Saturday, June 11, 2005

Conversations from the Video Store, Part III

Conversations recorded for posterity while working at Hollywood Video in 2001.

Carl and Aaron's conversation is broken by a customer who looks like he has a major crisis on his hand.

CUSTOMER: Is there a game in the Dreamcast machine?

AARON: Yes, but the machine's broken.

CUSTOMER: Can't you put in a new one?

AARON: No, sorry--only the store manager has the keys.

CUSTOMER (rudley assuming that his problem is INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT): And where is he?

AARON (wondering why the kid doesn't just buy a fucking Dreamcast instead of hanging out at a Hollywood Video and playing one): Today's his day off. He's in tomorrow until 5.


The customer stands there for a minute while the rusty, unoiled gears in his brain slowly grind their way to a course of action he can take.

CUSTOMER: Okay...thanks.

Customer walks out of the store.

AARON: Well, that was certainly worth the wait. Ah, today's youth.

CARL: That guy was at least four years older than us.

AARON: I know. Sad, eh? Probably at the peak of his existence, too.

CARL: You know what we are? We're slackers.

AARON: You think?

CARL: Could be.

AARON: I certainly am lazy, directionless, and easily distracted. But why slackers? I always felt "slacker" was more like a fasion statement than a personality type.

CARL: Well, it's a fashion statement now, but you know I don't care about fashion statements. We're more like actual slackers, back when it was a descriptive term. Remember Back to the Future?

AARON: Yeah, but didn't that movie popularize slacker as a fashion thing?

CARL: I would say Slacker started that whole thing. That's what made it "cool."

AARON: So, before then?

CARL: Before then it was just something to call someone who was lazy, directionless, and easily distracted. We seem to have become that.

AARON: Hey, you actually managed to finish college.

CARL: Yes, my BA in film opens up so many doorways. It's basically a worthless degree, it doesn't qualify you for shit.

AARON: And now you work for a public access station.

CARL: And you work in a video store.

Aaron and Carl pause for reflection as they watch Flipper for a few minutes.

AARON: So, you up for a murder-suicide pact tonight?

CARL: Don't tempt me, man.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Conversations from the Video Store, Part II

Conversations recorded for posterity while working at Hollywood Video in 2001.

Carl is still standing up at the counter with Aaron. A customer shuffles into the store, walks over to Aaron, and hands him some videotapes, setting off the alarm in the process. The customer, oblivious, walks out.

CARL: Why do they do that?


CARL: The Zombies of Naperville. Why do they come up to you, set off the alarm, and hand you their videos?

AARON: Maybe they think I'll get to it faster.

Aaron drops the tapes in the regular drop-off bin behind the counter.

CARL: And what's with the dumbass grin? Do they think you're actually happy to see them?

AARON: I don't know, they all look the same to me. I stopped looking those wacky fucks in the eye a long time ago.

Aaron and Carl watch Flipper for another minute; Elijah Wood, onscreen, bitches about Pearl Jam.

AARON: You know what I've always wondered?

CARL: What's that?

AARON: How the hell can they get away with calling it "alternative rock"? Firstly, it's not rock--rock achieved perfection in 1978 and died out altogether in 1986. Most people didn't even go to the funeral. Secondly, if it's alternative, what's it an alternative to? I mean, they play it on the radio, so how alternative can it be? Isn't it supposed to be the alternative to the mainstream?

CARL: Sure.

AARON: If you'll give me the fact that radio play automatically precludes any alternative posturing, it's obvious that by the very nature of radio as a mainstream infotainment medium, any music played on it cannot be alternative.

CARL: Given.

AARON: Well, then the only way something can maintain any semblance of alternativity on the radio is by appearing on an underground program, or something pirated. Of course, since this is being marketed to teenagers who are in bed at 2AM, how can they hear truly alternative music?

CARL: Some of them claim to be hanging out at clubs.

AARON: Sure; I bet their babysitters take them.

CARL: So your argument is that no music kids listen to today--

AARON: Or in the last decade.

CARL: --or in the last decade can be considered alternative, due to its constant appearance in a mainstream medium and because it is, by nature, marketed to kids.

AARON: Exactly.

CARL: And Pearl Jam?

AARON: An unfortunate incident in our country's ongoing pop culture conflict.

CARL: So, where do boy bands fit into this?

AARON: I file those in a mental drawer marked "Hitler's Plans for World Domination."

CARL: And what are you listening to these days?

AARON: Classical.

CARL: Yet you comment on alternateen music?

AARON: I'm still thirsting for the good in the new.

CARL: Find anything?

AARON: No. All of today's music is recycled from the seventies.

CARL: And the Britney Spears poster on your bedroom wall?

AARON: Hey, I love Britney Spears. I just hate her music.

CARL: "Lucky" was almost a good production.

AARON: Yeah, but if it was "a story about a girl named Lucky," like the song claims, why was there no beginning or end?

CARL: Good point. What about "Hit Me Baby One More Time"? Hit her with what?

