Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A new look for a new year

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There is nothing wrong with your computer monitor. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crystal clarity. Sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat, there is nothing wrong with your monitor. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to... The New Look for WB, 2009.*


* Thanks to The Outer Limits for inspiration.
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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Gesegnete Feiertage... er, Blessings of the Season!

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What better holiday gift can the WildeBoomerz team bestow to our readers than this, a clip of The Hoff singing "Silent Night" auf Deutch?

We'll see you in 2009; until then we're off to the Island of Misfit Toys after a brief stop to visit George Bailey and perform a couple of quick miracles on 34th Street.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and don't forget: Bumbles bounce!

Oh, and remember to bring plenty of cheese:



Happy Holidays from the WB Staff:
78rpm, Litchik, Pinkmingo, and Nighthand


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Money's tight, times are hard...

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...so here is this year's Christmas card*.


And as a bonus, here's a link to the New York Times' review of a holiday classic: "Wonderful? Sorry, George, It's a Pitiful, Dreadful Life." After all these years of being wrapped up in the movie's alleged charm, our eyes have been opened.

But we're not done with the bag of goodies yet! Some day, 78rpm will superglue Litchik to her office chair, set out a two-hour supply of red pop, and put the DVD of The Godfather into her computer. But for now, this holiday version of The Reinfather will have to give her a sense of what she's been missing all these decades years.



It's not as concise and cogent as 30-Second Bunny Theatre's version of A Christmas Story, or It's a Wonderful Life for that matter, but since 30SBT doesn't have a version of this pop culture touchstone out yet, it will do — until the Superglue bucket arrives.


(*Feel free to click and grab the full version as a festive desktop/wallpaper. We'd love to credit the original artist, but we don't know who it is — if we hear from them we'll gladly credit it.)
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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Two things that make us say Grrrr

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Some of the WB staff have been gone from the office for quite some time, during which voicemail, scourge of modern workplaces everywhere, built up. And while voicemail can be a pain just on a regular personal cell phone, especially with lots of messages interrupted by Ms. Robovoice's narrative — e.g. "Fourth message, sent today at 8:15 p.m." — it's a complete horrorshow on a business system.

"You have 29 new messages that have not been heard. To hear these 29 new messages, press 1-1."

"The following 29 messages have not been heard. First unheard message, sent blah blah blah at blah blah blah blah...."

Okay, so how many times does someone need to hear that a message is new before understanding that it's, like, not old? And if a message is new, doesn't it stand to pure and absolute reason that it has never been heard before? And why is it necessary to count the messages and identify each one by its number? For that matter, why the big formal introduction for each one before just... playing it? Would a quick "29 messages; here they are" be wrong?

And the cruelest part: while there are ways to bypass a message after a few seconds and delete it without hearing the rest, there is no way to bypass Ms. Robovoice doing any of her infuriating song and dance along the way. It's like the FBI warning on a DVD with no way to fast forward. She is just that essential.

On a totally unrelated note (although we wrote about this country's former leader the other day) there's also no way to pardon the American refusal to pronounce the name of a country it took over in 2003 as anything but "Eye-rack." You'd think it might be important, with over four thousand U.S. soldiers killed there and another 30,000 maimed, not to mention the nearly 100,000 Iraqi (eye-rack-ee) citizens and soldiers killed. But no.

There've been theories that it's Iraq's fault Americans can't pronounce its name, because the "I" shows up at the beginning and the "raq" has an "A" in it. This allegedly makes the U.S. brain automatically say eye like in "Iceland" and aah like in "bad."

Right, and this is why we pronounce Raquel Welch's first name as Rack-well (no bustline jokes; the former pinup is nearly 70 now), the word "aqua" as ack-wah, and these countries in these ways:

• Indonesia: eye-ndosesia
• India: eye-ndia
• Israel: eyez-ree-el
• Italy: eye-tullee

See? Theories of "we can't" don't hold up. The simple truth is, we don't want to. Every country whose name starts with the letter "I" has that name pronounced correctly by the American tongue, except for two: Iraq and Iran. True, we go through lots of eye-talian dressing at Olive Garden, and it might even be made by genuine eye-talians, but they don't live in eye-tullee.

Nope, it's just those two Oil Gulf nations, Eye-rack and Eye-ran, both of whom have rattled their sabers at the U.S., so what the hell do we care how they say their names. They're enemies, and that's pronounced eh-neh-meez, which is all that really matters.

Grrrr.
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Friday, December 19, 2008

Playing in the ashes

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WB is happy to introduce new contributor
Nighthand, coming aboard just in time to make a last-second gift suggestion for any gamers in need of post-apocalyptic adventure.


A new contributing writer, a new area of subject matter? Might as well start with a new game, and one of the newest to hit the markets with more than a ripple is Fallout 3.

Fallout 1 came out in 1997, Fallout 2 in 1998. Now, ten years later, Fallout 3 finally has hit the markets to remind us why we so loved a world struck by nuclear war, with the strange juxtaposition of the 1950s and the post-2000s.


Fallout 3 is a fun and original game from the beginning — a beginning that’s not only the start of the game, but the start of your character’s life. That’s right; you begin your adventure quite literally at birth. From there you’re given the option to choose your name and, via use of Vault-Tek technology, extrapolate your future appearance.

A time jump later and you are a toddler, learning to walk, and the first RPG element enters the picture. A children’s book titled “You’re S.P.E.C.I.A.L.” is available to read. Each letter in S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stands for one of your attribute points (Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck respectively) and each is accompanied by a two-line rhyme explaining in simple terms what that stat deal with.

