Who Killed Dale Cooper?

July 11, 2008

During my childhood, I resolved early that I would grow up to be completely insane. Partly this was free will, but a small part of me believes it was predestination. Exhibit A in this was the fact that I electively watched Twin Peaks.

Twin Peaks, for those that choose not to remember, was a completely ridiculous show created by the completely ridiculous David Lynch, who has fashioned a fairly notable career out of making movies that make no sense whatsoever. While he had some mainstream success with Blue Velvet and The Elephant Man, he was also at the helm for the ill-fated Dune and managed to cement his reputation as being batshit crazy in an industry known for its remarkably high tolerance for batshit craziness.

Unable to carve out funding for Hollywood projects, he tilted the scope downward, and Twin Peaks was born on network television. It was conceived as equal parts mystery, science fiction, serial drama (read: soap opera), and horror, with oddball characters doing oddball things on pretty much a constant basis, not unlike a sitcom or the World Bank. Of course, getting quirky characters to interact in unspeakable manners isn’t held in patent by the Coen brothers, and it was with this charm and wit and midgets talking backwards dancing to jazz in a red-curtained room that enchanted America for about three quarters of a season until they assumed everyone involved in the writing and production of the series was high on crack, and not in the good way.

Set in Washington State in the small town of Twin Peaks, a young girl by the name of Laura Palmer is found dead, wrapped in plastic. The FBI is called in, and Agent Dale Cooper—played by Kyle McLaughlin, who is contractually obligated by federal case law to appear in every David Lynch production regardless of outside factors, including each other’s deaths—attempts to find out who killed her.

Easier said than done, of course, since the road to solving this mystery was riddled with eccentric characters, drawn-out surreal dream sequences, and some strange metaphors about owls even David Lynch couldn’t figure out after a full day of colon cleansing and TM. Dale Cooper himself was a bit off, speaking to an unknown “Diane” when recording his notes and lusting after coffee and cherry pie. (K—I can actually understand that last part. That’s not so crazy.) There was the Log Lady, who was, well, a lady who had a log that talked to her. There was the sheriff, Harry S Truman. (Why not?) There was Lara Flynn Boyle, playing a girl that looks like she might have eaten a sandwich sometime in the last decade. This offbeat mix of elements was what made the show unique, and viewers flocked in droves, always eager to get one more piece of information about who, in fact, killed Laura Palmer.

Except that in the middle of the second season, they revealed who killed Laura Palmer. Under pressure from ABC, the network, the killer was revealed as the always-capitalized BOB, an entity that possessed people and caused them to do brutal, nasty things; namely, kill Laura Palmer. Why the network was so hard to remove the one thing that had made the show popular in the first place—a perpetual cliffhanger—is unknown, except of course for the fact that all network television executives hate with a passion anything that is creative and successful and will choke it to death it with their sweaty sausage-sized fingers.

And so, with a precipitous drop in ratings and a bewildered fan base wandering around the metaphorical woods, Twin Peaks died a lonely death after two glorious years.

However, as anyone can tell you, a prematurely cancelled cult-based television show is simply begging for a feature-length motion picture, and such was the case with Twin Peaks. Fire Walk With Me—the title of which has deep resonance with true fans and makes no sense to anyone else, though to be fair this actually applies to the entire movie itself—was released about a year after the cancellation of the series. Part prequel and part sequel, it sought to fill in a lot of the backstory as well as provide closure, and obviously Lynch decided that the proper way to do this is to have a scene in the middle of the movie where no one can be understood to the point of requiring subtitles even though the dialogue itself doesn’t make much sense anyway and everything on the screen is pretty much either flesh-colored or red, and then for added measure make this completely incomprehensible scene last somewhere upwards of eighteen hours. It was so bad even the French booed it. The French, who have not only tolerated but created both Gerard Depardieu and Amelie.

Thankfully, Twin Peaks has managed to weather cultural history, and routinely ranks on critics’ lists as one of the better shows of all time. Some theorize in today’s market, a basic cable station could have tolerated Lynch’s eccentrics and put up with long, complicated plots. Now, most fans will have to put up with a belatedly released subpar DVD box set and some glazed donuts. Or at least that’s what the owls tell me.

Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Summer Blockbuster

May 18, 2008

It’s been quite some time since Indiana Jones last made it to the big screen. Partly it was because the age of the big-budget period blockbuster was fading, shunted aside in favor of overblown comic book adaptations and pussy independent dramas filled with angst and unsigned artists.

For years, a fourth Indiana Jones film has been in the works, with none of the principals involved reaching an agreement as to a serviceable and acceptable plot device. At one point, the plot was going to involve alien invaders, seeing the paranoid sci-fi B-movie theme a natural extension of the adventure pulp of the 30’s, but the idea was scrapped when they realized they had already done that when they produced Star Wars.

Of course, during this time several other plot lines and titles were proposed and ultimately discarded. Some of the examples are:

Indiana Jones and the Search For A Theologically Inspired Macguffin
Indiana Jones and the Search For Someone To Replace My Character That Isn’t Going To Die Of A Speedball Overdose This Time
Indiana Jones and the Not The Temple Of Doom.
Indiana Jones and the Search For Someone To Fill My Lipitor Prescription
Indiana Jones and the Quest To Determine Which Fast Food Outlet Best Exemplifies the Spirit of the Franchise And Award Them A Lucrative Scratch-Off Game Contract
Indiana Jones and the Search For A Plot George Lucas Isn’t Going To Completely Ball Up This Time
Indiana Jones And The Raiders of Calista Flockhart

They finally settled on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a menacing enough title that will be sure to provide ample opportunities for odd gadgets, period weaponry, and the dragging out and subsequent beating of the standardized action film formula.