AARON: I'm not really sure; though I see you have a dirty fantasy life.

CARL: I also liked "Drive Me Crazy."

AARON: Britney Spears in a watiress uniform with catseye glasses; classic.

CARL: So, are we hypocrites because we like Britney Spears?

AARON: If the face of pop music has become cosmetically enhanced with over-production, why not embrace it? It's the same reason I love David Bowie: the ability to be creative inside the boundaries of a certain genre.

CARL: If Britney was a little more emotionally attached to her music and pushed harder, instead of just singing like a trained canary, she could really knock teen pop on its ass. She won't, but she could. So could Christina Aguilera, she has a much more powerful voice. Or Jessica Simpson or Mandy Moore, I guess.

AARON: Who the fuck are Jessica Simpson and Mandy Moore?

CARL: I thought you knew this pop music stuff.

AARON: Dude, I pay so little attention to this garbage that the only reason I knew Christina Aguilera was because she did the single for Mulan.

CARL: Wow. Teen music. Any other topic we can embarrass ourselves with?

AARON: The Olsen Twins are getting cute.

CARL: Think they'll ever get naked in a movie?

AARON: Providing God is still alive.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Conversations from the Video Store, Part I

Conversations recorded for posterity while working at Hollywood Video in 2001.

A video store during the empty evening hours of Thursday. It is late May. Carl, a regular customer, approaches his friend Aaron, the store clerk on duty. Carl notices the store television is playing a movie with a boat.

CARL: Is this The Perfect Storm?

AARON: Close.

CARL: So, what is it, then?

AARON: Flipper.

CARL: Flipper?

AARON: Flipper.

CARL: And...why are you watching Flipper?

AARON: I'm sick of all the cartoons we have, so I thought I'd put on a film I've never watched before. Besides, it has Paul Hogan in it, so it can't be all bad, right?

CARL: Wrong.


They watch for a moment.

CARL: So, what's Elijah Wood's problem?

AARON: His parents are fighting, so they ship him off to Florida for the summer to stay with his uncle, Paul Hogan. He gets into little adventures, or something. You know, hangs with Hogan, goes fishing, meets a chick who played the bitchy little girl in Casper, and befriends a dolphin. It's not so bad.

CARL: I suppose not.

AARON: The sad thing is that I envy the little fucker.

CARL: But, what's his problem? He's acting like a little puke.

AARON: Apparently he's going to miss this big Pearl Jam concert.

CARL: Pearl Jam?

AARON: Pearl Jam.

CARL: Jeez, poor baby.

AARON: Tell me about it. Meanwhile, Uncle Crocodile Dundee has a little side thing going with Chelsea Field.

CARL: Yeah?

AARON: Look at her; her body a little hardened by harbor life, yet with a soft interior. Rough, yet caring; capable, yet warm. She doesn't need anyone, so it only makes it more special that she chose him.

CARL: You romantic, you.

AARON: And look at those thighs. Man, I'd like a taste of those.

CARL: So, the truth comes out...

AARON: And those lips--born cocksucker.

CARL: So, what's your total summation?

AARON: I'm going with Ebert on this one--any kid that would rather see a Pearl Jam concert instead of spending the summer offshore fishing with Crocodile Dundee, meeting girls and playing with dolphins, should be locked in a sensory dep tank until his head clears. Fucking little ingrate.

CARL: Ebert said that?

AARON: I'm paraphrasing.

CARL: Either way, it's a sad choice.

AARON: What's that?

CARL: Crappy so-called alternative rock over the kind of summer any kid should have.

AARON: Did you ever do that?

CARL: What? Spend the summer hanging on the beach, communing with nature, meeting babes and having adventures?


CARL: Nah. Watched a lot of TV. But my family and I did spend part of the summer in Long Island.

AARON: Good times. Ever watch ThunderCats?

CARL: Sure. I was more into RoboTech. I remember when half-hour toy commercials used to have plots, dammit.

AARON: Today's kids are really brainwashed by that stuff. Look at Pokemon--the kid on the show has to fucking collect every single one of those monsters, providing an example for kids. It's like an instruction manual. They should just call the show How to Buy Pokemon Cards.

CARL: Fucking evil scheme...

A Wry Answer

Many have tried to find a perfect, all-encompassing definition for science fiction, and their answers are never satisfactory. One day, Frederik Pohl, ace editor and SF author, was asked for his opinion. Mr. Pohl, what is science fiction?

"Science fiction," he answered, "is what I buy as an editor."

And, what kind of stories do you buy?

"Science fiction."

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

So Falls Another Giant

According to this article at Muppet Central, it looks like the UK branch of Jim Henson's Creature Shop might be closing. Tax pressures on filmmakers are exploding right now in England, and most American companies are finding it about 30% more expensive to film in the UK studios than in other places.

