Friday, December 30, 2005

The First Annual Hot 50 List

Jessica Simpson as Daisy Duke Posted by Picasa

Every year, my girlfriend and I do separate lists of the 100 sexiest women of the year. Every year since 2001, we've been trading lists, and this year, I decided to chop off the bottom 50 and post my list on my blog. Since this blog is mostly my opinions on pop culture, here's yet another useless, lame list on my site. I'm considering this list the first one for this blog, so I'm not going to mention the previous years or show the changes in rank from last year. Clean slate for the public version, I guess. I will just add a note about the criteria for the list; first, it's a pop culture list, so it changes a lot from year to year depending on visibility, etc. And, of course, a woman has to be 17 in order to qualify.

1. Jessica Simpson
2. Christina Aguilera
3. Anneliese Van Der Pol
4. Anne Hathaway
5. Brooke Hogan
6. Katie Price
7. Michelle Marsh
8. Monica Bellucci
9. Dita Von Teese
10. Gwen Stefani
11. Mariah Carey
12. Liv Tyler
13. Heather Graham
14. Jenny McCarthy
15. Ashlee Simpson
16. Stormy Daniels
17. Bai Ling
18. Gisele Bundchen
19. Aria Giovanni
20. Giorgia Palmas
21. Eva Green
22. Lucy Pinder
23. Leelee Sobieski
24. Scarlett Johansson
25. Charlize Theron
26. Susan Sarandon
27. Asia Argento
28. Lil’ Kim
29. Uma Thurman
30. Brittany Murphy
31. JoAnna Garcia
32. Sheri Moon Zombie
33. Misty Mundae
34. Kate Winslet
35. Katie Morgan
36. Rosario Dawson
37. Leann Rimes
38. Xenia Seeberg
39. Victoria Silvstedt
40. Jennifer Garner
41. Carla Gugino
42. Michelle Rodriguez
43. Paz Vega
44. Britney Spears
45. Sonia Aquino
46. Leilani Dowding
47. Tweet
48. Abi Titmuss
49. Kathleen Edwards
50. Ciara

Of course, this is the kind of list one can't post without inviting a lot of criticism; feel free to editorialize.

Vincent Schiavelli 1948-2005

No Throwdown once again this week; the news is slow, and what little there is tends to be highly irritating, so I'm just throwing in the whole thing this week. The only piece of news I remotely gave a shit about, however, was the death this week of Vincent Schiavelli (lung cancer at the age of 57). I loved seeing him in movies, and I'm sorry I won't be seeing him any more. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

Honestly, I'm Titaniced out. Really, I don't need to ever learn anymore ever about the Titanic. There was a definitive documentary around 1994, and it was definitively dramatized already... in Roy Ward Baker's A Night to Remember (1958), a film based on the definitive book about the Titanic, by Walter Lord. And yes, the James Cameron movie was nice, too. So, really, let's just leave it at that, shall we? This Cameron documentary is, I don't know, kinda neat, but with this much focus, I have to wonder why this story has gone from being tragic and historically interesting to IMPORTANT. Some of the technology on display here is interesting, as well as the too-brief mention of species of fish living in the ship that aren't found anywhere else. And to his credit, Cameron shows a little humility when he surfaces on 11 September 2001 only to be told about the World Trade Center attacks, and wonders if maybe his interest in Titanic is kind of trivial. It's about a **1/2 star movie, though.

KING KONG (2005)
The original King Kong is one of my all-time favorites. This film has surpassed it in every way. This surprisingly emotional, relentless, challenging adventure is the kind of film that everybody always says Spielberg used to make well, but he never made one as good as this. The genius of the film is that Kong himself is played as a giant gorilla, never as a monster. He has real feelings, recognizable behaviors, and that nervous, unpredictable edge that all wild animals have around them. The only real stumbling block is the lead actors themselves; Adrien Brody is never more than serviceable, and Naomi Watts doesn't have the passion or ability to make Ann Darrow everything she should be. Jack Black finds the perfect balance between irony and genuine as opportunist Carl Denham, playing him as a slightly less monomaniacal version of Orson Welles (somebody needs to take Black and make the great Orson Welles biopic, NOW). Andy Serkis does the motion-captured performance as King Kong, as he did Gollum in Jackson's Lord of the Rings. For the second time, Serkis raises the special effects to the level of performance, with depth and gravity; the Academy really needs to rethink its ruling on what is a special effect and what is acting. The film would be mere spectacle without its emotional core; I really cared about what happened and how it would all end up. The fact that everyone knows how "beauty killed the beast" only makes the inevitability of the end all the more tragic. An amazing movie that is not only Peter Jackson's greatest accomplishment (and here I never thought anything would surpass Lord of the Rings), but one of cinema's greatest masterworks. **** stars.

(2005)I've never thought much of C.S. Lewis's magical world of Narnia. Even as a child, it seemed underwritten and boring, and the religious allegories were so thin that it seemed condescending. At the risk of upsetting Lewis's admirers, I first say that I do love The Screwtape Letters and An Introduction to Paradise Lost. And then, I say that this film is The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as Lewis should have written it. There is some depth added to the story and characters of the children, there is real emotion in Aslan's struggle, and genuine hatred in the actions of the White Witch. The world is populated with creatures both wonderful and mundane, and the idea that four children can just walk in and become kings and queens really reaches the child inside of me. This is the fantasy movie I've been waiting for my whole life, with a variety of creatures, a magical adventure, an excellent battle scene, and those talking animals I'm always such a sucker for (Ray Winstone is great as the voice of Mr. Beaver). The story is taken seriously, but not in a pretentious way (or overly pretentious way), just enough so that there is more reality in there than Lewis took the time to build. Tilda Swinton is marvelously scary (and strangely, terribly beautiful) as the Witch, and James McAvoy makes a very warm Tumnus. The actors playing the children are passable (the ones playing Edmund and Lucy have to carry the harder scenes, and Lucy is every inch as adorable as she should be), though the older ones struggle a bit to find their characters. Still, it's not perfect, I have to say. The computer animation is scattershot, Michael Madsen isn't very good as the voice of the lead wolf, and it feels as though this entire magical land is in a soundstage. It's supposed to be epic, but it's on a small scale and it's only driven by a very few characters. Narnia itself doesn't have an impact. It really does feel like it's all inside a closet. So, I enjoyed the hell out of it (don't think about the plot too much) for what it was, which is a *** star movie.

Friday, December 23, 2005

The Pagan Origins of Christmas

The word yule means wheel (from Anglo-Saxon hweol), as in the Great Wheel of the Year or the Wheel of the Sun. It symbolizes a pagan nativity of life as a cycle of death and rebirth, with Mary, Joseph, and Jesus replaced by Mother Nature, Father Time, and the New Sun (read: son). This was used throughout history as a symbol of Nordic divination, Celtic fertility rites, and Roman Mithraism (a solar religion). The most familiar symbol of Yule is the Yule log, which is lit on the eve of the solstice and burned for 12 hours for good luck, a Druidic tradition. The ashes of the year’s Yule log are saved and used to ignite the next year’s. The Yule tree later replaced the log in Germany and other places, with candles set upon it. Catholics later said that St. Boniface invented this custom, but it actually goes back to the Roman Saturnalia, and possibly further than that, to Ancient Egyptian festivals. The Christmas lights are the last remnants of this, but its symbolism is important--light overcoming the darkness and foreshadowing the spring. After all, who doesn’t feel secure and warmed in the dark by the presence of soft Christmas lights?

The Tree
The evergreen tree is of great importance to pagans, more so than to Christians. Roman Mithraists used to decorate their temples with evergreen trees specifically for the feast.

Mistletoe comes from the Druids, who believed it to be an aphrodisiac (symbolically, of course--it’s actually quite toxic). Celts believed it was the Golden Bough when it dried, a door to the underworld (Norsemen called it guidhel, the guide to Hel). When alive, it represented the genitalia of the oak god, usually Dianus of Dodona, the sacred oak grove where the consort of the moon mother lived. A key entering a lock is a mystical symbol of the phallus entering the womb, another reason mistletoe was the key to the feminine underworld, where all true knowledge was held. Cutting the mistletoe was the symbolic castration of the old king to make way for the new, reflected best in the legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or the Norse Balder, who was slain with mistletoe. Kissing under the mistletoe is a faint remnant of the sexual orgies that used to accompany the rites of the oak god, or Green Man. When converted to Christianity, the Saxons equated mistletoe with the Tree of Knowledge from the garden of Eden.

Holly symbolizes death and regeneration and was sacred to the Norse goddess of death, Hel. Germanic witches favored holly wood for magic wands. The two berries are mixed together in a symbol of rebirth--the white mistletoe berries standing for male semen, and the red holly berries standing for the female menstrual blood. They are joined at Yule, the rebirth of the year. These are where the red and green colors of Christmas originated. Dinoysian cults substituted ivy for mistletoe, which is still heard in the Christmas carol "The Holly and the Ivy."

