Friday, October 30, 2009

A Dabbling of David Cross

Last Monday night my friend Jamie and I journey to Wilbur Theater in Boston to do something that I've been wanting to do since 2002: see my favorite comedian David Cross live. Cross has been in two of my favorite shows of all time, as himself in the greatest sketch show of all time: “Mr. Show” and as never nude psychiatrist Dr. Tobias Funke.

I have both of his comedy CDs: “Shut Up You Fucking Baby” and “It's Not Funny” and I pretty much have memorized each of them—especially SUYFB. His take on America post 9/11 was as acerbic and spot-on funny as any that I've heard. Not only has his views on the world entertained me, but it's also helped me look at our planet with a different perspective. This tour was to promote his new book of essays, “I Drink for a Reason”, which I am going to purchase very soon.

Like I said, I've been wanting to see Cross ever since I listened to SUYFB for the first time and I've scanned Pollstar and the Boston Phoenix at least once a week to see if he was playing a show in the Boston area. It wasn't until a few months ago that I found out that he was going to be in Boston. Needless to say, I grabbed those tickets quickly.

The Wilbur Theater is a pretty cool place to see a comedy show as it's an old theater with a palpable sense of history behind it. The seats are old-school straight backed ones that aren't very comfortable, but that's ok it makes the listener all that more alert to check out the act. Also there are two over hanging balconies and two private hanging boxes. Jamie and I were in the third to last row in the second balcony, so we were far away, but it didn't matter the old theater has great acoustics.

Last year, my friend Steve and I saw Stella at the Wilbur Theater (Michael Showalater, Michael Ian Black and David Wain) with Eugen Mirman opening for them. Since Steve grew up with Wain, we got awesome seats. Needless to say, that was amazing experience too.

After a warm-up comedian, Cross came on at 7:25 and performed for about two hours. I would have been happy with an hour of material, but this was a solid set of new bits that stretched on for double my expectations. Was ever joke a hit? Of course not, there were some bombs here and there, but for the most part it was really an awesome show.*

* He also showed a five-minute clip of his show that's going to be aired on the BBC called “The Increasing Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret”. It looks awesome and it sucks that it won't be played in the United States for awhile. The show also had a cameo from Cross' TV brother-in-law GOB Bluth, Will Arnett, which made it even better. **

** What also made the show pretty awesome is that he was taping it for either a DVD release or a Comedy Central or HBO special. I'm not why I find this so great and why I can't wait to buy the DVD, I mean I've already seen about 99% of what I'm going to see again, but for some reason I'm pumped for this to come out.

The one thing that I noticed about Cross is that his fans definitely have a look. Most of them are the true hipsters of the city: black, square rimmed glasses, ironic t-shirts, messed up bed head. And the women are similar too. I'm not saying that it's bad, but I guess that if you were to ask these people why they dress and act the way they do, they'd argue that they do so because they're trying to be different. The one problem is that when gathered together like they were last Monday, their actions of dressing different and being unique turns out to be so similar to each other that it's as if they all went to the same store and bought the exact uniform.

Looking over what I've written so far, it occurs to me that there isn't too much to write about a comedy show except to say whether it was good or not, and that's subjective to a bunch of outside influences: such like I listed above: venue, length of fandom, etc. It's occurred to me it's harder to write a comedy review than it is to write a concert review. A writer can convey the concert experience by listing the songs that were played and how the band sounds, but one can't do that with the comedian. It's hard to describe jokes, and unless the comedian was completely bored (like the time I saw David Spade while in college) there's not really too much to tell.

I'm not going to get the jokes correct and even if I did, Cross doesn't tell jokes per se. They're more wry observations on daily life punctuated with vocal inflections. The humor would get lost in my retelling and will not do any justice to the story. Just take my word for it that he was awesomely funny.

About a week after I saw Cross live I ran across this article. In a few words of summary: basically David Cross told the audience in DC that he and his girlfriend Amber Tamblyn were invited to the White House Correspondent's Dinner. While there, Cross said that he snorted a line of coke within yards of President Obama. He explained that he did this to show his friend that he could be “more outrageous”.

I'm not sure if this story is true, though I'd bet that it is, but if it is I thought that it was pretty lame. It's not the snorting of coke or even doing it in front of Obama, I think what I find most lame about it is that seems like something that Johnny Knoxville and Steve-O would do. And they're morons. “Yeah, I snorted coke right near Obama! Beat that, brah!”

One of the things that appealed to me about Cross is that he isn't an idiot, or if he is, he keeps it private.

The bottom line is this: I'm not going to stop laughing at Cross. But sometimes, I suppose that there is just too much information being passed around.*

* You know what, I don't really know what the point of this last story is. It seems to me that it's about being let down by a celebrity or someone that you admire. The thing is, I don't feel all that let down; Cross has made no secret of his drug use and, really why should I give a shit if he jams heroin needles into his eyeballs. I guess I feel more let down comedy-wise than anything else, the guy has built his standup on subtlety and well-crafted, well-thought out jokes. He shouldn't have to succumb to stupid shock jock crap like this. That's basically what my point is.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Defending the Doors

Chuck Klosterman, recently released a new book of essays on pop culture. This isn't much of a surprise because, aside from one novel, the only books or magazine articles that Klosterman writes are ones about pop culture. Since he is one of my favorite authors, when I saw that he had an interview with the Onion's AV Club, I was happy to read it. You can read it here too.

