Romancing The Stone

The first time my parents brought home a VCR that they had rented from a local shop, the also brought home the movie Romancing The Stone. That sentence is so quintessentially mid-80’s that in my memory we are all wearing spandex, Magnum PI t-shirts, and each of us sporting a single glove and / or a Madonna-esque fashion hat while we watched the movie. But that was probably not the case, either. What I do remember was that they probably rented other movies along with that new-to-us VCR, but the only one I remember 30+ years later is Romancing The Stone.

A friend of mine recently said that they had watched it for the first time this year, and hated it, and a part of me suddenly got curious about what didn’t hold up. As a youth, I probably saw this and the sequel a number of times, and my love of Raiders of The Lost Ark sort of embedded in me a love of adventure / treasure hunting stories, that certainly caused me to sit up and take notice of this one. And, at 12, this glimpse into the world of adult relationships in an International setting really appealed to this small town Oregon Boy, where it was so completely foreign to me. I was immediately enamored with all of it, and found there to be a lot in the film that puzzled me, as I tried to understand why these two were falling in love with each other at a time when I was only dimly aware of what it meant to fall in love at all.

It is true, with 2020 eyes, this movie is problematic, a sort of cringey time-capsule, where this document somehow manages to make the mighty Kathleen Turner seem like she is out-of-her element, and needed the help of a man to make it through this horrible experience. There’s some fairly weird scenes that border on the strangeness of the “Ghost Blow Job” from Ghostbusters, which serves no function except to have a racy moment on screen with our leads. It certainly has so much 80’s running through it that, in spite of first-hand memories of the movies, I have to remind myself that it is actually a nearly 40 year old film.

I keep considering the words of Joe Dante himself, who recently has said (in a number of different ways) that every movie ever made needs a warning label on it, that says, “Warning: This Movie Was Made Before Today.” Every film embodies the taboos and mores of a particular time / place / point of view embodied by the creators at that time, and while it isn’t an endorsement or even an attempt to say, “Well, it was just like that, then,” what both he and I am saying is that in 1984, choices were made by people who were thinking to themselves, “What’s going to look good on screen?” rather than wondering for example, “How woke does this movie appear to audiences?”

The film itself is, in many ways, is probably more progressive than a lot of the fare that was being made in 1984, and certainly was one of the few films being made at the time that was written by a woman. As a kid, I think I only really responded to the treasure hunt elements of the movie, which I think is entirely conveyed by the fact that, before this week, the part of this movie I remembered the best is the 15 minute segment where Joan & Jack decide to use the map to find The Stone, which they do find fairly quickly. After which, the movie goes back to where it had been before, with the various romance and kidnapping subplots driving the remainder of the story.

In a way, the movie is a sort of patchwork of different soap-opera style subplots, and in the same way that a lot of soaps all have soap stars as characters in their shows, Romancing The Stone features a romance author getting embroiled in a story that is lifted precisely from her books, so much so that the characters all know her stories and tropes well, and the plot begins to bend toward things she’s seen in her novels before. Even the Stone itself is hidden in a way that is directly lifted from her first novel.

This element of the film isn’t really commented on, but the movie is framed by Joan and her editor reviewing a recently completed novel, and the one at the end is meant to imply that it is the story we have just seen on screen. This frame story suggests that, perhaps, in a sort of Total Recall sort of way, that some – all? – of her experiences in Columbia might be in her head.

Or, perhaps, in the parlance of a different Arnold action flick, she has entered one of her own romance novels? The kidnapping subplot is the pretext to get Joan to Columbia, but Joan’s sister is rarely seen (or heard), and most of what happens has little to do with the kidnapping, and more to do with the map, and The Stone. All three serve as McGuffins, and are only secondary to the primary plot. The film is really about how the people who are all searching for The Stone manage to bring Joan and Jack together by accident, in the fashion of a true romance, like the kinds that Joan writes and Columbian drug lords seem to love.

From the moment Joan gets to Columbia, every experience is something pulled from the kinds of adventure romances that she writes, which is very interesting for a couple of reasons. In the 1980s, one of the few genres of storytelling where women did have any real agency was in a Romance novel. In a romance, a woman can be the lead, and her concerns and interests (and desires) are allowed to be manifest, in whatever way she wants. While these stories are predicated on the idea that you need a man to complete yourself, everything prior to the pairing of the couple at the very end is about revealing how independent the protagonist really is.

She lives alone, fighting off the street vendors every day, a fairly savvy city dweller. Then, Joan gets on a plane and goes to Columbia by herself, a trip she has never done before. She manages to handle herself fairly well, considering a strange thug that comes after her, and when she meets Jack, she dictates the pace of their budding relationship. She’s onto Jack when he is trying to pull fast ones, and in the end, she handles the Columbian thug herself, even though she is calling for Jack’s help the entire time she’s fighting him. She really didn’t need his assistance, but is was nice to see that he did try, anyway.

Even worse, Jack abandons her for a while at the end, leaving her to have to negotiate getting out of Columbia with her sister, by themselves. Considering some of the Columbian government was out to get her previously, one can only imagine how difficult that must have been. Not to mention that Joan’s sister has just had her husband murdered by Columbian gangsters, creating all sorts of difficulties, which would call upon Joan to be the emotional center for her sister after she, herself, has been through the most insane experience of her life. Joan is going to need some time to process this experience, and probably will need some time to make sense of what she’s been through.

Instead, the movie decides to portray her and wistfully looking out windows, thinking about Jack. The final scene is so incredibly torn from the pages of a romance novel that it is unbelievable, and seems to me to be the evidence that she has climbed into one of her novels. Jack abandoned her and her sister, at a time when they really needed his help. Instead, he chases after his fortune, the shallow desire he’s hidden behind the entire film. And, to his credit, he gets his fortune, alligator boots, and all. But the idea that he could return, suddenly, to sweep her off her feet, so they could sail off down the streets of New York now that he can financially support her… and she wouldn’t be angry with him? She wouldn’t have a million other questions for him, all around the problem of, “Why do you suddenly show yourself again, now, mister?” In the final scene, she is still acting like she’s in Columbia, and in many ways, she never left, which is clear in that she is playing the part of a Romance Novel protagonist, and not that or Joan Wilder.

At this early stage of his career, Zemeckis was not yet willing to openly toy with the reality / fantasy presentation of his films, so this movie is not interested in exploring where the line between reality and fantasy is precisely drawn. And as a kid, I sort of missed that, too. I was entirely in the fantasy, not realizing that the movie is about a relationship forming, and not about a treasure hunt that I wanted it to be.  But I missed a lot of what was going on in this movie as a young man. While there’s no way that a film like this can hit the same buttons that it did when I was a kid, I can clearly see the elements did speak to me to me, both then and now, which made that experience very enjoyable.

Haunted Suits of Armor

So far, I’ve found four films for my October Horror Festival, that contains only films where people wander around a mansion or castle, there’s the suggestion of ghosts, and suits of armor are part of the set design. 

The House on Haunted Hill (1959)

The Bat (1959)

Horror Island (1941)

The Secret of the Blue Room (1933)

Two of these films are from 1959, which is interesting. (I wonder if there was a shared set, even?) But the second two are straight off of the original “Shock Theater” package of films, which was assembled by Screen Gems in 1957, and distributed to a number of TV stations across the country. The original Shock Theater package came with 52 movies. (One a week for a full year.) A second package, the year later, came with 20 more films, and by then, Horror Hosts were popping up all over, hosting these movies late at night. The Shock Theater package ushered in a new age of interest in horror movies, at a time when rock and roll was on the rise, and American Culture was seeing the influence of teenagers in a big way, something that wasn’t the case in the years before. 

I think the appealing thing to me is that most o these films seem to include some sort of secret passage, or secret doors that lead to strange rooms. I think there’s any number of people who would love to live in a house with this kind of design, and while I’ve never lived anywhere like that, if you throw something like this into the film, I’m pretty much into it. 

I’ve seen some of the Shock Theater package, but not all of it. But I suspect there’s a few more Suits Of Armor Shlock out there that I’m not familiar with. The idea is sort of genius: use cheap movie FX and a single, “Haunted House” set with an ensemble cast to plow their way through a tense (or, in the case of Horror Island, comedic) script, probably very quickly, based on older movie making practices of the “B” variety.

I’ve found all of these to be wonderfully charming in a corny way, and I’d be curious to see if I can find more for this list. I suspect there’s a lot more that I’m not familiar with. 

In the meantime, I’ll keep working my way through the Shock Theater package. I’m sure that’s a good start. 

 

tumblr_inline_n1uxw4zOpZ1s248b8

The Legend of Billie Jean was not a movie I expected to be familiar with when my wife first recommended we watch it a few years ago, and as it is among her favorite films, I didn’t see the harm in giving it a shot.  What I found out what that, very quickly, I did remember the film, but only in pieces, like in a dream.  It should go without saying that I later realized that this was also a favorite movie of my younger sister when she was a kid, that I had absorbed the film largely through osmosis.  I don’t remember sitting down to watch it intentionally at any point, but having seeing in twice in recent years, I now understand why it was – to my young mind – forgettable, but seems to be permanently etched into the minds of all women of a certain age.

The summer of 1985 was an interesting time in popular culture.  Punk, New Wave, Power Pop & Rock music were all mixing together, and film was starting to depict these pockets of America that were infected by all of this new artistic input.  Like the Rock and Roll scares of previous generations, “youth culture” was now something that was genuinely being paraded as a “threat” on the news, and small instances of kids gone wrong were blown out of proportion.  A number of movies tried to address different issues that were affecting teenagers at the time, and for every Heathers that was poking fun at teenage suicide, there were plenty of John Hughes movies to paint a “quainter” version of the scourge of America.

In the end, though, the typical kinds of problems that Hollywood has suffered from crop up time and time again, even when exploring the fringes of teenage rebellion: where are all the women at?  There are so few teenage films that pass the Bechdel Test that it is embarrassing, and while you have a few ensemble casts where there are both male and female characters, it is shocking to find how rarely the women are cast as anything but potential girlfriends for the boys, who are at the center of the story.  This problem is both embarrassing and counter-intuitive to another trope that you see in almost all movies about teenagers: the younger, not-yet-sexually-active sister who DOES embody all the same characteristics as the males: outgoing, in charge, doesn’t let people boss her around, etc.  The general thrust of most teen films is that young girls act like boys, until they “mature” and become objects for the boys.  Aside from taking your glasses off and shaking out your librarian hair, there are few other roles you can take on in movies about teen.

It would be a little ridiculous to suggest that The Legend of Billie Jean is a feminist tract, and there are a number of problems with this movie that cause it to fall apart under too much scrutiny.  But I’m not sure that plot hole exploration or rigorous third wave feminist theory application is going to explain by my younger sister and my wife – and, let’s face it, most women who grew up with this film – love this movie so much.  I think, very simply, that the movie sets up an experience that a lot of women can relate to, and then pays it off in the most satisfying way at the very end.

Sure, I’ll probably drop a spoiler or two as I go, but perhaps the biggest one is that this movie was a bit of a flop, and not the first (or last) for director Mathew Robbins, either.  (Although Dragonslayer managed to gain a cult following that was separate from the following Billie Jean has.)  But it did well enough in the theater to help making Pat Benatar’s “Invincible” a hit, and it turned Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell” – at the time, a year old song that had failed to chart – into a charting song as well, aided largely by MTV playing the hell out of the songs.  But as a summer film, it was very quickly forgotten, and as artists began to tighten the rules about distributing their music in films, home distribution dried up.  It made it to cable, and some rental stores got a limited number of VHS copies, but for many years it was unavailable, and only in the last few has it be legally available in a digital form.  (Our copy is a burned DVD from 2006, won on eBay by my lovely wife.  The transfer is an SD Fullscreen transfer, and looks TERRIBLE on a good TV.)

Of course, all of this is in keeping the The Legend of Billie Jean.  The movie itself starts in the smallest way possible: a brother and sister from a trailer park find themselves the victims of an obnoxious kid, who destroys the brother’s scooter (and beats the kid up in the process).  With the help of two addition friends from the park – a younger girl named Putter and another friend who has borrowed the family car – go on a quest to get compensated for the trashed scooter, and to get their names cleared after the father of the obnoxious kid tries to exploit and extort the sister, Billie Jean.  After a series of adventures that continues to escalate the stakes of the film, it ends in a confrontation between Billie Jean and the sleazy dad, where most of the state of Texas turn up to watch her humiliate him, and then burn down most of his business.

And this guy deserved it, too.  In the course of this movie he belittles his own son and Billie Jean, tries to pay her for sex, tries to force her to have sex with him, exploits her name and image for money after she becomes a media sensation, and with the full knowledge that his son is guilty, refused to pay for the replacement scooter, or to apologize for any action he did during the film.  And, yes, loosing a business is hard, but he is rich, and will recover, while Billie Jean and her brother have to leave Texas forever, to restart their lives elsewhere, because Texas was so awful to them.  (The moral of the story: you can’t change Texas, so just leave.)

 

I Thought These Movies Were No Longer For Me

To be fair, I was never so much a Star Wars fanatic as to put myself anywhere close to the kind of contenders that currently exist for superfan.  But as kids, we had Star Wars sheets, and I spent a lot of time playing in the yard with my siblings, running around shooting blasters and using sabers as part of the never-ending mash-up of games we played involving The Cat From Outer SpaceInner-Space, Indiana Jones, and just about any other movie that caught our fancy growing up.  But even though I was not a superfan, even though no part of me screamed, “THIS IS MY LIFE,” it was so much a part of my life that I always felt that it was there, somewhere in the back, guiding me.  Really, more than Star Wars, it was Harrison Ford’s characters that I really looked up to.

Between the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, it is safe to say that Harrison Ford was essentially my second father.  It isn’t that my own father was absent per se, but through a number of circumstances that involved his work-life, and my subsequent adolescence, we just didn’t see a lot of each other.  Not that I particularly thought of Harrison Ford as a person in the world that could, theoretically, even BE my father.  He was just some actor.  But counting up all the hours spent watching him and seeing him act as an adult seemed to imprint onto me this feeling that, perhaps, he was someone that I should probably watch a little closely, and see if I could learn anything from him.

Not that he ever portrayed or oozed any amount of fatherliness.  He was the guy that you would go on adventures with, and most likely, would lead you into trouble.  And for some reason, my own father didn’t bring me on his adventures, so at least I got to see Ford’s.  I knew that my own father worked for the railroad, and that he also went hunting & fishing, but I could only imagine what this was code for, and I could only dream about what relic he was uncovering, and what space ship he was piloting.  The world of Indiana Jones felt closer to me growing up – especially since Indy had already traveled with a kid, Short Round – and since my real father did not take me to every derailment he was sent out to clean up (where I imagined him lifting the trains up himself, asking for guidance as he set them back on the tracks), while he was gone, I could at least follow Han Solo to the end of the Universe several times over.  All before my father could get home from work.

In 1981 I was six years old, and my parents took all four of us (my brothers and sister) in a station wagon to see Raiders Of The Lost Ark at a local drive in.  This was ideal for any family in the early ’80s, offering a chance for my parents to sneak off and get stoned outside while we were mesmerized by the speaker delivering the sound of the movie.  While I was absolutely horror-struck by the melting nazis at the end (a nightmare that stuck with me for years), the rest of the film sparked in me a deep love of Indiana Jones, and I spent hours in our yard being chased by boulders and running through the woods, studying “archeology,” wanting to be just like him.  When I finally got a denim jacket, I tried my hardest to get it to look “brown” like this (I threw dust and dirt all over it), and I begged my parents for a hat like his.  It so subsumed my imagination that to this day the music and feeling that movie fills me with can bring instant tears of nostalgia and joy, and I found myself more excited about the ride at Disneyland than just about any other amusement part experience I can ever remember.

I don’t really remember a time when I hadn’t seen Star Wars.  With hindsight, it is likely that I only ever heard about Star Wars in those days, and might not have actually seen it.  (I was two when it came out in theaters, and in the late ’70’s it was unlikely my parents had a VCR, or that it was on TV.)  More to the point, most kids have a spotty memory when they’re that young.  For all I know, I was in the theater for all of it and just can’t piece it together.  I have a vague memory of being watched one night when my parents when to see a movie without us and I feel like it might have been Star Wars (only because I also think I remember them talking about it), but even that might not be a real memory.  In school, Star Wars was all any self-respecting kid could talk about, and so while I may not have seen it personally, I already had cultural knowledge of it on a fairly intimate basis by the time Empire Strikes Back came out, and was all anyone could talk about on the playground.  And yet, I did not see it in the theater, to my knowledge.

No, what sticks out for me is that I saw both Empire Strikes Back and Return of The Jedi on consecutive days in the summer of 1983, when I was visiting my cousins with my family.  It started like this: my cousins had a VCR in the house, had rented Empire, bought a bunch of candy, and with our two families crammed into their outfitted den (to accommodate the large crowd), we huddled around what could not have been more than a 15″ Standard Definition screen and watched in awe.   By the time the lights were turned off and the crawl began, I felt like I knew everything I needed to know – weather through memory or social osmosis – and it absolutely flooded into me.  I was excited, disgusted, scared, and sad, all at once, and while the end brought me to tears (WHAT ABOUT HAN SOLO!), I was comforted by my parents that everything was going to be alright.

This, of course, was all preparation, because the following day we were going to see Return of The Jedi in the theater.  While the exact memories of these experiences are largely lost – I mostly remember impressions and what I was told about that day: being happy, playing Star Wars with all my cousins afterward – I try to imagine what my eight year old mind must have thought having seen those two movies in such close proximity of each other, at age eight, no less.  My imagination must have been overwhelmed with new ideas and characters to incorporate into my fantasy world, and while I certainly remember loving it, I had no idea then how many times I would actually see these films in the years to come.

