Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Cultural Wasteland? Part 2

As I wrote about smart television last week I left out a few of my favorites in consideration of time and space. Technically I can make these blog posts as long as I want, but try to set things at a reasonable length to avoid boring the hell out of you people. Any more than I already do, that is. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is the perfect example of smart television, and watching it makes me wish I had jumped on the West Wing bandwagon while it was still on the air. As it is now I still haven't watched an episode of that earlier, reportedly superior series.

Studio 60 follows a group of actors, writers, executives and technicians so witty, intelligent, good looking, and passionate about their jobs that they could only exist together in an Aaron Sorkin fantasy, and my only real problem with the show is that it knows how smart it is, and it really wants YOU to know it, too. Bonus points go to the show-runners for putting in a 2-part episode(starring the underused John Goodman) that dealt with the tendency for Hollywood to underestimate the intelligence of middle-America, but penalties for patting themselves on the shoulder so much for being 'understanding'. Much of the episode had the feel of a well-produced PSA trying to hammer into your head how worthwhile middle-America is, with plenty of 'way to go, us, for pointing this out'. Aside from that problem-which they are addressing, if these last few episodes are anything to go by- the show is pretty spotless. The cast is all around excellent, making me admire Matthew Perry for the first time, but also featuring some mighty fine supporting performances. The writing is both funny and thought provoking, with dialog that rushes by in a rat-a-tat manner(you may want to tape this show so you can rewind and catch missed lines). Oddly enough, however, this witty writing doesn't extend to the small glimpses we get of the show within a show, a Saturday-Night-Live0but-better weekend sketch comedy show. It could be that the producers are purposely writing mediocre and unfunny bits to mirror the way SNL has gone of late, but that doesn't really jibe with the oft-stated goal of the show. Studio 60 is a big hour long block of liberal wish fulfilment, how all of us stalwart SNL supporters, waiting out these mediocre seasons because we know it can't last, want to imagine that hallowed institution. But more than that it shows us a Hollywood we wish existed, populated by people who actually care about quality entertainment that betters the world.

Because somehow the radical, religious right has inserted itself into the mainstream. If you were to ask the average person on the street(man or woman) whether or not it bothered them that Janet Jackson's nipple was visible for a fraction of a second during a football game, the answer would probably be no. Or just a shrug. Most people don't care about this, and yet CBS was fined millions of dollars, and that event has changed the way everybody watches TV by forcing networks to put time-delays on live broadcasts and second guess just about everything they put into a show. How was this done? How did so few gain so much power? Well, aside from whatever you want to say about our current presidential administration, the simple fact is, they got active. People not offended by the nipple incident didn't really feel the need to call the FCC and express their apathy, whereas anyone offended by this emailed everyone they knew, told everyone in their church, or anyone stuck next to them on a bus, that this was a travesty unlike anything since, well, ever. And they emailed the FCC expressing this displeasure. The FCC technically has no one monitoring the airwaves, and they react only to complaints received. I am without the actual statistics in front of me, but the FCC went from receiving a few hundred complaints a year to suddenly receiving literally hundreds of thousands a month. Suddenly they were inundated with millions of emails, apparently leading them to believe that everyone in America saw, and was traumatized by, Ms. Jackson's nipple. That would certainly explain the proliferation of downloads of said nipple pictures. Right?

In the big picture, this whole affair with the FCC isn't stopping any artists from getting their messages out, it's merely making them think around some very stupid obstructions(which, as we've all seen, can lead to some truly sublime work). This is part of an overall trend in which the religious right has hijacked this country by convincing people that they are the norm, the majority, when in actuality they aren't. In reality, the normal people enjoy things like birth control, pre-marital sex, and the occasional f-bomb.

For anyone else annoyed by the hijacking of our popular culture, Studio 60 offers a pretty good weekly hour of escapism, with an entertaining plot line unfolding right now about the very things I've been so upset about. Any of my complaints about the show(the preachiness, the 'aren't we smart' attitude) are all outweighed by the overall production, and it really does put a big, liberal smile on my face.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Weekly Movie Night 2(&3)

The weekly movie this last week was the French film Delicatessen, by the writing/directing duo of Marc Caro and Jean Pierre Juenet. This wasn't the first film these two had done together, they'd already made 4 other films in their native country. I came across this one about 5 years after it had been made, by way of their next, more ambitious film; City Of Lost Children. City of Lost Children is a movie that always stood out to me at the video store, but I never rented for the longest time. I was under some misguided idea that it was a National Geographic documentary, due to it's inclusion in the 'special interest' section of Blockbuster, not the Fantasy, Foreign, or even Horror sections to which it is better suited.

