Sunday, May 30, 2010


I've said it before, I'll say it again: Sometimes even I don't understand my obsessions.

Case in point: My fascination with bad TV from the seventies and early eighties.  Probably this is due as much as anything to the fact that this was the era in which I formed so much of my aesthetic sense, when I decided what was good and what was bad, what I would take with me for the rest of my life.

1980 was a good year for deciding such things.  New music included The Clash's Sandinista!, the first album from Suicide, Pete Townshend's Empty Glass, Steely Dan's Gaucho and Steveie Wonder's Hotter Than July, all as essential as oxygen.  Movies were even better: Raging Bull, Bad Timing, The Stunt Man, The Long Riders, The Tin Drum.

Amazing stuff.  But if the good was easily enough appreciated, it took an archeologist's skill to dig through the wasteland of network TV to find the worst of the worst.  I watched Eischeid, for God's sake.  I watched Pink Lady And Jeff.  I thought I knew how bad it could get.

But somehow, I missed Marie, a very short-lived variety program intended to showcase the many talents of Marie Osmond.  And because I never saw this at the time, I come to it now and stare at it in slack-jawed disbelief, and can only ask the obvious question: What the hell were they thinking?

Saturday, May 29, 2010


Not exactly a profundity to observe that Hollywood can do terrible things to its most favored children, but the deaths of Gary Coleman and Dennis Hopper somehow bring it all into sharper relief.

Coleman's story seems almost unbearably cruel in retrospect.  Following some minor success in commercials, he was cast as Arnold Jackson on Diff'rent Strokes, and in fact his zesty, distinctive way with a one-liner was the centerpiece of the show's original ad campaign, and was single-handedly responsible for its success.  NBC promoted the hell out of him and the show, even as the network, the show's producers and pretty much everyone involved knew Coleman's secret: Due to chronic liver problems, he was destined to remain in a little boy's body.  He was ten when the show started, but playing much younger, and seventeen--seventeen!--when it ended, still playing a kid, Li'l Gary Coleman, all cute and sassy.

Once Diff'rent Strokes left the air, what were his options?  If producers didn't come calling with tailor-made vehicles--and they didn't--his ability to find work as an actor was severely limited by his very celebrity: How could he be cast as anything other than Gary Coleman?  Employment in the real world--he worked for a time as a security guard--proved just as difficult.  Wherever he went, whatever he did, everyone recognized him as Arnold Jackson, and refused to acknowledge him as a human being.

So he gave in and accepted his status as a minor celebrity, a showbiz has-been, a perpetual freak show.  Reality shows, publicity stunts, periodic arrests--sure, why not?  This was, finally, tragically, all his life had to offer, and the one-time reality of a lively little kid with extraordinary talent was lost.

With Dennis Hopper, most of the wounds were self-inflicted, but there's no question that the ego-feeding-and-destroying atmosphere of Hollywood stunted a potentially major talent.  In the 1950s, he became dangerously convinced of his own brilliance, certain he was the next James Dean.  His famously pointless clash with director Henry Hathaway on the set of the routine 1958 Western From Hell To Texas was the first sign of a talent out of control, and Hathaway led the charge to have Hopper blackballed from Hollywood.

Which was fine with Hopper; he moved to New York, studied with Lee Strasberg, dabbled in painting and photography.  In 1961, he married Brooke Hayward, daughter of superagent Leland Hayward, and magically found work again.  But the roles were limited, bit parts in other people's movies--Cool Hand Luke, Hang 'Em High.  So he finally decided that, if the starring roles weren't coming, he'd make his own damn movie, and dabble in a new career as auteur.

It's impossible to take an objective look at Easy Rider these days.  No one knows--no one involved can remember--how much of its hippy-dippy dialogue was intended sincerely, how much was intended as a put-on.  While it has some effective moments, and some of it is undeniably well-directed, it plays now as a spoof of then-mod techniques, and too much of it is simply laughable.

Hopper would direct two more worthwhile films, the legendarily warped The Last Movie and Out Of The Blue, before it became obvious he had little to say as a director.  He took can't-miss material and made it flat and uninteresting in Colors and The Hot Spot, and the less said about Chasers the better.  His directing career was kind of like his work as a still photographer--he clearly wanted to be good, but he wasn't, really.