We Three Kings
The story of the three wise men is reflected in an Irish legend. In the time of Alexander, the land of Persia was called Carmania, "Car the Moon." According to the Irish legend, three powerful magicians came from this land bearing their bride, which was actually an idol of the Great Goddess under the name Car or Kore. The magicians were found as charlatans and fled, leaving their idol behind. The worship of Kore, the Holy Virgin, was widespread in the ancient world, from Karnak, Egypt, to Carnac, Brittany (the word itself is Greek, meaning girl). She was worshipped in France at Kerlescan, Kercado, and Kermario, and by the Carnutes who lived in pre-Roman Italy. The Roman alphabet was said to have originated with Carmenta, "the mind of Car." Mount Carmel was a shrine to the goddess, and her Coptic cult in Egypt--which has once performed mass sacrifice at Kerma in Nubia--flourished in Alexandria until the 4th century AD. She was worshipped for twelve nights (now the Twelve Days of Christmas), and the twelfth night (now the Feast of Epiphany) was the Koreion, the birth of the New Year God. The British still take the Koreion, after a fashion, as the Kirn, or Festival of Intergathering, later changed to the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy.

Santa Claus
When he isn’t pitching Coca-Cola (whose ads, incidentally, popularized the "traditional" look of Santa), Claus is a wonderful amalgamation of many different figures. The god of Yule to many Druids was Kriss Kringle, whose name literally means "Christ of the Orb" or "Christ-child" (Christkindl in German), the anointed King of the Sun. French Celts associated the year with Cernunnos, the horned god of the wood. The Norse gave the festival first to Frey, and then to Odin, the usurper of women’s power. The Saxons and Franks called him Woden; the Goths called him Godan or Father Goth. In Germany, legends tell of the Erlkonig, or Elf King, who leads the Wild Hunt every year at Halloween. Somehow, this legend was moved to Christmas and became Santa’s sleigh ride. The elves of Santa Claus are right out of these Teutonic legends, because elves were men and women who belonged to the cult of the dead--i.e. they were helpers of the god of death, Woden.

It is in Odin that the tree and Claus get especially combined. Odin hanged himself upside down from the World Tree with a spear for nine nights, a symbol of the nine-month childbirth period the Celts called noinden, or "nine-night." This was how Odin learned the secrets of the Earth Mother’s "wise blood," kept in her uterine cauldron (the cauldron itself is a symbol of regeneration and rebirth). This tree of martyrdom, called the Tau Cross or Cross of St. Anthony, allowed Odin to create his own son and reincarnation, Balder; similar to the myths of Attis, Adonis, and Jesus. Odin, the All Father (though not a creator), is older than the Teutons, originating with the Aryans who came west out of Asia, and is descended himself from Vata, the Vedic Lord of the Winds. Odin and Vata share the same title that the Christian bible gives Satan: Prince of the Power of the Air. In later centuries, fetishes and figures were attached to sacred trees to represent a pantheon of pagan deities. We continue the tradition today by placing our important symbols, including Santa Claus and Jesus Christ, and even pop culture symbols (I myself have the Superman and Kermit the Frog on my tree).

The Dutch called him Sinte Klaas, which is how the name Santa Claus gets over here in the first place. A similar Danish god, Hold Nikar, became "Old Nick" to the English, and was spuriously canonized as St. Nicholas, a benevolent giver of gifts. Hold Nikar was a sea god, sometimes equated with Poseidon, which is why St. Nicholas is said to be the patron saint of sailors. His preposterous saint’s biography says he regenerated the dead from a cauldron; how this remained in a Catholic world I cannot begin to speculate. A Gnostic sect of Nicoliates worshipped his cauldron and believed that salvation lay through frequent intercourse with both sexes! We are left with a kindly giver of gifts, which is Odin in his kindest aspect, who once a year traveled over towns and bestowed boons to his worthiest followers (those who believed in him, as we tell children of Santa).

Yule is, most importantly, the time to awake to new goals and leave old regrets behind. The star, now placed atop the Christmas tree, represents the five elements of the world: earth, air, fire, water, and wood. It has been overtaken by Christmas, but its spirit can never die. Martin Luther and John Calvin recognized the pagan origins of the holiday, and absolutely abhorred Christmas. The winter solstice, the longest night of the year, is associated with the birth of many solar gods that predated Jesus: Dionysos, Apollo, Herakles, Mithras, Horus, Adonis, Arthur. This is the night when the Great Mother gives birth to the new Sun King and the new year itself, proving the eternal victory of light over dark. This message, that the light will prevail, is the most important aspect of this holiday under any name, and connects us all in good blessings and good company. The pagan origins of Christmas are not to be abhorred or scoffed at, because the similarity of Christmas, Yule, and all the other versions unite us in our innate goodness, and bring us all closer together.

Historical Throwdown II: Holiday Boogaloo

Well, it's Christmas this weekend, and even though I'm not (overly) a sentimentalist, I just can't bring myself to care about any political or pop cultural or entertainment business news today. So, once again, I'm doing away with the Throwdown this week and instead giving up 10 facts I find interesting about the winter holidays themselves. Then, I'm going to curl up with my favorite Christmas movie of all time (the 1999 Patrick Stewart version of A Christmas Carol, seen above), and feel the season. Here goes.

1. Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo may not know, but the term wassail comes from the Old Norse ves heill ("to be of good health"). To wassail is to drink to the health of your neighbors on Christmas Eve. Doesn't anyone do this anymore? Wassailing somehow morphed into caroling.

2. The first US state to designate Christmas an official holiday was Alabama (1836). The last was Oklahoma (1911).

3. Pope Julius I designated 25 December the official date of Christmas in the year 440. The date was chosen in an attempt to replace the Mithraic Festival of the Return of the Sun. Many scholars think Jesus was born in the spring (assuming he existed at all). Those who never adopted the Gregorian calendar and are still on the Orthodox (Julian) calendar celebrate Christmas on 7 January.

4. Visa cards are used 5,340 times every minute during the Christmas shopping season.

5. From 1647 to 1660, Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas in England. He considered feasting and revelry on a holy day to be immoral.

6. In Jewish communities, if a family is too poor to buy candles for Hanukkah, the rest of the community is obligated to provide for them. If the candles are not completely burned by the end of the eight days, it is not permitted to used them for any other purpose and they must be destroyed.

7. Unlike Christmas, Hanukkah is based on an actual historical event; the cleansing of the Great Temple of Jerusalem after the Maccabeean revolt in 165 BC.

8. Kwanzaa was invented in 1966 as a pan-African celebration based on several African harvest festivals. Most websites about Kwanzaa only mention how to teach it to children. It is only celebrated by 1.6% of Americans.

9. Festivus is actually an obscure Scandinavian holiday celebrating the day before the Future (on Wikipedia, they compare it to Fat Tuesday).

10. Sorry faux-O.C. hipsters, but Chrismukkah has been around since the seventies. It isn't really cool, it just kind of waters down both holidays. Don't embarrass yourself celebrating its twenty days of tragic fake hipness. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Good Morning, Good Morning

I thought, for no good reason, I'd start the day with Scarlett Johansson's beautiful Golden Globes. Or as Becca once called them, luscious lovecups.

I have to say it again: "Luscious lovecups." Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

I should mention that I've seen this movie before; I saw it in high school, about 15 years ago, but Becca had never seen it and asked me to convey just how bad a movie this really is. Sadly, I don't have the skills of the late Hunter S. Thompson, so I can only hint at the disaster that this movie is. The folly of making a musical loosely based on the rape and pillage of Beatles albums. The fact that it's going to be years before I can listen to Abbey Road again. The idiotic lack of plot. George Burns singing "Fixing a Hole." The shame that Aerosmith should feel for even being in the movie in the first place (as the Future Villain Band). The fact that someone, somewhere thought that Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees were a perfectly good substitute for, you know, the Beatles. Actually, it's a good thing the Beatles broke up in 1970--otherwise, they would have starred in this piece of shit themselves. Is there anything good about this movie? Well, Paul Nicholas at least seems to know it's crap, so he just gives himself over to it. And the Bee Gees actually don't do a bad job; they're kind of fun as comic relief, and even though their interesting prog rock days are long over, they still have some musical talent (unlike Frampton, who should have been killed after this movie--or even better, before it; he spends the whole movie thinking he's David Bowie, "only better"). And Steve Martin at least does a funny take on what has to be the worst song in the whole Beatles catalog, "Maxwell's Silver Hammer." Otherwise, this is another ugly bastard child of Robert Stigwood, who also produced Jesus Christ Superstar and Grease, two of the other worst musicals I've ever seen. Actually, three: I forgot he produced Bugsy Malone. His production of Tommy is excellent, but only because it's got true hellraising drugged-out freaks like the Who, Ann-Margaret (drunk in most scenes), Oliver Reed, Elton John, and Tina Turner in it, and Ken Russell directed it like a crazy man would have. Tommy knows it's ridiculous, and embraces it so that it works. Sgt. Pepper's thinks it's brilliant, and is one of the worst things I've ever seen. No stars; I'm embarrassed to have even seen it. Twice.