One of the questions lead to a Klosterman musing about classic rock radio and how the scope is getting larger when it should be getting smaller. This lead the interviewer to ask which bands should be dumped, and Klosterman suggested the Doors. Here's a bit of the interview:

AVC: Are you scared of a world in which Weezer is viewed as part of the classic-rock canon? You write about them in the new book.
CK: I would like that, although I would have to concede that if that happened, the rock canon would have to be a lot bigger. I’m a fan of Weezer, but if they’re looked at as one of the greatest bands of all time, we must have expanded the definition of greatness. Which is always happening a little bit. The rock canon is bigger now than it was in the ’70s, and it’ll always get a little bigger. We add people more often than we kick people out.
AVC: I can’t think of any that have been kicked out recently.
CK: I feel like The Doors are on the cusp of being kicked out.
AVC: I would kick The Doors out. Would you?
CK: I would be one of the people advocating their removal from the canon. [Laughs.] As if I have any say in it!

It's not just Klosterman, during the last couple of years the backlash against the Doors has grown and I'm not exactly sure why. Are they the greatest group that ever walked the planet? No. Their lyrics are a bit pretentious, Jim Morrison really can't sing very well, keyboardist Ray Manzarek seems like a humorless prick who's way too impressed with himself, you can't really dance to their tunes and their songs are not fun for parties—except for “Peace Frog”.

Having said all that, they're really not a bad band. The drumming and guitar work by John Densmore and Robbie Krieger are excellent. Their sound is unique—it's hard to confuse the Doors with anyone else and that has a lot to do with Mazarek's organ playing—and their lyrics reflect a time in the United States where a lot of people were pretentious. Morrison may not be able to sing very well, but if you look up the definition of a rock star, his picture would be next to it. The man was a larger-than-life counter-culture figure who could be infuriating, but that's rock and roll.

When I was younger, I went through a phase where the Doors were my absolute favorite band in the world. I had a few Doors posters plastered on my walls at home and at school, I played their CDs constantly, I thought that it was awesome to get absolutely plastered like Morrison and I must have watched the Oliver Stone movie at least once a weekend. I bought into the whole image of what I thought that a Doors fan should be.

Yes, there were some embarrassing moments—walking down the freshman girls hall acting like Jim Morrison is not one of my fondest college memories—but for the most part, my infatuation with the band was harmless*.

* Though, I suppose that if you ask my roommates the same question, they'd give you a different answer. Much like they would say that their infatuation with Phish was harmless, though I'd say that listening to “Junta” or “Hoist” 50 times in a row almost drove me mad.

I look back on that portion of my life with fondness (even the embarrassing incidents) as it was a big part of the soundtrack to a great chunk of my life and it made me who I am today. Jim Morrison is probably not the best role model for a young teenager or a father, but for a college kid who just lost the parental shackles, he's one that many have had. And while he lived on excess and being uncontrollable, acting like Morrison wasn't my thing and that's an important discovery to make. Finding out what you like is easy, finding out what you don't like is a bit more difficult and just as important.

To be honest, the reason why I started liking the was band because I wanted to impress a girl. I had never even heard of the Doors until early 1991, and this was after Stone's movie was a hit in the theaters. As luck would have it, the hottest girl in our school had a last name that began with the letter M, which is the same letter that begins mine. We were in the same home room and our lockers were right next to each other. One day she began talking about the Doors and how much she loved them, especially Jim Morrison. She asked me if I had heard of them before and of course, I said yes.

For some reason, my younger brother had the Doors movie soundtrack on CD, so I swiped it that night and listened to it over and over and over until I felt like I was able to talk to that girl about the band. The plan sorta worked, the next day I spoke to her about songs and the band and Morrison and I think that she may have been impressed. However, it never went any farther than that—though the songs wormed into my head and I began to really like them. I kept buying more and more albums, read more books, watched as many documentaries as I could—by the time I went to college, I knew as much about the Doors as I did about anything else.

It seems that every music fan goes through certain phases as they try to figure out what type of music fant they're going to be: there's the Beatles phase (hardly anyone loses that), there's the Led Zeppelin phase (ditto), there's the KISS phase (that peters out by the end of junior high school), there's the rap and hip hop phase (take that, mom and dad!--especially if you're a white kid in the suburbs.). Somewhere there's a phase for “adult rock” like the Doors or Pink Floyd or Rush. These are bands that to a high school or college-aged kid sounds a bit more sophisticated (both musically and lyrically) than the stuff that they listened to before.

Most of the discussions tend to be about how “deep” and “meaningful” the lyrics are and how Jim Morrison really “could be the last great, American poet”. These conversations between teenage fans seem to be mature because the topics being discussed are high-brow stuff like poetry and the symbolism of lyrics, but most people get past this and move on to other things. And while I did get past these sort of discussions, I never got past the music—so I suppose I'm stuck in this phase, but that's not the worst thing in the world.

Like I said before, the Doors' songs are interwoven into my life and memories, so it's too hard to simply pick that thread out and throw it away. The fact is, no matter how hip a person claims to be and how “into music” that they say they are, there's always going to be a band that a person loves, though many people actively despise. Klosterman is unapologetic about being stuck in his KISS phase, so I'm not even sure why I should be expected to dump the Doors.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

27. Chappelle's Show

Every day, thousands of people from podunk towns across the country migrate to Los Angeles, California in search of one thing: fame. In the last decade, the amount of people who have a desperate need to become famous has grown exponentially. It's not even about fame's partner anymore; fortune. People want to be noticed and known by other strangers. And with the way our society is going (growing smaller, but at the same time people are more apt to get lost) it's not all that strange for folks to want to be noticed.