While I have heard many people talk about what they find to be their own personal favorite film, with a clear head and having seen them all, I decided very early that I loved the first film the most.  Star Wars – what is now referred to as “Episode IV” or “A New Hope,” but in those days, it was just Star Wars – had a quality to it that felt like a story from my childhood, and perhaps having seen it the least and having such a social memory of it made me like it more.  Much like Tom Sawyer or Lord of The Rings, the first film felt like like established literary canon, a part of the vernacular that every kid my age spoke.  I have contended that, before Clerks came out, very few people would point to Empire as their favorite, and that it was Kevin Smith’s commentary on why Empire is the superior film that has put that one in the lead as the better movie.  But having met a number of people who love it unconditionally, I’ve come to realize my opinion is in the minority.  Regardless, all three films were incredible, and while my heard was with the first film, I never turned down seeing the others if I could.

Like many people in those days, when VCRs became affordable (and rental stores popped up everywhere, even in small towns), it was worth it to make sure you had one in the house when HBO was offering a free weekend, or when another family would loan you a bunch of stuff so you could copy their films, and among our many collected tapes as I was a youth (with at least two other boring films crammed on the tape with it) was a recording of Temple of Doom, made shortly after it had hit cable channel.  (The turn-over for films in those days was pretty quick on HBO, so we must have had that recording by early ’85, the year after it was released in theaters.)  I must have watched that movie hundreds of times, knew every line of dialog, and could cite Indiana Jones knowledge with the best of them.

It wasn’t long before our families got copies of the Star Wars movies too.  And, of course, in 1989 I was in the theater watching Last Crusade with all the other teens, and finding that while the cynicism of a then-14 year old was pretty strong, the music and the mania that was Indiana Jones could still instantly fill me with excitement, no matter what age I happened to be.  The end puzzles of that film became a whole new game I tried to act out in the woods by myself.

My parents were just as excitable as we were, and periodically between the ages of 8 and 18, we would get together and watch them as a group or in small sub-divisions, depending on who was game.  While we never managed to get a copy of Raiders or Last Crusade in the house, we still managed to seen them regularly (on TV, rented, or at a friends house), and by the time I was thrown out of the house just before I had graduated from High School, I had seen those six movies hundreds of times.  Often on tapes that were poorly dubbed from television, at the worst resolution, and on the smallest screens.  And we never cared in the slightest.  We would watch them at any time, in any form, for the music, for the action, for the dialog we’d memorized, but mostly because they were so goddamned much fun.

It isn’t that I haven’t come to appreciate Harrison Ford for his other work, but I am hard-pressed to name many other movies of his that I’ve seen, and more to the point, none of them are as good (in my mind) as these six films.  It isn’t that he is a bad actor, though he is totally willing to turn in a so-so performance just because he feels like it.  But when I see him in other roles, all I see is Han Solo and Indiana Jones wearing some other costume, looking longingly out the window, wishing they were running around hunting for treasure, on the run, fighting nazis or stormtroopers.  Not only do the performances in these films capture the imagination, but they offer a unity of form and function that has the same artistic tone throughout all six movies, largely because of this shared character trope given life through the John Williams score that is ultimately hummable and breathtaking to listen to, all at once.  The serialized nature, the comic sense of humor, and the feeling that you get to come along while these amazing events unfold, these six films felt so connected in my mind growing up, and probably always will, no matter how old I get.

Han Solo and Indiana Jones are essentially the same character in different costumes when you get right down to it, and while the environment and character motivations are slightly different, both are con artists, even among their friends.  Both are incredibly smart and suave.  Both are swash-buckling, willing to do whatever it takes to make it out of a situation that seems and appears to be absolutely impossible.  And they both have their own immediately identifiable costumes, unmistakable even in profile, and yet feel similar in some way.  They’re both quippy, they’re both funny, they both mutter jokes to themselves even when no other on-screen characters are there to hear it, and they both share with the audience their charm and sophistication in a way that makes you feel like you are there with him, acting as his side-kick, following his lead, a part of the action, too.  You get to see Han and Indy when they are at their best, their worst, their most exciting, their most beat up and bruised, their most romantic, and they still let you tag along.  In many ways, I knew more about Harrison Ford’s characters on screen than I do about my own father, or anyone else in my family, for that matter.

The irony, of course, is that I don’t know if I actually took any of Han/Indy’s lessons to heart after I left the house and lived on my own.  During that period of my life, I only had an ancient copy of the first Star Wars film on VHS, and the country mouse behavior of Luke and the overall innocence of everyone in that film was closer to how I really felt about life, and I bore no resemblance to my hero in the films.  First, I displayed no confidence around women of any kind.  I did not take chances, I was not athletic, showed no skill in school or in academic settings, struggled with puzzles and riddles, could not lie or con way way out of being wrapped in toilet paper, and had none of the ruggedness that he oozed in every scene.  I could barely bring myself to dress with any amount of style or ruggedness, and I could not pull of the laconic turn of phrase like him.  My slow-witted, introverted & nerdy confusion about life outside of fiction only made me awkward and confused most of the time, as if I was always itching to pick up some power converters at Toschi Station.  I was easily excitable, and would tip my hand so often that anyone and everyone around me knew exactly what was on my mind.  I had no arch-rivals, and the few fights I had been in not only illustrated my clumsiness – I could barely even climb a tree without falling out and getting hurt – but resembled so little of what Han Solo or Indiana Jones were actually like as to be comical if I were to ever claim publicly that they were my idols.

As I got older, this idea of manliness and masculinity seemed entirely formed more by Ford’s characters than by any of the other men in my own life.  Divorce can often create this kind of confusion in kids (especially when it happens when the kids are old enough to be looking for father figures), but in my case the post-divorce world was entirely devoid of men.  I was the only one; my mom and her girlfriend took care of their three girls, while I was the one being asked to kill spiders and take out the garbage.  The only men in my life that I could even speak with any amount of authority about were Ford’s characters, and like many sons who look up to their father-figures, I was unlike him in many ways that made me feel inadequate.  The kind of “put-together messiness” that is at the center of those two characters was something that I chased after in my own fashion for years, but never succeeded in capturing.  (I gave up and started wearing bow ties and sweaters after a while.)  I thought I could use the lessons I’d seen in the films to aid me in my life as a young adult.  When I pursued women I tried to imagine Han Solo wooing Leia, or Indy & Marion together.  But none of my jokes landed, I was never adventures and confident enough to make an impression, and more importantly, my gawky and ineloquent manner illustrated how unimpressive I was as a young man.

Even my sense of writing was inspired by him as I fumbled with pen and paper.  My male characters were some version of a smart adventurer who might have had some dirty dealings in the past.  I tried to shape the dialog as if it had come from Ford’s mouth.  There were never any paladins or virtuous men in my fiction.  It was all well-meaning rogues that I would put down on paper, loved by everyone, reflecting what I wished I was, and wished I could be.

Living on my own as an adult naturally caused me to find and seek out other interests, but I kept a copy of the the first film on VHS for years, something I still have to this day.  For a long time, it was one of the few movies I actually owned, along with Evil Dead II, Negativland’s “No Other Possibility” tape, and Almost Famous.  But by then, the charm and allure of continued Star Wars-ery felt a little crass, and exploitative.  I worked at a B. Dalton in a mall for many years, during the time leading up to the prequels, and then continued to work for them as the merchandising blitz hit a threshold that was hard to fully take in.  As I understand it, the franchise has held at that rate for some time, and Disney has only made it crazier.

 

A Word About The Prequels, Now That I Mention It.

I never developed a relationship with any of the movies made as prequels or since then, not like the one I already had with the first six films.  When word first came out that the original Star Wars film would be in theaters (remastered, and with cleaned-up effects), I was interested for a hot second.  But after seeing what they did to Star Wars when I finally saw it, I decided to hang on to my VHS for the time being.  The advertising and tie ins were, of course, leading to the prequels, and what I saw really put me off the “Episode I” idea at first.  I let it sit for a while when it was in the theater initially.  In early 2000, when a friend of mine was in town for a bit after being at school in the UK and he hadn’t seen the movie, we agreed to make an afternoon of it.  What sticks out the most was the puzzled conversation in the car on the way home, as we tried to make sense of what we’d just seen.

As I worked my way through what was going on in this new movie, a few things became apparent over the next few weeks.  First off, the film was entirely forgettable.  Where I remember endlessly quoting of the older movies, this movie felt inarticulate and dry, with stale lines delivered by semi-lifeless actors who didn’t seem to want to be there in the first place.  It wasn’t long before I couldn’t remember what happened at all, and for the most part I can only really tell you that I remember meaningless speeches, pointless fight scenes, and characters that were almost, but not quite, entirely unlike the ones I remembered.

But, more importantly, what I realized was that Star Wars was no longer for me.  As much as I had loved those movies growing up, in the late ’90’s / early 00’s the movies are being presented in a different light, and to a different crowd.  The re-edits, cartoony CG, the bad acting, and the emphasis on explaining things where there didn’t need to be any explanations made these movies pointless, compared to the adventure laden, funny and poetic tone the original three had taken.  The prequels were a overwrought slog through a kind of pomp and circumstance that were largely joyless, and left me feeling ostracized as a viewer, uninterested in what the story might have been.

Or, rather, I should say prequel, because I have only ever seen Episode I.  I never bothered seeing the other movies when they came out because I had already made up my mind, and with each new film I just saw and ad for COMMERCIALISM, and felt gross when the idea of watching them came up.  Even when a girlfriend of mine in the early 2000’s insisted I watch Episode II & III with her on DVD, I balked for quite some time.  When I finally began to watch the second film, I was confused and annoyed almost immediately, and gave up soon thereafter.  (Perhaps I watched them while drinking and sorting comics, the memory is fuzzy.)  It was talking with her that made me realize not only that these movies were very much not for me, but that our relationship did not have much gas in the tank, either.  (It didn’t, sadly.)

This feeling of being left out continued in the summer of 2008, I went on a date with the girl I was seeing at that time to watch the then-new Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull, hoping to recapture some of the joy of those early movies.  While the experience was not terrible, per se, it made me realize that the “not for me” quality was still there, and still present.  There were parts that I liked, much that felt indifferent about, and some that was just plain bad, from any perspective.  (I was initially going to write about the film for this blog back then, but gave up and wrote two lists of things I liked and things I hated, and much of the lists repeated.)  In fact, the experience sort of put me off revisiting any older movies from my childhood for a long time.  In many ways, I felt left out, and didn’t want to return to that feeling if I could avoid it.  Growing up, these movies were always about inclusion, but everything made since I’d been on my own seemed to be exactly the opposite.  There were hundreds of other movies to watch if I was bored.  Why should I rewatch something when there was so much out there that was new?

It never occurred to me that Han/Indy was a father proxy until pretty recently, though.  Having hit 40, I have become overly sentimental about everything for some reason, and the slightest pang of nostalgia or the sweetest and kindest moment in a film brings me to tears instantly as I think of my wife and the things that are important to me.  (If there is a scene with a man and woman talking about how the feel about each other, I am in tears before the scene is over.)  So it is not hard for me to start going to maudlin places when it comes to stories I love.  But a conversation I heard on The Incomparable podcast really struck me, when John Siracusa mistakenly called Han Solo by the name Indy, and threw away a comment about how they were basically the same person who raised him anyway.  I didn’t exactly consider what he had meant by that at the time, but that point only came home to roost when my wife and and I watched Temple of Doom recently.  Not only was this a movie that I clearly remember watching nearly every day for years, but there had recently been a nearly 15 year gap since my last viewing, and my life has changed dramatically in that time.  The effects of college, broken relationships, heartache and epiphanies, and the years to sit and ponder and let things stew and fester, have changed me considerably, and I came out the other side of the last 15 years with a wife, a degree, and an analytical perspective that I did not have the last time I sat down to a classic Indiana Jones movie.

What stands out from watching it – with Siracusa’s comments in mind – is the Indy / Short Round relationship, and how endearing it is.  Indy cares so much for that kid, and Short Round wants to be just like Indy so bad that he follows Indy everywhere, trying to act like him, talk like him, play cards like him.  This relationship pays off in the film, because it is only Short Round that can undo Indy’s brainwashing by reminding his father figure that he loves him.  You can see that their arc completed when Indy and Short Round are fighting in parallel near the end, and they are now exact reflections of each other, throwing punches in unison, overcoming their own hardships in nearly the exact same way.  When they look at each other afterward, it is so obvious that they are stand-ins for each other’s missing child / missing father, I broke down sobbing in front of my wife as we were watching it.

This is probably so easy to explain that you have already jumped to the conclusion already: Short Round was my proxy as a kid, and yet now (as an adult), I am seeing their relationship in a very different way, and not just through the eyes of a longing child.  I wanted to be like Ford’s characters, and failed as an adult.  Short Round, to some degree, has succeeded where I could not.  This certainly gets at any number of underlying issues that could easily be probed if I wanted to lay bare my own psyche for further psychiatric inspection, but I imagine that this experience is probably not that much different form other middle-aged men like me who grew up largely without fathers.  At least, I am certainly not the only Indiana Jones fan who was raised on these movies and looking up to Harrison Ford’s characters.

The Indy / Short Round relationship is only sadder if you look at it from a narrative point of view, too.  Temple of Doom chronologically takes place before the other films, and Short Round is nowhere to be seen in any of them.  Short Round, having grown up and reached the same kind of status as his mentor, clearly goes on with his life, to find a path that leads him to his own future and life without Dr. Jones.  In many ways, their relationship is over when the film ends, and the father/son bond they solidified seems to have disappeared, the true tragedy and loss of these films.  (Yes, continuity nerds, there are “official” sources that say that Short Round has a life outside of this film, where he goes to school and becomes a professor like Indy.  But we never see it in the films.  And even still, this would suggest that Short Round has completed his transformation into following in his father’s footsteps, at the cost of no longer getting to go out on the adventure anymore.)

History is a funny thing, in that the events of the past only make sense in hindsight, and seen against what is happening now.  It didn’t take long to break the Inter-Web when Disney announced they had bought the rights to Star Wars, and were making six new films over the next several years, the first of which was in 2015.  It seemed like some weird future news headline from Back To The Future II, and felt very out-of-place to me.  But the writing had been on the wall for years.  Lucasfilm was stagnating, and Disney was knocking it out of the park with the acquisition of Marvel.  There were enough hot young directors out there that would bring home the money with the right financing and script, and Disney could afford to keep working until they get it right.  It was this odd moment where there were two possible futures: one good, and one terrifying.  And it all hinged on Episode VII being worth a damn.

This is, of course, a long way of saying that I am still not sure what to make of the events in The Force Awakens (and I will try to talk about this as spoiler-free as possible, but I suspect that everyone at this point knows what happened).  It was clear, long ago, that Ford had an uneasy relationship with Han Solo, and the idea that he would come back – even if for only one movie – seemed like part of the package deal when it was announced.  It seems very clear that no matter what the actual outcome of the film happened to be, this would be the last time we see Han Solo, and even the trailer seemed to be hinting at that.  I knew that this would probably suggest that I would have to process this loss at some point.  While I did not watch those movies as obsessively as an adult as I did when I was younger, I would check in with them now and then, and certainly found them a part of my life in a way that I didn’t full understand until I reached middle age.

I am not usually the kind of person who cares about this sort of thing, and to be honest, until I walked out of seeing The Force Awakens the other day, I hadn’t read a word about any of it.  Because until I saw it on the screen, I couldn’t have cared less, to be honest.  I was firmly convinced that it would be okay at best, that Han Solo would be leaving the franchise, and that so much was riding on it that there was no way it could be any good.  I had paid so little attention to it that my mind was firmly focused on Guardians Of The Galaxy 2 as the sci-fi film I wanted to hold out for in the theater.  I simply had no interest.  Even when it started to seem as if it might be good, when the cast and director was announced, I balked.  Reports were coming in that people liked it.  The script was supposed to be exciting.  The other actors all looked cool. Could this, even for a moment, capture the excellence of those early films?

And, of course, there was the other problem to contend with: my own nostalgia.  I am ridiculously prone to thinking about the past, and the lens through which I view those movies – the lens through which we all view them, I think – is so coated in that fuzzy Cybil Shepherd soft-focus filter that I don’t think I’m a good judge of what a good job might look like in a Star Wars movie.  It was easy enough to dismiss the prequels because they were so badly made, and that is the consensus argument, even for the people who say they love them.  But would I be able to view a Star Wars movie and understand it on its own terms, without being over judgey about the way they portray Chewbacca, or heaven forfend, Han Solo?

In a lot of ways, it was easier to forgive the new Star Trek movies, also by the same director.  Star Trek has had endless iterations, and hundreds of hours of material, compared to Star Wars.  In my mind, even if I had hated the new Star Trek movies, they didn’t diminish anything about the originals, which were all still there (un-tainted or edited, I might add).  We were fortunate enough to have some pretty good movies with the Star Trek reboot, so there was nothing to get too upset about in the end.  But this was different.  There was one chance to get it right with this series, and there was so much at stake emotionally that it seemed like a huge leap of faith to even buy a ticket for it.

But that trailer.  Seeing Han & Chewie at the end.  It HAD to be good, how could it not?  And even the sense that this would be the end for Ford, that he would bow out gracefully and move on, made this one a little special.  We needed some closure.  We needed a way to look at the past with a new perspective, to pull off one last crazy adventure, and relive that experience again if we were ever going to feel The Force flow through us again.  We needed it as a culture.  We needed a good Star Wars movie like we needed to eat healthy and exercise more.  Our social well being depended on it.