To continue the franchise, the story had to advance a decade to the 1950’s, since even with all the advances in CGI in the past two and a half decades they can’t get Harrison Ford to look like he did in 1981. The new stand-in villains are the good old-fashioned Ruskies, trying to control the power of the crystal skulls to advance the People’s Republic above and beyond the capitalist menace. Or to be the big swingin’ dick at a Kiev discothèque. Either one, I suppose.

Sean Connery was approached to reprise his role in a cameo appearance as Henry Jones, Sr. However, Connery declined due to his decision to retire from acting, his commitment to the Scottish National Party, and the lack of opportunities in the provided script for his character to punch women in the yap for mouthing off too much.

There has been a lot of notoriously extreme secrecy in the production of the film, eclipsed only by Basic Instinct 2, the secrecy of which was so great no one went to see it. One of the extras from the film was sued by the executives after revealing details about the movie to a newspaper, and one person was sent to jail for stealing various documents related to the movie. However, the culprit who stole the plot from National Treasure to make the Crystal Skull is still at large.

I have a mixed record with the Indiana Jones movies. When I was a child of approximately ten, I happened to walk in on a network showing of the Raiders of the Lost Ark. The scene I was gloriously presented with was the one when the face of the evil Nazi henchman melted when the ark was opened, which my ten year old constitution reacted to by vomiting on the spot. To this day I can’t watch that scene without causing an unfortunate nauseas rush of repressed childhood memories; it also planted in me a deep-seated resentment of broadcast network censors, who were more than willing to deny me the rampant nudity in, say, Porky’s, but gleefully air the melting of a person’s face, the former being of much more interest to me at ten years old than the latter. (Still is, by the way.)

On the other hand, I was a big fan of the Last Crusade, believing that it had the right amount of humor and people defeating tanks on horseback that best represents the era.

I’ve never seen Temple of Doom because every time I put it in my VCR it spits it back out and does a dozen Hail Marys.

So the expectations of the fourth film in the franchise are pretty high. Most people are expecting an action-packed movie on par with the standard summer fare; some are expecting it to fulfill and advance the Indiana Jones character; and some are expecting it to be Sex and the City because their boyfriends tricked them into going. No one is going to be disappointed, though. Unless you’re that eventual government warehouse employee trying to get some overtime during an inventory control weekend who opens the Ark by accident. I suspect your health plan won’t cover face-melting.

I Am…Iron Man. I Plead No Contest.

May 4, 2008

This weekend, Iron Man opened up the box office with over $100 millions dollars in revenue, an indescribable amount of money for something I’ve never cared about more forcefully before in my life. The only thing positive to be said about this development is the fact that it prevented Made of Honor from opening up at number one, the mere existence of which is startling enough to me since I doubt very much it passed California’s strict emissions standards.

I’ve always been lukewarm towards comic books, and ever more so about movies based on comic books. My interest in comic books was pretty much limited into figuring out if paying $3.99 today for some confusingly-paced pseudo-philosophical half-baked storyline was going to be worth significantly more money in the near future as long as I shoved it in a non-acidic case and hid it in a crate in the attic to forget about for about three decades.

Comic book stories—at least the ones that sell—are primarily about superpowers, and each has to cook up either some absurdly original plot device to make it stand out or, if that seems a touch too hard, just make the superhero a scantily clad chick. I mean, seriously, the prevailing hero seems to be largely guys who got bit by lethargic roaches or are the reincarnated spirit of a moon jockey, or some scissor sister who is wearing as much spandex as she doesn’t have modesty. Add a healthy dose of childish hoogidy-boogidy and some scenes of incredibly graphic violence featuring green alien blood instead of the more standard red so it passes the strict Comic Book Code Of Making Sure The Comic Book Industry Never Seriously Competes With Any Other Form Of Modern Entertainment, and prepubescent teenagers and a rather alarming number of twenty and thirty years olds will lap it up.

Of course, I’m pretty much biased against anything that makes me work, and comic book stories make me work. If I am not already familiar with the background and concept of a superhero, I don’t want any part of it. I don’t want to have to go back and do homework about what kind of crime they fight or why they turned to superheroing as a career track just to enjoy it, even if that homework is digging out thirty year’s worth of overdramatic soap operas dressed up in macho costumes and laser beams so everybody seems a lot less gay than they otherwise would.

As far as I’m concerned, the alpha and omega of my comic book superhero world involves the following:

: Invincible, afraid of kryptonite, deflects suspicion by being the exact opposite of the definition of a superhero: a journalist.
Batman: Creepy guy that lives in a cave, drives a kickass car. Also: Mr. Mom.
Wonder Woman: Hasn’t had a period since 1967.
Green Lantern: I know absolutely nothing about the Green Lantern, but I know for certain he’s eventually going to be co-opted by the environmentalists and help fight villains such as the Merck Corporation.
Captain America: Closet commie
Spiderman: spins web, suspiciously agile, dates someone who is in reality the abstract personification of marijuana as long don’t tell your parents about it.
The X-Men: Nothing much more different than what I’ve seen on Bourbon street at two in the afternoon.
Power Girl: An awesome set of DDs.

(Just to save everyone the time, don’t bother writing and telling me how much of the above information I’ve got wrong. I can bet safe money that there are scores of fans out there wringing their hands and foaming at the mouth, stating loudly to no one in particular, “Spider-Man should be properly spelled with a hyphen!” While I respect the integral facets of decade’s worth of creative effort, I can’t in all honesty…care.)