Delicatessen is a fairly quiet film, considering it's about cannibalism in the post apocalypse, and it's greatest strengths come out during it's long patches of dialog-free visuals. It could almost work as a silent film, with some truly spectacular set pieces. I'm thinking of the early bit where the new handyman is painting the ceiling, while the Butcher and his Mistress have sex on the top floor. Some rusty pipes carry the sound of creaking springboards through the building, and very quickly the actions of everyone in the building(knitting, painting, playing music, pumping air into a bicycle tire) are keeping in time with the pace set by upstairs tryst. But even more subtle examples, such as when the aforementioned handyman is summoned to fix the bed, and tries to find the specific squeaky spring by bouncing on the bed softly and shifting his weight. It's really a small scene, but something about it: the way it's edited, the music, lends it a charming, old time musical air.

Dominique Pinon, as the ex-clown handyman harboring some pretty major grief over the death of his performing partner, is excellent. And he's been excellent in every film I've seen him in, which sadly only amounts to three movies. Watching this movie over again I decided to rectify that error, and at the earliest possible moment I will be hunting down and renting as many as I can find.

The next week, based on the overall positive reception of Delicatessen, and my insistence that it is the better film, we watched City of Lost Children. The basic plot involves a circus strongman(Ron Perlman) who is trying to find his little brother, who has been kidnapped by blind men for a mad scientist who lives on what is basically a modified oil rig in the middle of the ocean. The mad scientist, Krank, needs the children so he can steal their dreams, which he has never had, making him prematurely old. He lives with 6 clones(Dominique Pinon), a dwarf, and a migraine-stricken brain in a box that seems to be the only sane one of the bunch. How can I not love this film?!
Juenet and Caro love cause and effect scenes. In Delicatessen one of the running jokes was a frazzled housewife who went to increasingly intricate lengths to kill herself, only to fail in equally intricate ways. In City of Lost Children, many plot points will unravel in Rube Goldbergian domino effects, so that the single tear of a child can cause havoc through a large part of the city which will in turn cause her salvation. It's clear through the detail given to these portions of the film that the two probably spend their free time dreaming up ways to win domino championships.

Although Delicatessen is the preferred film of just about everyone I know, and I can appreciate that the story is tighter, it just doesn't move me in the same way that City of Lost Children does. I love fairy tales, apparently, and this is one dark, twisted, warm fairy tale from start to finish. That doesn't make it a family film, because plenty of stuff in this movie would scare the hell out of little kids. Actually, that isn't always true, kids can absorb a lot, and we adults tend to underestimate their tolerance. What we find creepy they find cool. Still, I didn't let my three year old watch it.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Cultural Wasteland?

A recent, semi-regular search for info on David Lynch projects gave me some good news; Twin Peaks Season 2 will finally OFFICIALLY be released on DVD stateside in a few months. I've been waiting a very long time for this-the first season came out over five years ago. I've long held Twin Peaks in a special regard, and I still consider it to be my favorite television show ever. Still, despite the place it will always have in my heart and imagination, I've had to admit that the show may no longer be the high watermark of the medium it once was.

Yes, I have to admit, television has improved. In my lifetime it's grown by leaps and bounds, and it's no longer the cultural wasteland that it often gets accused of being. It was tough going there for awhile, with the preponderance of bad reality TV(I'm looking at you, Fox!), and networks that seemed committed to cancelling high quality, intelligent shows in favor of cheap,
mind-numbing programming(I'm still looking at you, Fox!). To be sure, most of those shows still exist(anything on Fox outside of House and the Simpsons), most of the stuff on CBS. Reality shows, though declining, are still big events that are usually every bit as exploitative as they have been.

Outside of those examples, television today is more thought provoking than it was in my youth, and actual serious issues are being addressed in some very popular shows. Take the new Battlestar Galactica. I haven't seen any of season 3, airing now, but the first two seasons rank among the best television has ever produced. Making the humans polytheistic, persecuted by the cylons and their fanatical belief in one true god was an inspired bit of storytelling. The parallel is obvious, making the human heroes a sympathetic stand-in for Iraqi insurgents is only the tip of the controversial iceberg. In fact, I truly believe if this show were more popular, or on network TV instead of basic cable, the show would be the subject of some serious picketing. And I don't just mean from geeky fan boys obsessed over Starbuck being a woman. The show never takes the easy way out by providing a cut and dry answer to problems that are obviously meant to mirror our problems of today, rather portraying each side of an argument so equally that my knee-jerk liberal reactions are put to the test. One episode in particular dealt with abortion. I myself am pro-choice in theory(I agree it's a woman choice), but pro-life in action(I think it's a horrible thing). The episode dealt with a woman wanting an abortion, and the liberal president having to go against her feelings and make abortion illegal, because when the human race is whittled down to less than 50,000 people, every life is important.