Next, you’re taken to ten years old, and given a Pip-Boy, which is essentially a computer on your wrist and serves through the game as your menu. This is only slightly jarring later in the game when you encounter people who know what it is, and know how to use it to give or take information from it, but no one else has one. Given that you’re supposed to have been stuck in the vault for two hundred years, it’s a little out of place that centuries-old technology is rather common knowledge while being far from common-place.

You progress through your childhood to your mid-teens and are given a test which has absurd questions, each with answers that determine your in-game personality. The only effect this has is to choose what skills you start off with, and if you’re unsatisfied you can change them immediately afterwards (or choose to skip the test entirely by talking to the teacher, who offers to let you cheat.)

From here you’re let loose in the Vault tutorial area and the real game begins. Things swiftly go wrong and you’re thrown out into the irradiated wasteland that is the Washington D.C. area, free to explore and choose your path through the world as you like.

The character creation process is original and enjoyable, which is rare for an RPG. It’s even worth going through again, rather than skipping, when you inevitably make your second character. A second character that is almost necessary to experience the full game, choosing the evil alignment choices rather than the good (or vice versa, if you went evil the first time around.)

The world of Fallout 3 is expansive, detailed, and full of life. Of course, most of the life is either anarchic raiders who want to kill you and take the nice things you’re carrying, or radioactive mutated animals that see you as a tasty meal. Later on the two combine, and you find yourself facing supermutants. There’s a lot of back story for just about everything in the game, some of which comes from the previous games, and some of which you find scattered about in dialogue.

Dialogue in Fallout 3 is amazing. Sure, sometimes the voice actors are a little flat, or the topics a little out of place. It’s not always appropriate to question someone about the history of their settlement in the middle of a firefight, for example. Overall, though, most of the characters are believable and in-depth. The main characters, that is; there are plenty of unnamed settlers that serve no purpose beyond making an area look more populated.

So, some of the things that show up in Fallout 3, at least for a good aligned character:

- A wandering trader named Crazy Wolfgang (a reference to numerous used auto salespeople of questionable sanity) begins his conversations with “So what can I, the craziest of all possible Wolfgangs, do for you?”

- A mad preacher ranting about us putting the sun in a glass jar and breaking it over ourselves (the nuclear war) and filling his alleyway with explosives, which he detonates when he sees you. Killing him from a distance yields several mini-nukes, a rare ammunition for a rare weapon.

- A feat called ‘Bloody Mess’ that, when taken, causes an absurd amount of destruction when you kill an opponent. Often a critical hit to the head will cause al of the opponent’s limbs to explode away from their torso in an impressive, if unrealistic display of gore.


- Another feat called ‘Mysterious Stranger’ where a Humphrey Bogart lookalike in a fedora and a trench coat finishes off an enemy you failed to kill with his special .44 Magnum.

- NPCs that interact. Very often you’ll be traveling through the wastes and find a group of mercenaries fighting a group of raiders or supermutants, or even wildlife. In fact, wandering around, it was a sad sight to find Wolfgang was no longer the craziest of all possible Wolfgangs, he was the deadest of all possible Wolfgangs.

- A city built inside a beached aircraft carrier, the history of which is long forgotten.

There would be more, but spoilers are to be avoided so soon after a game debuts, so that will have to do.

So what is there to complain about in such a game? Well, for one, after a while the majority of the opponents cease to be a threat. While the game has a significant focus on making the D.C. wasteland realistic, even replicating the positioning and internal layout of buildings such as the Capitol and the nearby museums, the game play stretches the bounds of realism with the ease radiation is dealt with, and the aforementioned Bloody Mess perk.


On top of that, the plot is… short. The side quests are more prevalent than the main plot, and it’s easy to talk to the wrong person too early and bypass quests from the main plot. You can go back and do them, but they don’t have the full effect they would have. If you’re careful, though, these issues aren’t enough to get in the way of having a fun time with the game. Overall? Metacritic’s 93/100 and Gamespot’s 9/10 are pretty accurate.

(Finally, if you’re looking for the typical WB “deeper analysis” component to appear here, exploring what the game might mean as the response to a need in pop culture: hey, it’s the holidays! Our gift to you is this review, and a chance for you to enjoy figuring out the Deeper Relevance.)
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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Saddam Corleone Soprano Montana Hussein does Shakespeare


WB always knew there was something weird about the whole pas de deux danced by Saddam Hussein with each George Bush (Sr. and Jr.) he faced. Even though the U.S. may have played the parts of liberator (Sr.) and invader (Jr.), diplomat (Sr.) and rootin' tootin' cowboy (guess), the man they both faced as their enemy was a gangster starring in a tragedy of Shakespearean proportion — or at least that's the Iraqi leader's depiction in HBO's House of Saddam.

Like Don Vito Corleone, the Saddam HBO portrays is the patriarch of an extended family of younger, aspiring gangsters who may or may not be plotting to take his position. Like the Godfather, Saddam tries to follow the principle of "only business, nothing personal," which is difficult when every aspect of the "business" is run by family members.

Like Tony Soprano, the HBO Saddam is capable of cold and methodical violence, even while turning on the charm. There are some who loathe him, but their loathing is kept in check by the fact that they fear him even more. Like Tony, Saddam sometimes grows weary of running his empire of crime, but he has no one to turn to except his blond goomah, who eventually becomes his second wife, and who has power aspirations of her own.

Like Tony Montana, Saddam rises to the top of a crime empire so vast that it spins out of control when he's forced to kill those he loves and keep himself deluded that defeat is victory. But while Scarface's "down in a blaze of glory" demise comes after Tony buries his nose in a mountain of cocaine, Saddam's comes after burying his in a snootful of dirt in a pathetic underground hiding spot.