For the fame flockers that come to Hollywood, there is a minuscule percentage of them that will reach their goal of world-wide popularity. And once they do, they react in different ways. Some take their notoriety very matter-of-factly, like George Clooney or Matt Damon. Others seemingly lose their minds and confuse infamy with being famous, like Paris Hilton or myriad reality TV personalities.

The latter group that don't have a grasp on what fame truly is, are usually the most desperate ones. They are the ones that are void of talent and will do anything to stay in the public eye. The ones that do offer something to the public are comfortable in their own skins (at least publicly) and seem to adjust to their lot in life very well.

That's why when David Chappelle reached the pinacle of his career, it was so bizarre to see him walk away from a reported $55 million dollar payday and leave the spotlight because of principles. But in 2005, that's exactly what David Chappelle did.

This wasn't a decision that came lightly, for in June 2004, during a standup gig in California, a member of the audience was shouting catch-phrases from Chappelle's gigantically popular sketch show. This caused Chappelle to angrily rebuke the audience member and it seemed to change the way he looked at the show and how it had evolved into something that was defining his life. About a year later, during show production in 2005, Chappelle felt that people were beginning to laugh at him, not with him. This was the final straw as he people were not getting what he was doing, so he left.

“The Chappelle Show” was the type of program that was subtly brilliant in that there were two levels: one in which the audience realizes that Dave Chappelle is making fun of social more, be it racism or sexism or class-ism. It really did a great job of satirizing those in power, without doing so in a whiny, PC sort of way. Of course, there was also the second level of watching the show, the sort-of idiot level where the audience laughs at just what Chappelle is doing and don't bother to delve behind the joke to determine why its funny.

For example, in one sketch, there is a white family who happen to have the unfortunate last name “Nigger”. They are a typical 1950s, “Leave it to Beaver” style family who are completely oblivious to their surname. Shot in black and white, which leads the viewer to believe that these characters live in an era where racial integration was nowhere on the radar, the Niggers go through a normal day that endss with the mother and father going to a fancy restaurant. This culminates in Chappelle—who plays the family's milk man—saying that he is happy that a nigger can get a table in that restaurant.

What Chappelle is brilliantly satirizing here is how different words, when applied to different objects, can take on different meanings. Also he's making fun of a group of people's ignorance to a potentially hurtful word. Throughout the skit, Chappelle says their name more than anyone else and is seen laughing at it. He's disarming the word from any hateful connotations—he's taking the power away.

Aside from these reasons, the skit also had terrific writing and made the viewer stop and take a few minutes to ponder that word. I believe that this is what Chappelle wanted us to do with a majority of his sketches. However, there are the steakheads out there who don't get concepts like this and heard the word “nigger” and just started laughing. These are the people that rankled Chappelle and drove him out of the business.

It wasn't all the steakheads' fault though.

“The Chappelle Show” was on Comedy Central for two seasons (I don't include the third “lost” season where Comedy Central grabbed whatever it could salvage and pasted a few episodes together*) and was shown ad nauseam. This show was a big money maker Comedy Central and I understand why they aired the show so many times, but it did take away from the impact. Because once you saw a certain sketch, over and over again, it does lose some of it's subtlety and a viewer just laughs when a catch phrase is uttered.

* I completely understand why Comedy Central ran the last season of "Chappelle's Show" without the blessing of it's star. They have a network to run and it the time, this was their highest rated show, so I guess that some David Chappelle is better than no David Chappelle. But, it's still a pretty crappy move considering that these sketches weren't finished products and therefore did not meet the high expectations of Chappelle.

Had “The Chappelle Show” continued past two seasons, it would be interesting to see how Chappelle approached each season. Reportedly, another part of the reason why Chappelle left his show was because he didn't think that he could keep his standards up. To me, that's an admirable quality. Television history is littered with programs that have overstayed their welcome. The fact that Chappelle was concerned about the quality says a lot for him as an artist.

Because Chappelle cared and took such chances and kept the bar raised were the main reasons why the show was so damn good. It's been boiled down to a cliché, but when “Charlie Murphy's True Hollywood Stories” episode aired (AKA: “I'm Rick James, Bitch!”) anyone who watched that night knew it was going to be an instant classic. While Chappelle's Rick James was a charicature, Charlie Murphy (who is Eddie Murphy's real-life brother) played the role so straight that it was impossible to determine whether the stories were true—supposedly these happened in the early 80s when Charlie was a member of his brother's entourage—or were exaggerations. Also, interspliced throughout the episode was the real Rick James who would explain his actions, giving the vignettes some authority.

Another of “Charlie Murphy's True Hollywood Stories” was aired later in the season when Murphy and his friends were challenged to a game of basketball by Prince (played by Chappelle). Murphy and his cohorts, who all look like they could play serious basketball, were soundly defeated by a gaunt Prince and his bandmates who played a type of “fruity defense”. While not as popular as the Rick James piece, again Murphy played the role so straight that the humor of watching five strong men getting their asses beat by five fey men was extremely funny.