 

I can’t (and won’t) spoil the film.  Most likely you’ve seen it anyway, and how excellent that it was a good film, too.  Not just a good film, but a good Star Wars film, something exciting and funny and beautiful and tense and sad and wonderful all at once, with cute moments and scary moments and everything I wanted, and things I didn’t know I needed, too.  And, as we obvious from the interviews and the trailer and from Ford himself, Han Solo isn’t coming back, or rather, Ford’s Solo isn’t.  The character will persist, played by other actors for sure, but at 73 he not only looks tired, but like a tired father, who has raised countless children on screen, and isn’t quite sure how much more oohmph he has left in him.  He doesn’t need to be running around, trying to be a con man one more time, and his character makes that point, too.  He shouldn’t be doing this stuff.  But, as usual, Han is running away from something, and fatherhood seems to be at the top of the list.

 

Our feelings and emotions are so complicated and entwined with the places we have been and the things that we have done, that it is no wonder that we struggle – often several times a day – to keep them under control.  My family’s break-up, my parent’s divorce, and the subsequent hardships of being estranged from both halves, trying to find a place where I belonged and where I fit in, coming to terms with the mistakes of the past, these things are so complicated and have so many vectors that it is difficult to pinpoint where one feeling comes from, and why thing x fills me with this emotion, while thing y fills me with that.  I can’t be the only one.  And yet, when I make the same comment as John Siracusa – about Harrison Ford essentially being my father – I’m shocked that there isn’t more agreement from the people around me.  I know countless women and men who are in love with Ford’s characters, and perhaps this experience or sensation is limited only to boys who have absent father’s in their lives.

There is a part of me that wants to use this narrative as a way of spelling things out, of providing specific personal examples that will get at the heart of what I’m saying.  I don’t want my parents to sound awful; they did what they could, with what they had, and they tried to make it work for as long as possible, not just for the sake of their children, but for themselves as well.  But as much as I want to go into detail, this story isn’t about them, and it isn’t about painting them to be heroes or whathaveyou.  They are people, they have lives and stories and feelings too, and the incredible thing about growing up is that you realize that they are as frail and confused and baffled by the world around us as I was when I was a child.

Harrison Ford never wanted to be my father, and I never asked him to be, either.  By chance or fate, our lives have come to have a bond that I can’t break, even if all my time as a drunk 20 and 30 year old tried to ignore at parties and in bars with girls.  I looked up to him in a way that I have never looked up to anyone else, and I followed those first six movies with such academic closeness that my DNA will have Ford-like imprints on it if anyone wants to run the tests.  Sure, Ford wasn’t the greatest father.  He was absent a lot too, only there for certain kinds of exciting adventures, then gone again for years at a time.  Surely, our relationship will always be one that I remember, and one that I can recapture at times when one of those films happens to be on.

But even writing about him this way is making me weepy, as I wrestle with both middle age and him as a part of my life.  Perhaps there is something here that offers insight into why I don’t have children, and why I have never been comfortable with any kind of parental role in anyone’s life.  But it is always why father and son stories absolutely slay me, too.  It is so hard for father’s to talk to their sons in a way that isn’t coded, or meant as practical advice.  And it is nearly impossible for sons to have that same conversation about the roles we plan in each other’s lives, because we have a hard time seeing our father’s as the frail human people that they are first, and as a responsible adult second.

Indiana Jones, of course, has a fifth installment in the works, and all the media news is pointing to Ford being involved.  This is a little scary, for sure, not only because of the last attempt being so mediocre, but with Ford as old as he is, the Indiana Jones I love might not even be in the film at all.  (The idea of “old” Indy, as seen in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, fills me with a little bit of dread and a lot of horror.)  And, like our relationships with family, they move on, even if you haven’t.  I will always have fond memories of the years where Ford’s characters raised me, and I can even recapture some of those feelings when I re-watch the films.  And, I’m very happy that Star Wars is finally good again.

But, for a while anyway, I’m going to be mourning the loss of a father.  A

 

Living In These Star Wars

I Thought These Movies Were No Longer For Me

To be fair, I was never so much a Star Wars fanatic as to put myself anywhere close to the kind of contenders that currently exist for superfan.  But we had Star Wars sheets growing up, and I spent a lot of time playing in the yard with my siblings, running around shooting blasters and using sabers as part of the never-ending mash-up of games we played involving The Cat From Outer SpaceInner-Space, Indiana Jones, and just about any other movie that caught our fancy growing up.

We had toys and we knew the VHS copies we had very well.  I don’t ever remember a time when I hadn’t seen Star Wars, but I have a very vivid memory of seeing Empire Strikes Back on video at my Cousin’s house with both of our families, in preparation to see Return Of The Jedi in the theater, as it had just come out.  Once we had the VHS collection, we would just re-watch it endlessly, often in large, marathon-sittings around the holidays.  While I have heard many people talk about what they find to be their own personal favorite, I have always loved the first film the most.  Star Wars – what is now referred to as “Episode IV” or “A New Hope,” but in those days, it was just Star Wars – had a quality to it that felt like a story from my childhood, much like Tom Sawyer or Lord of The Rings.  This felt like established canon, a part of the vernacular that every kid my age spoke.

While I always enjoyed the movies, High School and living on my own caused me to find and seek out other interests, but I kept a copy of the the first film on VHS for years, something I still have to this very day.  For a long time, it was one of the few movies I actually owned, along with Evil Dead II, Negativland’s “No Other Possibility” tape, and Almost Famous.  But by then, the charm and allure of continued Star Wars-ery felt a little crass, and exploitative.  I worked at a B. Dalton in a mall for many years, during the peak years leading up to the prequels, and then continued to work for them as the merchandising blitz hit a threshold that was hard to fully take in.  As I understand it, the franchise has held at that rate for some time, and Disney has only made it crazier.

 

A Word About The Prequels, Now That I Mention It.

I was interested in the re-touched versions of the movies for a little while, but after seeing what they did to Star Wars, I decided to hang on to my VHS for the time being.  But the advertising and tie ins really put me off the “Episode I” idea at first, and I let it sit for a while when it was in the theater initially.  Then, a friend of mine was in town for a bit from being at school in the UK, and he hadn’t seen the movie either.  We agreed to make an afternoon of it, and what sticks out the most was the puzzled conversation in the car on the way home, as we tried to make sense of what we’d just seen.

As I puzzled through what was going on in this new movie, a few things became apparent over the next few weeks.  First off, the movie was entirely forgettable.  Where I remember endlessly quoting the older movies, this movie felt forced and dry, with stale lines delivered by lifeless actors who didn’t seem to want to be there.  It wasn’t long before I couldn’t remember what happened, and all I could really tell you is that when I could remember, I hadn’t liked it.

But, more importantly, what I realized was that Star Wars was no longer for me.  As much as I had loved those movies growing up, these days (the late ’90’s / early 00’s) the movies are being presented in a different light.  The re-edits, cartoony CG, the bad acting, and the emphasis on explaining things where there didn’t need to be any explanations made these movies pointless, compared to the adventure laden, funny and poetic tone the original three had always taken.  The prequels were a overwrought slog through a kind of pomp and circumstance that were largely joyless, and left me feeling ostracized as a viewer.

Or, rather, I should say prequel, because I have only ever seen Episode I.  I never bothered seeing the other movies when they came out, and even when a girlfriend of mine insisted I watch Episode II & III with her on DVD, I balked, began the second film, was confused and annoyed almost immediately, and gave up.  It was talking with her that made me realize not only that these movies were very much not for me, but that our relationship did not have much gas in the tank, either.  (It didn’t, sadly.)

 

Time Passes

History is a funny thing, in that the events of the past only make sense in hindsight, and seen against what is happening now.  It didn’t take long to break the Inter-Web when Disney announced they had bought the rights to Star Wars, and were making six new films over the next several years, the first of which was in 2015.  It seemed like some weird future news headline from Back To The Future II and felt very out-of-place.  But the writing had been on the wall for years.  Lucasfilm was stagnating, and Disney was knocking it out of the park with the acquisition of Marvel.  There were enough hot young directors out there that would bring home the money with the right financing and script, and Disney could afford to keep working until they get it right.  It was this odd moment where there were two possible futures: one good, and one terrifying.  And it all hinged on Episode VII being worth a damn.

I am not usually the kind of person who cares about this sort of thing, and to be honest, until I walked out of seeing The Force Awakens the other day, I hadn’t read a word about any of it.  Because until I saw it on the screen, I couldn’t have cared less.  I was firmly convinced that it would be okay at best, and had paid so little attention to it that my mind was firmly focused on Guardians Of The Galaxy 2 as the sci-fi film I had on my mind.  For the longest time I had no interest.  Even when it started to seem as if it might be good, when the cast and director was announced, I balked.  Could this even, for a moment, capture the excellence of those early films?

And, of course, there was the other problem to contend with: my own nostalgia.  I am ridiculously nostalgia-prone, and the lens through which I view those movies – the lens through which we all view them, I think – is so coated in that fuzzy filter, that I don’t think I’m a good judge of what a good job might look like.  It was easy enough to dismiss the prequels because they were examples of bad filmmaking, and that is the consensus argument, now.  But would I be able to view a Star Wars movie and understand it on its own terms, without being over judgey about the way they portray Chewbacca?

In a lot of ways, it was easier to forgive the new Star Trek movies, also by the same director.  Star Trek has had endless iterations, and hundreds of hours of material, compared to Star Wars.  In my mind, even if I had hated the new Star Trek movies, they didn’t diminish anything about the originals, which were all still there.  We were fortunate enough to have some pretty good movies, so there was nothing to get too upset about.  But with Star Trek, I also didn’t feel betrayed.  I had bailed on the new series (post Next Generation) when the shows were still great, and never got to see Voyager and Enterprise go downhill.  But I still felt burned by how bad it got.  I know that all of these franchises are designed to be money making machines but there was something about the way those prequels were sold that just felt wrong, and I was gonna be damned if that was gonna happen, and the movie was gonna be bad again, too.

 

Really, Was It Even Possible For Me To Get Excited About This Stuff Again?

The excitement I felt as a kid when a new Indiana Jones movie came out is something that I have not felt, and not in that same way, very many times as an adult.  While I loved movies and TV as a kid, I went through the same malaise we all went through in the ’90’s, as irony and anger began to sweep my generation.  We had been betrayed by everything, and had turned to junk-culture that could no longer let us down as a way of dealing with it all.  I turned my attentions toward LPs and comics, and rarely looked back.  But, over the years, a handful of things caught my attention.

Metatextual Reflections On A Life Spent Creating Metatexual Reflections

Cartoons

imgres-1Most likely this interest stems from the well known (and well loved) Chuck Jones cartoon, Duck Amuck, where it becomes very clear as the cartoon progresses (spoilers for people who haven’t seen a cartoon from 1953) that Daffy is being tortured by the artist illustrating his cartoon.  The antagonistic relationship continues until the very end, where it is finally revealed that the cartoonist is none other than… (spoilers for the spoilers)… Bugs Bunny himself.  (An almost Lost-ian ending, if I ever saw one.)

This cartoon was so unlike anything else I had seen as a child that I couldn’t believe it, and I tried to imagine some huge force outside of me that was dictating the world in which I lived, changing it on me randomly.  (As a child raised by what you could ostensibly call atheist parents, I had no idea that most people were living in a world where this was true for them.)  And while Chuck Jones might have introduced me to this world, when I sat down to study the animated oeuvre every Saturday, I started to realize that there were other guys who tackled similar subjects, but in other ways.

porky in wackylandBob Clampett‘s Porky In Wackyland is a tour de force of animated spectacle, with plenty of moments where the characters are just crazy enough to address the audience (a schtick he would deploy as needed in many of his cartoons).  Tex Avery was also very good at throwing in gags that revealed the cartoon was being played in a theater where characters from the audience would stand up to offer advice or help.  Avery loved to break other aspects of the fourth wall whenever he could, and used these gags as much as any other.  As an avid cartoon fan, there were no other shows that did anything like this, and part of the genius of the Warner Bros. animated world was that, unlike Disney or other production companies, there was a manic insanity that was shared by the creators and the audience that you did not get from, say, a Pluto cartoon.  (As cute and inoffensive as they might have been.)

Over the years I have come to realize that the golden era of Looney Tunes & Merrie Melodies were head and shoulder’s above the competition, and Happy Harmonies, Color Rhapsodies and even Disney’s own Silly Symphony’s could compete with the overall form of the Warner Bros. work.  The insanity and the brilliance of their shorts so completely synthesized “cartoon” as a visual format, and their sense of satire and caricature was leaps and bounds above the others.  And I largely point to their sense of metatext – of being able to jarringly draw attention to the artifice of the work at hand – that made them far superior.  They made jokes with tongue planted and cemented into cheek, and they felt that their own medium not only set them apart, but could be exploited to take audiences into places that other animation studios just couldn’t be bothered to visit.

 

Comics

It isn’t that I believed a child of the ’80’s could have been the first person to consider the meta-textual qualities of the media around him, and certainly I would have been a fool to consider that this kind of interplay didn’t exist in other mediums, either.  But I was shocked when I would mention that it was these moments that I longed for, it was the instant Yosemite Sam turned to me and made a comment that took us both out of the story for a second, that I thought were the funniest moments.  I didn’t have a name for it then, and most of my friends and family seemed to thing those scenes were usually boring.  (This is like when you meet people who don’t like Holodeck episodes of Star Trek: TNG, or who found the mythology episodes of X-Files to be boring.)

The underlying idea that the artist and the audience could wink at each other and share a joke or a moment between only the two of them was very clearly a powerful tool, considering how much it affected me as a kid.  Seeing the edges and peering through the reality that seeped through was always my favorite part of anything I saw around me, and it began to be the way in which I would look at TV and film, too.  But I also noticed how it did not seem to have the same kind of effect of other.  When most people were confronted with a meta-joke, they frown and shake their head.  It just isn’t for them, no matter how funny the joke might be.

Ambush_Bug_3When I discovered comics as a teen, I was immediately attracted to the “funnier” and more comedy-inflected writing styles that was big business in the late ’80’s.  DC was having a field day with style, largely influenced by Keith Giffen and his series, Ambush Bug.  A lead character that is aware he is in the DC Universe, and plays with dead (or forgotten) bits of continuity that blew my mind as a 13 years old kid, (who, at the time, hadn’t been lucky enough to find Steve Gerber‘s work yet, who Giffen seems influenced by).  Again, I seemed to be in the minority, but I would scan the racks at comics stores, looking for something that scratched that itch at a time when most comics had gotten very dark and “serious.”  This led me to finding Giffen’s run on Justice League, which is not only one of the funniest comics produced in the late ’80’s / early ’90’s, but to this day stands as a source for much of my sense of humor, if not references and jokes that no one else around me seems to get.

250px-BlastersdcuAnd then, there was The Blasters.  Where do you even begin with trying to tell that backstory?  In the late ’80’s, Giffen had been given a number of books to work on as one of DC’s rising stars, and with his Justice League book a hit, he was allowed to expand his influence to a number of titles.  This also led to him getting to write 1989’s annual all-company cross-over Invasion!  Giffen used this end product as a way to cause his various Sci-Fi / outer space story lines hinted at in Omega Men, Justice League International, and Legion of Super-Heroes to converge in this company-wide event.  DC’s goal (like it is for any event like this) was to launch some new titles, shake up some old titles, clean house elsewhere in the universe, and move some of the action that is usually contained entirely on Earth into outer space, thus opening up the DC Universe so that the word “universe” was actually on point these days.  This was Giffen’s attempt to not only ape Marvel’s Cosmic titles that were doing very well over there (with stuff like Guardians of The Galaxy and Silver Surfer selling like gangbusters), but to try and do a modern version of Kirby’s Fourth World books from the ’70’s.

It also helped that in the old Justice League comics, there was a tendency to have to fight off an alien menace every other issue, and the one thing that “dark” and “modern” comics of the late ’80’s had been lacking was a good alien invasion.  And with any good war story, you needed a band of mercenaries.  To this end, Giffen organized a group of new and old characters to work as the catalyst for the Invasion! storyline.  This group was loosely known as The Blasters for an actually terrifying reason (their powers all emerged when aliens lined them up and fired upon them, scaring the team senseless and causing their metagenes to activate).

In the wake of the Invasion! series, DC took chances on several new titles, one of which was a one-shot featuring this new team, to see if it might be a book they could add to their publishing roster.  Being a Giffen property not only meant that the book had to be funny, but helmed by someone who got Giffen’s take on comics.  He not only picked the team to write and draw it (Peter David and James Fry), but set the tone for the book with the comedy and meta-text that followed his particular interests.  It also so happened that Peter and James like to produce the same kind of stuff, too.

Since almost none of you have even heard of this title, I’ll spoil everything now and save you the trouble of Lycos-ing or tracking down this story: there has been only one Blasters comic book published since 1989, a special release in the Spring of that year (that was panned by critics and very quickly forgotten).  The story, typical of Peter David’s writing, is a mish-mash of Sci-Fi references (largely from Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy… yes, vogons appear in this comic), and meta-textual references and gags where the captions for the book are destroyed and flown through by various space ships.  (The lead character, Snapper Carr – have fun with that particular comics k-hole – finds out what to do next in the story by glancing at the panels that are ahead of him.)  If I haven’t done a good enough job of describing what The Blasters is like to read, just imagine something that was written for nerds, and narrow the focus so incredibly that within their own ranks, only a small sub-set will find it up their alley.  No matter how much I raved, and no matter who I loaned that book to, it always came back, largely unread, with a comment like, “I tried, but it just isn’t my thing.”