So enters Iron Man, a superhero I knew next to nothing about prior to the release of the film. And what I did know what pretty much the fact that I am aware of the fact that the words “iron” and “man” are common words but are rarely used in conjunction with each other. Knowing that Robert Downey, Jr. portrays him in the film, it added a touch of preconceived notions about his character. This just won’t do, of course, so despite my better judgment I looked up the story behind Iron Man, and from what I can tell the following sums it up:

-Anthony Stark who, in reality, is a wealthy industrialist who rather than manage his immense personal fortune goes out to fight crime in a big iron suit.

-His iron suit is really an allegory of Cold War weapons and the immense amount of responsibility that comes with wielding so much destructive power. Or an allegory about the role of technology and how it affects an individual’s identity. Or an allegory about the manifestation of bourgeoisie culture in modern times or some complete horseshit like that.

-He spends most of his time protecting his copyright status by disabling other villains who use his iron man suit without express written permission and paying standard royalty rates.

-Despite popular conception, he has not lost his mind, he is not blind, he can walk, and he is alive. These were never really in question.

-Is bipolar, regularly drives around Sunset Boulevard naked, and ingests ten kilos of pure cocaine a day (movie version only)

I’ll probably eventually see it, if not for only the fact that this is the sort of thing everyone eventually watches anyway. For me, I’m waiting for the most sought-after super power of all: Original Idea Coming Out Of Hollywood Man. Hmm. Maybe I should just ask for an iron suit that shoots laser beams instead. That seems more likely.

Smurf Smurf Smurf the Smurf Smurf!

January 14, 2008

Well don’t that Smurf all! The Smurfs turn fifty this year.

Belgian cartoonist Peyo created the Smurfs decades before they became a hit American cartoon. His Smurfs, though, often lampooned European society in sharp, biting satire, rather than the dog-and-pony tripe that was trotted out to US kids for nearly a decade. And yet the success of the Smurfs poured money into his pockets, allowing him the latitude to continue drawing comics about the Belgian political parties or chocolate or waffles or soccer or whatever it is that’s important in Brussels.

It might be a bit presumptuous to celebrate fifty years already; the first Smurf appeared in 1958, and was pretty much a walk-on; they languished as tertiary, Stephen-Baldwin level characters until their popularity grew too big to ignore. Yet there has to be a starting place somewhere, and so the Smurfs look gazingly wistful at that AARP letter they just got in the mail.

The Smurfs had quite a lot of influence on the children of the ‘80s, from their optimistically Reaganesque la-LA-la-la-la-laaaa to their unique cognitive failures at subject-verb transposition. Very few children, aside from those whose parents erroneously thought that watching television would turn them into mindless intellectual wastelands who honestly believe that the single greatest cultural achievement of Western Civilization lies somewhere along the spectrum of Knight Rider and go-go-Gadget-mallet, won’t immediately recognize the various trials and tribulations of Gargamel, Azrael, and all the Smurfs whose parents lacked a certain level of creativity, naming them after random adjectives that, in the cruel execution of a social more that being baked into gold can only parallel, they were destined to fulfill. One wonders whether Lazy Smurf’s father bothered to start a college fund or not.

Of course, whether Smurfs had parents or not has befuddled scores upon scores of high college students and Donnie Darko fans. With only Smurfette of child-bearing age and ability, yet showing no signs of mommy hips, one has to assume a rather prolific bait-and-switch game is being played by someone, somewhere. Best not to ask questions, Papa Smurf says, and, besides, their DNA is corrupted beyond any hope of positive identification.

Watching the series as an adult, of course, is a recipe for disappointment. Catching them on some basement dwelling basic cable station at three in the morning, I was shocked at how painful the shrill voices were and how repetitively dull the dialogue was. I was shocked—shocked!—when, after extensive research on the Internet Movie Database, I found out that more than one person voiced all the different Smurfs, even though it sounds like they’re all voiced by some guy who just inhaled a combination of helium, Red Bull, and crystal meth. And, while hardly unique amongst Saturday morning cartoons, where quality control and script-writing are apparently farmed out to what I will charitably call completely retarded idiots who eat lead for breakfast and routinely watch House Hunters, the episodes were derivative and only buoyed by what I’m going to call charm but know full well is simply nostalgia.

And so help the viewer who happens to catch an episode featuring Pee-wee or Johan. I cry deeply for your soul.

Of course, the Smurfs have not been without controversy. More than one casual observer, and by causal observer I mean “the entire staff of the National Review,” have drawn the obvious parallels between the Smurf village and a textbook communist society. Defenders of the Smurfs counter with the fact that it’s just a children’s show. “Sure,” they say, “The Smurfs live in a communal village were work is shared by all and there is no means of currency and Papa Smurf acts as an executive director with unchecked power over the economic well-being of the community and he wears red and all Smurfs have a de facto uniform to minimize their differences and each episode has a lesson about from each according to his ability and to each according to his need and there is a bronze statue of Joseph Stalin in the village square, but, c’mon, it’s just a cartoon.”

Another criticism is the reliance on magic and alchemy. Part of this is simply the usual Harry Potter cranks assuming that the Smurfs, in conjunction with day care centers and the Catholic Church, are trying to indoctrinate our children into believing in fantasies and fairy tales. The bigger criticism should be lazy logical thinking—if there’s a problem, just crack open the alchemist cookbook and whip up a batch of anti-there’s-a-problem-in-the-village serum. At least the existence of Gargamel, an old, powerful nemesis that fills the Smurfs with a near-constant fear of torment and death, injects a healthy dose of how the real world works.