Like many sketch shows, “The Chappelle Show” is a product of its time and there were a lot of pop culture touchstones skewered like MTV's “The Real World”. Chappelle wondered why MTV always stuck one black person in a house with six white people and wondered why the black person was always painted to be the “crazy one”. He flipped the roles and had a white guy (Christian Finnegan) stuck in a house with six inner city black people.

Again, the subtext is what made the whole skit work because Chappelle is right, adding a black cast member to a predominantly white house is not realistic nor is it progressive—despite what MTV wants their viewers to believe. It's actually the opposite and the token minority will never see eye-to-eye with their castmates because of where they come from. And all it takes is some editing to make that person look nuts. Especially when it's the “street” black guy arguing with the “naive, corn-fed” white girl. Yet, it happens in every season of “The Real World”.

These are just some of the better skits, it's impossible to list all of them. Other favorites include "The Player Hater's Ball", "If a Black Guy Was President" and "When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong". While everything wasn't gold (there are a few clunkers), it had the highest hit-to-miss ratio of any sketch comedy show that I've seen (with the exception of "Mr. Show").

Comedians are among the most honest commentators of our society. They see our scabs for what they are and still pick at it. Chappelle (and Chris Rock too) was among the best when it came to picking at America's most tender scab: race. To comment on race in a way where the people that you are making fun of (the majority) are laughing uproariously, as well as tweaking the minority so that they're laughing just as hard is truly a gift.

We were lucky that we got two seasons of “The Chappelle Show” though it is thoroughly depressing that he couldn't soldier on for another few seasons during the Bush administration. That's when we needed honesty and laughter the most.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Two Guys Email Review of: Inglourious Basterds

About two weeks ago, my friend Jamie and I went to see the Quentin Tarantino film "Inglourious Basterds". We didn't get a chance to really discuss the movie. I did the same thing with "Zack and Miri Make a Porno"*

I like to talk about movies, TV shows, sporting events, books -- any sort of medium a lot. This is obvious because I'm writing a Blog about these sort of things. So, the next day I emailed Jamie and asked him for his thoughts. We went back and forth for a little bit and this is what we had to say:

* Not only did I pretty much use the same opening paragraphs, but I used the same person to email. I'm all about value. BTW, there are a bunch of spoilers, but this movie has been out for six weeks, so be careful if you haven't seen it yet.

Also, I wrote about the experience of going to this flick a few weeks ago. Check it out here.

From: Byron
To: Jamie
Sent: Wednesday, September 23, 2009 4:38:23 PM
Subject: Inglourious Basterds

You've had about 20 hours to think about the movie, your reaction?

From: James
To: Byron
Date: Thursday, September 24, 2009, 10:09 AM
Subject: Re: Inglourious Basterds

Technically it wasn't 20 hrs at the time of your sending of the email. We did sleep some and I wasn't consciously thinking about that movie. However, When I did get up I was thinking about it andI like it more and more with each passing thought.

As we discussed, the bar scene was very good. I also seem to like Tarantino's formula of scene development -he cool conversations before the climax of each scene.

It happened in Pulp Fiction with Samuel Jackson talking to the guys in the apartment before he and Travolta blasted that kid to shit. "Does Marcelus Wallace look like a bitch?..." "The path of the riteous is beset on both sides by the iniquities of the weak and the tyranny of evil men..."
Kill Bill, From Dusk til dawn... I could quote Tarantino all day..

And now with "Inglorious Bastards" "....we ain't into the takin prisner bid'ness. We inta Nazi killing bid'ness and bid'ness is a boomin."

Even in Chapter one. the talk between large face and the frenchman before the hail of bullets into the floor. All classic stuff.

I even like Tarantino's rewriting of history as to how the war ended. his movies are fun, funny, gripping. It holds you and doesn't let go until the ending credits

That last sentence was strictly for commercial purposes. when you hear the sexy male announcer saying " NY times says 'Tarantino does it again.' 'A Materpiece' hails entertainment weekly. Jamie from nowhere USA says 'gripping. It holds you and doesn't let go until the ending credits'

That's my take. your turn....if you even get this email

From: Byron
To: James
Sent: Thursday, September 24, 2009 1:38:53 PM
Subject: Re: Inglourious Basterds

I agree. I think that Tarantino has a knack for writing the most believable dialogues in Hollywood. He makes some pretty profound points that are not necessarily germane to the plot, but he also is able to expound on the plot a bit too. His words give his characters a very rich background.

I don't anyone in Hollywood can touch him on this. Especially not Kevin Smith. Even though I like Smith very much, I feel that his dialogues are just monologues in disguise. Know what I mean? I think that Richard Linklater does a pretty good job of writing dialogues too. Very believable.

The bar scene was really awesome. I thought that the Basterds were going to get out of it alive ... just by the skin of their teeth. But next thing you know, three are dead and the chick is barely holding on. I liked that Tarantino took my expectation and knocked it on its ass. That's another thing I like about Tarantino, he loves his characters but doesn't fall in love with them, if that makes any sense.

Example: Vincent Vega from "Pulp Fiction" gets blown away while sitting on a toilet. The dude is supposed to be the ultimate hit man and he literally gets caught with his pants down by a washed-up boxer. And the kicker is, he's supposed to be waiting for that boxer. It's an undignified way to die both in terms of the setting (taking a crap) and the scenario. Also, Tarantino didn't make a huge deal out of it. He's dead and the story moves on.