An excellent documentary essaying America's ongoing war on/fascination with pornography, and the storm that gathered around what is really just a fun, silly little movie. Not only informative and fast-paced, the whole thing is kind of scary, too: one of the prosecutors of the movie comes out and says he wishes the terrorists would go away so that the American legal system can do what it SHOULD be doing and fighting obscenity. Fucking American Puritanism needs to go away and die now, because no one cares. Everyone has the right to choose, and it's fascism to take it away from someone. Anyway, the film focuses, too, on the mob connections to the porn industry, as well as the cultural phenomenon it became. It interviews the right people, so both side get heard--especially Hugh Hefner, Erica Jong, and even the insane Helen Gurley Brown (who says one of the worst things I've ever heard anyone say about sperm; ew). Harry Reems, the poor guy who became the scapegoat, comes out well; you can't really argue that he deserved to be the fall guy simply for acting in a movie. And Linda Lovelace... you know, I love Deep Throat, but the opportunistic way she lived her life disgusts me. First, she embraces her fame as a crusader for the First Amendment. Then, she lets the feminists use her as a point woman for their crusade against not only porn, but male sexuality in general. And finally, towards the end of her life, she capitalizes on her name for the cash. Whatever suits her at any given time, I guess. The only thing I didn't care for was the way the movie tried to praise Hollywood for defending the film, when they really didn't do a whole hell of a lot (except maybe for Peter Bart at Paramount, who is also interviewed). Hollywood has no respect for independent filmmaking, especially in the realm of adult films--even though they benefit from the positive rulings that come out of the legal system's persecution of porn films. But for all of that, it's a fair-minded but very cool **** star film. See it if you're at all interested in the cultural wars.

In Inside Deep Throat, former adult film director Gerry Damiano laments the advent of VCR technology, which killed all of the artistry in adult films in the late seventies. Where once it looked as though hardcore films were going to become more artful and more mainstream, VCR took all of the creativity away and turned porn into an industry of soulless videos. Juxtaposing this documentary, about Annabel Chong, an Indonesian-born American porn star who broke a record for the world's largest gang bang (it's since been broken), against that documentary makes Damiano's words incredibly clear. This badly-made doc is soulless and pretentious, and Ms. Chong herself--limited in talent and incredibly stupid, even for a porn actress--is not compelling in any way. Frankly, I checked out when she said "Frankly, I think all that sex is worth the risk of AIDS." Pathetic. No stars.

Remember, after X-Men didn't suck and Spider-Man turned out to be really great, and we all thought a new age of great Marvel Comics movies was upon us? Boy, has that ever turned out to be true: Daredevil, Elektra, The Punisher, and now this. It's not as bad as those, but it's not very compelling or interesting or involving, either. The actors uniformly suck, with the exception of Michael Chiklis as the Thing (though his costume/makeup is frankly ridiculous). Julian McMahon and Jessica Alba are particularly bad; not since Denise Richards played a nuclear scientist in The World Is Not Enough has a female scientist ever been so miscast. Anyway, all Alba really does is simper about her failed relationship with Reed (which is, apparently, all women are allowed to be concerned with in American films) and get in at least two situations where we get to see her in a bra. Yeah, she's hot, but totally miscast. She looks about 20 years old, and I'm supposed to believe she's a physicist who graduated MIT? And that she and Ioan Gruffud went to MIT together? What was he, her teacher? The final fight scenes are fairly decent, and my heart wanted to leap when the Thing showed up at the end and shouted "It's clobberin' time!" But I just couldn't get into it. It's so fucking mediocre; it's really just a ** star lesson in how much mediocrity fans, audiences, and studio execs are willing to settle for these days. It's kind of pathetic.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

No More Intelligent Design

Finally, a rare American victory for smart people today, as a judge in Pennsylvania rules that the teaching of "intelligent design" is unconstitutional. Thankfully, someone recognized it as the purely religious agenda which it is, and kicked it out of the system. "Intelligent design" is the stupidest euphemism for creationism I've heard in some time, and I was offended by the mere notion of it being taught in American schools because, after all, evolution is "only a theory."

Well, that's science. Everything's a theory, until it's proven. Proof... Some of the debates I've heard over this issue go over into the truly stupid, especially on the area of proof. "There has never been a recorded case of visibly recognizable evolution," someone at my school said. "You can't see it happen, so where's the proof?" He seemed to think that was the definitive answer: if you can't watch a million-year process happen as it happens, it must not exist. My answer was to ask if he had ever seen a case of spontaneous creation, and he couldn't answer. I'm sorry, but the burden of proof is still on God: he has to prove he exists; I don't have to prove that he doesn't. Someone else in my school said both sides should be heard, but I have to agree with Bill Maher and say that you don't have to teach both sides of a debate, especially if one side is total bullshit. Should we stop teaching physics? I mean, gravity is only a theory, right?

If religion keeps trying to infest our schools and our politics and our public policy, shouldn't we be able to force religions to pay taxes? I mean, that's the price of admission in politics, isn't it? And shouldn't I be able to say that, since the existence of God cannot be proven, I should be allowed to speak before congregations have service and tell them that God is only "a theory, not a fact" with "unexplained gaps" in it? No, of course not. And they shouldn't be trying to confuse our children with the same thing during school. Church and state were separated in this country for a reason.

I'm so glad about this. I'm sure that someone in Washington will get all pissy about it, just like the gay marriage civil rights issue, and whine about how we don't need judges interpreting the law, even though that's pretty much the definition of their job. But for now, we can all relax a little with the knowledge that the fanatics are once again pulling their hair out over the fact that not everyone thinks exactly the same way as they do, and that the Inquisitors still don't have complete control over our daily lives. This is a great day for intelligence and reason.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Christmas in the Stars

I like so much crap, so of course I was thrilled yesterday when, through the expertise and wilfulness of Becca, I was suddenly presented with a CDR copy of Christmas in the Stars, the official Star Wars Christmas album. Oh, man, am I a dork. I love this stupid, stupid record. Yes, it's lame, and part of it is that I like it on an ironic level--I do relish everything that refutes the ludicrous fan claim that "Star Wars isn't just for children!"--but I genuinely enjoy some of it, too. So, it'll go right on my shelf with other novelty albums, such as the Best of Meco album (with the famous Star Wars electronic disco music), my science fiction novelty albums, my Dr. Demento CDs, and every single "Weird Al" Yankovic original album.

But Becca bought The Transformed Man by William Shatner. So maybe I came out ahead. Just barely. Posted by Picasa

When the Hell Is "Life Day"?

Well, now I'm in the mood to point out how Star Wars has, in fact, always been children's entertainment, and I came across this picture of the Chewbacca Family from The Star Wars Holiday Special. We could go on and on about how incredibly lame this thing is, or how lame George Lucas is for burying it for nearly 30 years because he finds it so embarrassing (the same thing that drives him to keep "fixing" the trilogy to make it look as modern and new as possible so that it will always, ALWAYS be the best), but so many others have gone into it that it seems redundant. So, here we have Chewbacca and his forgotten wife, Malla, along with their son Lumpy and good ol' pervy Uncle Itchy, who watches a human girl dance in a holo-cube while celebrating the Wookie equivalent of Christmas, Life Day. Okay...

Don't you just look at this picture and think it should have been a sitcom? All in the Family, with Wookies.

And, of course, Han Solo has to awkwardly greet the Wookie family. I guess, on the sitcom version, he could have been like a more prominent Stretch Cunningham (remember Archie Bunker's friend from work who was always joking around and was played by James Cromwell?). Harrison Ford looking damn uncomfortable, is what it is. You think he's stoned on something? He always looks stoned to me in the seventies, or drunk, and then suddenly in the eighties he becomes Mr. Professional. As opposed to now, when he's Mr. Hardass-Trying-to-Seem-Cool.

They even did a storybook about Chewie's family, man. I remember discovering this book in the library at my elementary school; for some reason, it was in the non-fiction 700s with other movie stuff, rather than in fiction. Does that make it some kind of anthropological study, or something? Anyway, this introduced the Wookie planet of Kashyyk (however the hell you spell it) and how it looked into the Star Wars continuity, but Lumpy and the rest got lost, for some reason. Maybe they thought children would be upset that Chewie didn't go home more often. Or maybe it was because Lucas used the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi instead. Either way, I almost feel sorry for Lumpy, even though he's creepy. On this cover, though, he looks delicious. If I were hunting and saw a rabbit that fat, I'd shoot it and eat for a week.

Look at this crap: they even had action figures planned; here are the prototypes. For some reason, Lumpy can't resist touching himself. Maybe it itches. And what do you suppose his real name was? Lumpbacca?

Lumpy kind of looks crazed and dangerous to me. Did you ever go to someone's house, and they have a cute little dog--something small, like a Lhasa Apso or some kind of faggy dog like that--and it looks harmless but it keeps growling and baring its teeth at you? That's Lumpy. Man, when Han comes over for dinner, I hope he doesn't turn his back on this thing.

If you've made it this far, here's a little reward for bearing with me. Yes, it's scenes from the Star Wars Holiday Special.

First, here's the opening, Wookie language and all. Wonder if they'll show this on Harrison Ford's AFI tribute.

The Cantina scene, featuring the comic genius of Bea Arthur.

A very badly animated cartoon segment.

And lastly, Princess Leia sings! Happy Life Day, everyone!