Like King Lear, Saddam's pronunciations and decisions have significant impact on his daughters' lives. Like Hamlet, many who surround Saddam know that he dispatched the previous ruler under false pretense, but they take no action. Like Othello, Saddam is driven mad by his desire, not for a woman but for a nation that his misplaced and psychotic passion destroys.

So, what's the lesson here? Mostly that governments are scarily similar to mob families, and that the top gangsters in each organization are engaged in the same pursuit: to show the other gangsters what happens if they try to get in the way of family business. In other words, House of Saddam is totally familiar material — which makes it totally engaging. Imagine sitting in a man-cave with seven 50-inch TVs playing The Godfather (parts one and two), The Sopranos, Scarface, King Lear, Hamlet (the Mel Gibson version), and Othello (the Laurence Fishburn version) all at once.

But then don't forget to also imagine how overwhelming the same experience was for the real-life audience of the real-life Saddam Hussein's mad power grab. For every enraged Tony Montana spraying bullets from an arsenal of giant guns, there are bodies falling who had nothing to do with any of it.
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Monday, December 15, 2008

All is calm, all is bright....

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Ah, Christmas — er, the Holiday Season — er, the Winter Break — a time when laid-off parents have to write "letters from Santa" to their kids explaining why the toy supply will be tiny this year, and non-celebrating parents unwittingly help their kids feel like pariahs, and sociologists warn that the whole tradition needs a makeover. A time when the annual "inclusion, or exclusivity?" controversy erupts as cities grapple with hard issues like whether Santa should be standing to the left or right in the stable with the Wise Men under the Star & Crescent and next to the Menorah, and whether the reindeer should be posed among the camels or the sheep. A time to think fondly of Charles Dickens, "The Man Who Invented Christmas," and remember that he was a self-published artist (A Christmas Carol was rejected by all major publishers) facing issues of copyright infringement and illegal piracy of his work, so it would be nice if we could stop downloading on the 24th and 25th in his memory.

And it's a time to congratulate Dionte Christmas of Temple University's roundball team for contributing 35 points to an 88-72 upset over Tennessee.

It's a complex time, especially this year when the children of Wall Street bankers and investment brokers will define "fewer toys" as one Land Rover instead of two Bentleys, and children of autoworkers preparing for disaster will still get that Cadillac Escalade, but the $1 Hot Wheels version instead of the $300 Power Wheels they wanted.

Sociologists say not to do that because it confuses and hurts the children, and economists say not to do that because it confuses and hurts the retailers, and Republican lawmakers say Cadillac workers make too much money and it's their fault no one can buy cars after Wall Street and K Street crashed the credit market. The season of giving, for those lawmakers, means the season of giving the finger to middle class laborers while giving golden parachutes to wealthy executives. And even though those working-class parents would rather die than have to get tied up in complicated lies to their kids about why Santa will be turning into Scrooge, the rousing Republican retort is a passage from Dickens' best-known work: "If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

Stephen, sing us out.
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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Last chance! These specials will never be repeated (until next year)!

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As important as it is to rage against the commodification of everything in a consumer-gone-wild culture, some of us still manage to really enjoy this time of year. We can debate the real "reason for the season" and bemoan the fact that everything happening between Labor Day barbecues and New Year's hangovers has become completely commercialized, but the act of giving the perfect gift still gives many of us a rush. So, for last minute shoppers who haven't given up on Christmas, WB offers the following suggestions:
  • For the graphic t-shirt lover on your list, check out some great deals at threadless.com (shoutout to our friend J. Ooh-Ah who pointed us to the site). Cheap shirts and hilarious pictures and slogans make these a fine, wholesome gift for any age.
  • For the masochist on your list, NBC's Heroes has a line of action figures. These figures are amazingly accurate and a fun idea for the few fans still left. Grab 'em while you can.

  • For those feeling the economic pinch, why not just put together a tasteful and elegant list of blogs and websites tailored to that special someone's interests? Of course, we suggest you start with this one and then check all of the great places we've linked to; there's plenty to show that you're someone of pop culture wealth and taste.

From the WB staff, have a happy holiday season!

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Friday, December 12, 2008

And the title of this post is . . . .

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With TV and films saturated with competition narratives — game shows, talent judgings, feel-good historical "underdogs win" tales, and "last person standing" stuff like MTV's Rock of Love and Parental Control that are hybrids of everything — WB is feeling annoyed, irritated, and slightly homicidal about one feature all of these genres share, namely

(wait)...

(for)...

(it)...

the exaggerated dramatic pause.

Okay, we can understand a genuine pause for dramatic effect, the kinds of pauses we throw into normal conversation: "And now, she's going out with — Adam!" A pause about as long as it takes for your eye to skate across that em dash between "with" and "Adam." A realistic pause. A reasonable pause.

But now the exaggerated pause is ubiquitous. WB blames the old/original version of Family Feud, on which Richard Dawson polled families for answers to category questions: "Name an animal that rescues people," the dapper British host would say, whereupon the family would huddle up excitedly before reporting their answer: "Robots!"

Unfazed, Dawson would saunter over to the family for earnest, quiet discussion. "Those robots are difficult to breed," he'd say, deadpan. "The conditions have to be just right." The family would nod enthusiastically as Dawson turned to the big answer board on the wall and shouted: "Show... me... robots!" One... two... three... and finally: Nnnnnnnt. "Oh, too bad," Dawson would empathize. "I thought for sure it would be there."

The other variation was the "audience survey" question, framed by the host as "Our studio audience was asked to name a great U.S. politician. We have their top three answers; if you guess one of them, you win the game." After the family jumped around on invisible pogo sticks and consulted with each other, they'd give their answer: "Pope John Paul!" Earnest discussion. Crossing of fingers. Squeezing shut of eyes. And then a sweeping turn to the answer board before the host shouted: "Our... survey... said!"