Here, the same thing we have an Englishman who is built up as the greatest undercover man that the Brits have to offer is murdered because he was too sloppy. The one thing that drives a lot Englishmen nuts is that they always have a proper attention to detail. Getting your unit killed like this is akin to Vega's death.

The first chapter was awesome. Tarantino really makes you look at the situation that the French dairy farmer is in. Of course you want to save your neighbors, but when your family's lives are at stake you have to do what's best for your family. I bet that decision haunted that character to his dying day and that he felt a ton of guilt for what he did, but he really had no choice.

The atrocity that day was two-fold: the murder of the Jews under the floor as well as the (figurative) murder of the French farmer. He was probably never the same after that day and one can extrapolate that his three daughters weren't the same either. Today we call it post-traumatic stress disorder, but I'm sure back then there was no one treating that except maybe Dr. Vino.

Going back to my expectations, that was the main reason why I liked when Tarantino rewrote the ending of World War II. I know how Hitler and the rest of his crew die in real-life and I was expecting the bunch of them to be whisked away at the last moment leaving the Basterds and Shoshana's inevitable deaths in vain. But he didn't do that, Hitler's face was riddled with bullets, all of the high-ranking SS guys were burnt alive or shot in the back. It was great.

BTW, I'm going to use our exchange on my Blog much like I did with "Zack and Miri", so:

A. I hope you're ok with that
B. Write more

From: James
To: Byron
Sent: Friday, September 25, 2009

my only question about QT's style is: why do all of his movies have to have chapters or titles for each section? the only one that didn't was his shorter, double-feature film planet terror... I didn't see Hostel II so I don't know if there was any chapter separation in that film..

I'm not complaining. It's actually kind of cool. The only other person who does that is Kevin Smith. So it's funny that you brought him up in the last post... and while I agree with you that QT's dialogue speaks more truth. I also feel you're not giving KS his due credit. I feel there was a lot of truth said in Clerks and Dogma. As for Linklater the only two movies I've seen are D&C and School of Rock. D&C is one of my all time favorite movies BECAUSE of the dialogue. so while your ready to drop to your knees and suck off QT like it's your last meal, I'm not putting him on the same pedestal. I'm only gonig to say his style is different. It's like when I was in high school and the coolest band in the world was Rush. I thought Neil Peart was untouchable. no one could hold a candle to him...John Bohnam, Manu Katche, Buddy Rich, Stewart Copeland.... As i've gotten older I've realized everyone has their own talents, but I digress.

I'm not going to break down every scene like you did. there's no point. I agree with you on every point. Especially on QT's love-but-that-doesn't-mean-I'm-not-going-to-kill-my-character attitude. That's why Bridget vonHammersmark death is still leaving a lasting impression. I was just as surprised as Bridget vonHammersmark when her life was about to end there in that back room of the cinema.

My last issue I have is a general issue I have about any character from any movie. Shoshanna could easily have avoided her death if she simply made the final one or two shots to Zoller's head when he was face down on the floor. I don't get why the sudden sympathy to a man who killed 500 italians in three days. not to mention the fact that she hates Germans enough to meticulously plan to burn down her own cinema, with her in it. she now hears him groan and decides to gently roll him over to....what? what was she going to do?

You can use this in your blog. I don't care.

From: Byron
To: James
Sent: Monday, September 28, 2009

I like that he has chapters or film titles at the beginning of different scenes, it's a different touch. Perhaps he's not proficient at using segues. Also, look at how IB was shown—there is no way that he could have connected that first sequence (in the house) to the second one (the forming of the Basterds). So instead of filming a card that reads, “In another part of France” or “Meanwhile ...”.

I'm not saying that KS doesn't speak the truth. What I'm saying is that QT's dialogues ring true. When people talk there is an ebb and flow to them where someone says something, maybe a sentence or two and then someone responds with a sentence or two. I don't think that what Tarantino has to say is any more relevent to the human condition than what Smith or Linklater has to say.

I liked “Chasing Amy” a lot. But one of the things that bother me about that flick is the most “dramatic” scene where Joey Lauren Adams screams at Ben Affleck for three or four minutes. Think about that for a second, if someone is screaming at you for even two minutes it's jarring but three or four minutes? That's Peruvian insanity peppers, my friend.

No matter how much I “loved” her (and let's be real, this was like a month or two at the most into their courtship) I would have walked away thinking that she was nuts. I'm sure that it looked great on the page, but it came off as crazy and hokey on the screen. It just didn't ring true for me and took me completely out of the movie. I'm not going to get into the whole “no guy would stand for that crap” cliché because a lot of dudes would—and perhaps I would too, but after that crying jag, no matter how hot JLA is she isn't worth it.

You're right about Shoshana and you have to wonder what her motivation for feeling any sort of remorse towards Zoller when he was essentially the poster boy for Nazi Germany—you know, the people who machine gunned her entire family to death. But maybe that was to really drive home the point that while the Nazis didn't show any compassion for the people they killed and because of that were subhuman, Shoshana did.

But after rereading that, that makes no sense too because she just torched a movie theater full of Nazis without much thought of their well-being. So, I agree with you that this was sort of a superfluous scene that some writers put in to give their characters “character”. It's pretty stupid.

BTW Zoller killed 500 Americans, not Italians. The Italians were part of the Third Reich.