He was a good actor, though, and that's what makes his career so frustrating.  In the sixties and seventies, in what should have been the prime of his career, he let his ego run away with him, and indulged in Keith Richards-level amounts of drugs and booze.  There was almost no way any director could work with him, and sadly, very few did.

He did get some leads in the seventies, in good movies like Kid Blue and Mad Dog Morgan, and of course, his performance as a crazed photojournalist in Apocalypse Now is rightly considered the stuff of legend, although even then, it was obviously cobbled together from whatever useable, semi-coherent footage was available.

Hopper's personal behavior became worse and worse, but he finally sobered up, ready to become a working actor again.  At first, this was great news: He used his knowledge of the alcoholic's lifestyle to moving effect in Hoosiers, and used everything he'd ever been as the spectacularly depraved Frank Booth in David Lynch's iconic Blue Velvet.

I love both of those movies dearly, but they were both released in 1986, and though he would continue working right up until his dying days, they were the last things Hopper would do that were truly worthy of his talent.  And with his run of over-the-top villains in movies as varied as Speed, Waterworld and Super Mario Brothers, it seemed as though he was intentionally parodying his great work as Frank Booth, diminishing one of the best things he ever did to the point where it has become almost impossible for anyone coming to Blue Velvet for the first time to see it as anything other than another standard over-the-top Hopper character.

And that, finally, is what success did to Gary Coleman and Dennis Hopper: It made them so much less than they could have been.

Thursday, May 27, 2010


In case you haven't seen it--and even though it only surfaced yesterday, it has already inspired several online parodies--here's Heidi Montag's, uh, audition for Transformers 3.

Many aspects of this are more sad than funny--for instance, Montag's personal trainer or whatever the hell he is introduces it as a tryout for Transporter 3, suggesting even he can't bother giving a shit, or the fact that somebody would actively seek out a role in a terrible giant robot movie--but the saddest by far is this: We know who Heidi Montag is.

Why?  Why have we heard of her?  She's an incredibly shallow rich girl, with a prematurely Botoxed face and enormous fake tits, and not a trace of personality.  Thanks to her turn on the (thankfully canceled) MTV pseudo-reality series The Hills she briefly reached some level of Us magazine-level celebrity, which gave her a sense of entitlement even beyond that of the usual batch of moneyed SoCal blondes, who are at least awful people only in their own circles.

Though no sane human being would ever willingly sit through an installment of The Hills, even ironically, its very existence fueled Montag's delusions, made her believe that she somehow, like, matters.  The best thing that could happen to her, to all of us, would be a return to obscurity.  Instead, she'll likely get another reality show, probably on E, the worst network ever focus-tested.

The fallout from this thing will likely involve Montag revealing that this tape was intended as a gag, nothing more.  No one will believe her, but everyone will laugh, and she'll laugh, too, never fully realizing that the joke is on her, and always will be.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


A comment on my previous post prompted a response from me, but it threatened to run on and on, and it occurred to me that it would be better served by a follow-up post.

In her comment, Lilli mentions simply not finding The Simpsons funny anymore, even when stumbling across a rerun.  And sadly, I know that feeling: The very longevity of the show now threatens its legacy.

The prime years of the show, roughly seasons two to eight (some would extend it to season nine or even ten), remain in and of themselves as good as they ever were.  But since The Simpsons continues to grind on and on, with the inevitable decline in quality, a feeling of fatigue is bound to set in.  It's not even necessary to watch it to become tired of it.  It's gone from Can't Miss to Is That Thing Still On, and it makes it difficult to watch even the prime years without some level of...well, "contempt" is probably too strong a word, but that about sums it up.  An early Marge/Homer dustup reminds us how tired we've become of that recurring premise, just as an early, once-funny appearance by a now-recurring character (let's go with Disco Stu as an example) reminds us how subsequent years have pounded that character into the ground.

It doesn't help, either, that so many more recent programs have taken what was fresh and innovative and used it to their own purposes.  Family Guy, most obviously, has taken some of the storytelling devices and gag set-ups from The Simpsons and used it to far cruder, less funny effect, but on a higher level, such shows as Arrested Development and Community bear a clear influence, and in these cases, the students may have outshone the master. 