Also related:
Christmas in the Stars
Plif the Hoojib

Plif the Hoojib

While we're at it, does anyone else remember Plif the Hoojib? I thought he was neat when I was a kid. I think there were some storybooks with Plif, but he was mainly a character in the Star Wars series from Marvel Comics that were so weird. The Hoojibs were some kind of rabbit-like race (they were pink, too) that were Force sensitive and, if I remember right, ate energy or electricity or crystals or something. I don't know, they were kind of cool, even though they aren't serious enough for today's breed of "only Boba Fett is cool and I hate everything else about the kids' movies I've devoted myself to" Star Wars fan. Posted by Picasa

Sunday, December 18, 2005

My Gay Pick Up: A Tale from the Video Store

It's a relatively calm Wednesday night, and there's only myself and Tyler working. No customers at all. So, as the only supervisor on the premises, I am, of course, doing my best not to work, when a guy comes into the store; he must be about 30 or so (at the time, I'm 24). I greet him, as is my job, and he heads off to look through the family section. After a while, I'm too bored not to work, so I go over and ask, in my best "I really want to help you" voice: "Is there anything I can help you find, sir?"

He starts asking me about Disney tapes--where certain cartoons can be found, checking the names of certain titles, etc. Well, this is an area of expertise with me, so we strike up a conversation about Disney and cartoons and Mickey Mouse and why the Disney Channel doesn't show the old cartoons anymore. I tell him about The Ink and Paint Club, a show Disney used to run which featured several cartoons gathered around a loose theme (it's actually how I first saw a lot of the Silly Symphonies). He actually brought up some of the old Disney's Wonderful World of Color movies, like The Biscuit Eater, and we talked about Victory Through Air Power. At first he thought I was glad-handing him, but after a while he would pepper the conversation with exclamations of "Wow, you really know all this stuff," or "Gee, you're not just pretending to know what I'm talking about." No, I explained, I reallly was a fanatic for Disney.

After a conversation that lasted about forty or fifty minutes, Tyler calls me over and asks: "What's that all about?" Before I can answer, though, the phone rings and I have to take a call from someone looking for a movie that hasn't even been released yet. When I finish, the guy is coming up to leave. He stops at the door, then turns to me and shakes my hand and introduces himself. "Thanks for the help. I'm not going to get anything tonight, though. Look, since you and I are both such Disney fans, if you ever want to get together and hang out or just call and talk some more, give me a call. Here's my card." Then he hands me a business card.

I know I'm probably never going to call the guy, but I politely thank him and tell him to have a good night. After the guy leaves, I see Tyler smirking at me.

ME: What?

TYLER: What was that all about?

ME: What do you mean? He and I were just both into Disney.

TYLER: Dude, don't you get it?

ME: What?

TYLER: He was trying to pick you up.

ME: Really?

TYLER: Yeah. Come on, you saw him. Neat hair, sweater-jacket, loafers.

ME: That doesn't mean anything.

TYLER: He gave you his phone number...

ME: So?

TYLER: Look at the card; what does he do for a living?

I look at the card. He's a piano tuner.

ME: Oh...

Men, women, whomever--I'm just too dumb to know when you're hitting on me. But it's pretty cool and flattering that a gay man thought I was nice enough to try and pick up. Must have been one of my rare clean-shaven days...

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Christmas Tunes

Well, it's that time of the year, and since I'm one of those mixtape guys, that means it's time to collect all of the Christmas music I have and make myself a Christmas collection to listen to while wrapping and unwrapping presents this year. And, since I have nothing better to talk about today, I thought I'd share with everyone the music I've decided to put on this year.

My theory of Christmas mixes is the following: no comedy songs (I used to say novelty songs, but the very nature of holiday music being so specific kind of makes ALL Christmas songs novelty songs, I guess) and nothing too modern (98% of recent original Christmas music sucks). I goddamn despise "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer," and a funny Christmas comedy song like anything from South Park or Weird Al's classic "Christmas At Ground Zero" would break the mood I want to set, and something by N'Sync or Britney would just be kind of silly--although, as you will see, there are two exceptions to this rule.

1. White Christmas (Bing Crosby)
You have to start with this one, you just have to. Not only is it traditional, not only is it really a great song, but the opening strains are kind of like the opening of The Wizard of Oz. I like to open with the feeling that you're entering another world.

2. Sleigh Ride (Leroy Anderson)
The instrumental one with the great trumpets.

3. Winter Wonderland (Louis Armstrong)
Burl Ives's version is good, too, but Satchmo has more personality. Plus, not much beats Armstrong's voice on a dark, cold night.

4. Christmas Time Is Here (Vince Guaraldi Trio)
Yes, from A Charlie Brown Christmas. Man, remember when jazz used to be good? Kind of dark, kind of soft, very nice and comforting. Then again, my favorite jazz album of all time is Dave Brubeck's Dave Digs Disney, so what do I know?

5. It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year (Andy Williams)
This reminds me of being a kid on Christmas, though I'm not especially sure why. Kind of comforting.

6. Little Saint Nick (The Beach Boys)
Christmas-themed rock music was good in the sixties. Not so much these days, though the new Brian Wilson album, All I Want for Christmas, is really, really good.

7. Santa Baby (Eartha Kitt)
Specifically this version. There are others out there, most notably by Madonna and Kylie Minogue, but they're just doing bad faux-vampy impersonations of Eartha.

8. The Chipmunk Song (Dave Seville and the Chipmunks)
I don't qualify this one as a comedy song by this point; it's made the leap to traditional.

9. Here Comes Santa Claus (Gene Autry)
He just sounds so laid back.

10. Run Rudolph Run (Chuck Berry)
11. Sleigh Ride (The Ventures)
Man, they could play guitar in those days.

12. Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth (Bing Crosby & David Bowie)
I do think this song's very pretty, but hey, was I not going to put a David Bowie song on something?

13. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (John Denver & the Muppets)
Specifically Rowlf the Dog; I find Jim Henson's voice comforting, and this is a nice quiet moment after some rockers and an appearance by Bowie and huge orchestrations.

14. Frosty the Snowman (The Ronettes)
But I do like to punctuate the quiet moments, too. Ronnie Spector's voice does strange things to me inside.

15. Blue Christmas (Elvis Presley)
A must.

16. All I Want for Christmas Is You (Mariah Carey)
This is the only new Christmas song that I really love. It's the most perfect pastiche of the classic Phil Spector "Wall of Sound" style that I've ever heard, and it doesn't go overblown--at least, not in a tasteless manner. This is the only Mariah Carey song I've ever liked, too.

17. O Holy Night (Nat "King" Cole)
My favorite version of my favorite Christmas song.

18. Good King Wenceslas (The Ames Brothers)
My favorite version of my second favorite Christmas song. "Good King Wenceslas" has kind of gotten itself lost from contemporary times, hasn't it?

19. Do You Hear What I Hear? (Bing Crosby)
Good old Christmas drama; no one uses the orchestra anymore in popular music... At least, not well.

20. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) (Darlene Love)
I think this is because it's the song used on the title sequence of Gremlins, but this has always been firmly identified with Christmas for me. The only thing that could make this Phil Spector song more perfect is if Ronnie Spector had sung it.

21. What Child Is This (Vince Guaraldi Trio)
More jazzy calm.

22. The Christmas Waltz (Frank Sinatra)
A perfect version of a perfect song; I almost cry when I hear this one.

23. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! (Dean Martin)
Boy, everyone's into Dino this Christmas, it seems. But if you're a guy my age, I think this song says the same thing to you as it does to me: the end credits of Die Hard. You know, just for a second. Otherwise, a great song.

24. A Holly Jolly Christmas (Burl Ives)
Unassailable Christmas classic.

25. Feliz Navidad (Jose Feliciano)
This year, all I can think of is Taco John's, who are using it on a commercial. I love that monkey!

26. Happy Xmas (War Is Over) (John Lennon & Yoko Ono)
The Christian Children's Fund or whoever it was nearly ruined this song in the 1980s and 1990s with their commercials, but it really is a beautiful sentiment. Probably Lennon's most touching song after "Imagine" and "Beautiful Boy."

27. Baby, It’s Cold Outside (Jessica Simpson & Nick Lachey)
The other modern exception; Jessica's Christmas album ReJoyce was more of a tribute to her grandmother (the Joyce of the title) than a Christmas pop album, so she hits a more traditional note than others have. And it's the only album so far on which she's been able to work her voice out in that jazzy way she likes to sing in (and which Columbia Records tried for three albums to stamp out). Her version of the classic Christmas come-on with her husband Nick (one of the few white men who can actually sing in a jazz/R&B style) is sexy, breathy, and kind of erotic.

28. Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town (Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band)
How can you not?

29. The Christmas Song (Nat "King" Cole)
I opened traditionally, I ended traditionally. This song more than any other says Christmas to me, and it would be horrible not to hear it this year.

Well, that's all of that, although I need to edit a bit because I think I'm over the time limit on this one. Still, this is my Christmas, and I thought I'd share it.

Anyone else have any suggestions?