One. Two. Three. Four. Nnnnnnnt.

"Gosh, I'm sorry," Dawson would offer. "You're such a lovely family."

Now, the exaggerated pause appears even on something as innocuous as HGTV's If Walls Could Talk, where people find cool old stuff in houses they've bought and then have an appraiser tell them the value of what they've found. After the appraiser says, "This item is worth...," there's a seven-second pause.

Deal or No Deal, same thing: although WB still has no idea how this convoluted game even works, we know that at some point where the highest of the high drama has been reached, Howie Mandel turns to one of the tall models in evening gowns and says, "Carolyn, open your case."

One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven.

Click
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Flip.


Then something happens, but WB can never figure out if it's good or bad.

On MTV's Parental Control, parents who despise their daughter's boyfriend choose three other guys to date her. They and the despised boyfriend watch video of the three dates, and then the daughter comes home to announce her decision. "Mom, Dad," she says, "I've thought about it really carefully, and I've chosen...."

Twelve seconds. And we won't even talk about the tedious "High Drama" music cues that go with them, a series of notes not as intense as the EEP! EEP! EEP! behind the shower-stabbing scene in Psycho, but still screamingly obvious: Oh-my-god-who-will-she-choose-there's-just-so-much-suspense!

Back to HGTV, Designed to Sell brings a team of renovators and designers to someone's house and asks what price the seller has in mind. Once a target price is named, the consultants suggest and implement a flurry of projects to make the place more appealing. Then the appraiser comes in.

"Joann and Bud, you guys said you want at least $450,000 for your house," the appraiser says. "I've looked at everything you've done, and I'm confident that you could sell this house for...."

Thirteen seconds.

In Denzel Washington's recent film The Great Debaters, when the obscure Black college's debate team travels to Cambridge to compete with the Harvard team, the moment itself creates its own tension and suspense. But in case we miss that, Washington throws this in after both teams have presented their best speeches and evidence: The Harvard president, dressed in full academic regalia, stands before a packed auditorium and says: "The winner of this debate is...."

Twenty-five seconds.

And for what? Do we really even have to ask who wins?


But even the nearly half-minute of Great Debaters "suspense" can't hold a candle to the undisputed king of the pause, Regis Philbin's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. This show raised the dramatic pause to a ludicrous art form. The contestant climbed steadily through the questions, each correct answer earning more money than the one before. And then came this:

"Kelly, for $250,000: Who was the first human to step on the moon? Was it (a) Neil Armstrong, (b) Tom Hanks, (c) Will Smith, or (d) John Glenn."

30 seconds. Silence. Music. Sweeping dramatic lights. Then: "Kelly, I need your answer."

"Well, let me think here. I've never heard of Armstrong, but I know that Tom Hanks flew the Apollo 13 mission, and Will Smith was one of the Space Cowboys who was interviewed on Jay Leno. John Glenn... the name sounds familiar. I can't be sure if he was an astronaut, though."

20 seconds. "Kelly, your answer please."

"Oh geez, this one is tough. I think I know for sure that it's not Armstrong or Glenn, because I would've heard a lot more about them, but did Apollo 13 land on the moon? And if it did, was it before the Space Cowboys mission or afterward? Oh geez this is so, so, so, so tough.... Okay, I think I'm ready. No, wait. Yes, okay. Whew, I am so nervous. Regis, it was Tom Hanks."

"Tom Hanks. First person to set foot on the moon. Are you sure?"

"I think so. Yes, I think I'm sure. I mean, I could be wrong, but I feel really good about this, I think, and I don't want to use any of my lifelines until the really big-money questions, so yes, I'm sure. Okay, yes, really, I am sure."

"Tom Hanks."

"Yes. Tom Hanks."

"Final answer?"

"Final answer."

One... two... three....

WTF? After seventeen minutes of wasted airtime, wasted energy, wasted brainwaves, and wasted life watching some anonymous dolt wrangle over a single obvious answer which is obviously wrong, we still need more pauses?

Here's an idea: if the networks and movie studios delete all of this inane and unnecessary pausing for the sake of "drama" and "suspense," and use the newly-available time to either tell more of the story or just shorten it so we have more time to live our own lives without pausing to watch other people live theirs, we all win.
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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

They brand cattle, don't they?

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A few days ago, author Peter Montoya live-chatted at the Washington Post's BizBooks (in connection with Amex and Slate) about his book, The Brand Called You. The book's official blurb: "Why does a consumer choose to buy Rachel Ray's cookware over another brand? Or book a vacation at the Wynn Las Vegas over the countless other hotels on the Las Vegas strip? It's because both Rachel Ray and Steve Wynn have successfully mastered the art of creating a personal brand. A personal brand reshapes how your customers perceive you and the value you provide."

The art of creating a personal brand.
The act of depersonalizing and instead commodifying. I am for sale; come buy me.

(Sounds a little like a different kind of business practice that's been around for a long time.)

For some, the "Mark of Cain" is the first example of branding, with the Hebrew God putting some sort of trademark on His special product, a jealous man guilty of fratricide, in order to say "This is Mine; don't mess with it." It wasn't the first time that the "God's Chosen" brand had been flashed around, but it was pretty memorable, since the dead brother, Abel, was probably thinking that he deserved top-level attention and corporate sponsorship more.

Over the centuries, corporate sponsorship became a form of evil in itself, and now there's a small army of resistance forming at the gates to take it down. Naomi Klein's No Logo isn't just a book, it's an ideology of anti-ideology. Unfortunately, it's also the name of a sportswear manufacturer, an online/eBay retailer, and most ironically, a British advertising agency whose mission is to "create, name, invigorate, reposition, consolidate, design, implement and very strongly suggest brand."