Still, the Smurfs presented a generation of children with a little bit of the best of all worlds. An escapist tale—no one is going to confuse blue midgets in tukes for Johannesburg. Riyadh, or Watts, though some may latently suspect Stonewall—that teaches good manners and kindness to others. Given the other messages the entertainment industry doles out to kids nowadays—“You are smarter than your parents,” “Acting loud and obnoxiously goofy in public is a virtue,” and “You should plan your entire educational experience on the 1 in 40,000,000 chance you’ll be selected to perform on American Idol”—it’s not so bad of an idea. And, at the very least, at least they’re better than the Snorks.

Kiss The Cooks And Make Them Cry

December 5, 2007

Emeril Lagasse’s “Emeril Live” show was recently cancelled by the Food Network, after ten years on the air. As required by law, I must point out that this kicks Emeril down a notch.

Celebrity chefs are nothing new; the history of television is riddled with cheap to produce, moderately-rated programs they can shove in the mid-morning when only housewives and unemployed script writers are at home. While most of the early TV chefs were strictly local affairs, hiring the producer’s sister or the wife of the leading used auto sales owner in town, the national exposure was too tempting to leave even the kitchen out of mass media. Soon, networks and syndicates scours the kitchens of America looking for top expert chefs that didn’t look like they just stepped off the boat from the Island Of People Who Put Their Face In Meat Grinders.

Now, me, personally, I find very little use for television chefs for two distinct and unrelated reasons. Firstly, I do not have the cognitive abilities to 1) watch television and 2) do anything else at the same time, least of all prepare food. I would have to watch the program, write it down, then prepare it, and at that point, why not just buy a cookbook? Then again, I might miss Rachael Ray’s cleavage if I do that.

The second point is that I have a very dampened sense of taste, in the sense that pretty much all quality or gourmet food is lost on me. I just don’t have a taste for it, so any type of preparation beyond a certain time commitment is wasted effort. Now, there is the additional benefit of preparing meals for friends whose palates are not quite as dull, but that would make the rather radical assumption that I have friends who are willing to eat what I prepare. Or, friends.

Of course, there are plenty of chefs that have translated the fine art of cuisine into a lucrative television deal. They have had an impact on many households, from the majority of women who spend so much time and effort making unique and tasty dishes to the men who sit down and ask “What on earth is this? I thought you were making tacos tonight.”

Emeril Lagasse: The New-Orleans based chef (who isn’t, nowadays?) is known primarily for his laid-back and explosive demeanor while preparing dishes, including “Bam!” “Let’s kick it up a notch!” “Spice it up!” “Holy cats, look at me!” “Did you know I’m from Louisiana? I haven’t mentioned it for almost ten minutes!” and “I’m adding something hot to this dish to deaden all other flavors!”

Julia Child: Child is known for French cuisine, introducing that style of cooking to a wide audience desperate for foreign recipes. I’m joking, of course. Anyone not five years old watching PBS already knew how to prepare French cuisine, primarily by telling their fellow traveler cook to prepare a French meal while they when to their monthly Communist Internationale meeting to introduce new ways to infiltrate fluoridation into the local water system and organize the local grocery baggers for the front line of the revolution. People loved watching Julia Child because she was about eighteen feet tall and talking like someone shoved rags in her mouth and shot her gums full of Novocain.

Martha Stewart: Ostensibly the chick that started the whole thing off, at least in the modern sense of having about eighteen different cable shows and access to insider information. Of course, Stewart was much more than food preparation and sexual efficiency, she broadened her base of skills beyond the kitchen, bringing an army of women who think they cook but in reality cannot into the fold of women who think they can make pleasant looking centerpieces from homemade glitter and pine cones but in reality cannot.

The Frugal Gourmet: A staple on public television and sexual harassment lawsuits, he became one of the few public figures who was just as much about culinary mastery as he was about presentation. Low-key and highly cultured, there wasn’t much he couldn’t present to you in a pleasing and simple manner, especially if you were a male between the ages of 22 and 30 and spent all day in the kitchen with him.

Rachael Ray: A younger, hotter, and presumably more fertile newcomer onto the scene, Ray has polarized much of the audience of cooking shows. Some see her as a fresh face that will increase interest in the culinary arts, while others see her as an eye candy tart finding ways to misdirect her deep-seated physiological trauma from being forced to spit on her husband’s feet.

Gordon Ramsey: This Scottish celebrity chef actively disdains the celebrity chef moniker as he stars in a series of celebrity chef television programs. He is probably most well-known for Hell’s Kitchen¸ a competitive cooking show where he combines the charm of Simon Cowell with the misogyny of Sean Connery.

Each chef has their own style and their own opinions concerning food preparation, but they all have a common bond: of wanting to commercialize mass-produced frozen dinners with their name on it at premium prices and call it haute cuisine.

Hungry Like the ‘Wulf

November 18, 2007

Rising from the deep murkiness of the dark, soulless lake in Denmark or possibly Norway, I think, Beowulf returns. Just in time, I suspect, for the Christmas movie season.

When the classic poem Beowulf was written lies suspended in the swirling mists of historical inaccuracy, the target area of composition being in that questionable range of “between the eighth and tenth centuries,” a level of exactness I am used to hearing from weather forecasters and potential girlfriends when asked when our next date may be. Though to be fair at least the historians don’t leave one of the ends as a standing infinity.

