Friday, April 24, 2009

Spamalot pt. 2: Not really about the play, just some thoughts inspired by the multiple viewings.

When reading up on Spamalot the other night, mainly to find out what happened to the witch burning scene they had promotional materials for, I saw quite a bit of negative reactions to the play. Most of it leveled at Eric Idle for having the gall to tamper with such a classic bit of cinema comedy as Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Much of the mudslinging came from two of his fellow Pythons. Terry Gilliam called it 'Python-lite' while Terry Jones called it 'utterly pointless' and said 'regurgitating Python is not high on my list of priorities.' John Cleese apparently had no problem with it, as he lends his voice to the play as God, and Michael Palin called it 'a great show.'

The negativity isn't really that surprising, really, but I do think it's a bit unfair. Eric Idle has always been, it should be admitted, the Python most eager to cash in on his status. He's spent the years since his time in Monty Python lobbying strongly for a reunion tour, and when that didn't come together he surrounded himself with unknowns and toured the country rehashing old Python routines. Of course, Idle will be the first to cheerfully admit he's shamelessly exploiting the Monty Python legacy(he did name the above-mentioned tour Eric Idle Exploits Monty Python), but that does nothing to calm his detractors.

To me, though, Eric Idle is the Python I would most like to hang out with(aside from, possibly, Michael Palin, who may just be the nicest man on the planet). John Cleese has been the most consistently funny throughout his career, but it also seems like that whole frustrated-anger-exploding-suddenly-and-violently is more than just an act. Terry Jones would be interesting, but would probably dominate all conversations with bits of medieval trivia. Fascinating, but it would probably get old. Terry Gilliam is the only Python I have followed closely since the group disbanded, but he seems like an often difficult person to be around. Graham Chapman would probably be boring, and a bit dirty.

Clearly I've spent too much time thinking about this.

Back to Idle; he has an infectiously cheerful persona that I'm always happy to see; he's one of the few elderly comedians who I don't feel is desperately trying(or not even bothering) to hide a deep, profound sadness. And his material offers an incredibly inspiring world-view. This is most evident in two particular songs; Always Look on the Bright Side of Life and The Galaxy Song. Those two songs are all about finding the joy, not just the humor, in the most sober, dry, or downright miserable topics. It's not about making a dirty or tasteless joke, but about turning unpleasant(crucifixion, death, the humdrum misery of every day life) into something joyous and inspirational. Think I'm reading too much into this? Go listen to the Galaxy Song and try to feel miserable. In that song Idle admits that life here may be horrible and yes, even pointless, but step way back and you'll see just how awe-inspiring and amazing this existence we're all part of really is.

This spirit carries over into Spamalot, which becomes something much different than it's detractors probably take it for. True, the show recycles many bits from The Holy Grail in a manner that isn't nearly as funny, and yes, it often panders shamelessly to the audience, but it comes across less as an exploitation than a gift to fans new and old. And come on, isn't it about time to admit that Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a pretty bad movie? Oh sure, it's hilarious, but as a movie it's too slackly paced and written. Part of the charm of Monty Python has always been their random non-sequiters and the breakneck pace at which they switched scenes, but that doesn't translate very well to a movie, especially when you don't spend enough time on the story that is supposed to be the backbone for all this silliness. Spamalot rectifies this a bit, by tightening the loose ends, and tying many of the random go-nowhere bits into the main story. The result is, as I said, not as funny, but it is more dramatically satisfying(Idle doesn't always succeed, though, the Prince Herbert scene still rambles on interminably, even if it's payoff is better in the play).

Monty Python has always been, by design, a cult item. Sure, everyone knows who the Monty Python crew are, but only a select few really 'get it.' These are the people wearing Black Knight t-shirts, buying stuffed Rabbits with Sharp, Pointy Teeth and quoting their favorite lines at the slightest provocation. This cult has grown more rabid and more exclusive as the years go by, and the people watching from the outside only get more confused and, possibly, nervous. This hasn't been helped by the Pythons themselves, most of whom refuse to get together in the same room and often have negative things to say about each other. Their refusal to get together lends the short period of time where they all worked in unison a much more mythic, iconic feel.

What Idle has done with Spamalot is break down some of those walls a little. He's taken what was once an item cultishly adored by a few and turned it into a story designed to bring joy even to those who had never seen a Monty Python sketch before. It's also a chance for those lifelong fans, many of whom weren't even alive when Python was an officially performing troupe, to feel a part of their favorite cult items. It opens the door for them to experience this story in a new way, that quite literally includes them in the experience.

Perhaps this is why it's failed in some circles. Nerds are fueled by elitism and exclusivity, we hate it when our favorite things become popular among the masses. I'm just as guilty of this as the next guy, but in this case, it seems tastelessly opposed to the spirit in which this particular play was forged.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Spamalot pt. 1: Just a bunch of notes.