Uh....

Wisconsin's No Brand Con, which started out as a small meeting of anime fans, is going into its eighth year, getting bigger and more branded with each convention. In Japan, McDonald's is opening a "no brand" "quarter-pounder joint." You know, just an indie diner that sells distilled, homogenized, cardboard-infused "meat" that happens to look like a QPC from Micky D. And the most vocal and visible resistance fighter, Adbusters' Blackspot non-brand, is of course a brand, complete with an image: it fights against branding. See, I do not have a Nike swoosh on my shoes, I have an artfully blobby little spot of paint instead. Therefore I am not branded; if anything, I am spotted or blobbed, but those are silly concepts, so I'm not anything. See? Magic.

As Rutgers professor Myra Jehlen wrote over a decade ago, the outlines of successfully dominant ideology are most clearly visible in the amounts and forms of resistance to it. Given that, brands are clearly here to stay until someone finds a way to replace them with the true non-brand: nothing.
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Monday, December 8, 2008

Tropic Thunder Apologizes, Causes Male Sterility. (ROFL!)

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The DVD for Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder offers an incredible array of special features that are sorely missing from most other recent disc offerings. (Note to Hollywood: previews of upcoming movies are not "special features" of the movie that's on the disc. Duh.) And Tom Cruise, everywhere else known as an arrogant buffoon, is hysterical in the movie and in the special-features extended hip-hop dance sequence.

At least one of the special features for Thunder is also a psychological study in either blatant hypocrisy or blind ignorance, being a Dreamworks public service announcement reminding us that the "intellectually challenged" are our colleagues, neighbors, friends, and family members, and that they should never be called any "R-word" except the one they deserve, "Respected."

True enough, but this is Tropic Thunder, where Robert Downey Jr.'s character gives Ben Stiller's character a long lecture on why no actors should ever go "full retard" if they hope to win an Academy Award. Dustin Hoffman and Tom Hanks, as Rain Man and Forrest Gump, played their guys as only partially retarded, and each won an Oscar. Sean Penn played I Am Sam as a "full retard" and the Academy snubbed his performance.

Oh, and then there are those scenes of the Stiller character's failed role as a "full retard" — buck teeth, stutter, stupid hair, stupid clothes, crossed eyes, slurred speech — which the jungle drug lords force him to reprise... but we don't want to give the plot away.

So... hmm... could the PSA have anything to do with the negative publicity brought against the film by the Special Olympics people and other advocates? And a continuation of token-apology moves already begun during the summer?

If so, then Dreamworks and the Stiller/Downey/Black three stooges also have some major apologizing to do to another special-interest group: Men. Probably the biggest laugh-inducer on the whole disc has already gone at least partially around the Internet as the "viral video" it claimed to set out to be (postmodern meta-commentary; gotta love it). And the viral clip also happened to be a promo — one of dozens — for the film when it was coming to theaters. Let's have a look:


Okay, the last scene is disturbingly evocative of about-to-be-decapitated-hostage videos before it flips to an undisguised Scanners ripoff; not very amusing. But as for the rest: OMGROFLMAO — the classic Bashed Balls comedy routine! The nutcracker is something that every man has experienced at least once in life, remembers vividly for the agonizing pain and inability to breathe that came right after impact, and hopes never to experience again, ever. So, um: why is it so funny?

The Internet is filled with interesting speculation: guys make really amusing faces both before and after the big hit; men are rendered speechless and powerless (for a change); "balls" are the linguistic symbol of inflated bravery and machismo, so it's a delight to see them deflated so decisively; a whack to the sack is basic schadenfreude 101 — hysterical as long as it happens to others; the pain is only temporary, so what's the big deal; and the ever-popular Who Cares Stop Overthinking This And Just Laugh, which is sort of similar to the "No one knows for sure, but it is" determination made by a group of college freshmen when asked by their professor.

In any case, we hope that the upcoming Super Deluxe Director's Edition 5-disc DVD release of Tropic Thunder won't have to include a public service announcement apologizing for the director's inadvertent role in promoting Planned Parenthood.

Then again, controversy is publicity, so head on over to Tactical World for some protection and then let the groin gonging commence.
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Saturday, December 6, 2008

Popular pictures of professors as pitiful pedants: Puh-leez

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On the advice of Litchik and Funderwoman, 78rpm recently rented a movie called Smart People, starring Dennis Quaid as an English professor. It was interesting to see Quaid turning in a performance at about 15% of his usual energy level, and the characters were all likable and sympathetic (at least by the end), but... the story seemed pretty familiar.

Thinking about it more, it's really not the story itself that was recycled; rather, the story could only go a certain way since the main character was A College Professor, As Depicted In The Movies. In other words, he wasn't so much a fully-developed character as he was shorthand for "you know this guy already, so let's dispense with any unique backstory elements and get straight to the typical romantic comedy stuff."

In Good Will Hunting, this shorthand had a slight variation, from "romantic comedy" to "dramatic conflict," and the story differed because the central character was a student, and the professor, played by Robin Williams, had a supporting role as a psychology instructor working as a therapist on the side. The professors themselves were the same character. Quaid's professor is a widower who's still pining over his dead wife. So is Williams's professor. Quaid is alienated from his job. So is Williams. Quaid dresses like a nebbish and has a scruffy beard. Ditto for Williams. Quaid is a crank who needs exposure to vibrant youth to be reborn. Same for Williams.