 

Film

I have often wondered why I heard this phrase so often when I tried to get at my interest in this subject.  “It just isn’t my thing.”  It seemed like such a ripe area for reflection and narrative complexity to my young mind, and yet it was the element in every story I read that others seemed to skip over.  The thing I learned from Warner Bros. cartoons growing up is that, unlike most schlock that is played straight and is absolutely saccharine with predicability and well-worn stories – ahem, Disney, coff coff – you can often get bigger reactions from something if it is unlike everything else around it.  Even at a young age, television brought home the idea that there are basically two kinds of stories, and they are each the reverse side of the other.  (Summarizing Jorge Borges, one is “A stranger came to town,” and the other, “Someone went off on a long journey.”)  Repetition absolutely bred familiarity with me, and the welcome intrusion of characters and references that pointed to the artificiality of this repetition became the attractive element that I looked for in art and culture.

220px-SpaceballsLet me pause my own story a brief moment to say a few words about Spaceballs, a film that spent many years on my list of favorite movies, and my very favorite by Mel Brooks (until I became more familiar with his other work as a teen and twenty-something years later).  While all of his films use metatext as a platform to layer joke after joke (see, for instance, the last third of Blazing Saddles), Spaceballs was very close to home for me.  I loved sci-fi (and Star Wars, of course), I loved comedy, and they had packaged both with a huge swath of self-awareness that I had not seen in a film before.  This movie had my sense of humor written all over it, so much so that there is a sort of chicken-or-the-egg quality regarding which came first.  If you had to distill an aspect of that film that moved me, pulled me aside and said, “kid, this is for you,” then I would have to point to Rick Moranis turning to the camera asking if, “Everybody got that?”  It went so directly to the core of my being as a kid that it still works on me, even as an adult, and I am sure I quote this movie accidentally without realizing I am.  It is possible, if one were so inclined, to make a Bowfinger-style recreation of Spaceballs without my knowledge, provided you followed me around long enough and waited for the appropriate scenes to play out.

As I got older and discovered a love of writing, my stories became full of characters that were my own in-narrative proxys.  (A Grant Morrison kind of move before I even knew who he was.  In fact, reading The Invisibles was painful for me only because periodically I would yell out, “That was my idea!” a problem that would recur when I started watching Lost.)  As my big literary influence in those days were comics, and to another degree the DC Heroes Roleplaying Game that I’d gotten for Christmas one year, most of my early writing is littered with a thinly-veiled versions of myself in some sort of elaborate conceit or costume that made me into a superhero.  I am fortunate enough that most of this material is still in either a hand-written form, or on typing paper (predating my first computer), and therefore I can’t share these stories with you as easily.  (You’re welcome.)  Suffice it to say, my Hitchcockian cameos in my own text began very early, and has continued ever since.

 

‘Zines

imagesMy first foray into my own fiction began with a story I wrote in High School, and was serialized in my zine A.C.R.O.N.Y.M., which was made and distributed between 1994 and 1995.  In issue #2, the first installment of naaaaaahhhhghahahhk!!!!!!!! (oR, tHE rEALLY wEIRD sTORY tHAT i cAN’T rEMEMBER wHAT tHE tITLE iS) sees print, and I wish I could say nicer things about it considering I know the author fairly well.  I made the decision to typeset the entire thing in what I called the “fIREHOSE” format, which made the story largely unreadable to most people save for myself and those with the highest constitutions when it comes to textual form.

The idea itself was fairly bland: I had written the story my neighbors appeared in, but they find out, get worried, and I have to stop them from learning more, and eventually give up and crumple the story, destroying their universe.  Corny, yes, but it illustrates where my mind was in High School.  Super heroes appear in this story, and I fight them, even.  Most of the writing groups I would attend in the early days had people hashing out their fantasy novels, creating cryptic and impenetrable poetry, or just wanted to turn their journals into creative prose so we could all experience their pain.  I was looking to do something that was sort of in-between all of these things, and would read stories like naaaaaahhhhghahahhk!!!!!!!! to puzzled audiences who didn’t know what to think.

ibtfa-3-coverWhen I settled into Eugene properly after High School, and started to immerse myself in the ’90s culture that surrounded us, I became the center of my own writing again.  Between 1996 and 2005, I wrote a ‘zine called I’d Buy That For A Dollar.  While this occasionally contained fiction, the bulk of it was an outlet for my incredibly solipsistic and emo ponderings, where I made my best efforts to made sense of life as a lonely young man.  While I will cop to have written it all – even the awful bits – with hindsight it is not only unseemly at times, but as my friend Cheryl once said to me, “this is a little too revealing.”

I don’t regret it, because it was so much a part of my psyche at the time that I needed to get that out of my head, even if it wasn’t exactly helping.  When I read it back, I don’t know if I feel the same way about the events this person was writing about, even though I am sure we are the same person.  Of course, it is easy to say that when almost 20 years separates the earliest issues from now, but I think I let my own misery drive my creative impulses a little too much then, and with hindsight, I wish I had let other motivations steer me toward other material.

tumblr_m599ccaUEa1rokdd5But even this reflectiveness was being shaped and molded by metatext.  My roommate at the time, a tall linguist we called Sierra, introduced me to Flann O’Brien, an author who plays with the boundaries between literature and reality for fun and sport, in both his novels and his newspaper columns (which blur the line between journalism and fiction).  Discovering Fight Club and Charlie Kaufman movies at this time did me no end of good when it came to plumbing the depths of this well.  The Princess Bride was an obsession that started harmlessly enough when I saw it, but led to multiple re-readings and viewings where the genius therein was full revealed.  And, let’s no forget re-reading Endgame over and over, which eventually led to a nice and comfortable interest in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, a film that not only rewards with multiple viewings, but might be the funniest thing that has ever been written.

While I’d Buy That For A Dollar was far from metatext in intent, it became an ongoing story about my own life, and one that I recognized less and less as the years went on and I started changing and evolving, personally.  Having been steeped in this world of reality and fiction blurring, my reality now read like fiction to me, not because the events hadn’t happened, but the lens through which I was seeing those same events was filtering for something entirely different.  Already, even in offering context for this interest of mine, I have to relate to my own life and past through the narrative text I wrote, a breadcrumb trail that offers clues as to what was happening when, and where I have been, but in a form that seemed strange and unfamiliar to the adult I had become.  Around 2005-ish this kind of personal writing migrated entirely to this blog – the one you’re reading now.  I had been a character in this printed story that now seemed foreign and made up, and if my own life was going to sound that way anyway, then I should probably become comfortable with just making things up from the start in the first place.

imgres-2It isn’t that my life changed or that things shifted dramatically in 2005.  I was going to college, yes, and outside of radio and writing fiction, my only other interest at the time was girls.  But something more subtle was going on that only made sense to me years later.  The “me” that I had been writing about for my whole life was gone.  I was an adult, interested in different things, talking about life in a different way, and looking for something that I could get excited about that wasn’t informed by my childhood.  In many ways, I had become a Sci-Fi trope, where I was living in the body of someone else, a body that carried memories of someone that seemed familiar to me, but also seemed unrelated to the life that I was living now.  The 30 year old I found myself being then was not only confused by the life I had led before, but it felt like a life I would have lived differently, had I known how most of it would turn out.

It was around 2005 that I started writing fiction again, much more of it than I had before.  Short stories, yes, and very inspired by Borges and Calvino and Brautigan and Flann O’Brien, and some other material I’d absorbed through being on a college campus and having access to the larger world of ideas.  And yet, in nearly all of these I insisted in making myself a character in the narrative, a gimmick that my influences were all very good at, true.  But for me it seemed motivated by a different impulse.  Since I had written the truth and it felt like fiction, inserting myself into fiction felt like a new way and defining truth for myself.  Why did I see this other life as someone else’s, when it was clearly my own?  Perhaps, if I wrote about another version of it enough, I could crack some of these puzzles that no amount of booze or girls or writing about it seemed to allow me to do.

naked-trees1Most of my work since 2005 has been centered around amplifying the idea that I could live comfortably within the stories that I write.  And, to be fair, these fictions have been quite enjoyable to try on and waltz around within.  I made a 2008 collection of these stories, Naked Trees Point To The North Star, and to this day, it remains the best collection of my written work that I have been able to get in print, and has re-defined who I was, both to myself and to the people who read it.  The idea had been gestating since those earliest days at PSU: DIY publications and ‘zines are the perfect form to create experimental pieces of prose, and I envisioned that Naked Trees would look and feel like a ‘zine, would have a personal / journal-like quality at times, but the entirety of the package was a work of fiction, written and made by a version of myself that is almost, but not at all remotely, like the me that had been writing previously.

The reaction to this was, of course, mixed.  Meta is just not for everyone, and while I felt that these stories really got at the heart of struggles that I was going through, I had a hard time talking about the work with anyone else, without resorting to the worst quality in every writer, making the statement, “So, did you ‘get it’?”  While it remains the best written work I have produced in any format to date, and I have come to terms with how, in spite of my best efforts, it is more journalistic than fictional, in that it marked a serious shift in my own view of the universe.  It was clear that once I imbued my text with any amount of reality from my world, the reality itself seemed further and further from the truth.  After publishing that collection all I had left of my former live was this written collection and half-trusted memories to guide me.  Something was about to give.

 

Reality

spaceballs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It isn’t that I decided to make my life reflect these vague and perplexing Sci-Fi and Fantasy tropes to add some spice or flavor to my own experiences.  In observing my own interactions with the world – and the interactions of others – it is clear to me that you cannot capture the complexity of this existence, and the strangeness of the mundane, in anything but fantastic language and conceptual thinking.  Is it possible to illustrate these kinds of experiences if you haven’t been through them yourself?  You’re sharing some wine with some friends, and you’re quickly gobbling every snack you can, because of the night ahead of you.

Gathering everything you can imagine needing, you trundle en mass, passing fellow travelers and enemies, until you arrive at the bar.  There is music and magic and libido and peacocking and every manner of horror and excitement on display, charging you, filling you with magic until you are casting conversational spells in every direction.  You are filled with an experience you can barely explain, as your friends are performing and watching and drinking and fucking and exploring all manner of joy and pain in one dramatic and perplexing night.  And, exhausted, wasted, with a kiss on your cheek and a song in your heart, you perform your last few tricks, produce a cigarette from somewhere, and zig zag through the alleys, to find yourself at home, the next day, perplexed and confused, but itching to do it all over again.

Is that not some sort of fantasy, full of the kind of strangeness and confusion that the best fiction fills us with as we turn pages?  At what point does our own life contain a kind of importance that we choose to add it to the cannon, so we can romp through uncharted waters side-by-side with Odysseus?  Are we all content to wallow in the banality of brushing our teeth and making lunch?

coverThree things happened in 2010 that had a huge effect on me.  First, I finished college, a banality that I had put off for too long, and was only causing me to spin my tires and was getting in the way of my next phase in life.  I moved in with a friend of mine (second thing), and when all of that was said and done, I had an experience that is difficult to explain, which I attempted to document in 2013’s acronyminc.blogpress.new.

Essentially, I lost 10 years of my life, and in processing that event, realized that not only was I living in a future that made little sense to me, but that the memories I did have were absolutely those of someone else I no longer connected with.  It wasn’t exactly a sudden experience, and it didn’t come on over-night.  But the span of time between the Millennium turning over and my own academic leveling-up had become dreamlike, and waking up on the other side of it created a world for me that was now actually full of technology and behavior that was ten years ahead of who I felt I was.  Without intending to, the world around me began to fully resemble something straight out of my own fiction, and now I was the character who was just enough aware to question what kind of Duck Amok world of which I was now a part.

The best part about living within your own fiction is that, on the whole, things tend to work out okay.  In spite of being a temporal mess, covered in magic and confusion, I managed to meet someone who has become so central to my own life, and we have found a place we can call our own.  My efforts to capture this reality I’ve been inhabiting and communicate it to others has become a steady routine, a rhythm that I can count on to keep me focused and aware of what may lie ahead.  And you get to enjoy these efforts, too, which is no small thing, I imagine.  And usually, the hardships we face are handled together, so that neither of us has to take on too much of the burden this world presents us with.

But this doesn’t ease the strangeness we encounter every day.  We look at TV, and it barely resembles the things we remember knowing.  These computers in our pockets are straight out of a novel I read as a kid, and the social changes our world has gone through not only seem unreal, but were absolutely unobtainable when I was a child.  (Open homosexuality?  Gluten free restaurants?  Reality TV Politics?  Legal weed?)

For better or for worse, this world reads as more fictional than anything I can have come up with, at any time in my life, and for that alone I will continue to define the borders of this made-up universe, flesh out the parts that I can see and understand, and hope that when I hand it over to you, trembling, nervous, that the things I see are like what John Nada’s sunglasses reveal, that, hopefully, you can look at it, take it for what it is, and remember that this can’t be any crazier than the religious world most everyone else lives in, too.

The only difference is: I know I made this one up, and I’m absolutely willing to admit it.

American Scary Review

american012909Vintage Horror Hosts & Lively Interviews With Contemporary Figures Make “American Scary” Essential Holiday Viewing.

We’ve come a long way since Nanook Of The North was made in 1922.  Where documentaries were previously left to the world of Public Broadcasting and overly enthusiastic teachers who think showing movies in class is an innovation, now documentaries are an artform so pervasive that there are few subjects that don’t have one or two films about it.  Case in point, the world of Horror Hosts, where American Scary does a wonderful job of introducing you to, and showing clips of and interviews with, some of the most colorful characters in television history.

For those of you who don’t follow the form: the idea of a Horror Host is really one of the oldest narrative conventions when it comes to storytelling.  Horror Hosts sit around the campfire of television, guiding their audience through a story that is not as good as Homer, but is pretty damn close.  The relationship between narrator and audience in a Ghost Story is the same as the relationship between the Horror Host and the viewer at home: I will be here, with you, to help relate this tale.  You can either turn it off, or come along for the ride.  Horror Hosts always want you to come along, and they invite the listener / viewer to pop some corn, stay up late, and enjoy a shitty movie.

The story of the Horror Host is, essentially, a frame narrative, itself a device long associated with Horror Stories, with masterful examples of it being developed by Mary ShellyHenry James, Washington Irving & Ambrose Bierce.  It was clear that this story-within-a-story format worked very well for producing big scares.  Radio and comics picked it up almost immediately, and shows like Inner Sanctum and EC’s horror line, where the gimmick was always that someone would prepare you for the shocks you were about to receive.  As TV got up and running, it was pretty clear that the most instinctive form was to have a host, so it was only the question of having access to scary movies that led to the need for a Horror Host.

The world of regional horror hosts is one that is loved more than anything by local audiences, and is absolutely unknown to anyone outside of it.  American Scary paints a magnificent pictures of these idiosyncratic characters with interviews and clips of these hosts doing what they do best, and is an excellent place for audiences unfamiliar with this kind of television to see what it was like, and meet some of the most fascinating characters in the genres.  It should be noted that this tradition continues to this day.  It isn’t that Horror Hosts have disappeared from the TV landscape, making them an antiquated piece of history.  In fact, since the ’50’s, there has been a steady string of horror hosts in most regions in every year since the Shock Theater! package first dropped on viewers, and the turnover is actually pretty incredible.  (Many only lasted a few years.)  But as with all things, a little history lesson offers tremendous insight into this rich and impressive tradition in the US, and makes any of the people you might see as part of a longer tradition, handed down from generation to generation.
 
 
il_340x270.397175223_i70cEarly TV Was Nothing Like It Is Now.

Almost every city of any notable size has a local news show to this day, but imagine a time when almost all of your TV was locally made?  For anyone who grew up in the Internet Age, it is hard to imagine that TV stations were once local, let alone that most of the shows you watched were not nationally syndicated.  For for most, it is also hard to imagine a world before the addition of FOX to the three channel line up, let alone the pre-cable offerings that came many years before that world.  Even my limited experience with the medium as a child was only a glimpse into the home-brewed universe of small-time television, and as I watched Ramblin’ Rod I had no idea that this wasn’t the same experience of every kid in the country.  For all I knew, TV was the same everywhere, and how exactly wrong that was is almost impossible to convey.

As TV got going in the ’40’s, the model for running a station was lifted from that of radio: shows could be syndicated to other stations, but for the most part you made everything in-house.  Big networks like Dupont or Mutual would get a really hot show that was produced locally somewhere, and then “sell” it to local stations across the country, with the idea that the local station was now part of the Dupont or Mutual network as an affiliate.  But in those days, even a big network couldn’t provide your station with everything.  You had to have on-air hosts and announcers to fill time between programs, news was only regional in those days, and sometimes the local station owner would still want to run a ball game or a special event in favor of the national shows at his fingertips, and that required local staff on sight to run the shows.

It must also be mentioned that TV didn’t have the same kind of traction as radio did when it was first on the market in the ’40’s and early ’50’s.  TV cost a lot, didn’t go everywhere in the country, didn’t broadcast for as long during the day, and was a very new technology compared to radio.  Radio already had a 30 year history in the US by 1950.  Movie theaters were still a far superior viewing experience when judged by the size of the screen and the quality of the images, and the number of shows there were in the early days was very small on the earliest stations.  Unless you were a nerd, rich, or an early adopter, TV seems like it might be a fad.

As the post-WWII boom of the early ’50’s began to really settle in, a couple of cultural shifts happened that had a huge impact on the country: American prosperity, the break-up of the American Studio System in Hollywood, the manufacture of cheap and long-lasting television sets that hit stores, and the expansion of the broadcast range for most stations as broadcast towers became better and more powerful.  It was also helped by the development of a few bonafide hit TV shows on a national level, which managed to reverse TV’s bad reputation in less than a decade.  Suddenly, staying at home and watching this this was affordable for nearly everyone, and with the movie business in the tubes, there was more of a reason to adjust the rabbit ears rather than go out and spend money.  This created a demand for more televison programming, programming that only local stations could provide with local staff.