But that part is inevitable.  Everybody takes from something else.  Monty Python's Flying Circus once seemed daring and innovative, but now it seems almost sedate, TV as comfort food.  But its quality, like that of The Simpsons, is absolute: No matter what, it's still good.  It has nothing (except, perhaps, over-familiarity) to taint the viewing experience.  But once we've seen Lisa Simpson lip-synching a Ke$ha song, it will never be possible to think of her the same way.

Monday, May 24, 2010


Despite my post from a week or two ago decrying the use of Ke$ha's Tik Tok in its opening couch gag, I haven't actually sat down and watched an episode of The Simpsons since...well, I can't remember.  I gave up on it not because it was bad, but because it was relentlessly mediocre, which in a way seemed even worse.  This was a show that had scaled the heights of greatness, that literally defined a whole new comedic sensibility.  To see it just sitting there spinning its wheels just kind of hurt.

Last night, mostly due to lack of anything else to do, I sat through the season finale.  It's official: The Simpsons has officially slipped the surly bonds of mediocrity and touched the face of awfulness.

I don't even know where to begin.  The shameless pimping for another Fox show, American Idol?  The incredibly generic designs for new characters?  The stiff, lifeless animation?  The terrible writing?

Oh yes, let's focus on that last one.  There wasn't a single laugh to be had in the entire episode.  (I did smile once, at a throwaway gag involving a mongoose/cobra reconciliation clinic.)  The main plot was so transparently designed to plug American Idol it seemed static, covered with Krusty levels of flop sweat, unable to even pretend it was anything other than a promo piece.  The B plot was a complete non-starter--how many times, oh Lord, can this show go to the "conflict between Marge and Homer" well?--and, incredibly, there were even trace elements of a C plot involving Santa's Little Helper, which seemingly only existed to pad the running time.

Admittedly, plot isn't necessarily what we go to The Simpsons for, but when it is this formulaic, it can't possibly serve as a springboard for any kind of organic laughs.  It didn't even try to mine the characters for comedy--everybody just had generic laugh lines, and most of the alleged comedy came from desperate attempts to be meta, to reference the history of the show or the network or...whatever.  The point is, it sucked.  Hard.

How bad has The Simpsons become?  Afterward, I watched my first episode of The Cleveland Show, a Family Guy spinoff from the rancid Seth MacFarlane factory.  And, though it wasn't good, it at least wasn't actively painful.

Friday, May 21, 2010


Noel Murray's ongoing A Very Special Episode series at The AV Club started strong and has been consistently excellent, even revelatory, but this week's installment, exploring the unique appeal of Mystery Science Theater 3000, is particularly perceptive.

I don't really have a whole lot to add here, except to point out that MST3K pretty much altered my DNA, changing not only my perception of movies as I watch them, but of my life as I live it.  It has always served as a reminder that we don't have to take anything as we find it, that we should always question what we see.

Here's a clip that shows what I mean.  In this episode, Joel, Crow and Tom Servo were forced to watch the movie The Painted Hills, an odd, moralistic melodrama that featured beloved dog Lassie as a blunt instrument of revenge.  Crow and Servo were having none of it, and questioned the very morality of the movie itself.  Sure, it's all intended comedically, but the fine, precise tone of the script ("I accidently bump my Rottweiler with a screen door, I wake up the next morning with a severed cat head in my bed?") shows that the writers were genuinely upset about the mixed messages the film presented.  Plus, it's just damned funny, and perfectly played. 

Thursday, May 20, 2010


Being too cheap to buy a cooler or anything, I always bring my lunch to work in a leftover plastic bag from a grocery store or wherever.  The other day, I noticed the bag I had used still had the sales receipt in it.  I looked at the items I had purchased.  There were only three--Puppy Chow, a squeak toy and a rawhide bone.

What the hell is wrong with me?

I've always been a cat person.  Yeah, there were dogs around in my youth, particularly Penny, the beloved family mutt, who always followed me around on my adventures all over the farm, and I realize now that many of my fondest childhood memories involve her presence.  But a presence was all she ever amounted to, forever in the background, just sort of there.