And this show isn't alone in this new trend towards the thought-provoking, although it heightens the political more than most. Lost continues to be twisty and entertaining. It's true that this season seems to be suffering from a general lack of purpose, but it's still engaging, and the cold open on the season premier had me shouting 'what the hell!?' at my TV screen. Something I've actually done once or twice this season. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, however, with the Lost producers in talks with ABC to set a cancellation date, which will allow them to work towards a specific ending instead of just stalling for time, which it feels like they've been doing for the last half season or so. The show returns from hiatus in a couple weeks, and I'm fairly excited about it. It isn't the show I've been awaiting with the most excitement, however. That honor belongs to the lovely and witty Veronica Mars.

This season got a lot of flack from fans angered by the CWs decision to market the show to the same audience as the Gilmore Girls. What this involved was a lot more excuses to get Veronica into skimpy/sexy clothing, a blessedly short lived segment where a group of coffee drinking girls discussed which boys they liked on the show during commercial breaks. This fits a lot more this season than it would have last year, because another change seems to be an increase of focus on Veronica's love life(although thank god they got rid of her love interest of the first season and a half... I'm no big fan of Logan, but at least he's not so boring). Most damningly, However, was the wrapping up all of the mysteries left building up from seasons one and two in basically the first few minutes of the first episode. Anything left unresolved has so far been ignored. This last one hurts the most, largely because the mysteries were by and large INTERESTING, and you just know the way they ended isn't REALLY how the producers wanted things to go. However, after the highly convoluted and storyline clogged second season(I watched it in one week on DVD and was lost for large chunks of it) I'm sure the network wanted to draw in as many new viewers as possible, and that means making the show as easy to jump in and understand as possible. And, if this trick works, all will be forgiven, because as of now this looks to be the last season we get.

Looking back on the first few episodes of this new season(the show is airing in story-arc blocks, 6 weeks for one story, a few weeks off. Six weeks of a new story, a few weeks off...) the offenses listed above seem fairly minor, because the show turns out to be better than any single episode would lead you to believe, and was in retrospect quite genius. With a main mystery revolving around a serial rapist on the college campus, each episode explored abuser/victim relations and what absolute power over another person could do. This ranged from the subtle-a kidnapping case at Hearst college with a cameo by... Patti Hearst, that most famous example of victim-abuser relations- to the not so subtle-a class experiment where half the students are guards at a Guantanamo bay-style prison, and the other half are prisoners. This season may not yet be reaching the highs of season one(one of the best, most perfect seasons TV has yet produced), but for my money it's still beating out season two(which is still excellent), if only for the sake that it's nowhere near as confusing. The shows mysteries are all intriguing, even when they're pretty lightweight affairs. This succeeds where most P.I. shows fail; showing the actual detective work. Most detective shows involve the hero stumbling onto the answer by accident, in the final few minutes of the show, but Veronica Mars shows us exactly how these cases are solved. We may not get all the info we need to solve it ourselves, but we do get to see how the clues are put together and therefore don't feel cheated when the revelation seems to come from nowhere.

If you can't tell, this is probably my favorite show airing right now(I don't have cable, so don't bother bringing up any HBO series like The Wire or the Sopranos), and one I want everyone reading this to watch. Rent season one, or just jump in now while a new mystery is about to start, either way just START WATCHING THIS SHOW! If the ratings don't improve, the CW has made clear it's plan to cancel the show, and this is by far the best thing the network has going for it. Now if only everybody else would see that.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Over the Counter Culture

Ok, it is now time for a shocking revelation that will shock nobody; I... am a consumer. I buy stuff. Lots of stuff. Lots of stuff I probably don't need. Movies, books, music, video games I don't have the time for anymore, and neatly packaged processed treats. I buy it all. As you can guess, this consumerist nature is often at odds with my anti-corporate, anti-establishment views, but it's something I've come to terms with.

Commercials rarely bother me, no matter how crass or obnoxious. I've even gotten past my disdain for when one of my favorite bands lets one of their songs onto a car ad(or even a steakhouse ad, in the case of Of Montreal, a band you all need to check out). In those cases, well, musicians need to make money, too, and aside from monster acts with constant top 40 rotation, they don't make a whole hell of a lot from their craft. When it comes to advertisements these days, I just ignore them. We all know they're trying to convince us to waste money on mostly unnecessary items, it's just what they do.

That said, there is still one place where I am loathe to shop, that fills me with disgust at the mere mention of it's name; Hot Topic.