While a TV Station might seem like a huge thing, in reality they are often run by a handful of people on the tech side, with a few extra people in front of the camera, and in much the same way that cost savings are at the center of most conversations everywhere else, every station owner was of the opinion that any job you could hire for you could also have someone on staff do it for you, too.   As a result of these shifts, the mid-’50’s saw a huge proliferation in locally produced shows to fill the on-air demand, hosted by people they already saw on the TV elsewhere: kids shows, talk shows, cooking shows & game shows, all with the weatherman running over after he finishes one segment to get in his Cowboy Costume to host the afternoon cartoons.  Even as someone who had no relationship to that kind of television, I get a nostalgic glint in my eye when I try to imagine that every station in America was on the air and showing something different at any given time.
 
 
shockbrideShock Theater! Enters The Picture.

Certainly, TV stations toyed with late-night programming from the beginning, and the occasional suspense movie (from the station’s archives, most likely) would make it on the air from time to time.  But it was Vampira and her show The Vampira Show that delivered to the world a taste of what late night programming could be, and what Horror Hosts in America would soon aspire to.  Vampira was not just a local LA celebrity, but she had proved during the single year her show was on the air that horror was starting to catch on in a big way, and could draw big numbers at a reasonable cost.  In 1954 the show not only launched her career, but was prescient of everything that would boom in the next few years.

vampira-maila-nurmiVampira used simple sets and “mood” lighting to achieve incredible effects, and her knockout figure, tight black dresses and graceful movements on screen were uncanny and breathtaking.  Anyone with even the remotest interest in scary movies tuned in, and only partly to see the film.  Her horror-puns, affinity for all things macabre, and knowledge of these cinematic offerings was something to behold, and people watched obsessively, even if the movies were bad and, more pointedly, not exactly “horror” films  (in the mid-’50’s, few horror films had yet been sold to stations yet, leaving Vampira with things that were “suspenseful” at best).  Enough viewers were excited about her that she became instantly famous around town, largely because she actually dressed like she did on screen in real life, too.  (Something she’d been doing in LA for years previous, anyway.)

The editors at Life Magazine ran a photo essay on her, quickly turning her local late-nite movie show into a legend that people talked about across the country.  It wasn’t just that she was stroke material for the repressed denizens of suburban america, although that was very much a part of her fame, too.  Vampira had tapped into an interest in horror that had almost gone dormant since the Universal Horror Pictures were in a small slump.  The problem, as she saw it, was presentation.  “Double Features” were impersonal, and theaters were cutting costs everywhere, making the experience of going to one snot as interesting, or fun.  But Television offered an intimate opportunity to enjoy a film in the comfort of your pajamas.  If the quality of the film wasn’t that great, well, at lest you had her to look at during the breaks, and it didn’t cost you anything anyway.

Screen Gems was starting to pick up this thread that Vampira was weaving from too, and by 1957 had assembled the legendary 52 film package that they sold across the country on behalf of Universal Pictures.  Since both Universal & Screen Gems had no network affiliations, and because the overall cost of these films was almost rock bottom by comparison, the package was a smash success across the country.  It was either get a year of weekly programming for an incredible deal, or take a chance on another syndicated show that might not fly with audiences.

At first, stations would throw on a couple of the more well-known films in the package, to test the late-night waters.  But it wasn’t until these stations started taking their cues from Vampira’s show, the trend really began to take off in a big way.
 
 
Zach17detailZacherley for President!  Let’s Put A Vampire In The White House Today!

At the same time Vampira’s show was on the air, John Zacherle began getting work on local TV in Philadelphia, who had previously made a name for himself playing bit parts in any show that needed extras.  As a tall and pale man, he was cast as an undertaker in a western, which was a perfect fit for someone of his build, and became his defining role up until that point.  It made sense, then,  in 1957, when Philly got their Shock Theater! package, that they turned to the undertaker to fill the role of the host for these films, hoping that they could recreate some of the magic they had heard about with Vampira.

What started then led to a forty year career for Zacherle in TV, music, cartoons, film, books & radio, as John found out exactly how successful Vampira’s format was.  His run as a horror host – first as Roland, then as Zacherle – made him an instant hit on the east coast, and when he moved to New York shortly afterward, put him on the map nationally.  His success on TV let to movie roles and, of all things, music contracts, where he recorded a string of 45s and LPs in the early ’60’s of Halloween novelty hits that gave “Monster Mash” a near-run for its money.

He secured some cartoon voice work too, and edited a handful of collected of ghost stories, but when it seemed as if the horror hosting was beginning to fade, he moved to radio in the ’70s, making a name for himself as a progressive rock DJ, as well as a charming personality on and off the air, which always led to more work here and there.  By the time the ’80’s rolled around, and Horror was coming back into vogue, he was in a fairly comfortable routine of showing up at conventions in costume as Zacherle, as well as taking on odd TV, movie and radio gig here and there to help pass the time and put money in his pocket.  His last regular job – a radio gig in the mid-’90’s – ended when the Alternative Rock format hit in 1996, but by then Zacherle was in High Demand, given more exposure from appearing on Rob Zombie’s Halloween Hootenanny CD.  To this day he has lived comfortably on public appearances and the royalties from his long career, and in terms of the golden age hosts, he is the one to beat.

A challenge Ghoulardi would take, personally.
 
 
set111Hey Group!  Stay Sick!

Ernie Anderson was a strange dude to begin with.  A bit of a Cleveland hipster in the late ’50’s, he held many jobs, most famously as a Top 40 DJ who hated playing the hits.  Instead, Ernie dug R&B and rock ‘n’ roll 45s, and would listen to The Mad Daddy when he wasn’t on the air himself.  But at Ernie’s station, it was always some pop pap that they would ask him to spin, and it drove him nuts.  Ernie loudly complained about the suburbs – where he thought his broadcasts were being sent to – and imagined what it would be like to really terrify the squares around him with some actually good music.  At every chance he could, he would slip into his show a record he liked, or recycle some old vaudeville routines or ethnic humor to help pass the time when he thought he could get away with it, but mostly he sat there, playing shitty music, bored.

As he would smoke cigarettes and light off firecrackers in the alley on his breaks (firecrackers were illegal in the late ’50’s in Cleveland, and he bought them any chance he could get from even the most disreputable street vendor) he tried to envision something that he could do other than the shit job he’d found himself in.  It all came to a head when Ernie’s sense of humor did not go over well at a station cocktail party, and after the exchange of some well-timed but ill-intended four-letter-words directed toward the management, Ernie found himself unemployed in 1960, offering his services to a local TV station who needed an extra set of hands here and there to pick up the slack.  He immediately found a friend in Tim Conway.

The two found that they had a comparable sense of humor, and began working as a comedy duo on a show called Ernie’s Place, where they would do skits and routines in a Kid Friendly form with shortened movies, in the style of Bob & Ray, who were incredibly popular at the time.  It wasn’t exactly what Ernie wanted, but at least he was in control, and that worked.  For a while, until Tim was very discovered by Hollywood through this show, and left Ohio for fame and fortune.

Since the show fell through, the network offered Ernie the chance to Host another movie show, but during their late night horror films they were showing as part of the Shock Theater package, until something else could be worked out that was more his speed.  Ernie, who had seen Zacherley and was already feeling like the idea was a little played out, took the job on the condition that he had total control over these live shows.  The station agreed (what have they got to loose with late night, more or less “untested” programming?).  Ernie began to exaggerate his own hipster tendencies when he would host these movies, with a fake beard and other ridiculous clothes on the air, mocking himself, the movie, the audience, the commercials, hipsters, horror hosts, suburbia, and anything else in-between.  When he ran out of ideas, he would blow up something with a firecracker (on air!) and smoke a cigarette.  Ernie was convinced they would let him do the show twice, maybe, and once anyone actually saw it, it was all over.

Instead, audiences loved it.

Ghoulardi – as he became known – was everything that Ernie wanted television to be.  Improvised, full of double-entendres and new slang that was gibberish to the squares in charge.  The movies were always awful, and the station only ran them because they were cheap anyway.  Ernie used this to his advantage, and called the turd a turd when that was the case.  He wasn’t about to go around try to get an audience excited about a movie that was clearly gonna blow.  He bad-mouthed the films relentlessly, and this bled over to the way he discussed other terrible media, where he mocked other TV personalities, radio DJs and station managers, while playing selections from his record collection, all in an effort to bring Cleveland the kind of show that Ernie so desperately wanted to watch.  And, to his own astonishment, it became the biggest thing, ever.

The station immediately responded to his popularity, giving Ghoulardi three shows a week (!), and offering Ernie the chance to continue to work unimpeded on all of these shows.  He developed a segment called Parma Place – a take off on the very popular Peyton Place – to skewer the boring people in the suburbs, and would fill time when the movies fell short with other routines and oddities, largely improvised.  He would use the equipment used to superimpose sports graphics onto broadcasts, and insert himself into the terrible movies, running away from the monster, or interacting with the other characters by responding with jokes to their dialog.  His connections with Tim Conway and the popularity of Ghoulardi led to a pilot for a show in Hollywood to be developed (!!), unheard of for regional hosts like Ernie.  However, Ernie refused to compromise when it came to what the character of Ghoulardi was like, and his in-your-face attitude, inappropriate jokes and jabs full of insults, sex (and what he called “ethnic humor”) bombed in Hollywood, about the time he pulled out fire-crackers to use on the set.  It seemed that Ohio was going to be the extent of his fame.

His dedication to the character was absolutely his undoing.  Ghoulardi did not take notes, nor did he respond to the pressures to change the show in any way, and while he was an incredible hit with viewers, his fearlessness when it came to language and explosions began to cause the people at the station to get worried about this kind of “live” show going out to the public.  Parents groups were already beginning to form in the US, concerned about the diet of television people were ingesting.  After three years of absolute wanton chaos, Ernie’s show was canceled, on the grounds that going out “live” was too risky for a TV Station.  (This was code for, “He might insult the Polish viewers and make too many sex jokes.”)

However, it seemed as if Hollywood wasn’t completely lost on his talents.  When it was clear that Ghoulardi had ended, Tim convinced Ernie to follow him out to LA anyway, where Ernie was offered a tremendous number of voice over jobs.  His reputation soon led to ABC asking if he could be the voice of their network, a job he kept throughout the ’70’s and the ’80’s. Once Ernie moved to Hollywood, he never looked back.


 
 
And The Rest!

These are just my favorite hosts from American Scary, but there are almost 60 of these characters interviewed and mentioned during the film.  The clips are incredible, and the view into the world of Horror Hosting is addictive.  If this has piqued your interest, dig in.  There is a treasure trove of clips and movies to watch that will not only introduce you to this phase of TV history, but it gives you a chance to see something that isn’t slick, and that isn’t produced.

Horror Hosts live in a world that is almost – but not quite – professional, and they linger on the mistakes as much as the successes, too.  It’s an aesthetic that begs for you to participate, and to ignore the shortcomings and embrace the fun that is being had.  Put up a sheet, wear a silly costume, and you too could be a star!  What American Scary illustrates more than anything is that, if you want it, you can become a star, too, and on your terms.

All you have to do is try.

Are You Ready For Shock Theater?

hqdefaultIn 1957 Television Was Transformed By 52 Horror Films That Found Their Way To The Small Screen.

If you were a young kid in the mid 1950’s, the world around you was changing faster than the cars that breezed down the Highway at the then-incredible speed of 50 miles per hour.  WWII was still fresh in the minds of your parents, but the sheen of suburban life was showing a world mired in pleasant, quite communities that spanned every inch of a country that was completely civilized at this late mid-century date.  Rock ‘n’ Roll was taking the country by storm, comics had moved to war, love, western and horror stories, movie theaters had double and triple features that lasted all day long, and Television pumped a constant stream of entertainment into your home all day long.  When you weren’t riding your bike around with your friends or hanging out in a tree fort, you were collecting baseball cards and going outside to “play.”

It was into this world that Universal Pictures dropped their “Shock Theater!” package on America, and in many ways, the world has never been the same.  Imagine waiting until your parents were asleep, and then coming downstairs to explore this Television, this appliance in your home that provided a near endless font of things to watch and talk about.  Imagine turning on the screen, late at night, to find The Frozen Ghost or Night Monster coming at you on this glowing, flickering box.  It isn’t that kids were not familiar with horror, or even scary TV shows.  But these films were always on late at night, when the moon was high, a cold fog had rolled in around your home, and everyone else in your house was asleep.

While there were plenty of reasons to lie awake at night, trembling, after 1957, at least you could point to Shock Theater! and know that they were at least sharing the same cultural nightmare.

 

shocklogo1Who isn’t afraid of ‘The Wolfman’?  

As Universal Pictures began to compete with the Television in terms of making money, it was clear that the company would need to have an entire division – nay, separate business entity – to manage this new market.  Companies were sending their films to up and coming TV Stations with the hope that their films would get more air time than anyone else’s.  But most production companies didn’t understand this new technology, and learning how to navigate broadcast times and on-air “packages” was something better left to experts.  Universal turned to a little business called Screen Gems, who not only specialized in selling films to TV, but had been doing into since the earliest days.  Universal handed over the keys to their back-catalog, and asked that Screen Gems get them a good deal, an help them retain the foothold on the market of Horror Films.

While most TV Stations had a packed schedule that filled nearly the entire day, there were huge swaths of time – late at night, when most stations went “off the air” –  that was difficult to program.  Most “average viewers” were asleep during these hours.  In most film-to-TV deals, the station would pay the film company for the “rights” to air something, and then run ads against the film to offset the cost.  What kind of ads could you sell for late night shows, where it wasn’t even clear if anyone would be awake to watch it?  Anything that you were going to show had to cost next-to-nothing, and yet couldn’t just be complete crap… could it?

With this “buy the rights” / “run ads” methodology to airing movies, another problem was coming up: no one wanted to buy potentially “bad” movies.  This problem had been circumvented by movie theaters in the old Studio System days, when a studio would force a theater to buy a whole package of unrelated movies, with a couple of great films, and a huge slew of z-list garbage that they were all required to run.  But TV Networks were a little too smart for this to work at first.  If they wanted King Kong, they wanted to pay a price that was going to make it worth their time to air King Kong.  The knew who was really helping who.

Screen Gems thought they could use this old tactic again, and combined the “package” sales idea of crap with few pieces of gold, and dropped the price incredibly for a 52 movie set.  The Shock Theater! package included a number of really great movies like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Mummy & The Wolf Man, and wrapped it all in an instantly marketable name.  The basic idea of selling a shitty movie with a good movie was still at the core, but by marketing this package in a unified manner, and by counting on selling it to a larger number of stations at a dramatically lower price, Screen Gems stumbled upon an instant hit that paid off because of the bulk nature of the deals.  Almost every station was interested in low-cost programming that could be cheaply recouped with only a few ads.  And, with 52 movies in the initial package, you could run a weekly movie almost without any audience, and still make a killing.

 

tumblr_n98hxeVmQW1qdj321o1_500And With That, An American Institution Is Born.

With the success of the initial Shock Theater! package, Screen Gems assembled a new one – Son of Shock – which included 20 new films to complement the original 52.  Within the year, Horror Hosts of every variety were bringing you late night movies, all within the comfort of your own home.  The success of Shock not only solidified the idea of late-night movies on American television, but in the 60’s led to the development of Creature Features, which spread to even more stations across the country, and built upon the work that the Shock packages of the late ’50’s had laid down.

imagesWithin 10 years, midnight movies – usually hosted by a local talent that dressed up like a monster – went from unheard of to a standard at nearly every Station, a pretty radical shift in the landscape of American culture.  The influence of Shock is really immeasurable.  An interest in monsters not only launched magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland, but gave American kids an appreciation of movies from the ’30’s that they would have never seen elsewhere, that in turn drew them into the theater for all sorts of revival shows.  Bands like Frankie Stein & His Ghouls, The Cramps and The Misfits seem entirely born out of growing up on Shock Theater! broadcasts.  Connecting late night TV with Halloween now gave everyone a reason to stay home at night, hopefully curtailing the problems that were developing as a result of Devil’s Night in the mid 20th Century.  (City officials in Cleveland actually claimed that crime went down when Ghoulardi was on the air, something impossible to verify but absolutely believed.)

With Shock Theater! there a homogenizing effect on the US.  Now, no matter where we lived, we were being exposed to the same movies, the same TV formats, and a sort of prurient access to narrative that was not the standard kind of thing we saw during the day.  Horror Hosts presented these horror movies like a ghost story, framed with the same kind of logic and humor.  It was a sort of unspoken agreement that we would all do this unacceptable thing late at night, and return in the morning tired, unnerved, but part of a shared experience we could discuss with our friends.  (“Did you see The Hypnotic Eye last night?  Crazy!”)

Where the ghost story connected us with the supernatural, Shock Theater! connected us with each other.

Universal Monster Movies: A Brief Overview

universal-monster-movies-reboot

The Real Scene Is Around The Silver Screen.

It’s not that Universal was the only production company making monster movies in the 1920’s.  But when you have Lon Chaney on your crew, your movie is just a little bit better than the rest, and a little more fondly remembered.  Lon was not only an effects genius who understood the world of filmmaking better than most actors, but through a twist of fate Universal was also getting some pretty incredible properties when it came to their films: The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of The Opera.  It was very clear to all the heavy hitters in Hollywood then that, by the end of the decade, Universal had made a name for themselves as the place to deliver actual, terrifying horror, with good acting and believable effects that blew everyone else away.  Their moody period pieces could really evoke the right kind of atmosphere for these stories that originated in the decades previous, steeped in nostalgia before audiences had even seen them.  And, for the few misses they released, even a few well-timed scares and schlocky effects could draw in late night crowds.  As other companies churned out no-name characters filmed by Z-level directors, it didn’t take being that much better than the rest for Universal to quietly take home the entire Fall movie box office.