Quaid is alienated from his family. So are Philip Seymour Hoffman as the professor in Savages and Jeff Daniels as the professor in The Squid and the Whale and William Hurt as the professor in One True Thing and Michael Douglas as the professor in Wonder Boys and... you get the picture. Quaid is also obsessed with publishing, disdainful of students, dismissive of colleagues who likewise dismiss him, like Richard Jenkins in The Visitor. He's such a schlub, he shuffles with a pronounced slump even though he may be all of 50. He's ignorant of the world and only becomes animated when discoursing on trivia and theory about old, dead books by old, dead writers. Otherwise he's so low-key, so unanimated that he's most likely suicidal, like Steve Carell the professor in Little Miss Sunshine.

Oh yeah, we've seen this guy before, several hundred times. He is The Professor — and nothing more has to be said, because The Professor rarely varies from one movie to the next. But simply recognizing that we recognize him isn't enough. The larger question is, why do we recognize him? A classic 1993 article titled "Dancing with Professors" tries a theory:

We must remember...that professors are the ones nobody wanted to dance with in high school.... What one sees in professors, repeatedly, is exactly the manner that anyone would adopt after a couple of sad evenings sidelined under the crepe-paper streamers in the gym, sitting on a folding chair while everyone else danced. Dignity, for professors, perches precariously on how well they can convey this message, "I am immersed in some very important thoughts, which unsophisticated people could not even begin to understand. Thus, I would not want to dance, even if one of you unsophisticated people were to ask me."

Okay, sure, a professor wrote this description of professors and explanation of their antisocial behaviors, so that must make it all true, right? But thinking about all of this led to a 2007 article by William Deresiewicz in The American Scholar, where it gets even richer:

[W]hat is the meaning of the new academic stereotype? Why are so many of these failed professors also failed writers? Why is professional futility so often connected with sexual impropriety? Why are these professors all men, and why are all the ones who are married such miserable husbands?

Good questions all — and exactly the ones that came up while watching Smart People, and especially afterwards, when the flood of stereotypes had a chance to settle. Deresiewicz goes on to look at cause-and-effect relationships that the movie depictions set up:

The alcoholic, embittered, writer-manqué English professor who neglects his family and seduces his students is a figure of creative sterility, and he is creatively sterile because he loves only himself. Hence his vanity, pomposity, and selfishness; his self-pity, passivity, and resentment. Hence his ambition and failure. And thence his lechery, for sleeping with his students is a sign not of virility but of impotence: he can only hit the easy targets; he feeds on his students’ vitality; he can’t succeed in growing up.

In other words, it's a playbook for writing shorthand. Given that, the concept of "creative sterility" applies more to screenwriters than to the thin characters they keep reproducing rather than challenging themselves to depict three-dimensional, fully human figures who happen to teach at the post-secondary level. Yes, doctors and lawyers and cops can all file the same complaint against screenwriters — so what was that point about professors being "failed writers," anyway? Seems like some psychological projection's going on: I'm a lazy and unimaginative hack, so this prof's gonna be an exact clone of... ME!

But Deresiewicz concludes differently:

...The first possibility is that today’s academics are portrayed as pompous, lecherous, alcoholic failures because that’s what they are.... [F]or professors, vanity is a sort of occupational disease. Precisely because they don’t possess the kind of wealth that accrues to doctors and lawyers or the status wealth confers, academics are more apt to parade their intellectual superiority than members of other elite professions.

In the author's defense, he does go on to challenge all of this, noting that some professors are philanderers and drunks and that many of them are not that way at all, but faithful, sober, loving husbands and attentive fathers. And then Deresiewicz buries something in parentheses:

(That there are now a substantial number of female academics is a circumstance the popular imagination has yet to discover.)


Exactly! Cloning the stereotypical male professor isn't just lazy writing, it's a refusal to acknowledge reality. Women cops, women lawyers, and women doctors are so plentiful in TV and movies that it'd be weird to even comment on their number — but quick, name a famous female professor. Come on, just one; if you can't remember her name, then what movie was she in? And what was her role in the story?

(Okay, if you came up with Gwyneth Paltrow in Possession, or Emma Thompson in Wit, then bonus points all around. But you'll have to subtract half because Paltrow's professor starred in a box-office bomb that made only $10 million at less than 300 theaters worldwide, and Thompson's professor appeared in a TV movie on HBO.)

But back to the main point. Getting anyone to recognize the reality of professors' lives is a huge job, since even someone like film reviewer A. O. Scott, who sees movies and consumes their tired stereotypes for a living, can still fall for the shorthand trap:

[T]he excellent script for Smart People is the work of Mark Jude Poirer, a fiction writer who has clearly spent enough time around English departments to have studied the tribal ways of the literary professoriate with ethnographic rigor. The scenes of [Dennis Quaid's character] in the classroom or in department meetings are among the most frighteningly, comically accurate such moments I have ever seen on film.

Nonsense. In real life, professors know a lot of stuff and share it in the classroom, where displays of knowledge best belong, but then most of them leave it at work because there are other things to know when the job is done. What they do isn't who they are, regardless of how the movies prefer to show it. And see that photograph way up there? It's Kenneth Burke, probably the most important rhetorician of the 20th century. Notice the single glove, the funky coat, the newspaper, the pipe, the curl escaping from the mortarboard, the big goofy smile. He's not self-important, or alienated, or insecure. He's a nut, and he's having a blast.

In real life, professors build houses and plant trees and serve on boards and play basketball and go golfing and run marathons and meditate and make furniture and volunteer and support local theater and play instruments and join bands and go camping and grill steaks and play cards and smoke and drink and cuss and fish and hunt and know how to skip stones and spit watermelon seeds and rebuild a busted axle when the bearings give out.

Even some of the women.