Last week Amber and I went to see Spamalot on opening night. We had won tickets through a local radio station, and they were actually pretty good seats. We enjoyed it enough that when, on exiting the theatre, we ran into a man offering half priced tickets for the second week of showings, we decided to go again. This was due as much to the fact that the show was enjoyable, as it was to the horrible audience we were part of. Going to a Monty Python inspired musical, I expected a certain level of over-excitement on behalf of the audience, but it was my miserable luck to be seated next to a very loud woman who had obviously listened to the cast recording multiple times, and who enjoyed announcing to those nearby what her favorite parts were before they happened, or maybe repeat a line as she brayed laughter.

What follows is a short series of notes I composed in my head as we watched the play for a second time. I have twitter, but I have no mobile device and so I don't really use it, and I wouldn't have been texting in the theatre anyway(probably not even during intermission). So consider this a series of fake tweets(is that the proper vernacular?) sent during the show. A live event from a previously recorded program, if you will. This is part one because I have a more involved post about Spamalot already written(and to be posted tomorrow) but these notes didn't really fit into that piece.

Pre-Show: We spend a good 20 minutes in conversation with the guy at the merchandise counter; he won't let us leave. He's been with the show for 3 years, and most of the conversation centers around which cast members are avid videogamers. There's a slight hint of animosity towards John O'Hurley(J. Peterman from Seinfeld), who plays King Arthur in the Alaska performances.

Pre-Show: We sit down with plenty of time to go. I overhear the couple to the right of me trying to figure out what the show is about. "I think it's a parody of Camelot" one of them says. Apparently they bought one of those season long packages.

15 minutes into the show and there have already been 3 pot jokes that weren't in our first showing. I remember it's 4/20/09.

During the opening night show, John O'Hurley flubbed a line during the scene with God(character name capitalized), which was noticeable only because God's part is pre-recorded. The line as spoken opening night: 'Yes, Lord' 'Well of course it's a good idea, I'm God!' He got it right this time.

One mistake carried over from the first show; The Lady of the Lake is still holding the fake hand and Holy Grail in the wrong hand. The fake thumb is on the wrong side.

Intermission: Amber plays with her DSi, I read my book. I notice the girl sitting in front of me has the same haircut and blue dye job Amber had when I met her. She's also reading the crappy Star Trek novel I just finished. Is there a French word for this phenomenon?

Intermission: This is a much better night. The couple next to me that didn't know what Spamalot was seems to be enjoying the show immensely. This makes me happy for some reason.

Audience member called on stage at the end of the show gives his name as Kilgore Trout, who we all know from Kurt Vonnegut's novels. Either he's a plant or he knew what was coming. He doesn't seem happy.

Another sign that we had a better audience tonight: everyone joins in on the post-show singalong of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. An awesome feeling.

10 o'clock at night, the weather is mild and there's still light in the sky. We end the evening with a nice walk home.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Crazy Like a Fox

There was a joke in one of the early Simpson's episodes, a throwaway gag in one of those stories where they look into the future of the family, where Marge turns on the TV and says 'Fox made the transition to hardcore pornography so subtle I never even noticed.' I'm paraphrasing, because I haven't seen this episode in at least ten years, but it's a line that comes to mind several times a year whenever Fox makes some vicious attack against the very idea of intelligent programming or announces their newest reality show. This week I've been thinking about that line a bit more than would normally be considered average.

Now, Fox is the network that brought us the plastic surgery dating show The Swan, where two women we're given makeovers and cosmetic surgery, and one was ultimately told she was just too ugly and had to go home alone. And Temptation Island, which is the only show in history that could give you chlamydia simply by watching it. So I can't exactly say that their newest announcement brings them any closer to their goal of out and out pornography than those two examples did, but it certainly helps ensure their place in that new circle of hell Rupert Murdoch had built solely for Fox executives.

Fox has announced their newest reality show, Someones Gotta Go, which coldly capitalizes on the zeitgeist of the new American public. The broke, depressed, terrified-of-the-future American public. Each week the show will focus on a different small business, where the employees will try desperately to hold onto their shrinking 401K and meager health coverage by competing and backstabbing in reality show style, until at the end of the episode the loser is fired. Surely it won't be long before actual, literal executions make up the bulk of Fox's prime time lineup.

Also, Variety has a much more gushing report on this upcoming show(of course). They do their best to make this sound like a good thing, but if you read it through there a few other depressing notes about the show(the opening up of Human Resources files and financial reports is sure to cause friction long after the cameras leave the building).