It also has a rather unfortunate distinction of being, like Jessica Alba and Derek Jeter, of indeterminate origin. While apparently a strictly Anglo-Saxon composition, it’s clearly of Scandinavian influence, with extraneous slashes and a lot of talk about fishing boats and cell phones.

As a story, Beowulf is equal parts fascinating and rather unremarkable. A kingdom is ravaged by the monster Grendel, ironically one of the few characters of the poem that does not sound like it was composed out of the reject Scrabble letters. The monster, it seems, is unhappy with all of the singing and the celebration of the king’s warriors and subjects, Grendel apparently being a likely candidate as next year’s Resident Assistant. He patiently waits for the men to sleep, then sneaks in and eats a majority of the army.

Now at this point I have to stop and ponder. It seems rather odd that a monster would be able to sneak into a castle and eat a majority of the warriors. Even the drunkest of soldiers would probably elbow up perpendicular to the ground wondering what the fuss is about. I have to assume that either the king’s men were recruited during a shift change at the local Denny’s or someone was dropping Aqua Dots in the mead.

Beowulf, a warrior from a neighboring people, hears of the king’s plight. He offers his services, which the decimated king quickly accepts, and overcomes the beast by tricking the monster and ultimately killing him. Grendel’s mother, filled with an estrogen-fueled rage, assuming medieval Scandinavian monsters produce estrogen, comes to avenge his death, using pretty much the exact same game plan—waiting for the king’s men to sleep, then eats one of them. At this point one begins to suspect that the king’s men weren’t exactly resting up for the SATs. Beowulf quickly dispatches the matron by beheading her after being pulled down into the bottom of the lake and fussing about with +10 swords and immunity spells and a bunch of other weird crap like that.

Beowulf is named king of his own people in recognition of his bravery, and lives a long, boring life that is stretched out for what seems like two thousand couplets. Late in the stages of his life, though, one of Beowulf’s subjects and potential Mensa president sneaks into a dragon’s lair and steals a goblet of indeterminate worth. The dragon, awakening from his slumber, finds the object missing and reacts by burning half the world while tracking down the thief. Beowulf and a red-shirted accomplice with the extraordinarily non-masculine name of Wiglaf go after the dragon, since the remaining population is too frightened to join in the fun, and ultimately are victorious. Alas, Beowulf is mortally wounded and demands that he be buried with all of the dragon’s sizable treasure, ostensibly since the treasure is cursed but you and I both know it’s a not-so-subtle way of an elderly king being forced to fight a dragon saying to his subjects, “piss off, you ungrateful cowards.” And everything ends peacefully, except for Wiglaf, who somehow gets nothing but the shaft out of the whole deal.

Like most ancient literature, Beowulf is scarily one-dimensional. He is a warrior first and foremost, and, to be honest, second, third, and fourth. There aren’t any extended scenes where he describes his feelings to his therapist or higher being, no long talks with a sensitive brother or submissive female. It’s all about hacking, slashing, and the oft-alluded to hedonistic pleasures he will be granted to him upon his successful return, assuming that occurs.

Beowulf’s roster is full of oddly-named characters, as if someone spilled orange juice in the keyboard of the anonymously creative Saxon who wrote it centuries ago, and all the consonants stuck together every time he tried to type something. There’s Hroogar, Wealhpeow, Hygelac, Ecgtheow, Hrunting, and Yrs, none of which I am 100% positive aren’t actually swords or amulets instead of monsters or people.

Of course, there is a lot of interest in this poem recently, which is generally disregarded unless you are attempting to pass, or teach, 10th grade English. The reason, of course, is that a big-budget 3-D version of an ancient, extremely boring poem was released this weekend. Granted, this is an epic poem tailor-made for Hollywood—monsters and fighting and sci-fi-franchise-style money-making potential and a slot for a strong female lead that gets to both 1) seduce and 2) kill someone. The latter is filled by the box-office draw Angelina Jolie, who recently made headlines at the premier when she noted that she was “startled” about how naked she looked all big on the big screen, the actress apparently not having access to the Internet.

Anyway, hopefully the effect of the movie will at least have some positive effect on literacy, much like what Lord of the Rings did for getting students interested in the fantasy genre and High School Musical did for staying home from the theater and reading something. When you have a gripping story, a classic and rich cultural heritage, and an actress with a fantastic rack, it’s amazing what literature can do.

Workers of the World, Unwrite!

November 11, 2007

There’s something particularly odd about the Writers Guild of America strike. I mean, I understand the mechanics and the reasons behind the strike, but it’s extraordinarily difficult to work up a proletariat lather about Harvard graduates making $200,000 and up a year in a dream job because they’re not making a few cents every time someone in Madrid decides to watch streaming video of the Jimmy Kimmel show making fun of the mentally handicapped.

I actually do remember the previous writers’ strike, a little over twenty years ago, when I was in my formative years and pretty much the entire reason for my existence was very close to being destroyed. Television had effectively halted, and every frame of reference I had to American culture and life in general was about to be stopped cold, replaced with a so-called decathlon of comedy that threatened to replace my own core of being with the Billy-Connely era Head of the Class episodes. It took almost six months for the strike to end, a time I can only equate with the Bataan Death March in terms of horror and impact.

