunately, it has a much more negative effect in practice. Easier? Maybe, but certainly far more Soviet-esque.
Yes, friends – tee ball mirrors the threat of international communism in a number of ways, starting with the title figure – the “tee” itself. Similar to a golf tee, but much larger, it allows every player to hit the ball with little or no effort. Much like Stalin’s infamous Five-Year-Plan, this gives the appearance that everyone is skilled and productive. Even the bad kids can hit the ball nearly every time. This, of course, gives them a sense of false confidence, allowing them to think they’ll be able to beat the US to the moon. When they find out later in life that this isn’t true, they’ll only be disappointed.
This spread-the-wealth mentality continues in the structure of every inning. Rather than having three outs per team per inning (or four, or seven or any other number), tee ball allows every player on both teams to bat every single inning. On the surface, of course, this also appears to give everyone an equal chance. Each boy gets a chance and everyone is happy. In reality, of course, it just puts the teams at the mercy of the governmental structure. Like the Berlin Wall, the much-bally-hooed “Laaaaast Batterrrrr!” signals a split between innings that can not be moved.
Finally, at the end of every tee ball game, both teams are always told that they won, and well. In the history of the sport, no team has ever scored less than 30 runs and no opponent has scored more than 5. Just as Stalin told the people of Russia that they were leading the world in every conceivable area, these kids are told that they are unstoppable. This serves no purpose other than to tear them down when they lose at life, but this doesn’t matter to short-sighted Bolshevik coaches. They have only their immediate concerns in mind.
All I really mean to say is this – tee ball might seem like innocent fun, but every kid who plays it is going to grow up someday. They’ll remember the lessons they learned in tee ball, much better than the baseball skills. They’ll grow up to idolize Vladimir Lenin, not Vladimir Guerrero.