Saturday, April 04, 2009

On Facebook and Waxing Nostalgic

Lately I've been spending a LOT of time on Facebook, although not as much as it may seem to an outsider. Basically if I'm online then I'm logged into Facebook, even if I'm doing something else in another window, or cleaning up around the living room. In fact I'm logged in right now. But I'm only really giving it my full attention for a few cumulative minutes out of the day, when a friend is online and we're chatting, or I'm perusing whatever updates my friends have made. Another recent trend you may have noticed is the complete lack of attention I've been giving my blog. Hell, I even started a new ongoing series in order to give myself some structure, and then I turned my back on it. On Facebook I've been partaking in many quizzes, and I've been listing my various Top 5s(Top 5 movies, books, albums, etc), things I'm fully capable of putting onto this site, and yet I haven't found the time to complete even the simplest of blog posts.

There's been a lot of media attention placed on Facebook and Twitter recently, both sites where I claim membership(although Twitter was mainly out of curiosity, and is now mostly ignored). And certainly I don't want to add to that, nor do I have anything incredibly relevant to say on the subject. So I'll keep my comments brief, mainly as a prelude to future thoughts. The main complaint with Facebook and Twitter is that it gives people a chance to catalog every aspect of their lives, to the extent that they may stop living it. Well, allow me to call bullshit. You know what? This list-making and constant status updating is fun, and takes no time at all. I find it hard to bemoan as 'timewasting' something that takes about 5 minutes a day.

So yes, I am on facebook a couple times a day taking a random quiz or making a list of my top 5 of the moment. One of my more recent lists was 'top 5 albums of all time,' a subject that inspires some small amount of dread. I say this because my top 5 ANYTHING changes from month to month, day to day, often minute to minute. I normally avoid making lists for this very reason, and yet I made it anyway. For those curious, my choices were Automatic for the People by R.E.M., The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails, Boys for Pele by Tori Amos, OK Computer by Radiohead, and Deluxe Men In Space by Man... Or Astro-Man? So those were my top 5. Maybe not technically my favorite albums of all time, which would be impossibly difficult to pin down, but the first five that popped into my head, which is probably the most honest way of deciding. However, those albums are no slouches, they're records I keep coming back to, and have a symbiotic effect on my emotional state. Whatever emotion I'm feeling at the time informs how I perceive the album, while the album plays on my memories and emotions and shapes the way I feel at the time.

Do you see the pattern in that list? Certainly they're all stellar albums(provided you have any interest in their respective genres), but they were all released in the mid-nineties; the decade of my adolescence. It was a ten year period in which I became a teenager, lived through high school, lost my virginity, and entered my twenties. It's a time of great import to everyone who lives that long, and the things that were important to you then may fall by the wayside from time to time, but will always hold a special place in your life. While I've remained a fan of all those bands and celebrate most of their respective discographies, those albums represent the most important contributions to my own personal development.

Automatic For The People represents the bittersweet transition from carefree preteen to mopey, self absorbed teenager, The Downward Spiral perfectly encapsulates all the frustrations, heartbreaks and rage that came with high school life. Boys for Pele is an album that makes me fall in love every time I hear it; with the album, with Tori, with Amber, with every ex-girlfriend I've ever had or never met, and every single person in the world. A ridiculously personal reaction to a ridiculously idiosyncratic album. OK Computer and Deluxe Men In Space are both albums(or, in Deluxe Men's case, an EP) that hold a different place in my life. Both huge influences on how I listen to and think about music, but also strangely removed from any personal recollections of the time they came out. If anything each album makes me think of moments years after I'd discovered them, when they were already permanent members of my personal canon. To give an example; when I listen to OK Computer, I flash immediately to a moment in my 22nd year, laying back on a bench on a London street, just about midnight, while my friends talked and drank in a nearby bar and planned the rest of the evening. I remember laying back and watching the clouds move by overhead(it was a semi-clear night, and the clouds moved quickly) while I sang Let Down to myself. It's obvious now why I associate Radiohead with that moment, but I have no real explanation as to why that moment would have called Radiohead to mind in the first place.

And so this is how it's gone. I've been ignoring my blog while spending time on Facebook and circling around these themes that are bound to be the subject of my next post. The project I've been working on is almost completely composed in my head, but I'm finding it very difficult to start putting into print, so I find other ways to spend my time that serve a somewhat similar purpose. My next post will be the long awaited(by me, at least) continuation of the Working Dead A to Zed series, which has so far only had one introductory post. The purpose of that series was to go through my vast music collection and re-listen to albums I might not have listened to in years, while trying to find just what it is about those albums that speak to me. And the reason I've hit this wall is because of the unexpectedly personal associations I have with the next album on the list. It will be the most personal thing I've written for this blog, and probably the most personal thing I've written since college. It will be full of things I've not really spoken about with anyone, even the people who went through it with me. I don't want to raise expectations that this will be some soul-searing pouring out of emotions; it will likely be fairly minor in comparison to what a lot of people write on their blogs or livejournals. But for someone like me, who's used to talking about his life mainly in terms of pop-culture likes or dislikes, this is proving a hard first step to take.

And so, in the words of my inestimable friend Rick; 'to be continued...'