856-deporting-dracula_1In the ’30’s, they scored huge in securing Dracula and Frankenstein as properties, and getting Bela LegosiBoris Karloff ,& Basil Rathbone in their roster set them off to the races.  Universal’s reputation not only led to quality actors, directors and special effects artists wanting to work for the company, but innumerable revival showings of films that were even only a few years old proved that huge crowds turned out, even for something they remembered from the past.  More franchises began to develop as they continued to find new scary works to mine: The Wolfman, The Invisible Man, The Creature From The Black Lagoon.  Pretty soon their horror films were doing better than their other projects.  Not much, but enough for board members to care a little more about monsters than they ever had before.

1024px-Frankenstein's_monster_(Boris_Karloff)Throughout the 1940’s Universal kept up this high level of monster movie production, largely aided by the addition of two key actors: Lon Chaney Jr. & John Carradine, not to mention the monster-prone comedy duo of Abbot & Costello, though many other folks drifted through their studios, too.  As sequels and new properties began to pile up, it seemed as if Universal was on their way to maintaining that top position as a monster movie production house.

As the ’50’s started, Universal began to integrate Sci-Fi stories with their monster-de-jour scripts, and with their new comedic horror films, they were poised to move their success into other genres.  They even hired a separate company to handle the Television broadcast rights, and closed out the decade by selling the Shock Theater! & Son of Shock packages to most television stations.  Magazines began to pop up dedicated to their films, and horror junkies began to develop as the access to these films began to increase.

mummy-universalAnd, in a way, it was the new media that killed Universal’s stranglehold on the genre as time wore on.  Famous Monsters of Filmland published so often that they would cover almost any half-decent monster movie, regardless of the company that released the film, moving Universal from first position to just another production house.  Other companies were selling their films to TV as well, and now people could stay home on the weekends, pop some corn, and sit down to a double-feature of horror films while the viewer lounged around in their PJs.  This reduced the number of people attending midnight showings, making the audience that showed up to see Universal Pictures smaller as well.  This, on the heels of the breakdown of the Studio System in the late ’40’s, seemed to be the last nail in the coffin of a Hollywood where studios were associated with certain genres.  From now on, any studio could release any kind of movie, eliminating the genre stranglehold.  Now, in spite of your reputation, the movie actually had to be good.

For a while Universal backed off of the monster-heavy fare, and began to develop other genres and franchises they could work with in other areas.  The ’60s saw a huge slowdown, and then the ’70’s saw them dip their toes back into the water.  While Universal never stopped making monster movies, it was clear that their “Golden Age” was well behind them, and now anything they released was just another film among a sea of other releases.

In 2015, not only does Universal have an entire set of launch-dates for new entries into their ever-expanding cannon of films, a few of them are also Horror, featuring these old characters that are so well loved.  More importantly, the idea of “classic” Universal monsters has also become a point of nostalgia itself.  This has a lot to do with tradition: since the ’20’s, theaters have gone in for revival showings every so often, introducing a whole new batch of kids and adults to the films.  (See also the Shock Theater effect.)  In a way, more than the characters and the films, Universal discovered nearly instantaneous nostalgia, where the first exposure to something that started out old immediately makes you want to see more old scary movies to sate the need for “classic” horror.

Not Just Rockford’s Phone, But The IDEA Of A Phone Itself

Phone05.) The Universal Telephone Ring

For the majority of my life, I was bothered by the sound design in a scene in Ghostbusters, when Dana answers the phone in her apartment.  There is near silence, then a slightly distorted, very loud ring.  It sounded so out of place, as if it was obviously artificial.  When I heard the film was remastered, I was hoping they would fix this, not at all piecing together that it was the same ring tone in Tootsie, The Sting, Close Encounters of The Third Kind, WarGames, and most tellingly, the intro to every episode of The Rockford Files.  You may even recognize it from elsewhere:

maxresdefault-1I didn’t even realize this sound effect had a name until I found myself going down a Wilhelm Scream wormhole one day online, when I found this to be the runner up in terms of audio sound gags that are inserted in films to the delight (and horror) of sound designers everywhere.  Unlike The Wilhelm Scream, the origins of this telephone ring effect seems to have been lost to the ages.  It seems to have been first used in early Leave It To Beaver episodes, but most likely was used then only because it was in the Universal Studios sound library at the time.

k11230325By the ’70’s, the effect became ubiquitous in Universal’s dramas, and you can hear it all over Six Million Dollar Man, The A-Team and Magnum P.I., along with countless other Universal Productions.  In the ’80’s, the tone of television began to shift, and sound designers became much more sophisticated, making custom effects for most projects.  A few jokes here and there slipped into the overall body of television and film, creating a sort of intra-designer code through the use of sounds like this one.  As with all codes, it was only noticed by other sound-nerds, and much like razor tape editing, is largely unnoticed by the average listener.

Something about the Chickenman universe just screams for this kind of sound effect as part of its landscape, and since there are a number of phone-call conceits to the structure of the show, it seemed like the right move for this presentation.  Something about this just feels right.

Blasphuphmus Video On The Internet!

Blasphuphmus Radio has been growing and developing in recent years, and as technology becomes cheaper and more affordable, we have tried to find ways to use them effectively.  With that in mind, we are proud to present our newest venture, our very own YouTube channel!

Blasphuphmus Video On The Internet

As we have had many opportunities to meet and record musicians, occasionally some video of the event would manage to be captured.  However, there have been few places to put these video pieces in the past, and the few times they’ve been posted, they have been lost in the deluge of visual media.  Now, there is a one-stop solution to the question, “What kind of videos are available from some of my favorite Blasphuphmus Radio episodes?

These videos include great collaborations with Ricardo Wang of What’s This Called?, Miss Rikki of Closet Radio, Johnathon Boober, not to mention all the cool bands they booked, or the ones I hosted myself.  Every time I turned on a camera and filmed something, these videos wound up here.  Think of is as a curated collection of great moments in radio, and all you have to do is subscribe!

Blasphuphmus Video On The Internet

These are just a few of the samples of things that are forthcoming from Blasphuphmus Radio.  As we enter our 15th year, we’re hoping to really change up the way we bring you all the great things you know and love.  It has been a real privilege to be able to do all the things I’ve done over the years, and it is with your support that I have been able to do it.  Now, you can help me, by subscribing to our channel on YouTube.

Now: let the images speak for themselves.

Enjoy!

Moon Children

Crossing The Field Of Innocence
Crossing The Field Of Innocence

The trappings of childhood are usually designed to prepare us for becoming adults, and the toys and books and clothes that we grow up with often stand in for the equivalents we adopt later in life.  The people we meet – and the relationships we forge as children – set the tone for the way we interact with the world as we get older.  We’re fortunate that adults are put together just as well as kids are, only with different toys, books and clothes to surround themselves with.

This, in a nutshell, is the central thesis of Moonrise Kingdom: regardless of the age we reach, we are really no more insightful about the world than our children, and our relationships are just as simplistic and/or complex.  There will always be a parent or mentor above us looking to chastise / be jealous of us for doing what we think is right.  In many ways, this is a thread that you can pull through all of Anderson’s work, to the point that even his working adult name is diminutive, both in the shortened form of “Wes,” and in that he will always be Ander’s son; he will always be a fully grown child.  Even Anderson’s co-writer for this film, Roman Coppola, is Francis Ford’s son, bringing this thematic element to the construction of the movie itself.  While Anderson often blends the world of the film and the world that created the film, this aspect of metatext might be the reason to include a narrator that talks directly to the audience, as well as interacts with these childishly adult characters.

Perhaps the most childish are the adults that spend a good portion of the movie searching for Sam & Suzy.  Laura & Walt Bishop live in what appears to be a giant dollhouse, and they play at parenting and being lawyers the way kids do.  Laura’s temper and violent physical outbursts toward her husband perfectly match the actions of an angry and confused 12 year old.  Conversely, Walt is quiet like a shy little boy, entirely reserved from years of coping with his abusive girlfriend.  This has led to his inability to do accomplish anything; he makes suggestions that he will ride a motorcycle or chop down a tree, but never engages in either activity.  The only time they engage each other is when discussing law, an act that mitigates this stunted arguments of adults acting like children; otherwise, they are physically separated, each in different rooms / depths of focus / beds.  They each play roles neither are particularly good at, nor do they fully understand.

Randy is probably the most childish, playing boy scout well into middle age.  His interactions with children are all based in camaraderie, delivered as friendly leadership moments among peers.  He offers no real guidance when they do wrong, and instead gives suggestions for how they can follow the letter of scout law more closely.  His own ability to wear this identity himself is much like his uniform: ill-fitting.  He is trying to teach the young scouts how to remain as such forever, but their own survival skills seem to have come from elsewhere.

Captain Sharp is no better; his policeman’s uniform resembles that of a little league outfit (right down to his ball cap), and as neither he or Randy have children of their own, they struggle to break out of the rolls they set for themselves when they were kids, and yet have no real idea how to do this.  You can easily imagine Captain Sharp saying “Police Officer” when asked what he was going to be when he grows up, and has thus been one ever since, not knowing there are possible alternatives.

At the center of all these childish adults are Sam & Suzy, each of them comfortably taking on the roles of a couple where not even their parents can do so.  They plan their individual escapes with an inventive amount of detail and preparation, and quickly consummate their budding relationship, something the adults are unable to do.  Their physical and emotional intimacy creates a counterpoint for the distance that exists between everyone else.  Unlike the childish cigarettes that Randy wields, held in the most dainty of manners, Sam smokes a wooden pipe.  Suzy reads to Sam – who listens attentively – where her parents can barely talk to each other without using a bullhorn.  The children seem particularly skilled in assuming their roles in this relationship; Sam’s training as a scout has made him the perfect at surviving in the wilderness away from people, while Suzy’s rage and intelligent sweetness makes her a perfect complement in sharing intimacy and fending off danger.

Both manage to pantomime adult mating rituals with comic outcomes, but the results carry more sweetness and beauty than any other examples of affection that are shown in the film.  Getting to know each other’s tastes, dancing to pop music, and even their first awkward motions toward physical contact not only mark a counterpoint to the Suzy’s parents, but is a perfect analog for the experience of dating everyone goes through.  We all feel far too young when we first experience someone physically, and we each feel as if we’ve wandered into some uncharted territory, on the ledge of a precipice or ocean, and in spite of what anyone may already have called it, there is an urge to shout out our own names to make this world our own.

“Why are you in such a hurry?” Captain Sharp asks Sam after he and Suzy are “rescued” by the bumbling search party, and this offers a little insight into the plight of the adults in this film.  Longing for a time when their lives could be simplistic – like when they were children – only drives their childish behavior more.  They each live with regrets they can never take back, and this motivation leads to their desire to stymie the progression into adulthood they think these children are foolishly making.  What they are ignoring, however, is that Sam and Suzy are already grown up; any effort the adults make is too late.  What scares the adults in this film the most isn’t that the kids are growing up to fast, but that they themselves haven’t even attempted to do so.

What sells Sam and Suzy’s adult behavior in terms of the films assembly is the careful use of cinematic tropes and references that not only correspond with the time period of the film, but include the deft incorporation of a narrator, played expertly by Bob Balaban.  The unnamed narrator not only breaks the fourth wall by addressing us directly while also appearing as a character in the film, but his careful monitoring of the environmental elements that are at play make him very well equipped to move between our world and theirs.  It his this character who not only fills us in on what is happening, but does the same for the adults when they are at a loss as to how to find Sam & Suzy.  In much the same way that Greek plays unfold, The Narrator both describes the action, but intercedes upon this action, and Balaban’s performance in this capacity as an actual meteorologist is perhaps the only true grown “adult” in the film.

Meanwhile, Sam, Suzy and the other scouts perfectly adapt their behavior to match those of the movies they are imitating, weaving elements of westerns, 50’s romantic dramas and war films into their perceptions of how they should behave.  The adults, however, continue their childish pursuits of a High School drama, until the storm strikes, at which time they try to step out of their roles to become adults the children really need.

More than anything else, the film is a mash note to the biggest influence in Anderson’s life: Young Adult novels of his childhood.  While there are some elements of this in his film version of the children’s book The Fantastic Mr. Fox, as well as certain elements of The Royal Tennebaums (Margot essentially re-enacts a bit of the storyline of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler when she runs away as a child to live in a Museum), Moonrise Kingdom takes the ideas from this and a number of similar books (My Side Of The Mountain, Bridge to Terabithia, etc.) and remixes them with an Andersonian sense of how they all influenced his own childhood.  It’s clear that Anderson never managed to grow up, or, rather, spent his youth already grown up and had to wait in real time for his own body to catch up.  This has very clearly left an indelible impact on him, and it is no wonder that this movie is set in the ’60’s, when Anderson himself was born.  We are being asked to see this as a melting pot where his great loves – film, books, and the blurred line between childhood and adulthood – was born.

As with any Wes Anderson movie, the details in this film are flawlessly assembled.  There is a hand-made quality to everything he does, so much so that even the few CGI moments seem painless by comparison to the way some directors use the effect.  His Ozu references are just as beautiful as his nods to Encyclopedia Brown, and his musical selections are not only dead perfect, but work in a sort of Peter And The Wolf manner, helping track characters and story elements deftly and beautifully.  While it is impossible to say if this is my favorite film of his, perhaps that is not the point.  This is another chapter in the story he is constantly telling, a new iteration of a story that seems to share qualities with every film before it.

While you could never argue that each film is identical to each other, a simple glance at any scene from any of his movies screams Anderson in a way that is immediately identifiable, and it is this that I have come to love from a man who has a love of making movies that is only outmatched by his completely self-conscious desire to control every element of their artifice, and remind us that yes, we are not only watching a film, we are watching a Wes Anderson film.  And a damn good one, too.

Gimme A Head With Hair

It Looks Like Thousands Of Strands!
It Looks Like Thousands Of Strands!

So far, Pixar has had an incredible batting average with their filmic output, releasing hit after hit that appeal to multiple generations.  Using a wit and sense of humor that is simultaneously family friendly without condescension, they have brought the computer animated film out of the realm of niche-market and brought it into the realm of the blockbuster.  It was no small surprise that kids would find Toy Story or Cars endlessly re-watchable, but its quite a feat to string along the parents, too.  Even people without kids, and film nerds who love to hate on everything, have to admit that Pixar have done what few other animation studios could ever accomplish: create an output that is both popular in its time and well after the fact.

My love of Wall-E was, sadly, hard won.  I spent a lot of time avoiding Pixar, merely because they seemed marketed towards “kids.”  However, after much soul searching, I realized I was exactly their target market, and have now come to love the ones I’ve seen.  However, Brave has created in me some doubt.  What came across as a Scottish adventure featuring a female lead, became a mother / daughter bonding flick that was better suited as a Disney Channel afternoon film, rather than a theatrical release.  By ingraining the characterizations with stereotypes and anachronistic motives – and relying on a very overt metaphor to convey the central thrust of the film – the few adventurous moments came across as if they were tacked on, rather than the backbone of the story.

Brave revolves around three central stereotypes and a cast of ancillary Scots that fulfill more sitcom-inspired relationship dynamics than three dimensional characters rendered by top of the line computers should be able to.  Both of the parents appear to be cut from modern American behavioral cloth: the perfectionist, commanding, family leader, Queen Elinor, and her oafish, loud, butt-of-most-jokes husband, King Fergus.  The father makes no attempt to understand anything more than what is immediately ahead of him, while the mother is constantly concerned with her daughter’s future.  It’s suggested that this is because the daughter will eventually marry an important prince, and thus bring peace to a land that could break out into war at the drop of a hat, but as it turns out it’s very easy to talk the entire kingdom out of this.  (In fact, their daughter Merida convinces everyone in Scotland that they don’t need to follow tradition at all, in what amounts to a couple of minutes in the middle of the film, thus leaving the family problems to take up the real story arc being followed.)

Ultimately, the film is about Elinor wanting to control Merida, Merida wanting to control her own life, and her father being just clueless enough that he foolishly thinks they will work this out between themselves without the help of magic.  The arguments and fights between mother and daughter are so predictable that when Merida runs away, we feel that we’ve seen this story play out hundreds of times, and when she brings in a witch to help convince Elinor to be more understanding, it seems so incredibly swiped from the Disney trope-of-the-week bin that you have to wonder if this is even a Pixar movie anymore.  Perhaps even more ham-fisted than the hodge-podge of plot-predictability is the use of the most literal metaphor I’ve seen in years: Merida’s mother is actually a bear for the majority of her time on screen.  Get it?  The fact that any girl has not referred to her own mother as being a “bear” since the era that is depicted in this film was probably considered to be one of the references “for the adults.”

What saves the film are the advances in computer animation, something that has always been an element of Pixar’s films.  It’s true that the hair & cloth look more like the real deal than either ever have in any computer animated film.  The range of the color pallet is fantastic; this is a vivid, compelling film that looks great on the screen.  The sound design is some of the best ever realized in a theater, and there is a lot of evidence to point to that illustrates these technical achievements.  The short before the feature – La Lune – is probably one of my favorite Pixar films, period.  It uses a very simple premis, all of the technical know-how up the studio’s sleeves, and practically nothing else, to create a fantastic gem that is unfortunately overshadowed by the feature that follows it.  In many ways, Brave comes off as a film that wanted to show off all the new toys that Pixar has developed, but forgot to call the writers that usually work on their films to punch up the story.