You know what I liked about this flick? There was no backstory and no epilogue. Brad Pitt walked around with a rope burn around his neck for the entire movie and no one questioned that. I assumed that he was part of a messed-up lynching, but I don't know. Maybe the dude can't tie a neck tie well.

When this flick came out, there was a brief interview with the lesser-known Basterds like Sam Levine and BJ Novack in Esquire where they said that Tarantino told them to create backstories for their characters, the more elaborate the better. So they had all of these cool stories about what made these guys tick and why they were who they were, but we never got to see why the Jewish Bear carried a baseball bat—according to Wikipedia, he was from Boston and got all of his buddies to sign the bat when he found out he was going to WWII. There was a scene where he got an old lady [Cloris Lecheman] to sign the bat too and supposedly it says Anne Frank on the barrel somewhere. The old lady scene was cut.

And what happened to these guys after they came home?

Tarantino has a great way of showing a slice of his characters' lives. What happens before or even after doesn't really matter. All that matters is the story he is presently telling. To me, that's all what should matter.

- Fin -

Monday, October 05, 2009

28. Justice League

When I was a kid there were two things that I loved: comic books and cartoons. And when the those two worlds crossed over, I was obsessed. As a Marvel Comics guy, shows like “Spider-man and His Amazing Friends” and “The Hulk” and “GI Joe” were some of my favorite stuff. However, nothing could compare to “The Super Friends”—especially “The Challenge of the Super Friends”. Liking this showran against the grain for me, because as I said I was a Marvel guy through-and-through and this was a DC universe show.

If you watched TV in the 80s, you should remember the CotSF, it's the one that had 11 heroes (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc) that fought 13 villains. I couldn't find the show's opening monologue*, but I did find out that the narrator was a person by the name of William Woodson. That's good to know.

* I think that it went something like, “Banded together from the far reaches of the galaxy are 13 super villains known as the Legion of Doom.” After that there was a bunch of other explanations on why these guys suck and what the Super Friends were going to do to them. What sold it for me was the jazzy music and Woodson's voice. So full of bass and seriousness, there is no way that you'd change the channel—this was important, damn it!

Any how, the show was kind of hokey and the good guys always won mostly because the Legion of Doom (which was headquartered in something that looked like Darth Vader's head in the middle of a swamp, seriously how cool was that?) managed to screw something up. The more important part of this show weren't the story lines, it was that there was a bunch of super heroes on the screen battling a bunch of super villains. It was like a cartoon Wrestlemanina and it was awesome.

Despite its popularity, there was only 16 episodes produced and while DC made a half-hearted attempt to revive the series in the mid 1980s (the original was shown on ABC in 1978 and later syndicated) they never could recapture the original's glory. Even during the comic cartoon boom of the 1990s, for whatever reasons, DC never went back to this well, which I found odd.

In the early aughts, Cartoon Network finally got DC to get off its ass and move ahead with a new Super Friends project. Only it wasn't going to be like the good old, cheesy 1970s version. As the kids from the 70s and 80s grew up to adults, a good bunch of them still watched cartoons. They didn't want moralizing stories, they wanted more action and more gravitas. With the new “Justice League” they got it.

The producer of the show, Bruce Timm, had hits on his hands with the new animated versions of Superman and Batman and wanted the new JL to be done in the same vein both artistically and thematically. The first season was a huge success as fanboys got to see their heroes act like the heroes they read about every month in the comics and kids who are new to the genre weren't lost. That's not an easy tightrope to walk across.

The artwork is the first thing that most be notice. It is absolutely fantastic with bold, smooth lines that accentuate the story telling and also establish that these are some of the greatest legends ever created*. Also, the animation is unlike its 70s predecessor's in that it is not choppy at all. There were some CotSF animation that looked cheap and silly—either a character was painted a wrong color or the background scenes were limited—but not with this incarnation. Everything is done perfectly, you can tell that Timm and his editors took great care to bring these characters to the small screen and wanted to do their best to have a great effort.

The show as a whole had an overall design style that was both unique and simplistic that didn't burden the viewer with too much detail that they got lost. At the same time, it was just enough so that they didn't get bored.

* I read somewhere that comics were society's next generation of myths and legends and it makes sense. Superman is a modern Hercules, Batman is an updated verison of Sherlock Holmes. There will be a day when people realize that and accept comic books for what they are, timeless stories that are meant to entertain.

While the art is legitimately spectacular, the greatest effort went into the writing. Many of the stories were taken from the annals of DC stories, but there were also shaped and rearranged so that it made sense in 22 minutes. Unlike CotSF, “The Justice League” had season-long story arcs and things that happened in past episodes mattered in future ones.

The first two seasons of “Justice League” focused on DC's seven “Big Guns”: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern (John Stewart version), Martian Manhunter and Hawkgirl. The last two may not be as well known as the first five, but they have been with the company for decades.

Each character has a different point-of-view and as such there were times when the heroes bickered amongst themselves. Because of this, there were times when the League lost a few battles, but as is customary with these shows, they always won the war. However, this series put a spin on that old axiom. One example occurs in the last three episodes of Season Two where Earth is attacked by Gordanian aliens. Hawkgirl, who is from outer space as well, calls upon her race—the Thanagarians—the lend a hand. Batman realizes that this is a trick and the Thanagarians set this attack up to take over the Earth. Hawkgirl has to decide between her adoptive or her home planet.