UPDATE 12/17: As for practical application, I can't locate two of my favorites: "Sleigh Ride" by the Ventures and "Good King Wenceslas" by the Ames Brothers. So those two will have to wait for my Christmas 2006 mix, assuming this becomes a yearly thing. But, as fate would have it, if you cut off those two songs, the CD runs an hour and sixteen minutes, so it all works out pretty perfectly, actually.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Richard Pryor: 1940-2005

One of the greatest, funniest, most pointed comedians who ever lived. A real influence on my being such a smartass, at any rate. Rest in peace. Posted by Picasa

Friday, December 09, 2005

Never Laugh at a Man's Muppet Obsession

I have a friend I haven't seen in years. She's my cousin, kind of, but we don't think of each other that way. She's actually the daughter of my aunt's common-law husband, and she and I don't look at each other as being related. But we have been friends for a long, long time. Sort of.

See, she and I had a real thing for each other when I was 16 and she was 14. And it was really intense, too, like it always is when you're 16 and she's 14. But there was one snag: I lived in the far west suburbs of Chicago, Illinois, and she lived in the suburbs of Des Moines, Iowa. But we kept in touch occasionally on the phone, even when we decided we couldn't pursue our relationship. When she was about 19 or so we started talking a lot more, having phone sex with one another while she was at college. Then she got married and we didn't ever talk, mostly because her husband kept never telling her that I called.

Well, cut to just a year ago, and she gets in touch with me out of the clear blue. She has a seven year-old son, but she's been divorced for the same seven years. And we start talking about stuff (all kinds of stuff) once a week or so. Yeah, one time she drunk dials me and masturbates while I listen, but I don't take it real seriously. Becca was fascinated, but she also kept making "jokes" about how I was going to leave her for this girl who now lives in North Carolina. But the truth is, intellectually, emotionally, and in terms of mutual interests, I still have more in common with Becca than with any other girl. We're both geeks stuck in arrested development who like the same thing, and even though Becca says David Boreanaz is her perfect man physically (thanks, cheers, yes), I am still very, very much in love with her.

But the clincher is this. This girl is also a little bit of a geek, and we talk about our stuff. I was complaining about how I collect a series of action figures, and I had ordered the last one I needed from an online retailer and they had sent me the wrong one. When she inquired as to which series it was, I simply answered: The Muppet Show. To which she laughed her ass off. Loud, piercing, mean laughter. And this is from a woman who is such a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that she became one of the many cliches to write her college thesis on "Gender Expectations and Buffy the Vampire Slayer" as though it were an original topic (swing a dead cat in a univeristy and try not to hit a person who hasn't written that same paper). And I'm meant to accept that her laughter wasn't actually incredibly hurtful? She's an Anne Rice fan, for fuck's sake, so she doesn't exactly win in the grown-up department.

Anyway, if there's one thing I can say, it's never make fun of a man's Muppet obsession. And Becca doesn't have to worry that I'm ever going to leave her for a woman who laughs at and mocks my Muppet collection. In fact, up until last week, I hadn't even spoken to the girl in about four months. Not because I'm being vindictive (though I was offended), but because I just completely lost interest in anything she had to say. That laughter was a fucking off-switch.

I thank God that Becca and I have been together for eleven years. I'm too old and too geeky to figure out new relationships...

Monday, December 05, 2005

Evaluating Disney: 1937

We come to it at last: this is the year that Walt Disney changed the face of animation by releasing the first animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Feeling that the short cartoons were basically filler that could be shuffled around on any bill, Disney took the next step and diversified his business by changing the playing field: he ended up proving that people will sit and watch nearly 90 minutes of animation (something once unthinkable). Of course, the releasing of the shorts did continue, and they continued to bring in money. By this point, Walt had managed to work out a lucrative production deal with RKO Radio Pictures that was the best the company had ever seen. RKO not only paid for the shorts, but once it recouped its initial investment, they only took 30% of the gross as a distribution fee (United Artists had taken more). RKO also allowed Disney to keep the control of the television rights, which was remarkably prescient for 1937 (other studios were happily signing those rights away for cash, thinking they would come to nothing).

For their own part, the animators seemed happy to work around the clock as they raced to finish production on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in time for its December release. Disney was very hands on, and no one's ever seemed to feel resentful about it; indeed, the story seems to be that they liked his presence and he held the entire production together with an excellent sense of story (not just on Snow White, but on everything). The artists were also attending art classes and lectures about design from such luminaries as Alexander Woolcott and Frank Lloyd Wright. Disney hired filmmakers to shoot film of animals in the wild so that his men could study movement and natural behavior. And Ub Iwerks had returned to the fold, and would help to create an important new engineering marvel: the multi-plane camera. This device (which Ub had created out of car engine parts while working at his own studio), once perfected, would allow for greater depth in animation than ever before. Backgrounds, characters, and effects could be placed on multiple planes, then shot at once with the camera for amazing spatial effects. Many credit this machine with the success of Snow White; audiences literally felt as though they had entered a fantasy kingdom.

But first, several other cartoons had to be released.

1/2: The Worm Turns
Mickey Mouse invents a formula that gives things courage and superior strength, then tests it out on a fly, a mouse, a cat, Pluto, and a fire hydrant. Mickey once again delights in his own bastardy, but the cartoon could easily stand to be a lot more fun. The energy and the chase scenes are yet another Disney cartoon that seem to have influenced Tom and Jerry (as last year's The Country Cousin and Three Blind Mouseketeers). The cartoon is mostly an excuse to experiment with the effects animation that will be used during the Queen's transformation sequence in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

1/9: Don Donald
The first cartoon in the Donald Duck series, making Donald (who had become very popular very quickly) the star of Disney's third cartoon series. Donald plays a Don Juan type (this cartoon is very similar to the second Mickey Mouse cartoon, The Gallopin' Gaucho) and tries to woo Dona Duck, marking this as the first appearance of Daisy. In this first outing, Clarence Nash does both voices, so that Donald and Dona sound exactly alike, which gets a tiny bit irritating. You have to feel sorry for Donald's burro--Donald trades him for a flashy car! A nice cartoon in which the animators get to explore the romantic side of the duck.

2/6: Magician Mickey
Dave Hand directed this enjoyable short with Mickey in his classic bratty mode. While performing a magic show (it must be said that the animators skimp on the background detail here), Mickey has to endure the heckling of Donald, and gets his revenge through a variety of magic means. Goofy appears (and is electrocuted backstage), and it seems as though "The World Owes Me a Living" has become his official theme song. Mickey had gotten bland around mid-1935, but here he's a right prick again, fucking with Donald just because he can (dousing him with water and making him spit out playing cards). Donald, as always, gets his comeuppance over and over again. At this point, by the way, Mickey's character design is starting to get to me; his eyes look creepy when they move...

2/20: Moose Hunters
My favorite Mickey Mouse cartoons tend to be the ones where Mickey, Donald, and Goofy get together and attempt to work some endeavor, only to screw the whole thing up in an amusing and exciting fashion. This one, directed by Ben Sharpsteen, is one of my least favorite examples, but it's stil cute. They spend too much time with Goofy and Donald dressed as a female moose, a gag that grows less funny the more it goes on. Mickey barely appears, too.

2/13: Woodland Cafe
A Silly Symphonies short that shows a distinctly Fleischeresque flavor. Nothing really happens--just a bunch of insects hanging out at a jazz club in a tree. It kind of falls between some kind of homage/remake of the Winsor McCay 1920 cartoon Bug Vaudeville (one of the three in the series based on his comic strip Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend) and a weird prefiguring of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio (a little man with no insect features and a pointy, round head) and the Fleischer insects in the 1941 film Hoppity Goes to Town. I thought the black caricatured jazz band was well-animated, but the cartoon ends too quickly after they arrive on the scene. Overall, pretty dull.

4/17: Mickey's Amateurs
A mess, but not for lack of trying; in fact, the animators kind of throw everything at the screen in this one. Mickey hosts an amateur hour (presaging The Gong Show by forty or so years), and many characters try to sing, etc. Donald Duck tries to recite "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," but can't make his way through it (he tries several times). Clara Cluck and Clarabelle Cow perform an aria together; suddenly, Clarabelle has a disconcertingly enormous rack, while Clara Cluck's chest keeps rising and falling with her singing. Then Goofy and his 15-piece band machine try to make it through "We'll Have a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," but the machine goes haywire. Finally, since they won't listen to him, Donald actually takes out a Tommy gun and starts blasting away at the audience! Weird, but still tedious.

5/15: Little Hiawatha
Dave Hand directed this wonderful Silly Symphony, one of the best short cartoons Disney put out this year. Loosely based on the Longfellow poem, a young Indian brave heads out to hunt, but is constantly surprised by how large all of his quarry is. Hiawatha is pictured as a small child, and there are occasions where the cartoon does get annoying precious (the kid's leggings keep falling down, exposing his butt to the audience in yet another display of Walt's anal fixation), but overall, it creates a nice effect and mood and keeps it going. Walt had toyed with the idea of making Hiawatha a feature-length movie, but it never gelled for him, so he approved it as a short instead. And it is one of the nicer ones.