Probably the most disappointing aspect of the movie are the blatant stereotypes: fiery daughters, heavy accents, an intelectual shortfall among the men, and a general amount of oafishness is added to every scene, and every Scottish gag and jab is thrown in time and time again.  Pixar has never been afraid of adding a liberal layer of jokes overtop the emotional thrust of their stories, but in Brave the effort seems directed at making the subject of the film the butt of every joke, and the emotional components of the film seem whiney.  Pixar has made the claim that this is their first “fairy tale” film, and thus many of the tropes therein are most certainly going to bubble to the surface.  But there are only so many negative Braveheart references that any viewer can take before you feel beaten over the head with the Scottishness of everything.  Yes, it is set in Scotland.  We get it.  Stereotypes do exist for a reason, true, but they are not a replacement for good story and characterization.

And the stereotypes are not just limited to Scottish jokes.  Men – middle aged, at least – are constantly poked fun of, and it is suggested that this oafishness is merely a male trait that must be put up with.  Women fare no better, coming across as short-tempered and demanding, with no ability to see the point of view of others without having to go through an ordeal to learn that lesson first.  In many ways, the film suggests that mothers and daughters all follow one path: mom cares for daughter, daughter becomes ungrateful, mom becomes a bear, daughter helps mom overcome this by growing up a little herself, and they both spend their days living out a sort of Gilmore Girls fantasy friendship where they finally see eye-to-eye.  In much the same way that Disney films tend to reinforce pop gender stereotypes, Brave presents the same sitcom gender roles that have been present for the last 30 years or so.

This is not to say that Pixar has lost all hope.  In spite of its shortcomings, Brave is incredibly well made, and La Lune is entirely worth the price of admission on its own.  But as Pixar’s first fairy tale, and their first film with a female lead, I was hoping for something closer to Mulan and less like Freaky Friday.  They spend a lot of time setting up that Merida is accomplished with a bow and arrow, and yet aside from some great trick-shots the typical “school’s out” scene, Merida’s marksmanship does not help save the day.  Her fiery, impulsive nature gets her intro trouble constantly, and its suggested that tempering her adventurousness is what will guide her in the future.  In fact, it becomes clear pretty early that, rather than a fun adventure fairy tale, its actually a pre-teen coming-of-age story.

And there is always a market for a movie like this, undoubtedly.  Brave will find an audience, and I’m sure it will even do well in the future.  The open mocking of men, “ethnic humor” (as they used to call racial stereotypes in the 80’s), and flashy visuals have always appealed to wide audiences, and there is no question that in this post-modern age of micro-markets the film will eventually find a comfortable resting place in the media landscape that surrounds us.  (I’m sure The Disney Channel is already clearing space in their after-school line-up to house Brave for a few months after it’s had a good theater run.)  Still, for what was marketed as a good adventure fairy tale with a female lead, we instead I got a 90+ minute TV comedy about how hard it is to be a teenage girl, how inept men are, and how mean mom can be.

Oh: and hair that looks pretty realistic.  Ish.

Required Viewing.

Filmed in the UK in 1977 & 1978, this film contains an overview of the bands that were fairly well known at the time, and starting to get recognition outside of their friends and their local scenes.  Definitely slanted, and more from the perspective of scenesters and friends of friends, the BBC try to make sense of this youth culture the only way they know how: by making an hour long documentary about it.  Most likely the first film made to cover this ground.  Well worth watching.

Super-Hero TV & Film

I just picked up watching The Cape again, now that I can stream it all from Hulu for free.  I caught a few episodes when it was new, and was excited to see more.  Of course, before I could really remember to get caught back up, it was already canceled.  So much for that.

Still, a short and sweet 10 episodes should be a nice break until I can find my next televisual obsession.  You can expect a longer post, with more detail about it’s varying qualities, when I make it through all the episodes.

In the meantime: I’m considering a longer essay on the nature of Super-Hero TV and Movies, especially given that there is a glut of them in the here and now.  I’m thinking of a long overview of the “genre,” how it has evolved, what sets it apart from other film genres, etc.  It seems that, like every other genre, there are certain things happening in this genre that are not happening in other films, and it may be worth investigating.

My question becomes: what would you consider “essential” Super-Hero TV and Film?  What shows and movies cannot be omitted from such a project?  What are your favorite Super-Hero TV shows and Movies?

Dante’s Explorers

Escapism As Plot
Escapism As Plot

Your average movie critic would categorize Joe Dante as a low-rent Steven Spielberg, and unfortunately, there is enough evidence in his films to support this badly-made assertion. Both Gremlins and InnerSpace have that Spielberg-ian flavor to their form and execution, and the fact that Spielberg took Dante under his wing early on only adds to that notion. But where Spielberg seems to be able to mine the Hollywood Mainstream for blockbusters and money makers, Dante seems only able to skirt the edges in ways that earn him little cash. A quick glance at their respective filmographys will instantly reveal who is the household name and who isn’t; as it stands, the closest thing to a blockbuster Dante had was his Spielberg-produced horror movie, Gremlins.

But Dante’s films tend to be more nuanced, and function on levels that most of Hollywood fare don’t (or can’t). While on the surface, Explorers seems to embody the Spielberg-ian notions of Wish Fulfillment Fantasy and Childhood Nostalgia, in a much more direct sense, Explorers is a film that explains how to navigate your High School years through the development of fantasy coping mechanisms.

The overall plot of the film is typical of youth-oriented adventure movies: a trio of friends build a spaceship in their backyard, using circuit designs dreamed by Ben (Ethan Hawk), constructed by Wolfgang (River Phoenix), and named by Darren (Jason Presson, the only one of the primary actors to not have a big Hollywood career afterward). When they iron out all the kinks in their ship, they realize that they’ve been called by a pair of aliens in deep space, whom they go to visit, where the real fun begins. Eventually they return from their heroes’ journey wiser, experienced, and having made it through the “underworld” relatively unscathed. Odysseus himself could not have planned the trip better.

The main character of the film, Ben, is immediately characterized as an outcast. The target of bullies and being raised by a single parent, his refuge is the world of Sci-Fi. Film, books, comics, anything otherworldly helps him cope with his everyday misery, while he secretly pines for a rich girl (Lori) that he can never obtain for obvious (class) reasons. In their own ways, Wolfgang and Darren are similarly outcast; Wolfgang is immersed in Science, to the point that he can think in no other terms, while Darren obsesses over his scooter and his Walkman, attempting to ignore the realities of his own drunken father at home. Using the resolve they gain from their media obsessions and interests, they manage to find a way to survive through the complex world of High School when it’s clear that they just don’t fit in.

However, once these three kids take the first step into their Odyssesian “underworld,” they find themselves crossing the threshold of the very media Ben is obsessed with in the first place. First, they create an energy sphere out of thin air, as if it has been called forth from the very media Ben idolizes. Once it has been created, it literally moves “through” the very books and Comics that Ben collects. (As if the idea of an energy sphere was trying to return to the world it came from.) Later, the sphere takes Wolfgang on a Journey Through The Center of The Earth by “accidentally” tunneling through a mountainside they happen to be experimenting upon. After they finally build their ship (a creation comprised of things they find in a disused junkyard, where the mainstream casts off things no longer important), they choose to make their first destination the local Drive-In (Darren: “Where’s all the action on a Friday Night?” Ben: “The Drive-In!”).

However, the film takes a decidedly strange turn once they get there. Not only do our young heroes start interacting with the Drive-In screen itself, the movie they watch starts to interact back. (Not only with them, but with us.) What’s playing on the screen is Starkiller, a fictional film within a film, and an obscure George Lucas reference, too. (Luke Skywalker’s original name, in the early drafts of the first Star Wars script, was Luke Starkiller.) The hero of this film, Starkiller (played expertly by Robert Picardo, in one of his two roles for Explorers), not only embodies everything that a Sci-Fi, B-Movie, Drive-In character should, but his reaction shots all revolve around things that are happening outside of his own film. Interacting with media, in the world of Explorers, works two ways: you get out of it what you put into it.

When the boys finally allow the craft they’ve built to take them to the stars, they encounter a pair of aliens who act as if they have stepped out of a Sci-Fi films themselves. (Robert Picardo plays Wak, effectively stepping out of Starkiller and into Explorers. It’s only fitting that he plays a hologram in Voyager, to further toy with this tension.) Both Wak and Neek learned English from our own movies and television, too. As Ben and his companions get to know Wak and Neek, they discover that the aliens are just as obsessed with media junk culture as they are.

After meeting Ben and his friends, Wak and Neek project, onto themselves, the boys, every available surface, and in the air all around them, screen after screen of TV shows, commercials, and old movies, all blending and mixing into a melange of cultural noise. Ben and his friends stare, transfixed, but Wak and Neek feel comfortable literally wandering through these images from which they have sprung. But where Ben is obsessed with the more obscure selections our culture offers, Wak and Neek soak up anything and everything they see. The more steeped in the mundane and everyday Wak and Neek become, the more and more they resemble your average American. (Ben: “They don’t make any sense.” Wolfgang: “That’s the way that they think we talk!”)

In the end, in a sort of cinematic sigh rather than a dramatic crescendo, Ben and his friends discover that there is almost no difference between themselves and the aliens they’ve met. Wak and Neek went into space to meet aliens too, inspired to do so by Earth media they’re obsessed with. Only, in their case, they get caught in the end by their own father. (Wak and Neek’s father manages to do an incredible Ralph Kramden impression in an all-alien dialect, pure Dante-nonsense at its finest.)

When the boys return to Earth, the occasion is even more anti-climactic; rather than the triumphant, heroic return of three space travelers who have touched the stars, met alien life, and made it home to tell the tale, they accidentally crash into a lake, to no welcome or fanfare, and have to escape from their home-made vehicle in much the same way that your work-a-day Astronauts might after a water landing. The crushing reality of their experience is so overwhelming that their craft is sucked instantly to the bottom of the lake, irretrievable.

Sort of.

As Dante is quick to point out, the ending that exists is not the one he wanted. Between budgetary constraints and studio pressure, the film was never properly “finished.” Further difficulties in distribution, promotion, and release made the movie even more obscure at the time it came out, disappointing Dante further. (Especially after the phenomenal success of his previous film, Gremlins.) But the ending that is tacked on, no matter how nostalgic and sentimental it might be on the surface, suggests in a subtle way that the “happily ever after” vision we see is actually anything but happy once run through a Dante-filter.

Ben, Wolfgang and Darren are able to do something no other human has been able to, but only by clinging to childhood obsessions and dreams in order to do so. Ben is smarter and more perceptive than those in the Mainstream because, unlike Wak and Neek, he only indulges in certain obscure elements. He has learned how to traverse the media landscape in a way that he enjoys, and enables him to accomplish that which no one else can. But at what cost? He can never tell anyone of his outer space adventures, and most likely, will not be able to recreate them, either. These dream achievements are incredible and fantastic, but become less and less fulfilling when you have to turn the movie off and return to real life.

This is most poignant through the love-interest subplot with a girl named Lori. Ben never manages to succeed with her during the film proper, in spite of several attempts to do so. (With hindsight, I’m actually surprised how much Lori reminds me of my first crush, but that’s another story.) Finally, in the closing minutes of the film, he is able to connect with Lori, not only emotionally, but physically. (They kiss during a flying dream-sequence.) This connection, though, only occurs in his dream; it happens shortly after Ben falls asleep, bored to death at school, a place he hates, and where he is characterized as being unsuccessful.

And this becomes the final “message” that comes through at the end of the film: only in the media that Ben consumes (manifest “dreams” themselves) can Ben achieve what he most desperately wants. In real life, he is alone, an outcast, with only his mostly absent (and out-of-touch) mother to watch out for him. The girl he wants is out of reach, in a literal and symbolic sense (she is always just beyond his physical reach in the film, either separated by actual space or by mirrors and energy fields), who he can only connect with through flights of fancy. (The most interaction he has with her in the real world is through a photograph, again a piece of media.) His friends may share his dreams with him to an extent, but their own interests are vastly different from his own; they can fly with him, but in the end, they fly alone, away from Ben and Lori as they cruise through Ben’s closing dream. The credits even start rolling before Ben’s dream can conclude, leaving this perfect childhood fantasy to never have to suffer from the teacher waking him up to ask another question he can’t answer. (The credits themselves start to intrude into the dream Ben is having, yet again muddying the barrier between reality and fantasy, and which is which.)

That is not to say that there is no joy in watching Explorers. The movie is a repository of cinematic references and childhood nostalgia that will really hit home for anyone obsessed with Warner Brothers cartoons, old Sci-Fi films, or someone who is looking for an adequate third to follow a Goonies / Stand By Me double feature. But don’t be surprised if the meta-content starts to contort your perspective on this particular feature, or that the sad realities of growing up come crashing down on you as you start to put together exactly what Mr. Dante was trying to tell us.

What delighted me as a child is an all-to-horrific reminder in the here and now, of how painful growing up really can be, and the things you have to leave behind in order to do it successfully. Cheery stuff, no?

Wilhelm Weirdness

Here’s a little something that I found last night that is exactly up my ally: The Wilhelm Scream sound effect, and it’s history.

My friend Steve sent me the DVD for The Middleman, a short lived TV show on ABC Family that is to Comic Book Fiction what Buffy is to Vampire Fiction. The primary creator and writer is Javier Grillo-Marxuach, with more nerd credentials than I thought possible. (Not only does he write comics, but he was one of the writer’s and producers for the first two seasons of Lost. As I hadn’t heard of The Middleman before (how, exactly, I missed it is a mystery to me), I turned to the above-linked Wikipedia entry for more information, one of the first things I noticed was the short sentence, “Every episode used the Wilhelm scream in some way.” I couldn’t let a quick reference like that go un-Googled, so within a few minutes I had the whole story sorted out.

The short version: In 1951, a Warner Brothers movie called Distant Drums used a set of recorded screams that became popular among sound effects editors. As the years wore on, the scream became an in-joke among those editors, who would go out of their way to sneak it into films in any way they could. It is claimed that the effect appears in over 140 films. Sooner or later, film nerds began to catch on: George Lucas, Steven Speilberg, and Joe Dante were some of the first people to revive it’s usage, and the tradition has been picked up by Tim Burton, Quinten Tarentino, and Peter Jackson. As more and more film nerds become hip to the effect, it becomes used even more often, only perpetuating it as a sound chiché. It’s only fair, then, that when something as pure-geek as The Middleman starts being produced, you’d have to pull out all the stops and put it in every episode. At least Javier is following in a good TV tradition too: Wilhelm has screamed in Maverick, The X-Files, Angel, The Family Guy, and in commercials for both Dell and Comcast.

(I can only imagine that this kind of obscure referencing could have only contributed to ABC Family just scratching their heads before giving up and canceling something this idiosyncratic. Perhaps that’s why it is so appealing.)

For those of you not exactly sure if you can place the effect in film, some kind person has created a great YouTube video that collects some of the best useages of Wilhelm in an easy-to-digest 3 1/2 minute form. If this doesn’t bring a smile to your face, then really, what will?

A Broadcasting Proposal

Dancing, With Swords
Dancing, With Swords

While I was watching Hero last night, it occurred to me that there is something missing from my life that I think everyone in America could benefit from: more Martial Arts Ballet films. It seems to me that there is probably a direct relationship between overall happiness and the number of movies like this you have recently watched. Wire sword fighting, ancient Chinese history, elaborate (and beautiful) color pallets, and a Roshomon-influenced storyline, is pretty much all you need to put a smile on your face. I challenge anyone to find better elements in a film that can give the viewer an emotional 180°. For almost an hour and a half, I almost entirely forgot I was unemployed.

I suggest that we, as Americans, need to watch more Martial Arts Ballet. It will not only make us better people, but will give us something we can bond over, which will strengthen us as a nation. As far as I can tell, there’s nothing on TV worth watching on Saturday afternoons, so I suggest that all stations should show films like this starting at 1 PM, and running until the sun goes down. While this might seem like something that would appeal to a limited audience, here’s the question I’d like you to consider first: can you really think of someone who’s life wouldn’t be better because of this?

‘Nuff said.

Best. Movie. Ever.

Over The Edge
Over The Edge

As a huge fan of Pump Up The Volume, I was completely stunned when I finally saw the movie it’s based on, the 1979 seminal classic, Over The Edge. I have to claim virtual ignorance regarding this film until The Chairman (from Drats!!!) rambled on and on about how his band was releasing a concept record based on the movie. The album was great, but for some reason I kept missing the movie for one reason or another. Even after my friend Marcus hooked me up with a copy, it sat in my collection, unwatched, until a few days ago.

Why, exactly, I waited that long, I’ll never know. Just about everyone told me that I’d freak out when I finally saw it, and for the record, let me say: I did. Not only is this one of the single greatest teen movies ever made (with the possible exception of Badlands), it is pretty much the blueprint for all punk movies, and was directly copied (almost note for note) in the aforementioned Pump Up The Volume. I don’t want to give too much away (in the event that there are others out there who haven’t seen it), but trust me, you need to see this film.

If for no other reason, you will suddenly understand and appreciate Nation Of Ulyssesthat much more. Trust me.