So hey, Hollywood hacks — enough with the endless stereotyping, and keep that picture in mind when you think "academic."
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Friday, December 5, 2008

iBama: Zune/not a Zune

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Reports, rumors, and allegations that POTUS 44 Barack Obama rocks a Microsoft Zune instead of an iPod have been squelched and discredited.

The whole ugly scandal even has a name: "Zunegate."

If only people had checked the WB posts in July (and maybe Rolling Stone), it could all have been avoided. (Not coincindentally, that's also when we called the election.)

In any case, the music-player nightmare is over as quickly as it started, and we can all sleep soundly again knowing that nothing more serious than that is taking place in a peaceful and prosperous world.

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Thursday, December 4, 2008

Pass the peace.

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Here's a little something for any Scroogy readers who may be feeling a bit humbuggy after getting crushed in a sea of power-shopping humanity on Black Friday last week (even though we encouraged you to stay home): Willie Nelson and Stephen Colbert have teamed up on a stirring, inspirational, and festive song that's destined to join "White Christmas" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" in the pantheon of holiday classics.


The Little Dealer Boy

I have no money in my coffer
No gold or silver do I bring

Nor have I precious jewels to offer

To celebrate the newborn king.


Yet do not spurn my gift completely

Oh ye three wise men, please demur

Behold a plant that smokes more sweetly

Than either Frankincense or Myrrh.


And like the child born in this manger

This herb is mild, yet it is strong

And it brings peace to friend and stranger

Good will to men lies in this bong.


(Chorus)

And now my wonderweed is flaring

Looks like that special star above

Pass it around in endless sharing

And let not mankind bogart love.


And the wise men started toking

And yea, the bud was kind

It was salvation they were smoking

And its forgiveness blew their mind.


(Chorus)

And still that wonderweed is flaring

Looked like that star was once above

Pass it around in endless sharing

And let not mankind bogart love.


And let not mankind bogart love.

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Heroes: The sound of one train derailing.

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We've written about NBC's Heroes before — in fact, most recently just a couple of days ago. We've assigned the show as a required course text. And it's clear where Litchik stands on wanting the show to succeed. But after Monday night's "Eclipse Part Two" episode, a little glimpse into 78rpm's attention-deficit viewing brain might present an alternate point of view, and a change of heart.

Noah (HRG — what does that stand for again?) is spying on Sylar and what's-her-name through a window. Then he takes a shot, and misses. Then he goes inside and fights with Sylar. "You are not their son," Noah/HRG/whatever tells him, referring to the Petrelli couple from hell, Angela and, um... Robert Forster. Then he cuts Sylar's throat with a knife and Sylar is D-E-A-D dead.

Sylar was just a lonely guy and then he became an arch-villain and then he was revealed as a Petrelli love child and then he became a good guy and then he was Noah/HRM's friend and partner and then he switched back to evil but not really and now he's not a Petrelli and HR Pufnstuf hates him. And he is dead but is he dead for real or just dead for a couple of minutes until the writers find a way to cure the death?

It turns out, of course, that a little while later Sylar is right back at it, the death having been a minor inconvenience (oh yeah, and the invincible cheerleader is dead too, except she isn't) telling what's-her-name that he's not a good guy after all, he's a villain, and then he slices her forehead off, but this is after Hiro the Stand-Up Comic regresses to a ten-year-old after Robert Forster drains his brain, but then Seth Green says there's nothing that can be done, oh wait, yes there is, rumors exist of a secret tenth comic book that will tell the secret of a bicycle messenger, and then Hiro isn't a ten-year-old anymore and he time-travels to the room where Sylar is and touches him and says "Bad man" and Sylar disappears and Hiro blinks like Samantha in Bewitched at what's-her-name or maybe he taps her on the shoulder and she disappears too.

Should I try to sort this out, should I just roll with it, where the hell did Seth Green come from, is Robot Chicken going to show up next? And if he knows of a secret comic then why the hell didn't he just say so the first time? Did any of these writers take a course in basic editing? And see, the Sylar thing was right, not dead, he will never die, no one is ever anything on this show, everyone from Season One will be back before this year ends, with zero explanation, and this is just like that season of Dallas where the wife woke up from a dream and found out that the entire season had been her dream so every plot point was now moot, null, void, meaningless.

Now Sylar and what's-her-name are in the woods or on an island or something. "Who was that?" she asks, meaning Hiro, who she knows by name, and Sylar says "That was Hiro" — or maybe none of this is happening in the show, maybe it's all imagined by a despondent ex-viewer who finds himself laughing at the TV, because this isn't a drama, it's a comedy, and it isn't NBC, it's WTF, and it isn't even a show, it's Dante's eighth circle of hell, and none who enter have any hope of coming out with their patience (or sanity) intact, except for Litchik, who is clearly a better concentrator and a much more loyal fan.

Click.
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Monday, December 1, 2008

Heroes: Of Gods and G(r)eeks


Factions of the WB staff (ok, mainly Litchik) continue to cling to a few strands of hope that NBC's Heroes can return from what many have proclaimed a deadly tailspin since the launch — and subsequent ugly crash — of season two. Rather than join in this nattering chorus of negativity, we suggest that it's still possible to enjoy the rhetorical and theoretical pretzel twists that can apply to the show if you squint really hard, and take them with a grain smelling salts. (And try not to overdose on any mixed metaphors.)

What if, instead of yearning for a coherent narrative arc, we were to view Heroes as a 21st century myth, modeled on Greek mythology but with updated twists? Tim Kring and company are basically creating an entire mythos, much like Joss Whedon did with the Buffyverse, an endeavor that takes time and has a few low points. But certainly, all the Greek elements are there:
  • Arthur and Angela as the (demi)gods who rule the universe. Patriarch and Matriarch are now pitted against each other in what promises to be an epic battle for absolute power, each aligning themselves with both mortals and other (demi)gods.