For one thing, she was never allowed into the house.  Cats were, and as a result, they became the ones that could get up on my lap and curl up with me in bed and form attachments.  If I started rattling off the names of all the cats I've had in my life, I'd also start describing their individual quirks and personalities, which were all as different as snowflakes. 

That's what I always thought the difference was between cats and dogs: Cats are all individuals, whereas dogs have predictable personalities dictated by their breed.  And maybe that's true, for most dogs.

But it's not true of Isabella.  She's not a typical beagle at all.  I mean, sure, she is constantly on the scent of something or other, and has a friendly nature and has a loud, piercing bark.  Sure, she looks like every picture of a beagle you've ever seen.  But Bella's different.

Because she's my baby.  It's my lap she climbs on, it's my face she nuzzles, it's my fears and anxieties that are magically relieved by hugging her.  I don't know from dogs, but I know I've been crazy for my baby girl since her first ride home, when she burrowed under my arm as I steered, then bounced into the house when we arrived home, immediately claiming the recliner as her personal chair.  I still love cats--I mean, Delmar's still here, and he still gets plenty of attention--but it's weird how I look forward to coming home from work, just so I can take Bella for a walk, followed by play time and hug time.

There have been some turnarounds in my life lately, some misfortune, trip-ups I hadn't imagined.  Melancholy has returned, but I've discovered how easily it can be transcended.  All it takes is a pair of big brown eyes looking at me, and a heart full of love.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


America's entertainment press, you have failed us!  It's been--yikes!--weeks since either Reuters or the Associated Press have featured a boring, utterly meaningless interview with Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz.

How are we to know what he thinks, how he feels, what his plans are for that why-bother clothing line of his, or if he intends to make some more crappy, easily ignored music?  I mean, yeah, sure, I could follow his Twitter feed, but come on--that would suggest that I give a shit.

Which I don't, most emphatically.  I can't imagine anybody does.  And yet Reuters and the AP, the world's most reliably middle-of-the-road news sources, were on a Wentz-based roll there for awhile, showcasing chats with Mr. Ashlee Simpson as if every utterance from this barely-sentient mediocrity was somehow golden, as if readers across the globe were waiting for more news on the man's every action, as if Fall Out Boy could conceivably inspire that level of devotion (or even mild interest) from any human, ever.

But now, sadly, the news feed from these wire services contain only news of the latest American Idol or Dancing With The Stars fatalities, or upcoming TV schedules, or the latest news about boy god Justin Bieber, who is actually less interesting than Pete Wentz but is, at least, currently popular.

But I'm sure Pete will be back, making some momentous announcement or other (my prediction: Fall Out Boy gets back together--but under a different name, because they'll have, like, a different sound, and they don't want to mess with their, you know, legacy), and, while ignoring real news that matters to real people, Reuters and the AP will be there.  Godspeed, you ink-stained wretches!

Monday, May 17, 2010


Oh, Ambulatory Penis, we'd forgotten all about your brief dalliance with the flamboyantly-garbed (and revealingly named) Fruitpie The Magician.  Not since Charles Bronson's brief affair with Charles Nelson Reilly had such an icon of rugged masculinity revealed his bi/curious tendencies. 

Of course, you still felt the need to cast yourself as the dominant in this pairing, and handed off the usual praise of your "creamy filling" to an underage girl.  Some people at the time felt this was a blatant attempt to simply widen your fan base, that your heart--or whatever organ--really wasn't in it, but, much like your chocolate-lovin' time spent with Happy Ho-Ho, this was a bold move at the time.  These days, such behavior would barely rate a shrug, and indeed, it's sad how few people remember you.

But some of us remember, Ambulatory Penis.  Once seen, the vision of a cartoon dick happily skiing down a mountain can't be unseen, and for that, we'll always love you.  Just not, you know, in that way.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


It wasn't late yet, but threatening clouds had appeared on the horizon, and I had quite a drive ahead of me, and work the next day.  "Don't go yet," she said.  "Don't you want to wait for the storm?"

"Well, no, actually," I replied.  "I was hoping to get ahead of it."