The most disappointing part of the strike is that if there is one thing that solidarity amongst comrades universally creates, it is a vaguely defined chant with which to slightly embarrass their bourgeoisie oppressors. Alas, even though these individuals are writers, their chants so far have been pretty lackluster. It’s been a week of such gems as “Hey, hey, ho, ho, royalties for internet streaming video and DVD compilations of sketches we have written have got to grow.” Apparently, being on strike means not writing, even if that means writing slogans directed at your corporate bosses, and the union bosses won’t allow the quality of writing to exceed anything above the level of USA Original Comedy Series.

The actual details of the strike are, like pretty much all sets of negotiations since the first shot was fired in Homestead, a series of increasingly mundane details that become astronomical in the aggregate. And, of course, it’s also a large part of corporations and union workers trying to swing their junk around like lightsabers to see what connects first and with the most impressive display of fireworks. In this case, it’s mostly a matter of royalties. The biggest issues are DVD sales and internet episodes, which writers get a small and zero amount, respectively. Writers are generally ranked well below the actors, directors, show runners, advertisers, costume designers, set designers, and random audience members in terms of respect, pay, and recognition.

The DVD issue is simply a renegotiation of an existing price. Currently, the rate set for residuals for the home video market was agreed to when VHS tapes were pretty much the province of pornography and what I can assume four billion versions of Gallagher stage shows, neither of which tend to rely on the expertise of writers. As time as gone by, of course, VHS and then DVD sales have exploded to the point where it is many times higher than the actual box office and first-run network television. The writers are contending that the rate should be doubled…from four cents to eight cents, approximately, a figure that is almost comical in its minutia until one realizes the sheer number of copies of Lost that have been sold this season, at least in terms of how many used sets I see for sale in college fire sale pamphlets.

The other main issue, internet episodes, is probably of more concern. Currently, writers get a big goose egg in terms of royalties. The studios are concerned that these episodes are mostly an unknown commodity; the internet itself has just now set up a shaky alliance of funding in the form of unstable Google Sense ads, tiered paid access, and elaborate pyramid schemes that apparently hinge on sending email greeting cards en masse.

Many actors, producers, and other Hollywood elites have joined in support of the strike. One of the stranger alliances is that of Jesse Jackson. This does seem to be a bit odd since Jackson’s presence seem to fit too diametrically opposing entities, his role as a defender of African-American interests, and the interests of network television, the collective lot of whom could easily be mistaken for the audience at a Fallout Boy concert.

While the strike continues, one individual is trying to work behind the scenes to see if an agreement can be reached: Arnold Schwarzenegger. He seems oddly appropriate for the role; since he is an actor, he has a somewhat legitimate reason for being involved (though, certainly, not as a writer, unless you count that article for the Nietzsche Review he wrote decades ago) and, as a politician, would like to broker (and, not coincidentally, take credit for) an issue that has effectively been grinding a rather major industry in his state to an embarrassing halt. Whether he will be successful or not remains to be seen. In the meantime, a rather informative documentary about unfunny lesbians called Caroline in the City is about to start. I hope it’s good, because 22 weeks is a long, long time.

So Much For The Afterlife

November 4, 2007

Sometimes, being deceased isn’t the end.

It’s kind of creepy when dead people come back to life. Granted, this only occurs in television, movies, and the South Carolina senate delegation, but, still, it’s weird to think about it. Now, I’m not necessarily talking about zombies and vampires or anything like that. They’re kinda creepy in their own special way, the same way that hummus and watching that show on the Discovery Channel where they show doctors removing benign hip tumors are creepy. You don’t really want to watch, but you’re about 90% certain it’s all just spray-painted foam rubber and macramé processed by Industrial Light and Magic anyway.

So the new television series Pushing Daisies has a premise very similar to this. Only instead of the fictional undead, the main character can bring deceased individuals back to life, but only for up to a minute, and touching them again kills them permanently. One would assume this would produce a lot of much-needed closure for families and law enforcement, but it pretty much is boiled down to proclamations of “I was expecting the white light to be a bit more dramatic” and “Dammit, I told you we should have switched health care providers.”

But fictional deaths are only disturbing up to a point, since we all know it’s just smoke and mirrors, like carnival games and S-CHIP. One step above that are people who are celebrities, who are almost but not quite fake. Celebrities, you see, are successful media personalities, their impact of which is felt long after they are dead. Forbes magazine recently released their list of richest dead celebrities.

That’s right, they ranked the most profitable celebrities that are no longer in this mortal coil. These individuals still get royalty checks and direct deposit in the afterlife. Topping this list is, with no particular surprise, Elvis, who one presumes is spending it on sequins and OxyContin.

In fact, speculating on what the top ten or so rich dead celebrities would spend their coin on is a creative and fun exercise we should all try just once in our life:

John Lennon: J.D. Salinger’s head on a platter
Charles Shultz: Minoxodil and Prozac for Charlie Brown
George Harrison: Money is a tool of the oppressive Western-based soulless society! Also, hash.
Dr. Seuss: Worblefeets and Gumgotrans, whatever the hell those are.
Albert Einstein: Cheeseburgers, stock in Lockheed Martin.
Andy Warhol: Crystal meth, taste.
Tupak Shakur: I thought this was a list of dead celebrities. I assume bling, here.
Steve McQueen: Wait, Steve McQueen is on this list? Really? Steve McQueen, of, uh, Bullitt, and a bunch of other TNT-on-Sunday-afternoon movies? I mean, c’mon. I assume he spends his money on bribes to the editor of Forbes Magazine.
Marilyn Monroe: Starch, Valtrex
James Brown: All monies earned are redirected to a fund to pay child support to his approximately 18,000 children.
Bob Marley: You only get one guess here.
James Dean: Catastrophic health insurance, seat belts.