5/29: Modern Inventions
Donald Duck visits a modern museum and gets harrassed by a robot hitchhiker, an automatic baby cradle, and a barber machine that parts his fanny and shines his face (again, the anal thing). The cartoon is remarkably funny, with some great visual gags. This is the last time Donald uses that great gag of pulling things out of thin air (a la the recorders up his sleeve in The Band Concert). This time, after the robot butler (a hilariously designed character) take his hat, he pulls out a new one and puts it on. This happens over and over again with several different styles of hat, and it's the funniest gag in the picture. Three animation greats closely tied to the duck are present here: it was directed by Jack King, animated by Jack Hannah, and written by the great Carl Barks, who would take over the Donald Duck comics and create several memorable characters who I can't imagine Donald's world without (such as the Baker Boys; Huey, Dewey, and Louie; Gyro Gearloose; the city of Duckburg; and of course, Uncle Scrooge McDuck). Barks suggested the sequence with the barber machine, and was immediately promoted to head scriptwriter for the series. This is a great cartoon.

7: A Trip Through the Walt Disney Studios
This was the first live action footage produced by the studio. Not intended for commercial release (though a later, edited version was), this 12 minute film was shot by Bill Garity to show off the animation process for RKO Radio Pictures, who were trying to come up with a way to sell Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to theaters and audiences. This is the earliest glimpse anyone had of the Disney process, and many luminaries appear on camera, including Norm Ferguson, Dave Hand, Wilfred Jackson, and Disney himself. Walt wears a very nice suit; though he says on camera that the film was "hurriedly thrown together," he has obviously made every effort to "pretty up" the place, looking as professional and business-like as possible. It's also some of the only film available of the old Hyperion studios, which Disney would move out of in 1940 for a specially-built facility. It's a nice piece of history, especially for Disney fans, but even for those who are simply interested in the process. It's available on Walt Disney Treasures: Behind the Scenes, where Leonard Maltin aptly refers to it as a blueprint for the later Disneyland TV series.

9/24: Hawaiian Holiday
I don't know, I still miss Horace Horsecollar; he was just so amiable. This is the first time that Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, and Pluto have ever gotten together and gone on vacation as a group; none of the other characters appear at all. It's light and amusing, at times even a little slow, but nice overall. Once again, all of nature seems to exist to give Pluto a hard time; the sequence where a crab gets the best of him is the funniest part of the cartoon.

10/15: Clock Cleaners
One of the best of the Mickey/Donald/Goofy shorts, with the trio trying their best to clean an enormous clock at the top of a tower. Great use of perspective here, great details inside the tower. Goofy gets banged in the head, while Mickey tries to deal with a lazy stork and Donald breaks and tries to fix the mainspring with typically frustrating results. Ben Sharpsteen directed this short, which makes the most out of the somewhat minimal surroundings and the fearsome heights.

11/5: The Old Mill
Disney unveiled his multi-plane camera with this Wilfred Jackson-directed Silly Symphonies cartoon. There is no plot to speak of, really, but the music and the excitement carry this one. Disney's animators try to achieve a naturalism and realism of movement and nature that mostly works (the frogs are still pretty cartoonishly stylized, and every animal seems emotionally aware in a human sort of way). The multi-plane effect allows for several layers of background and foreground, and the effects animation is top notch. All that happens is this: animals live in an old mill, a storm comes and nearly destroys it, and a nesting bird is terrorized by the moving gears as she tries to protect her eggs. But the animation, the editing; everything's wonderful. This cartoon also won a special Academy Award for technical achievement. Most of the techniques seen here (especially the multi-plane and the lightning effects) would be of major importance to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as well as to Fantasia, Pinocchio, and Bambi. I absolutely love this film.

11/26: Pluto's Quin-Puplets
Pluto and Fifi (Minnie's annoyingly mean Pekingese) apparently have five little puppies now (never to appear again), and they get in all sorts of trouble. It's cute and the dogs are amazingly adorable, but the energy wanes too early. Despite the fact that it really is very well-animated and technically brilliant, the story is more noticeable because it's the first cartoon in the Pluto series. Not only was Disney now at four separate series, he was also getting into features; it's amazing he had any money at all. And, really, he didn't...

12/10: Donald's Ostrich
Messrs. King, Hannah, and Barks bring us a short that has potential, but gets old pretty quickly. Donald is a baggage handler at a train station, and finds a crate with an ostrich in it. The ostrich swallows a radio and a bunch of other stuff. Remember how boring those Looney Tunes were where Sylvester thought the boxing kangaroo was a giant rat? It's not quite that bad, but it's pretty boring.

Disney’s first feature film is a triumph. The wonder is all in the details; the long sequences that play like Silly Symphonies of their own within the film, such as the house-cleaning and the dwarfs sleeping, are wonderful because they never bore. This may be the only feature that feels like the animators were truly enjoying themselves, experimenting with the boundaries of the medium just for the sheer fun of it. The effects animation and the multi-plane camera (created during production) superbly create a fully engrossing experience, realizing another world before our eyes that exists so believably that it is never once questioned by the mind. The use of cross-cutting, the depth of the camera, the simple emotional impact of the story…the emotions are on a deeper level. There are no scares; there is terror. There is no sadness, but sorrow. There is no happiness, but joy. All in all, it's a marvelous achievement, and one which continues to be delightful and engrossing. The simple beauty of Snow White, the hilarity of the dwarfs, the warmth of the songs, the evil of the Queen, the final chase scenes, and the triumph of true love. What else do you need? A towering masterpiece.

(For more on the making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, see separate entry here.)

12/24: Lonesome Ghosts
Mickey, Donald, and Goofy run a ghost-catching agency, and three lonely spooks call them over to have the fun of chasing them around. One of the best of the Mickey/Donald/Goofy shorts, and a perennial Halloween favorite. A special kind of ink had to be invented in order to make the ghosts look transparent; I always felt like the design of the ghosts (especially the cigar-smoking one) influences the other ghosts in the Casper the Friendly Ghost cartoons. Goofy is the first person of film to utter the line "I ain't a-scared of no ghosts." Coincidence, or homage? Either way, this is a funny cartoon.

The end of 1937 saw Walt Disney triumph over those who had criticized his aims for the last couple of years, and established him as a major Hollywood producer. With the money from Snow White, Walt could have made more features and more cartoons and done extremely well with just that. But Walt always sought to aim higher, and he immeditely put another feature, Bambi, into production. Besides that, he and Leopold Stokowski had been talking about a Silly Symphony or some kind of cartoon that would star Mickey Mouse. And Walt wanted to build a newer, state-of-the-art studio. The money wouldn't last long, but with the high quality of the artistry available to him, his ambitions were boundless.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Fucking Sony

Does anyone have any information they want to share about the Sony XCP copy protection program that they placed on a TON of their commercial compact discs? Because I think it's slowly ruining my computer. My D: and E: drives are shot right now; the hardware is still there, and the computer itself is reading the existence of both drives, but Windows isn't. I've called tech support about this before (it happened last week but was easily fixed by removing the corrupted files and rebooting the computer). I think the damage is worse because the same method didn't work this time, and my tech support is now telling me that most likely I'll have to replace my operating system entirely. Which I'd really like not to do, because I have a lot of stuff on this computer.

Earlier this year, Sony placed a copy protection program on a lot of CDs so that, when you put it in your computer, it launched its own player. I'm not clear on what the problem is, but it's fucking up the PCs of a lot of people. Worse yet, the sneaky bastards masked the program, so no one can find it to uninstall the damn thing. Because Sony considers pirating CDs worse than murder, rape, and terrorism, there are people putting up with the constant attempts of their anti-spyware programs to block a program it can't even find. Sony is apparently working on a program to uninstall the device and just recalled a ton of CDs, and if this uninstall doesn't work, I have to take as much off of my computer as I can and start from scratch.

So, thanks, Sony, for destroying years of my work. Because you couldn't bear to think that someone might copy on of your CDs.

Which, of course, means that I'm no longer buying Sony products, because I no longer trust them. When I have a CD-RW drive that I can actually use again, if Sony puts out any CDs I want, it'll be iTunes that gets my business. I have a Pioneer DVD player, a Samsung VCR, a Panasonic TV, and a Sharp stereo. Anything made by Sony is leaving this house.

I hope there are other people that are as pissed off and angry as I am. And I hope Sony thinks it was worth it to stop people from taking a song and putting it on an iPod.

Fucking Sony...

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Condolences to Ben

My friend Ben lost his grandfather this week after an illness, and I know he's in pain right now. Just wanted to tell him to try and keep his chin up when he's feeling better. Posted by Picasa

I Would Be a Terrible Father

And here I find myself, at the age of 29, dreaming about having babies and taking care of children. Everyone I talk to agrees that the reason for this is that my girlfriend and I adopted a rabbit two months ago, and I suppose it is. And yet, for some reason, I can't get the notion of fatherhood out of my mind.

But the rabbit is also an indicator of how bad I would be at taking care of a child on a day-in day-out basis. This rabbit, Thumper, is a year and a half old, and his previous owners didn't exactly lavish care upon him (when we adopted him he still had stains on his fur from sitting in his own urine). He's still aloof and shy; it's only been recently that, when he's out of his cage, he lays on the floor instead of hiding behind the floor-length blinds. He doesn't like us to pet him very much, and he'll bite you before he lets you pick him up. And some days, it just frustrates me how much he just seems to refuse to let me touch him, and my first reaction is to just get mad and stop taking care of him. I don't yell at him or anything lame like that; I just start to ignore him and I get a little upset.