I first came across this business about 6 years ago on a trip to Seattle, and at first I thought it was awesome, full of all sorts of things I couldn't find at home in Alaska. And then Alaska got a Hot Topic of it's own. Two of them, in fact. At first I paid it no mind, but slowly my attitude changed, and I'm not quite sure why. Maybe it was all the pre-fab nostalgia; t-shirts that were pre-faded and advertised pop-culture icons from my youth, all sold to 12 year-olds who weren't even alive at the time. Maybe it was the in-store music of that hollow, woe-is-me thrash and wail. Maybe it was the aggressive 'individuality' of every tattooed, pierced and spiky-haired teenager with bad skin behind the counter. Am I really that old?

It got so bad that I would avoid the store every time I went into the mall, avoiding even looking in the window. The last time I went in to the store I bought a Christmas gift for someone, and immediately left the store for another, put all my purchases into a new bag, and threw the Hot Topic bag into the trash. I was that embarrassed to be seen shopping there. It was then that I realized the source of my hatred for Hot Topic. It's consumerism hiding itself behind counter-culture. Counter Culture for people who don't want to think about culture. And it makes me sick. Almost physically ill, in fact.

I first noticed this trend when the movie Fight Club came out. Great movie, I saw it several times in the theatre(ah, to be young and have no obligations. these days I'm lucky to see one theatre movie a month, and I can never see the same movie twice during it's theatrical run). What came AFTER the movie was almost incomprehensible considering the subject matter of the film. After watching a direct attack on consumer culture, you can go out to the mall and buy posters, t-shirts, the soundtrack, soap, calenders, stickers, and hats with images from the film and nifty corporate logos in the corner. Like those old Mt. Dew ads that instructed you to ignore fancy ad campaigns and buy Mt. Dew! It's a way to express your individuality without standing out in a crowd, a way to rebel without pissing off your parents.

It's a pretty depressing trend, actually. After decades of counter culture leading the way and corporate America jumping on the train just as everyone else was switching tracks, they've finally found a way to get in front of the trends. It's not just the popular kids these days, but the outcasts are having culture sold to them. I'm not wearing rose-colored glasses here, art and commerce have been connected since... well... the advent of art, really. Anyone wearing a band or concert t-shirt is essentially a walking billboard. The difference here is that people always had a place to go when mainstream culture didn't speak to them, but now that place has been co-opted by mainstream culture.

There is hope, however, and there always is. Things do go in cycles, after all, and as the obscure is pushed into the mainstream, well, something else will be there to replace it. And, as loathe as I am to admit it, Myspace may be a great boon to pop culture. Viral marketing isn't just for big corporations these days, and the Internet is a great place to put your artistic intentions on display when you don't have a record deal or an exclusivity contract with Wal-Mart. Just do a quick scan of this blog site and you'll find HUNDREDS of people doing just that, or look through MySpace's music section and look at all the musicians who would normally be local bar bands but for the ability to get fans from around the world with only a few mouse clicks. Hey, it worked for Under The Influence Of Giants. With the popularity of their MySpace page they were given a record contract and recorded one of my favorite albums of 2006.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Weekly Movie Night

Every Friday night, and sometimes on Saturday, and sometimes on both, I have a movie night. It started out as a bad movie night, but as the group got smaller, and the people showing up became more regular, it turned into a weekly 'You haven't seen this, one of my favorite movies of all time?!? We're putting that in NOW!' fest. We try to pick movies that at least the majority of participants haven't seen, and it really isn't always a success. Up to this point I had thought that Robocop was a movie fun enough to enjoy even if you HADN'T seen it as a youth in the 80s, but judging by my girlfriends attitude I guess not.

This week's choice was Heathers, a movie I will call a classic til the day I die based mainly on it's transformative effect on my lifestyle in Jr. High and High School. Almost overnight I became a nihilistic, black-clad, bitter young man. OK maybe it wasn't overnight, and maybe this movie wasn't the ONLY reason for the change, but it came out when that adolescent rebellion was just about to kick in, and man did this movie SPEAK to me.