As you can see, this wasn't a show where Aquaman needed help battling poachers at the docks because even though Hawkgirl chose the Earth, she was seen in subsequent seasons as a traitor.

According to published accounts, “The Justice League” was supposed to end its run with Season Two, but it was a big hit on Cartoon Network, so more was demanded. Instead of doing more stories with the same seven characters, Timm and his crew decided to do something more adventurous. They took scores and scores of DC characters and added them to the show, redubbing it, “Justice League Unlimited”.

According to Wikipedia, there were “well over 50” characters on JLU—most of which were making their first televised appearances. As a former comic geek, it was cool to see guys like Red Tornado and Green Arrow and Dr. Fate show up and get some action. And with that many characters it would be understandable if the writing or art faltered a bit, but it didn't. It was still up to the same standards as the original Justice League run, which is nice to see.

And that what is so cool about this show. Sure, the writing and the animation is awesome, but the whole show is fun and the producers never lost sight of that. Yes, there are some “serious” issues and it's a bit more dark and adult than most super hero shows, but there are also some great action scenes, terrific interaction between the characters and lots of jokes (both obivous and inside baseball) that keeps the mood light.

My biggest problem with the show is that I can't find it on my cable channels anymore. It now airs on Boomerang, which is Cartoon Network's retro channel, and for some unknown reason; it isn't a part of any package for people who live in Burlington, MA. I've called the cable companies and asked for it—always under the guise of this channel if for my “Yogi Bear obsessed two-year-old daughter”—but they say that there are no plans to add it.


Thursday, October 01, 2009

This Man Could Be Your Father

Last week in a California prison, one of the cult members enraptured with a short, hippie psychotic named Charles Manson died of brain cancer. Her name was Susan Atkins and she was 61-years-old. In recent years, Atkins has become publicly contrite for what she did—she was part of the Helter Skelter bloodbath crew that freaked out much of the nation in August of 1969. After becoming a born-again Christian while incarcerated her last words were, “My God is a great God.” Despite her conversion and attempts at reconciliation with the families of the people that she mutilated, I doubt that there were a lot of tears shed for Atkins—she did repeatedly stab a woman who was eight-months pregnant just to “shut her up” and wrote the word “PIGS” in her blood on a wall—but there is some sort of public feeling towards her.

But I'm not sure what they are.

A few years ago I went through a phase when I was really interested in true crime stories and the more outlandish, the better. I read everything I could about the Maffia and serial killers and strange people who did strange things. There were two subjects that I always came back to: Helter Skelter and the Zodiac killings. I'm not going to talk too much about the Zodiac stuff because there's no need to right now, but there is something about Helter Skelter that I find truly bizarre and even after all of these years, I can't quite put my finger on it.*

* One of the things I find odd is that I have a two degrees of separation with this case as my mother went to high school with one of Manson's girls, Linda Kasabian. She was with the rest of the gang when they pulled up to the house on Cielo Drive, but she didn't kill anyone. Eventually, she testified against them in court. I asked my mom what she was like and she said, “She was sorta weird.” Thanks a lot mom, you're a wealth of knowledge.

I've read Manson prosecutor Victor Bugliosi's book “Helter Skelter” and Ed Saunder's “The Family”* a few times, I've seen a couple of documentaries, so I get what happened. But I guess what I don't understand is why it all went down. And maybe that's the point. It's difficult to find a reason why Manson and his cronies did what they did, maybe it was because he was truly a crazy man with a messiah complex. These people are normally a bit difficult to gauge.

I have no idea, but it got me thinking about the crimes again.

* “The Family” is a very, very good book. If you are interested in any of this stuff—even remotely—I can not recommend this book enough. Some of his writing is a little weird; he writes like a burnt-out hippie—probably because he was—and uses a lot onomatopoeia that takes some getting used to, but it's definitely worth the read. Hippie or not, you have to respect a man who goes camping in the desert with some of the Manson family so that he can gather research for his book.

When I read the books, the things that bothered me the most weren't the killings or even the sheer brutality of the killings, it was the little stuff that made me check my closets and look under my bed at night. In Bugliosi's book, he mentions something called “creepy crawlies” where in the middle of the night some of the Manson clan would dress from head to toe in black, go into the homes of people and rearrange their furniture while the home owners slept. These were essentially dry runs for the Helter Skelter mission and the were told to run if they saw the owners of the house.

Regardless of whether any violent acts were being done that night, how completely freaked out would you be if you woke up one morning, went to the bathroom like any normal day and then went down stairs and all of your stuff was rearranged? I would probably lose my mind. It's the death knell of any sort of any sort of illusion of safety that you may have in your home. When you are in YOUR home and you're asleep, nothing is supposed to get you—your guard is up (locked doors and windows) but at the same time your guard is down (you're asleep).

And what if you stumbled upon these people while getting a late-night snack? Supposedly they were told to scatter, but even still how can you get that thought out of your mind? How many sleepless nights would one have and how far would you jump if a floor board creaked at 2 am?

And these creepy crawlies were supposedly random too, that's what makes these exercises more scary. The home owner obstensively did nothing wrong. Their house was just at the wrong place and looked inviting, I suppose. The murders were supposed to be random or were meant to start a race war (that was foretold by the Beatles), but there's a lot of evidence that states that these weren't true.*

* The only bit of “random” murder that night was of 17-year-old Stephen Parent. He went to visit his an acquaintance who was living in the caretaker's house on the Helter Skelter property, hoping to sell him a clock radio. The guy didn't want it and when Parent hopped in his car and attempted to back out, it was at the same time that Manson's soldiers were beginning their seige. They shot and killed the kid.