Why does this bother me so much? Is it because I'm afraid that at he's never going to get used to me? Sometimes I manage to convince myself that he just doesn't like me and doesn't want me to touch him. Maybe I just suck with pets; deep down, I'm afraid to have them, because all of my pets died or were taken away from me. And this is just a rabbit! Can you imagine if it was a baby? I guess I just don't have the patience for that.

Besides, the only thing I've ever concretely said about having children is that if I had a daughter I would let her invite as many girlfriends as she wanted for sleepovers as often as she wanted, and that I would spank her until she was twenty years old. So, I'm not exactly father material, yeah?

Friday, November 25, 2005

An Historical Throwdown

Normally, the Throwdown would go here, but I'm a little bummed over Nick and Jessica, and since it's a holiday week there hasn't been that much going on that's very interesting. Instead of my 15 random thoughts, questions, and observations for the week, in honor of Thanksgiving I've got 15 random facts about America that I find interesting.

1. There was a Swedish colony in the New World: New Sweden, in the Delaware River Valley. The log cabin, which has become a sort of early American icon, was brought over by the Swedish settlers and used in New Sweden (as it was in old Sweden).

2. Whatever our current problems with them might be, Venezuela was the first foreign nation to receive aid from America. In 1812, we sent them $50,000 to help the victims of a severe earthquake. We used to be good that way.

3. Morocco was the first country to recognize the United States. They did so in 1789.

4. America acquired Alaska from Russia in 1867 at the cost of 2 cents an acre (586,400 sq. miles). Canada wanted to add the territory to Canada, but Russia considered them to be their greatest enemy and sold it to the States instead. France, by the way, sold the Louisiana Purchase to the US in 1803 (doubling the size of the US) because they didn't want the English to capture it. Interesting that Great Britain are our allies now; we fought them again in 1812, they sided with the Confederate South in the US Civil War, and when they surrendered in 1781, they surrendered to the French, not the Americans. Most Americans don't seem to remember anything about the French help during the Revolution, but are forever throwing our military aid during World War II in their faces.

5. Jews first came to America in 1654; at the time of the Revolution, 1500 Jews lived in America. None were allowed to vote or hold public office.

6. Pennsylvania was not named after the Quaker William Penn, but after his father, Admiral William Penn. Charles II owed him a debt, and Penn agreed to waive it in exchange for land on the Delaware River.

7. The flag referred to by Francis Scott Key in "The Star-Spangled Banner" was 30 by 42 feet, and cost $405.90. Major George Armistead, commander of Fort McHenry, wanted a flag "so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance." The flag was also referred to as "Old Glory." This was during the War of 1812.

8. In the 1890s, one cowboy out of five was black. Most had learned to rope and ride while serving as slaves on Texas ranches.

9. Roughly half the populace of the US live in just eight of the union's fifty states: New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, California, and Massachussetts.

10. For all the flack given to hunters every fall, the vast, vast majority of deers killed in a calendar year are accidentally hit by cars.

11. Kentucky and Virginia nearly seceded from the US in 1798 amid criticism of the government; New England almost seceded in 1812 because they opposed war with Great Britain; in 1832, South Carolina almost seceded over a tariff dispute (they opposed the re-election of Andrew Jackson, but rescinded their vote when the realized Jackson was prepared to fight a war).

12. Georgia, Massachussetts, and Connecticut voted against the ratification of the Constitution in 1791; the other eleven states voted for it. The other three states did not ratify until 1941.

13. The International Workers of the World (the Wobblies), the first American working-class protest movement, burned their draft cards during World War I. Generally they liked to have a sit-in and sing folk songs. They were intellectuals, Marxists, and poets, and brought us songs like "Casey Jones" and "Solidarity Forever."

14. In colonial days, packages would be shipped from one colony all the way back to London, where the mail was sorted and then sent back to the colonies to arrive at their intended destinations.

15. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, it was not considered a federal felony to kill the President of the United States.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

A "Real" King Arthur: A Short Essay

As we’ve seen in the recent Jerry Bruckheimer production King Arthur, the myths of Camelot are constantly being reinterpreted. This newest version, however, takes it a step farther by pretending to be the "true story" or King Arthur, a film which "sheds light on his real identity" (according to the opening titles). Then, of course, it immediately deviates from history.
Arthur’s true identity, if there is one, is lost to us now. His deeds and battles were, as all legends have been, added to and re-shaped in later centuries, until we are left with a composite of several people and later inventions. What follows are some of my own thoughts about what we know concerning a "historical" Arthur.

Post-Roman Britain
Britain was made the westernmost tip of the Roman Empire in the early part of the first century BCE. But after too long, the Empire began a long, inexorable decline before finally disappearing. In 390, the Empire was divided into halves – Eastern and Western – with each half ruled over by a co-emperor. The Western half got the worst of it, as waves of northern tribes began to spill into the countryside to eventually kick the Romans out.

Britain was suffering as well. In 122, Hadrian’s Wall had been built in an attempt to keep out the Picts, who raided from the north. Around the time of the Empire’s division, the Saxons were starting to raid from across the sea, and they took advantage of the weakness of Rome to carve out small settlements along the eastern coasts. By 406, the Roman legions in Britain were called to the continent to fight the Visigoths; they would never return.

Arthur, if he existed at all, could only have existed in this time period, given the scant evidence we have. We know that Emperor Honorius did not wish to abandon Britain, and appointed a Roman governor under the title of Comes Britanniarum, or "Count of Britain." His name was Constantine (not to be confused with the 4th century Roman emperor). But the legend names him Ambrosius Aurelianus, "the last of the Romans" according to Saint Gildas. We know little of him historically, except that he restored trade with the Empire and re-established the Roman law among the Britons. But he was recalled in 418, as the pressures facing the Empire made every last man necessary for the defense of Rome herself; Britain was declared independent and left to the mercy of the Saxons.

The Britons reverted to their past ways with fair speed. They attempted to reorganize into the ancient Celtic tribal systems gathered under a High King, called the Vortigern (or "overlord"). The Vortigern, however, had much trouble maintaining order in the face of invading Picts, Scots, and Saxons. In 448 the Vortigern called to the Romans for help, but no answer came (they were being sacked by the Vandals at the time). Instead, he turned to the Jutes in Scandinavia, and hired the warriors Hengist and Horsa (sometimes described as a father and son, sometimes as a pair of brothers) to save the Britons. As often happens in history, Hengist and Horsa, upon landing in Kent, won their victory and decided to conquer the Britains afterward. After all, they were too weak to fight back (this was how Rome gained many territories along the way). The Jutes were the first Angles to come to the future Angle-land, or England.

In his De Excidio Britorum (The Ruin of Britain), Saint Gildas describes the successor of Ambrosius as one Artorius, who took the rather grandiose title of Dux Bellorum ("Duke of Battles") and led the Britains in 12 mighty battles against the Anglo-Saxons. The final battle was fought at Mons Badonicus (or Badon Hill), in which Artorius won a final victory that gained years of peace. This battle probably did take place, and is usually allowed to be sometime between 490 and 500. By this time, the Angles of Hengist and Horsa had firmly established themselves on the island and were enslaving the Britons and Cymbry (or Welsh). But Artorius won peace for a time.

Arthur and His Knights
Artorius had several things in his favor. First, he is supposed to have been a Romanized Briton, and well-trained as a horseman. His men were knights, but not in the medieval sense. Rather, they were Roman knights, or heavy cavalry. Arthur’s sword was called Caliburn, a Welsh name. He carried a spear and rode down the Anglo-Saxon infantry with his disciplined cavalrymen.

Though Gildas identified his kingdom as being somewhere in southwest England (the southeast was firmly held by Anglo-Saxons, and the kingdoms of Essex, Kent, Sussex, and East Anglia were beginning to form), it is more conceivable that his realm was somewhere north of the Firth of Forth, between Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall, near Edinburgh and firmly on modern Scottish ground. This area is near the traditional royal seat of Holyrood, under a mountain that is still called "Arthur’s Seat."*

There were four tribes that lived in this area, called collectively the Gododdin. One of these tribes, the Votadini, is thought to be Arthur’s people. They were Romanized, and had fought for Roman against the Picts. They were fluent in Latin, and partially Christian. They were thought brave and fierce, but had been completely wiped out by the Saxons by the eighth century. The epic Gododdin, by one of the three great Welsh bards, Aneirin, tells the story of the final stand of the Votadini in Homeric passion.

Geoffrey’s History
In 1135, Geoffrey of Monmouth published a book that dominated much of Western literature: Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain). An entire section was devoted to Arthur. Geoffrey, however, was working from earlier sources such as Gildas, and Nennius’s Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons), which was the first historical source extant to name King Arthur and give a list of his deeds and accomplishments (published circa 810).

Geoffrey purported to accurately chronicle British history from 1115 BC to 689 BCE. However, like Herodotus and Suetonius before him, Geoffrey printed a lot of gossip and legend as though it were historical fact. He ascribes to Arthur not only the conquest of all Britain (including Scotland and Wales), but Ireland, Orkney, Jutland, Iceland, Norway and Denmark. He is then supposed to have driven the Romans out of Gaul and sacked Rome itself.