That Was Then, This Is Now

So Hot
So Hot

For most of my adult life, I have been in love with the girl in the right of this picture. (I would appreciate better screen captures of her from this movie if possible… this is the only thing I could find anywhere online.) Lala Sloatman is her name, but I only knew her as Nora’s sidekick in Pump Up The Volume. (To my knowledge, you don’t learn her name – Janie – until the end credits, and even then the words were so small it took until I looked at a DVD copy last night to really be able to read it.) As I’ve discovered via some Inter-Web-A-Tron research I did this morning, her cousin is Ahmet Zappa, who also appeared as an extra in Pump Up The Volume, along with Seth Green and some other strange Hollywood fringe types, which puts this girl in good company.  Sadly, her filmography is, to say the least, disappointing.  (The Adventures of Ford Fairlane and Joe Verses The Volcano.)

I’m sure the particular circumstances that make me obsess over Janie are as specific and singular as any other obsession any of us develops. I can only say that, 17 years later, this obsession still has a pretty strong hold on me. Yowza.

Nora: It’s after 8 o’clock, so I guess it’s okay to kill myself.
Janie: Oh no, it’s after 3, I guess I’m totally fucked!

Back In The Day

Watchmen
Watchmen

Going to see Watchmen last night (more on that later), I couldn’t help but remember one of my all-time favorite Onion headlines:

Other infamous episodes that have occurred during the couple’s 18-month relationship include Tillich’s August 1999 insistence that Jensen listen to all of side two of the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat, his January 1999 failure to talk Jensen into visiting the grave of Philip K. Dick during a Colorado road trip, and his ongoing unsuccessful efforts to get her to read Alan Moore’s Watchmen, a 1986 postmodern-superhero graphic novel she described as “a comic book about a big blue space guy” and that he calls “nothing less than a total, devastating deconstruction of virtually every archetype in the genre’s history.”

I don’t know what appeals to me more: the fact that they managed to cover just about every base regarding this kind of relationship dynamic (omitting, obviously, the Area Boyfriend’s insistence on going as The Prisoner for Halloween, and the Area Girlfriend stating that she didn’t know who that was), or the fact that this is pretty much the way I interacted with my girlfriends for most of my life.

And now, I will do the dance of shame. Again.

The Fellowship of the Dice

Fellowship Of The Dice
Fellowship Of The Dice

Yesterday I finally watched The Fellowship of the Dice, a sort of mockumentary about a group of people who play RPGs, and their experiences with a new player who knows nothing about RPGs who is a 20-something girl who has nothing in common with the group. Intermixed they showed interviews with gamers at a Con, who all share their insights on the various aspects of gaming, from gaming food, to in-depth explorations of why people get kicked out or banished from a campaign.

First, a couple of disclaimers: growing up I played a lot of roleplaying games. Mostly superhero-based games, with a healthy amount of D&D too. There was a Vampire phase for a while, I went to a couple of LARPS (didn’t like them much), and did several SCA events. As I got older, I met some people that liked to roleplay AND listen to cool music, drink beer, and (here’s the kicker), knew some girls that liked to play, too. However, I eventually stopped making time for it several years ago, despite the fact that I had a good time playing and liked the people I played with. I guess it was a sort of midlife crisis or something, but I started to substitute RPGs with going to shows and trying to meet girls.

Second disclaimer: I met two of the cast members and another person involved with the movie a while back at KPSU, when they came through to do an interview on-air to promote a local gaming event that they were showing the movie at. They even took me and Ranger Mike out for Thai food, and they expensed the entire meal. (Thanks again!) They were all really nice, really friendly, and while Aimee Graham wasn’t exactly able to role with my RPG jokes (Jon Collins knew everything I was talking about), they were really friendly for soulless Hollywood types.

Now, here’s the bummer: while the interviews at the Con are note-perfect (and well worth seeing, as I think I might have met every one of them in my years throwing dice), the mockumentary portions of the movie are sort of painful. At first I wasn’t exactly sure how to articulate it, but I think I’ve been able to percolate on it long enough to attempt to put my finger squarely on the issue: the reality of the life of a gamer is 100% more interesting than anything you could make up.

Not that they didn’t come close. The dynamic of a gaming group is a really strange thing, and I am convinced that all of the actors (minus Aimee Graham) were probably pretty familiar with RPGs and the people that play them. However, they are all ultimately actors, and even the guy who is extremely dense and is supposed to have facial tics comes off as handsome & funny rather than nerdy and uncomfortable. The quiet, shy girl who chews on her pen for the entire movie (and who pulls a Silent Bob near the end of the film) was almost spot on, if it weren’t for the Hollywood Hot makeup job she was given. (She was one scene away from taking off her glasses, shaking her hair out of the librarian bun, and posing like Farrah for her glossy 8 1/2″ x 11″.)

There are at least two points in the film were Aimee Graham’s character stays to finish the gaming session beyond the point of reason, and if we ignore the fact that she just up and agrees to follow a nerdy disquieting stranger (who has been hitting on her) to meet his gaming group (without any protests or questions of any kind), the film borders on fantasy in more ways than one.

It begs the question: why not just film an actual group of gamers actually gaming? Obviously there is a certain Christopher Guest homage that you wouldn’t be able to obtain without having a few people in on the joke, and certainly some gamers might not be able to “stay in character” with a slew of cameras filming every dice-role and rules-argument. Still, I feel that a larger injustice has been made against gamers: we aren’t all like this. Some, most definitely, yes. Some, I’m sure, are even more extreme. But many are people who love gaming also love their friends, and love to get together and play.

I would be ignoring the ugly truth by saying that arguments don’t break out during a game, and some of the observations were not that far off. (Before it happened in the film, I kept wondering when they were gonna order pizza, or show a passive / agressive DM “suggestion”; the player shouting out, “Shouldn’t we roll inish?” during a conversation was a little too close to home for me, too.) But ultimately, I felt like most of what we saw on screen were the negative aspects of gaming. Much of the plot revolved around personality clashes, arguments, and misunderstandings, while the stuff that kept the group together – the friendship – is only hinted at near the end and mentioned in monologues.

Media doesn’t seem to know, exactly, how to portray RPGs, and when it does it is always shown comically, in a negative light. (Freaks And Geeks has a wonderful roleplaying episode, but still couches the entire game in terms of it appealing to only “geeks” and, on rare occasions, a freak.) In many ways, its easy to see why TV and movies show it the same way every time: gamers are weird, gamers are quirky, and everything about gaming seems comical on the surface, from the vocabulary and diet of gamers, to the very premise of gaming itself. (“Okay, you use paper, pencils and dice to recreate a fantasy world where the group, together, makes up the story through taking on personas and characters… wait, where are you going?”)

I would like to see some positive images of gamers in media. Obviously, there is room for ridicule in every subculture, and I can’t suggest that we ignore the funny, embarassing, or even uncomfortable realities entirely. But occasionally, I’d like to see a realistic portrayal of a gamer as a functioning member of our culture, who has a lot of the same dreams, goals, and desires as everyone else, who has a job and a girlfriend and a life outside of gaming, AND… on top of all of that… also happens to wield a pretty wicked battle axe when you get down to it.

Until then, I’ll keep dreaming.

Wall-E or Add-M?

God Is In The Circuits
God Is In The Circuits

Pixar is well known for including Easter Eggs in all their movies; the best known example is The Pizza Planet Truck that turns up in all of their movies. Part of the beauty and wonder of their films is the level of nuance and detail within. Ostensibly dealing in animated children’s movies, this overt description does little to get at the depth Pixar’s films usually contain. The text of Wall-E may explicitly depict the animated goings-on of a cute robot, but beneath the surface lies a rich world of images and themes for the casual (or academic) viewer to unpack.

Wall-E has two very different themes on the surface: that of a robot love story, and that of the future of consumer culture on (or, as it turns out, off) Earth. Despite the comments of critics and defenders of this film, these elements seem to be undeniable, and yet are handled with humor and pathos in a way that audiences find endearing. Many critics felt the “cute” factor was pushed too far, and that it was too easy to ignore the ecological story. Still others say that, while present, there was little in the story to spark genuine awareness of – and, thus sympathy for – any “cause” that might spark such a story.

I would argue that, while both themes are big elements of the film, at the center of Wall-E is not a love story, or a commentary on consumer culture, but that of religious and romantic satire. Wall-E, the robot, not only perfectly embodies male gender roles that are prescribed to us in modern culture, but he is a bot searching for meaning in a seemingly-meaningless universe. As we look to Wall-E to teach us about humanity, he looks at the stars in search of God.

Wall-E fulfills the role of the single, working-class man as he goes through his sad and lonely existence as the last robot on Earth. Filthy, short and squat, and filled to the brim with tics and neuroses, he gets up every morning to go to work, waiting to go back home and enjoy the company of his pet and his ever-increasing collection. Ever the pack-rat, his interests skirt the mainstream and focus on the unusual. (He tosses aside the seemingly unimportant diamond ring in favor of the novelty “box” that it comes in.) His obsessive interest in Hello, Dolly! is particularly interesting; as a robot, he could easily remember the plot of the film verbatim, and yet gets immense joy out of the ritualistic, repeated viewing / singing of a single scene and song.

This repetitive, ritualistic behavior is almost pathological with Wall-E. As the only robot left on Earth, the task of cleaning up after the humans becomes extremely moot; in 700 years, he has come no closer to cleaning up the planet than we have today. Yet, he continues the task day in, day out. Why? If we maintain the above-mentioned “cute” aesthetic reading of the film, then it seems that the “work” is just a cover, an excuse to leave the house to add to his ever-mounting collection. But if this were the case, why compact garbage at all?

There is a moment in the film, as the dust-cloud that covers the planet parts for a brief moment, where Wall-E looks listlessly at the stars, and it is this moment that puts into perspective his continued efforts. Remaining on Earth is a lonely existence, and the self-evident truth that persists in Wall-E is that the humans are somewhere, in space, aboard a ship called the Axiom. As he listlessly looks to the sky, the compulsive habit of compacting garbage and building them into towers suddenly makes sense. Wall-E’s collection (and pet) do give him joy, but it’s the ziggurats he’s building toward Heaven that will ultimately pay off for him.

In ancient Babylon, so the story goes, Christian’s built one particular ziggurat – The Tower Of Babel – as the ultimate achievement of their united culture. But the hubris of man displeased God, and he destroyed the towers and muddled their language so they could no longer understand each other. This emphasis on language is interesting, as it is one of the primary problems that Wall-E faces in the film: Wall-E can barely talk. While extremely expressive, “God” has punished him for his ziggurat building. When he finally meets another of his kind, he can only spout off a few nouns, impairing their ability to communication for most of the film.

The Tower of Babel
The Tower of Babel

These religious symbols crop up throughout Wall-E. Alone on Earth, “God” sends EVE to meet Wall-E, and they are alone initially, with only a few leaves (dangling from a plant) between them. Eventually, “God” calls upon EVE to find out what she’s been up to, and while it is Wall-E that found the plant, they are both punished when they arrive on the Axiom. The Axiom itself works as a religious metaphor: a “self-evident truth” that sits in the sky, above Earth, that does not need to be proved. The Axiom imparts knowledge, and once this spark of knowledge is alive (for example, in The Captain), he (and the others) must be cast out of the idyllic human existence they were used to.

When “God” provides Wall-E with an EVE to partner with, however, the movie begins to slowly present prescribed gender roles in the form of opposites. Wall-E represents the modern male: compulsive and messy, he indulges in ridiculous collections and inane, neurotic behavior to pass the time. EVE, however, is reasonable, clean, and duty bound. Wall-E is not sure what to do when confronted with life, instead opting to plop it in an old shoe and add it to his collection. EVE, conversely, is instantaneously able to understand how to nurture and care for life, going so far as to protect it in a womb-like environment.

Wall-E maintains a job, but his interests are much more important to him. He is more desire and emotion-driven. Conversely, EVE is much more willing to tend to life, which is essentially her job, first and foremost; her interests and desires don’t even come into the film until near the end. And the scenes with Wall-E and EVE together are particularly intriguing: as if they’ve already settled into a long-term romance, EVE is constantly embarrassed by Wall-E’s behavior in public, nagging him and berating him until he’s almost embarrassed. This culminates in the “cleaning” scene: as Wall-E watches through a screen and becomes horrified by what he assumes is EVE being slowly dismembered, he comes to rescue her only to find she is extremely embarrassed to have him burst in on her at the “salon.”

In the final scenes of the movie, these elements are completely ramped up. Cast out of the Axiom, EVE & Wall-E return to Earth. EVE desperately tends to Wall-E, ultimately saving his life as she fulfills the role of the maternal nurse. Having been the only two inhabitants of Earth before, after being cast out of the Axiom they are now the parents of the human inhabitants, all completely naïve as children. As the credits roll, we see this primitive culture move through the historic artistic movements, each one coded with specific romantic and religious elements.

The final “sting” at the end of the credits seems to bring the consumer / ecological message full circle: throughout the movie, we slowly learn that the “Buy ‘n’ Large” company was responsible for the planet’s ultimate downfall, and their corporate logo brands the film in the final seconds. And there is no reason to ignore this aspect of the film: consider the garbage that was produced in creating – and then going to see – this movie in the theater. Did you throw out your ticket stub, or recycle it? The irony doesn’t always register, nor should we expect it.

What we can expect, though, is a richer movie experience when seen through the lens of religious metaphor and prescribed gender roles in our culture. Wall-Efunctions as a way of propagating this meme in our society; the film is family friendly, and aimed at kids. As we watch Wall-E nervously reach out to hold the hand of EVE, we should be asking ourselves if this is a careful observation of one aspect of dating, or if it’s an attempt to reinforce his Adam-like station in life as he tries to reach for the hand of God.

Indiana Jones… The List!

Rather than write a long and boring analysis of the new Indiana Jones movie – which would be both boring and tedious for all people concerned – I’ve decided, instead, to resort to the tried and true List Format, sorting my thoughts about the film into two distinct and wonderful headings. Enjoy!

Things That Made This Movie Awesome

* Fuckin’ Indiana Jones! I mean, Fuck!
* He survives a Nuclear Blast! I mean, C’mon!
* Indy sparking a Greaser / Soc Brawl at the Malt Shop: pure genius.
* Indy riding on the back of a motorcycle into a library, who then dispenses wisdom to the students about “Real Archeology.”
* The Indy Wise-Crack is in full-effect throughout the film.
* The Return Of Marion!
* Getting into the Kingdom of The Crystal Skull: just a hair-breadths shy of being as-cool-as finding the last resting place of the Ark of the Covenant.

Things That Made This Movie Terrible

* “Story by George Lucas”
* Okay, so he survives the blast by hiding in a refrigerator, which is then flung half-way across New Mexico. Both Indy and the Fridge are fine, too.
* CGI Prairie Dogs?
* It’s difficult to adjust to hating Commies in this film after three movies of hating Nazis.
* Harrison Ford’s interpretation of Danny Glover’s, “I’m getting to old for this shit,” is already old before he even says his first line.
* The constant homages to previously successful Lucas vehicles (American Graffiti, Star Wars) only reinforces the fact that this franchise has pretty much run it’s course.
* Getting into the Kingdom of The Crystal Skull: while cool, was just way too similar to getting into the Valley of The Golden Suns in the Duck Tales: The Treasure of the Golden Suns movie from 1987.)

Gremlins

Gremlins
Gremlins

Joe Dante practically invented the Christmas Horror movie, but with Gremlins the fact that it’s Christmas — or for that matter, a horror movie — takes second place to his particular satiric vision. Gremlins is crammed with social satire and commentary from first scene. Over the opening credits, the first thing an attentive viewer may notice is that most of the sets are modeled after, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” a point that’s driven home even more by the fact that the town is “run” by a miserly old woman who loves to screw people over around the holidays. (Of course, it’s only more appropriate that the mother in this film is watching “It’s A Wonderful Life,” on TV, as if to further de-construct the 4th Wall in film viewing, and to serve as a “Life As Art, Art As Life” counterpoint to that particular angle.) If that weren’t enough, Gremlins‘ own version of George Bailey is introduced immediately, seeing as how the town’s greedy miser has got it in for not only him and his family, but his little dog, too.

But beyond the thematic and film allusions, it’s not until the Mogwai comes home that the social commentary begins. As a typical complacent family of the ‘8Ø’s, it’s much easier to get wrapped up in their own lives than meet the needs of the family pet, a not-so-subtle jab at the problems with child-rearing in America. Christmas itself serves a particularly important focal point when it comes to pointing out our shortcomings: It’s as if this small-town family is so distracted by material needs and the superficial aspects of Christmas, that the forces of nature throw a plague of Gremlins on the town in an almost biblical fashion. And then the real fun begins.

To complicate the layers upon layers of poignancy, the Gremlins themselves seem to be attracted to junk culture, violence, and the flotsam and jetsam of the ‘8Ø’s. The more they are exposed to these inclinations, the more the second and third generation beasties become more disgusting and easier to distract. Weather it’s a steady stream of beer coming to keep them docile or having them watch a movie to make them happy, it seems as if the Gremlins themselves amplify the very character traits that caused them to exist in the first place. More jabs at child-rearing, since the “parent” Gremlin seems less affected by these problems, though not entirely.

But when all is said and done, Gremlins is more a form of demented slapstick a la The Three Stooges. When push comes to shove, they think they have all the rights in the world to be as lazy and disgusting as they want, and will gladly defend those rights in the most silly and hilarious ways they can muster. But like most junk-culture addicts, the Gremlins feel their rights involve over-indulgence at all costs, and in the end it becomes their very undoing. When the soft and cuddly marketing tool of the film finally dispatches the final villain, it’s only fitting that an Asian Gentleman judges the family that stars in this movie. He leaves little to recommend this — or any — American family, and claims that they are not ready for responsibility of this kind. Is it more film allusions, or a comment on the opinions of foreign powers regarding typical Americans? In Joe Dante’s world, it’s all the same, so long and the pace is frenetic and the jokes crud and funny.

And personally, I wouldn’t want it any other way.