"But we can sit on the porch and watch it, let it pass over us, watch the lightning.  I love storms when they get so"--her eyes widened considerably, and her hands formed crazy patterns--"intense, and the thunder gets so loud it's one continuous rumble, and you wonder if it's turned into a tornado, and you close your eyes and let it pass over you, like this could be your last moment on earth."

"Yeah, well."  What the hell was I supposed to say to that?  "Not a lot of fun to get caught in while you're driving, though."

"That's what I mean.  Don't get caught in it.  Stay here with me."

"Stay--how long?  The night?  I have to work tomorrow.  I'd have to cut out early in the morning."

"Just stay for now.  Until the storm passes."

We sat on her porch.  She turned off all the lights in the house, the only illumination coming from distant lightning flashes or the passing headlights of the occasional car.  "Times like this, I like it out here," she said quietly, almost as if talking to herself.  "This is where I'm from, but it isn't where I want to be."

"What do you want?"

"Someplace where there's...something to do.  But not too much.  Or...I don't know.  Sometimes I feel like I just want to keep moving, like wherever I'm at isn't where I'm meant to be."  She paused.  "You're not like that, are you?  You're settled, you're--"


"That's not what I meant.  But, well, yeah.  You don't have any sense of adventure left."

"Well, I'm here, watching a storm with you.  That's something I've never done before."

She laughed.  "OK.  Good point."  She drew closer to me.  We kissed, even as both of us knew our time together had already started winding down.

Monday, May 10, 2010


It's difficult, from a twenty-first century perspective, to evaluate the life arc of Lena Horne, who has died at the age of 92.  It's impossible to imagine the difficulties, both professional and personal, faced by black Americans in the thirties and forties, when Horne's career was gearing up.  And yet, given the very real barriers even the wealthiest and best educated African-Americans faced at the time, it must be pointed out that Horne was a child of privilege, and a bit of a snob. 

In other words, yes, she deserved better than she got, particularly from Hollywood, but as a singer she was never really all that special.  Good, yes, but she was arguably no better than hundreds of other singers, both black and white.  Horne was never shy about using her race to her advantage, or attempting to deny it when that, too, was to her benefit.  Her skin was lighter than that of, say, Ethel Waters, her co-star in Cabin In The Sky, and she knew that would get her places Waters could never go.  In retrospect, it makes Horne look conniving, but she did what she felt she needed to do.  Not that it got her very far; Hollywood had no use for a black leading lady at that time, no matter how beautiful she may have been.

So she went back to nightclubs, and fashioned a career as an all-around entertainer.  She may not have been a truly great singer, but she was very good, and she had something more than talent: She had presence.  Once she took the stage, you couldn't look anywhere else.

Here she is dueting with improbable singing partner Eddie Anderson on a Harold Arlen/E.Y. Harburg classic.  The movie, of course, is Cabin In The Sky, Vincente Minnelli's first film as director, and it's impossible to watch it without wondering how he might have handled it with a bit more experience behind the camera. Though sometimes maddeningly static, it's much better than its reputation, and if some aspects of it seem a bit, uh, insensitive when viewed today, it was almost progressive by the standards of the time.  In those days, merely allowing black actors to play romantic scenes was a big deal.  If it had been a bigger hit, Horne's career may have gone in a whole different direction.  But at least she had this one shot, and it was a good one. 

Sunday, May 09, 2010


I realize I'm a week late with this, but in case you haven't seen it (and assuming it hasn't been pulled from YouTube by Fox's legal department), here's this thing.

Two lines of thought here:

1) Like most hardcore fans of The Simpsons, I haven't actually watched any new episodes of the show in years.  When last I watched with any passing regularity--three, four years ago maybe?--it was occasionally amusing, but the laughs had become distressingly generic.  The vivid characterizations and razor-sharp social satire (and endlessly quotable dialogue) that defined the show at its peak had been replaced by obvious gags and tediously familiar storylines.  It wasn't bad, exactly, at least not late period MASH bad, but it wasn't the show so many had once loved.

So I first heard about this intro last Monday, after the episode featuring it aired.  I couldn't bring myself to actually watch it until mid-week, and couldn't bear to really consider it until now.  This is absolute proof on every level: The Simpsons is beyond salvation.