These are the things that make one wonder whether life isn't just a set of random coincidences.

Bugliosi hung a conviction on Manson and his woman that said that the race war was the reasoning (he had to connect the words “Healter [sic] Skelter” found at one of the crime scenes to Manson somehow) behind the murders, though it's hard to believe that that was the true motive. Saunders has a few theories on the reasons for the murders including revenge—Terry Melcher was the son of Doris Day and a record producer. He was friends with the Beach Boys who were friends with Manson. Manson hung out with some of the Beach Boys (one of the Wilson brothers, I believe) and he played them some of their songs. They liked the tunes enough to bring them to Melcher, who passed. Melcher once lived at the home where Sharon Tate and her friends were massacred, perhaps Manson was sending a message.

Another of Saunders' theories was that Manson had some non-hippie associates (whom he met in jail) that were known to socialize with the mob as well as some highly powerful Hollywood executives. The reason why the LaBiancas were killed was because of alleged mob ties and the reason why Tate and her Hollywood friends were killed were because of some bizarro sex tapes and secrets that these high-powered people were worried about getting out in the public. Supposedly one movie starred Telly Savalas and someone else (I can't remember who—I don't have my book here) having a three-way with Mama Cass. That last sentence, BTW, is no joke. And to be honest, if someone taped me having sex with Mama Cass, I'd want them dead too. Who loves ya, baby indeed?

The third theory was that Manson was part of some larger Los Angeles devil/death cult and they simply told him to do it for an unknown reason. Supposedly this devil/death cult is one that the Zodiac killer belonged too and they told him to strike terror in Northern California during the same time. There is a book that says that the Zodiac Killer was a member of Manson's family, but I haven't read it. It's out of print and copies on Amazon and eBay are going for hundreds of dollars.

Do any of these motivations make any more sense than the other? No and I think that's why people are absolutely fascinated about these cases and these people 40 years later. I can think of no other crime, other than those of Jack the Ripper, that has people so interested almost a half-century later.

The other thing that I find intriguing, and was the title inspiration for the title of this entry, is that there were a couple of babies born on Spahn Ranch. Quick background: back in the late 60s people that didn't want to conform to society lived together in what is known as a commune. Basically, they threw away all of their possessions and tried to live the simple life. Most of the time, that didn't stick because “the simple life” is really code for “I'm lazy and don't feel like doing shit”, so with a bunch of lazy people lying around doing nothing; nothing got done. Communes folded.

Manson's commune was like that but since Charlie was the king and he saw women as subhuman, he made them do all of the work and their commune thrived for a while (until the cops came and busted them for dune buggy theft and then murder). This commune was also a bit different than the others in that drugs and sex held it together very tightly. Manson gave out LSD like candy and would often pair people up to have sex during orgy time. And accidents happen.

According to her obituary Susan Atkins gave birth to a baby named Zezozoze Zadfrack. He (I guess it's a he, though I wonder if it's a boy's or a girl's name – it's so pretty, it could be either) was born and lived on the commune until it was busted up by the cops and he and a few other kids were taken in as wards of the state. Not surprisingly, the New York Times Obit states that his whereabouts are unknown.

What would it be like to be this person? I assume that you already have a chip on your shoulder because you're in an orphanage and don't know who your real parents are, but to one day do a little research and find that your parents are Charles Manson (or one of his disciples) and Susan Atkins and that you were born in a glorified garbage dump? That has to do a number on you and there is not enough Newcastle Ale in the world to make those self-doubting crazy thoughts go away.

Is this information that you would even want to know?

As the cliché goes, the day that the cops fingered Manson and his hippie crew as the prime suspects for the killings of Tate and LaBianca “were the day the 60s died”. But that's horseshit, I didn't live during that era, but I've watched enough and read enough about it to know that the whole “Free Love” feeling was a crock. For three months during the summer of 1967, people tried to get together and love each other, but it didn't work. Thousands of kids were flooding into San Francisco weekly hoping to find some sort of new consciousness* and utopian way of living.

But the predators realized this too and they moved in with harder drugs, prostituiton and crime—taking advantage of these naive kids and screwing them up royally. Of course, the word didn't spread for awhile and more kids came out and tried to live these ideals and they were taken advantage of too leaving even more broken people.

* If I grew up in the 50s and 60s, had a war raging on that I was going to have to fight and was completely miserable, I'd try to find some way to change my view point too. But the problem with ex-hippies isn't that they tried and failed; it's that they tried and believe that they succeeded. They didn't succeed, they made everything worse.

Manson was one of these predators. He had been locked away in various reformatories since he was 12-years-old and went away for a couple of years during the early 1960s. When he was released, it must have been like walking into a paradise of fools for him. He was obviously charming and quick witted, so lots of women got with him. Where ever there are lots of women, that means that there's going to be some dudes trying to get some action, so Manson had them too. And he had plenty of drugs and had complete control of every aspect of their lives, which turned these middle-class, white bread kids into mini Manchurian Candidates.

For his whole life he had been beaten down and destroyed, now was his chance to lead with the children of the people who put him away. What is surprising is not that it happened, what's surprising is that it only happened once.