  • The battle will surely center on their spawn (and spawn of their spawn), each powerful but also (tragically) flawed.

  • The promethian toilings of Surresh, who tried to steal the secret of the (demi)gods but instead of fire, received a formula that gave mere mortals powers. Surresh, up until recently, paid the price for injecting himself by turning into a monster — another prominent fixture in Greek mythology.

  • The eclipse has rendered our heroes powerless, a hint that their powers may be tied to a Superman-like power source (okay, that's not really Greek, but still, you know, a shout-out to a classic hero).

  • A touch of tragic irony, Sophocles style, was introduced when Daphne, the "Speedster," lost her powers and was revealed to need leg braces. (And in case we missed the impact, Matt Parkman was there to flinch and blink in obvious emotional pain at the pitiful sight.) *
Some might view these as absurd plot devices to push the story into increasingly complex and convoluted directions. Others might argue errors in eternal logic, like if Daphne now has to wear leg braces, why isn't Arthur in a coma again? But a few of us see other narrative strategies at work, developments that could return the show to the solid footing and mass appeal of season one. Heroes still has a good chance of coming back to its original glory if given a second third fourth another chance. O great and powerful NBC, consider this humble viewer's plea to keep the mythos going — just a little bit longer.
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* And once again, WB offers up Matt Parkman as a character who can be let go. In the "eclipse" episode, when he tried to read people's minds, a perplexed farmer's "Why're you tiltin' your face all sideways at me like that?" said all that needed to be said about Parkman's pathetic and unnecessary role in the ensemble cast.
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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Good "Friends" on a Saturday night

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Jeff Daniels and Friends, Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor, November 29:

Thirty-three magnificent musicians and one baby sharing a stage — that was the final song after two and a half hours of uptempo, feel-good folk music intended to raise funds for one of the country's few remaining historic theaters and to help a sold-out audience forget that, as Jeff Daniels said, "There's a lot of bad crap going on in our world right now."

Yes, that Jeff Daniels — the actor who'll be forever immortalized for his unforgettable "OMG the laxatives have kicked in" scene in Dumb and Dumber, but who also has created and run the Purple Rose Theater in Chelsea, Michigan for the past eighteen years. And between the acting and the theater supervision, he writes songs and sings and plays guitar, too — not like other occasional novelty/vanity "musicians" e.g. Russell Crowe and Keanu Reeves, but often, and well. The historic theater in question being the Michigan, this show featured six home-grown acts (including Daniels):

• The Ben Daniels Band (yep, Ben is fils to Jeff's père), featuring intricate and artfully mumbled lyrics and a surprisingly prominent role for acoustic bass; reminiscent of Adam Duritz in early Counting Crows, but also eerily similar to Everlast's best work.

The violin-led Ragbirds, who acknowledged the holidays with a magnificent congo-and-mandolin rendition of "Little Drummer Boy" and a roof-raising "Tarantella" (aided by the extreme sure-footedness of violinist Erin Zindle dancing nimbly over several miles of instrument cables strewn all over the stage).

• Ann Arbor's own legendary boogie-woogie piano maestro Mark "Mr. B" Braun, showing how Jerry Lee Lewis can only dream of playing the ivories, while also managing to make rocking piano blues function as the "quiet" segment of the show.

• Bluegrass/Appalachian/folk masters Steppin' In It, doing what they do best — dazzling the audience with steel slide guitar artistry by Joe Wilson and the incredible versatility of Andy Wilson on harmonica, flute, and accordian.

• The Brothers and Sisters in Christ (B.A.S.I.C.) Gospel Choir, appearing toward the end of the evening to show how praise and celebration are handled by folks who bring joyful thanks, not somber guilt, to Sunday morning meetings — and how to do it with bass and drums instead of church organ.

Along the way, emcee Jeff Daniels tossed in a couple of solo tunes (including a hilarious "State Trooper," with red-and-blue house lights flashing during each chorus) and mixed things up with Mr. B on piano and Andy Wilson on harmonica behind his guitar. Daniels' final sentiment of the evening, to counter his opening note about negative world events, was that "It's a Good Life (and Somebody's Gotta Live It)," accompanied by every musician who'd performed that evening. (There's really nothing quite like a band with four bass players, four drummers, six guitarists, twenty-two vocalists... oh wait, yes there is: Slipknot. But the masked metalheads from Iowa don't have a gospel choir, a honky-tonk piano, or a baby cradled in a female vocalist's arms.)

A final note: WB has endured numerous half-hour, 45-minute, and even hour-long set changes at shows between opening acts and headliners. Every instrument, every cable, every guitar pick is folded up and taken off stage while a new set of replacements is wheeled on. The mics that worked perfectly for the first act are removed and replaced by new ones, which now need their own soundcheck rituals. But on Saturday night, Jeff Daniels and five other acts showed how to get off stage and enter it in one flawless movement — with no set changes. There was one drum kit, courtesy of the Ragbirds. One array of microphones (lots of them). One set of amps and monitors. Even the bulkiest components of the show — the upright bass lugged around by Steppin' In It's
bassist Dominic John Suchyta, and the fifteen members of B.A.S.I.C. — got themselves and their gear on and off stage quickly and cleanly.

With our next scheduled show being a January concert by Metallica, Lamb of God, Machine Head, and the Sword, we're hoping that just a little of this fast set change might happen between four big-league metal bands in Detroit as well. If not, we'll be posting a review of the January 13th concert sometime around January 17th....
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