There are a few surprises on this list, not only for who is on there, but who isn’t. For instance, I’m rather shocked that Keith Richards is nowhere to be found, and I can only assume they’re still airing Larry King Live. Maybe they both got a raw deal on syndication rights or something.

And, of course, we all know that politicians may die but that doesn’t mean thy stop affecting policy, much like how FDR’s actions shaped the modern world, or the frozen, animatronic figure of Ronald Reagan guides our current president’s day-to-day planning. Gerald Ford’s thoughts about the current state of affairs have finally been released, taken down by a biographer before his death earlier this year. His sentiments were simple yet refined. Well, maybe.

In a book teasingly entitled “Tell It When I’m Gone,” Ford knew exactly what he was doing—saving up one last salvo of hard-hitting invectives against a political system that unnecessarily tainted him with scandal and denied him his chance to prove his political worth in favor of a picket-fence toothed peanut farmer who buggered up the economy and single-handedly ushered Iranian hostages into the embassy, and wiped his feet on the way in. And, of course, doing it long after he’s checked out of this realm.

Although, Ford being Ford, the criticism seems…well, it seems very 1974-ish. He called his former chief of staff Dick Cheney’s role in the Bush administration “not the asset I was hoping,” apparently surprised that offshore platforms do not produce electoral votes. He called Al Gore a “bore,” which puts Ford on the same realm as every other person on the face of the planet, and Warren Christopher a “dried up prune” a rather unusual insult for someone whose main impact on modern political life was to make Lloyd Bentsen look like a cross between Orlando Bloom and a milk crate full of poppers.

And, of course, Ford stated that he wasn’t sure that America was ready for a “lady president,” a phrase I find endearingly charming and suggestively condescending. No one is called “lady” anymore unless you’re in a Jerry Lewis movie, at a Styx concert, or a former Prime Minister of the UK.

Then again, America wasn’t ready for an unelected President, either. And the unfortunate thing about being dead is you can’t stick around to claim otherwise.

Everybody’s Restless, And They’ve Got No Place To Go

October 14, 2007

Warren Zevon’s been dead for a few years, but I’m not so sure anyone has told him.

Zevon was hardly an iconic member of the music industry. He remains largely unknown to the public, aside from the lamentable novelty recording “Werewolves of London,” his signature song detailing what appears to be a dapper werewolf hanging about in SoHo. This, clearly, was a story that needed to be written down, accompanied with lyrics and catchy piano samples.

Zevon was somewhat of a prankster musician, writing tales of quirky individuals and offbeat topics; his repertoire included since timeless singles as “Mohammed’s Radio” and “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.” He stretched his creative masterpieces to deal with such diverse topics as alcoholism (“Desperadoes Under the Eaves”); drug addiction (“Charlie’s Medicine”); divorce (“Empty-Handed Heart”); rape (“Excitable Boy”); lawyers, guns, and money (“Lawyers, Guns, and Money”); and, to knock on all the doors at once, suicide, abuse, and sadomasochism (“Poor, Poor Pitiful Me”). Once presumes had he ended just one day of his life smiling his head would have collapsed out of sheer lack of originality.

A product of the 70’s California music scene, Zevon’s relationship with the Los Angeles music industry was tenuous at best. When his addictions and proclivities prevented him from maintaining a stable work ethic, he withdrew in a sweaty pool of drug-addled resentment, calling the stars of the era friends while simultaneously burying an emberous jealousy he kept bottled up and eventually converted into another chartless song, no doubt about addiction to stimulants, or, perhaps as a creative change of pace, addiction to depressants. (When your high-water benchmark for success is tied to the achievements of Jackson Browne, you know you’ve sunk to a rather low artistic point.) As such, he gained only modest hits from time to time, and much of the 80’s and 90’s was spent on cheap, low-key solo appearances to pay the bills, the bulk of which I doubt involved receiving an actual W-2 at the end of the year.

Zevon was, of course, hailed as a genius within the music industry itself. The artists participating in his albums read like a Who’s Who Of People Winning The Awards You Probably Could Have Won Had You Kept Yourself From Getting Boozed Up All The Time, You Irresponsible Prick. Luminaries such as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, George Clinton, Neil Young, and members of R.E.M., Pink Floyd, and The Grateful Dead all collaborated with Zevon, with mountains and mountains of highly original material that never had a chance of ever making any money or charting on any charts.

Early in life, Zevon apparently stumbled across (one presumes in Michael Hutchence’s billfold) a checklist of incredibly hedonistic things to do to reinforce the image of the wild-man musician. He was a notorious womanizer, consumed more drugs than the rabbit warren at Pfizer, and treated ex-wives and associates with detached disdain. Humorously, he also suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, an affliction he shared with (of all people) Billy Bob Thornton, his neighbor. One can imagine how THAT dinner conversation goes:

Zevon: I wash my hands sixteen times a meal, the number of original albums I’ve released.
Thornton: I open and close my mailbox twenty-five times, the number of movie releases I have starred in.
Zevon: I once injected horse tranquilizers in my rectum.
Thornton: I once drank a cocaine milkshake.
Zevon: I once had a threeway with Linda Ronstadt and Jerry Brown.
Thornton: Angelina Jolie reaches climax when I recite dialogue from Pushing Tin.
Zevon: I am scared of certain shades of fuscia.
Thornton: I’m afraid of antique furniture and silverware.
Zevon: Cool. Coffee?
Thornton: Yes, please. In three cups filled four-fifths of the way. Two and a half sugars, .25 liters milk, 4%.