Years later, watching it now, I still get the same thrills from the movie that the 12 year old me did; I want to cheer when Jason Dean(Christian Slater) pulls out the gun and shoots blanks at the football players, I chuckle at all the one-lines('fuck me gently with a chainsaw' 'I love my dead gay son' ), and generally get off on all the adolescent angst that brings back those years with the trademark embarrassment and nostalgia. But as the years have gone on I've begun to appreciate the movie for different reasons. Where once I identified with young lovers JD and Veronica, I've now become convinced the movie has no real heroes. I think that's the genius of the film, and what's made it stand up so well in my favor, it's lack of truly perfect individuals. Of course the parents are clueless, the jocks are all assholes, and the popular girls are all bitches, but watch it again and you'll find that the outcasts are really no better. The 'losers' are just as deluded, full of themselves and exclusive as the rich kids. In fact Winona Ryder(ah Winona, girl of my dreams back in 1990) comes off as just as much of a bitch as her friends, only worse because she's so pompous and full of fake sincerity. To have this movie come out around the height of the John Hughes era of saccharine and redemptive teen movies was a huge kick.

Word on the grapevine is that Daniel Waters and Winona Ryder want a sequel made, which is intriguing, but also almost impossible to imagine. The first movie is about a young couple murdering the asshole persecutors at their school, and is very much a comedy. How would this movie get funding now that we live in a post-columbine world that treats teen angst and violence with kiddy gloves. The bloody and violent tone of the first film almost requires an R rating, which alone makes it a hard sell these days.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Slipping Through The Cracks

I had a different post planned for this week, but after watching a low budget vampire movie last night I changed my mind and decided to write about that. Every once in awhile my friends and I will choose a random, cheesy looking direct to video film and spend an evening tearing it apart in a generally good natured manner. As much as we may say the movie is crap, we usually like them and enjoy the movie on it's own. Sometimes we mock the things we love.

The movie this time was The Damned, a low budget, filmed in some guys back yard vampire movie by the directing/writing/producing team of Jose and Eduardo Quiroz. The main cheese factor in this one was the fact that Todd Bridges got top billing on the cover(despite an important-yet-small role). About five minutes in we almost turned it off. It was obviously filmed on video, with little to no lighting, and the vampire effects were laughably over the top. I can't imagine how any of the vampires actually got any sustenance out of their victims, so busy were they with the asinine hissing that accompanies most b-movie vampires, and wildly spreading as much blood as possible across their faces. Luckily we persevered, and were rewarded with not a good movie, but an adequate one.

We had plenty of laughs at it's expense, but in the end could hold nothing against the filmmakers. Sure the acting was worse than in some porno, the film was plagued with technical difficulties and lacked an all around sense of dread or actual horror. But neither was it completely inept or unwatchable, which puts it head and shoulders above most of the direct to video, no-budget, cast-my-friends movies I've seen. And I've seen quite a few.

The film concerns a trio of Latin roommates in Oakland who come to realize that their new neighbors are vampires. One of the roommates is an avid horror fan,as evidenced by the movies laying around his room and his constant watching of Night of the Living Dead(which, as we hear, is not really NOTLD). He is of course the first to realize the vampiric nature of the neighbors, and some of the best moments in the film come from him trying to convince his skeptic roommate(easily the best actor in the film). Todd Bridges eventually shows up with his brother in law as a man on the hunt for the vampires that killed his wife.

The strength of the movie lies in the characters all trying to determine how to kill the vampires when all of their information comes from books and movies, which turn out to be wildly inaccurate. There's really nothing new here, but it's still all around fairly solid. I mention this film in such depth because it's such a rarity to find decent direct to video films these days that I felt it noteworthy. I'll be honest with you, once I learned the Quiroz brothers had 10 films under their belts before this one, my opinion lowered just a little. I feel that by now in their career the technical problems evident in the Damned should have been overcome, but not having seen their earlier films I have no idea what the learning curve was.

I definitely won't recommend this to anyone whose horror experience tends towards the major releases we see these days. Your average Saw fan is not going to appreciate this at all. Instead, this is for anyone who longs for the mid to late 80's heyday of direct to video horror, or the works of Ed Wood or Mark Pirro. I make this comparison in terms of how the movie was made, not necessarily in terms of style or even quality. If you're not familiar with the works of either of those people, steer clear.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

New years, New goals.

Man oh man! Has it really been over a month since my last blog post? Why yes it has. Moving on, no apologies. It's a brand new year, no time for looking back.

My little experiment in October failed, as you all saw. I was able to keep it going for a couple weeks, but the daily grind was too hard to keep up once I missed a day. This year I'm aiming for something MUCH more attainable. I'm not sharing that goal with you for my own reasons. Basically, I'll paraphrase Steve Martin from Grand Canyon; never tell people what you PLAN to do, it gives you a false sense of accomplishment, like you've actually done something when you haven't. Leads to many abandoned projects, which is something that's plagued me all my life.

So, rest assured Loyal Readers, I do have a schedule, and I will be keeping it this time. My first REAL post of the year is in development, although I'm not sure if it'll be this week or next week. Check back often, though. As you can tell, you just never know when I'll have something new up here.