As a historical side note, from 457 to 474, Leo of Thrace was Emperor of Rome. He was, in fact, driven from Gaul by Gaiseric the Vandal, and in 476, Rome abandoned the Western Empire. This may have been Arthur’s time, so the time nearly fits. Still, Geoffrey has managed to describe the entirety of the empire ruled over by his current king, Henry I. And besides that, he has given much of the victories and accomplishments of Charlemagne (the conquest of Gaul and the establishment of feudalism) to Arthur. It is, in its way, a propagandistic attempt to establish the primacy of England over the kings of France and the pope in Rome.**

Geoffrey gives the date of Arthur’s death as 542, a mere 4 years before Gildas is supposed to have written his Ruin of Britain. His detailed story is the first to identify Arthur’s queen; he names her Guanhumura, the daughter of some Roman noble. She is better known to us as Guinevere, and is more usually identified as the daughter of the Frankish Leodegranz, a fictional nobleman living in Scotland at the time of Arthur. Gildas does not mention any of these deeds in his book, which leads one to the natural conclusion that Geoffrey is telling a story.

Final Details of Historic Britain
Britain was commonly known on the continent as England by the end of the sixth century, a hundred years after Arthur’s supposed liberation of the Britons from Saxon domination. The first English king we know of for certain was Ethelbert, the King of Wessex, whose line would dominate English history for 500 years after his crowning in 560. His line would beget Alfred the Great, the first king of all England, and his descendants would rule until the Norman Conquest of 1066 (and, technically, William the Conqueror was a cousin of Edward the Confessor, and through the matrilineal descent the same bloodline of that Ethelbert still rules England to this day).

By 650, the last Briton kingdoms had disappeared. Earlier, in 476, the Western Roman Empire collapsed and the Frankish kingdoms began to appear in Gaul. Arthur, if he lived at all, must have lived between the years Rome abandoned Britain (418) and the crowning of Ethelbert (560).

The Celtic Myths
There is not much evidence that Arthur ever existed at all, save as a religious construct. Arthur’s name in Welsh is Arth Vawr, or "Heavenly Bear." Arthur, the bear, took the place of his father, Uther Pendragon, whose own symbol was the Gold Dragon. In the heavens, the pole star of the north used to be Alpha Draconis, the Head of the Dragon. As the Earth subtly shifted, however, the pole star changed to Polaris in Ursa Major, the Great Bear. The Druids studied the heavens and the movements of stars, and it can be suggested that the mythological Arthur reflects this observation, taking over leadership from his father Pendragon.

Arthur may have origins as a pagan solar god among the Celts. He may have supplanted the earlier solar myths of Gawain. Gawain’s mother, Morgause, was part of the Celtic version of the Great Goddess (virgin-mother-crone). Morgause, the mother, gave birth to the four quarters of the year: Gawain, Gareth, Gaheris, and Agravaine. At the end of the year, Gawain, as the new sun, beheaded the old one, personified by the Green Knight, and the new year began. At the end of the year, that same Gawain had become the Green Knight, and was in turn killed, in the familiar pagan cycle (Cu Chulainn was the Irish version of this same myth, which persisted in many ancient cultures).

Arthur’s life was overseen by the Great Goddess; Elaine, the virgin, was his mother (as she was later Lancelot’s). Morgause, his sister and lover, gave him his son-killer Mordred. And Morgan, as Fate (or Fata Morgana), determined his death and final resting place. Before the pagans were Christianized, this was the Trinity, or Triple Goddess.

So we can see that Arthur also has a base in Celtic mythology; possibly these myths (which, under other names, were common to most ancient religions) were laid down by Celts and Britons onto the deeds of an historical Arthur as a way to preserve their heritage in story.

Merlin is, in the familiar stories, the wizard-advisor of Arthur. He emerges as a composite of two men. The first is a legendary Welsh figure, Myrddin Emrys (or Merlin Ambrosius, whom Gildas identified as Ambrosius himself). He was a child-prophet with supernatural powers who had counseled first the Vortigern, then Ambrosius, and Artorius himself.

The second figure is an historical person, Myrddin ap Morfyn, or Merlin Celidonius (also known as Merlin the Wild, or Myrddin Wyllt). He is a singer-warrior, and considered (along with Taliesin and Aneirin) one of the three great Welsh bards. He lived, it is generally thought, from 470 to 540, and several poems in The Black Book of Carmarthen are credited to him. This Merlin fought at the Battle of Arfderydd in 574, went mad, and became a hermit, living in the woods among the wild creatures.

Both were considered Druidic prophets of some import (the first Merlin is, according to legend, an immortal who erected Stonehenge with his magic), neither was mentioned in connection with Arthur before Geoffrey of Monmouth. He based his writing career on Merlin, publishing Prophetiac Merlini (The Prophecies of Merlin) in 1130. It proved so popular among readers that he could not resist laying them into his Historia Regum Britanniae. After that work was published, Geoffrey returned to Merlin exclusively, publishing Vita Merlini (The Life of Merlin) in 1148.***

Merlin is generally thought now to have been an Old Welsh shaman. Traditionally, his magic was taught to him by women and he now rests in the Mother’s Cave (or Womb) awaiting his Second Coming. Christian writers made his powers evil and claimed he was the Antichrist, fathered on a virgin by the devil (his good human side won out, apparently). Merlin, as he was known by Druids, was a prophet with some abilities; the notion of wizards and magicians as we know them now is largely a medieval construct.

The French Additions
The knights of Arthur’s Round Table existed as Roman cavalry for a long time. But in the mid-eleventh century, King Edward the Confessor brought French ideas of chivalry and knighthood to England. Though Edward was the last Saxon king of England, he was raised in Normandy, and brought with him the notion of the French court. This was cemented by William the Conqueror’s reign, and the knights of Arthur would forever after be remembered as we now remember the medieval knights of jousts and pilgrimages.

The French had considerable influence on the legend of Arthur. The greatest of Arthur’s knights, Lancelot, was from France. He was created in 1172, when Chretien de Troyes wrote Le Chevalier a la Cherrette (The Knight of the Cart), which is better known historically as Lancelot. The knight was made the personification of courtly love and heroic demeanor, the very best romantic notion of knighthood. An idealization of the French hero.

In fact, Lancelot may have been a romanticization of the love triangle going on in the country at the time. King Louis VII (The Young) of France had divorced Eleanor of Aquitaine, who gave him no sons, and she, in turn, had married England’s King Henry II, by whom she had four.
The French also renamed Arthur’s sword Caliburn, calling it the more familiar Excalibur. De Troyes also added the Grail to the story in 1185 with his romance Percival, and Robert Wace added the Round Table in Le Roman de Brut. The Greeks and Romans knew a round table of their own – the moon wheel, which showed the sacred calendar table (or mensa) of the goddess Vesta. He counted 28 original knights; 28 is the pagan number of the moon.

So we can see the effect of myth, legend, and politics on the way Arthur has been interpreted over the centuries. In 1596, Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene surrounded Arthur in a setting of twee fairy tale and courtly romance. This work was so popular, it became near impossible to separate the feeling of Renaissance silliness from the historical realities of Old England. The fairy tale was too beloved.

This happened again in the early nineteenth century. In 1825, Joseph Ritson published The Life of King Arthur, the first attempt at a rational historical study of Arthur. But a few years later, Alfred Lord Tennyson published his Idylls of the King, more fairy tale, romantic nonsense, that rooted in the public imagination almost immediately. Because of this, and the lack of written historical records from post-Roman Britain, we will never know the "reality" of King Arthur. Today, as we see in films, the legend is still being misinterpreted and misrepresented. Perhaps Arthur belongs as myth; there seems to be more power for the British people in the legend than in any possible reality. Winston Churchill once remarked, "If King Arthur didn’t exist, he should have." And perhaps that will be the final historical word.

* Still others cite Colchester, but this is only because of a coincidence of name. Modern Colchester was once called Camulodunum, and served as the seat of the imperial Roman governor. People have looked at the similarities of the name "Camelot" and "Camulod" and thought a connection might exist there, but there is no evidence to suggest it. In fact, the name "Camelot" was not seen in the Arthurian myths until Chretien de Troyes wrote his Lancelot in 1172. In Arthur’s time, if so it was, Camulodunum was firmly held by the Saxon kingdom of Kent.

**Geoffrey puts the founding of Britain at 1115 BC, and ascribes it to Brutus, a great-grandson of Aeneas, who left Troy to found Rome. This popular myth of the time was meant to put the Britons/English on an equal footing with proud Roman history, as Rome itself perpetuated the myth of Aeneas to connect their past to the Trojans and create a false line of descent from Aphrodite to her son Aeneas all the way to Romulus and Remus and finally Julius Caesar.

***Our image of Merlin seems to mostly be based on Odin as he is portrayed in The Volsunga Saga. This great German epic also includes the episode of Sigmund pulling the Sword from the Tree, which later became Arthur pulling the sword Excalibur from the Stone.

Isaac Asimov, The Shaping of England (Houghton Mifflin, 1969)
David Day, The Search for King Arthur (Facts On File, 1995)
Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae (1135)
Saint Gildas, De Excidio Britorum (546)
Barbara G. Walker, The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (Harpercollins, 1983)