Leaving aside for a second that basing an intro around a disposable pop single that will, God willing, be forgotten in a year or so is the type of opportunistic grab for cultural relevance this show used to satirize, the actual use of the song was apparently mandated by Fox executives, who wanted to fit the show into some sort of promotional scheme.  The fact that after twenty years on the air, the producers of the show that essentially legitimized the Fox network lacked the balls to tell their corporate overlords to fuck off tells you everything you need to know about the current creative regime on the show.  If they lack integrity when it comes to matters like this, they'll lack integity when it comes to creative matters as well.

And it shows in this intro.  They start it out with Lisa, of all people, breaking into this song.  Yeah, she used to read Non-Threatening Boys magazine and had her bizarre Corey obsession, but musically, she'd never listen to this crap, much less perform it.  But she's not a character anymore, is she?  Just a dead-eyed pawn who will do or say anything the producers want her to say.  (And having Nelson intro the chorus?  Seriously?  He's an Andy Williams fan!  He wouldn't know Ke$ha from a whole in the head.)

Visually, too, this is a creative disaster.  The Simpsons unwisely overhauled its spiky, garish visual style with the advent of high-def sets, resulting in cleaner lines and more elaborate color styling.  But so what?  The animation in this sequence is smooth, but utterly lifeless: All the characters move in exactly the same way, their only goal to get from point A to point B, much as their only function is to mouth generic laugh lines. 

These were once specific people.  We watched the show because we knew we'd laugh,  but we knew we'd care, too.  But when the people churning it out don't care, viewers can't, either.

2) I'm occasionally chided by those more pop culturally aware for being, you know, out of it, but seriously, what the hell's the deal with this song?  Rolling Stone recently ran an unintentionally hilarious profile of Ke$ha that tried to somehow she's some kind of, like, artist, because her stuff comes from someplace, um, like personal and shit?  (Because nobody's ever before recorded pop songs about drinking and fucking.)

My problem with the song is embedded in the very first line: "Wake up in the morning feelin' like P Diddy"--Wait.  Really?  What the hell is this, 1998?  That was about the last time anyone could make a non-ironic reference to The Artist Formerly Known As Puffy without being seen as hopelessly out of it. 

Obviously, there are other reasons to hate the song--the generic production, the tedious overuse of Autotune, the fact that it was recorded by someone with a dollar sign in her name--but when you start your song by giving a shout out to one of the biggest charlatans in modern pop, you deserve...well, you deserve to be associated with present-day Simpsons.

Thursday, May 06, 2010


The streetlights are bright along here, but the harsh glare is diminished slightly when I stand in my backyard.  There, I can look up at the night sky and actually see it for what it is.  The stars glitter as they always do, the moon goes through its phases, and the flashing lights of passing airplanes remind me that someone, somewhere, is off doing something, is having an adventure, is living their life.

How I used to envy such people when I was a kid, standing outside at night, looking up.  We lived on a farm, far from bright city lights, and when I'd walk beyond the reach of the porch light, I was surrounded by an inky, unknown world. Everything was where it should be, but all our cars, the trees in the yard, the ruts in the lane, all took on a slightly menacing appearance as they were illuminated by nothing but the bone-white light of the moon.  And some nights, the moon was dark.

On those nights, the only thing guiding me were the stars themselves, so far away, so indifferent to earthly concerns.  But then there would be a moving star, a flashing light, an airplane making its way to wherever it may be going.  There were people on board that thing, and without knowing it, they had passed my way, and our lives had, briefly and obliquely, intersected.

"Take me with you," I would think.  "Let me be there for all your comings and goings.  Take me from this place.  Let me see the world."

How could I have known what awaited me?  It took awhile, but I had all those adventures I wanted so much back then.  I've ridden in planes at night, flying indifferently over vast expanses of nothingness.  I've traveled, I've seen things, I've lived.  Oh, and loved, too, and lost, and had everything I've cared about taken away.  I've done things and seen things I could never have imagined as I stood there at the end of the lane, alone and in the dark, longing for another world.

And now, with all the weight of this accumulated experience, I still stand in the darkness looking up at the sky.  Lights blink, a plane passes by.  I have no desire to go wherever it is going.  I'm fine right here.