OCD, of course, was the least of Zevon’s worries. In 2002, he was diagnosed with a rare form of terminal cancer, something that almost went undetected. Zevon was scared of doctors, so never went to them, and even after he found out about his cancer refused pretty much all treatment, deciding instead to do his most important creative work to date: filling in for Paul Schaffer on the Late Show with David Letterman. Oh, and recording some material, as well.

Despite his rather irresponsible lifestyle, he managed to keep his wit. Well, sort of. When you’ve spent a large portion of your life swimming in and out of alcohol, powder, and patented prescription drugs bought out of your pharmacist’s trunk, when you get the news that you’re terminal it’s Katy bar the door. With little repercussions, he spent his last years recording material, ingesting pills, and gaining limited respectability in the public’s eye, not necessarily in that order.

Zevon epitomized one of the greatest contradictions of classic rock. Most of his singles dealt in the abyss of his own character flaws, using music to either legitimize or eradicate them. And yet, unusually for the genre, the songs themselves are rather cheery and pleasant to listen to, something that forces you to drive 90 on the highway instead of sitting in the dark corner of the gym feeding off of your own self-pity at the high school dance. One of his final acts was to bless his ex-wife’s project, the recently released biography of himself, dictating to her that it show all sides of him, positive and negative, a rather tall order to give an ex-wife. Zevon, however, found hopeless escape in his music, as do we.

The Very Best of Television, 2007

September 16, 2007

The Emmys are on this night, a place where television executives, administrators, and critics vote to award those programs they feel are most deserving, selecting among those series that most outstanding, entertaining, and creative, with the only stipulations being that they were cancelled after about four episodes or so.

This year’s ceremony is hosted by American Idol’s Ryan Seacrest, ensuring that the show will be mostly milquetoast placeholder commentary punctuated by occasional impassioned pleas that he is straight.

Here are a few highlights of tonight’s contested categories:

Outstanding Drama to Most Efficiently Fulfill The Social Obligation To Have A Show About Homosexuality, the Environment, and How Rotten Priests Are: This one is tough. Boston Legal is almost a sitcom; any show with William Shatner as a lawyer has to be a comedy. I just still haven’t forgiven them for firing the best parts of Marla Sokoloft. Gray’s Anatomy just isn’t my thing. If I wanted to hear a dozen attractive young people flirt, show unnecessary cleavage, create drama, and throw out anti-gay slurs I’d just go to a viewing of High School Musical in Atlanta. I never got the appeal of Heroes; “Save the cheerleader, save the world” is a motto I came up with during the years of my sophomore through senior years in high school, only my definition of “saving the world” was pretty much confined to the back seat of my car. The Sopranos kind of oversaturated the entertainment coverage this year and has pretty much shot itself in the back of the head by a guy wearing a Members Only jacket. House would normally be a shoo-in, but any votes made for an angry, misogynistic, morally suspect egotist will be best reserved in the GOP primaries next year.

Outstanding Collection of Jokes About Erections and Hoo-Has Strung Together To Last About A Half Hour
: This collection is a little brighter. The Office and 30 Rock are both quality programs. Ugly Betty is a critics’ darling, no doubt because most television critics used to be 14-year-old girls who are so insecure with their self-identification that they grew up to be televisions critics. Entourage is too clever by half, by which I mean it’s not funny and is incredibly boring and you still have to pay good money to see it. And…Two and a Half Men? Are you serious? Did every other single sitcom on the face of the planet somehow manage to make itself ineligible to be nominated?

Outstanding Scripted Programming That Is Advertised As Reality Programming Even Though The Concept of Reality in Hollywood Means Their Plastic Surgeon Drives a Domestic Car: I don’t really watch that much reality television, mostly because despite the clumsy flirting I engaged in with that cute brunette who wore that tight shirt at the lottery kiosk last week I have at least a small modicum of dignity. Project Runway seems like it takes the dreams and aspirations of young teenage girls and destroys their souls, converting them into lifeless husks full of diet pills and heroin and slathers them with painted chemicals and duct tape so they can sell clothing that is pretty much only going to be worn by individuals attending the Primetime Emmy Awards. American Idol and its lesser-known, Munster-like cousin, Dancing with the Stars, bring nothing particularly new this year except one less leg and one more trip to detox. The Amazing Race is a quality program, which is of course by no one watches it. Top Chef is a highly rated program for its genre, and its demographics skew largely to the female audience. I could be a chauvinistic prick and state this is because it’s a show about cooking meals, but instead I’ll be an incredibly chauvinistic prick and state this is because it’s a show that has a collection of reasonably attractive male judges.

A few other highlights from the nominees:

Broken Trail: I’m surprised this one was eligible for Outstanding Miniseries, considering that it aired in the summer of last year and as far as I know is still going on.

Forest Whitaker
: He is nominated for his role as a cranky patient on ER. This is an unprecedented move on the ceremony’s part, since as far as I know ER hasn’t been on the air for about five years or so.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: This low-rated and disappointingly bland show was nomination for approximately 15,000 Emmys, all of which it will win since the show was created by, written, produced, directed, starred by, key gripped, and copulated with by Aaron Sorkin, who in his lifetime has somehow managed to be the single greatest powerful force in Hollywood despite the fact that his track record for hit programming hovers around the Dabney Coleman success level. Sorkin either is a gifted talent capable of creating quality programming on a consistent basis, or else he is providing massive amounts of cocaine to all of the voters. Longtime viewers of the Emmys already know which one this is.