For the British, this is a blow to national pride. Every time there's a Full Monty or Love Actually or Shaun of the Dead that makes some money, articles are written about the return of the dormant British film industry; but the inescapable truth seems to be that the industry is in a decline, and one that might be irreversible. It's much cheaper for companies to film movies in Eastern Europe (Prague and Budapest are quite popular right now) or in Australia and New Zealand. Even the legendary Pinewood Studios are talking about closing, because two very British film franchises--Harry Potter and James Bond--are most likely going to film elsewhere. And, of course, George Lucas eschewed England to film the prequel trilogy in Australia.

Now, there are two other branches of the Creature Shop--New York and Los Angeles--but the British one is special. The London Creature Shop is the original, built after Jim Henson came to feel that the British sensibilities were closer to his own. He related to the artistry of Brian Froud, to the gentleness of the country, to filmmakers like Chaplin (whose old California studio is still the home of the Jim Henson Company). Henson shot several movies there (including The Great Muppet Caper), and it was in England that Frank Oz created and performed Yoda for The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

The Shop was created in 1982 specifically to design and create the creatures, backgrounds, and entire world of The Dark Crystal. After that artistic triumph, the Shop remained open as an effects house. Jim Henson created Labyrinth there, as well as many elements of The Jim Henson Hour, including Monster Maker, Living with Dinosaurs, and every episode of The Storyteller.

In addition to this magic, the British Creature Shop has worked on other films: Dreamchild, The Witches, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Flintstones, Babe, The Adventures of Pinocchio, Lost in Space, The Brotherhood of the Wolf, and most recently The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, as well as the greatest science fiction series of all time, Farscape (better known as the only SF series where the aliens looked alien).

I prefer puppets and models to CGI, because they give the actors something to relate to physically. They're more believeable. I'll take puppet Yoda over CG Yoda any day, frankly. They remind me of a time in my childhood when movies were more fantastic; even today's fantasy movies--with some glowing exceptions--don't have the same sense of abandon as something like Clash of the Titans or Return to Oz. The constraits that forced creative decisions have been lifted, and so the creativity is gone.

As I said, there are two other Creature Shops. But the history and wonderful output of the British one makes me sad to see it (possibly) become a casualty of the market. Their obvious successor, Weta FX (Peter Jackson's company and the best effects house since Henson--fuck ILM), is still going strong, what with the upcoming King Kong and The Chronicles of Narnia.

Here's hoping the British artisans find a home.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Film Week

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

No, not a porno, but it was on Lifetime, so I think it still counts. This is your typical Lifetime movie: sexy young girl with low self-esteem gets exploited, her mom tries to stay strong and help. Ever notice the mothers in these things are always sub-par? It's like Lifetime is trying to punish women for being divorced: I could almost hear the screen subliminally saying to mothers everywhere "You're a bad mother, because you got divorced, and you can't make enough money to take care of your little girl, and now she's going to get into trouble. And you have to work, so you can't keep an eye on your daughter all the time, and she wouldn't open up to you about a problem, anyway, because you're a terrible person." Anyway, the girl goes to be a model, and makes a ton of money, and is too stupid to realize that she's actually just jailbait on a soft core website. And some dude starts stalking her even before her pictures are on the internet. It attempts to be a cautionary tale, but it's soooo over-the-top that no one could possibly take it seriously. These are really just exploitation movies, aren't they? They teach women to be terrified of their own daughters and of the internet and of men. And I can't take a movie seriously where the voice of reason is a white hippie dude in thick sweaters, emo glasses, and dreadlocks. I watched it because Mimi Rogers played the mother; she was wasted by the film. A reluctant * star.

HONEY (2003)
I'm starting to come around on Jessica Alba, I'll admit, but this was a pretty silly movie. Another one of those pretty white girl (with perfect teeth) teaches ghetto kids to appreciate life movies. She plays Honey, who ends up (somehow) as a video choreographer, blah blah blah, and everything turns out alright for the pretty white girl, the end. It's so insubstantial I kept looking at my TV to make sure it wasn't going to float away. And Alba talks through the whole movie with one of those ridiculous Britney-Justin-Christina fake "ghetto" accents: "Every guh's uh directa when he wan' som' booty." So, so stupid, despite a cameo from the wonderful Tweet and a couple of nice scenes of Missy Elliott parodying herself. ** stars.

I'm fascinated by adult movies from the eighties. Growing up, of course, I missed them all (I was ten when this one came out), and then I never really thought about catching them when I got a little older. I've read a lot about the important impact of movies from the seventies (in fact, I'm a little sick of it--the shark didn't work, I've heard it a million times!--yeah, Robert Redford was almost Michael Corleone, I DON'T CARE ANYMORE!) and of the independent wave of the nineties, but no one talks about the reversion into slick studio fare in the eighties. I find it sort of fascinating. Yeah, everyone sold out: but why? What was the motivation? What social forces were different? And what about the movies themselves? There are a lot of lost classics from the eighties. Anyway, this isn't one of them. The same mannered "regular guy" Jeff Bridges performance, and a fairly embarrassing one from Jane Fonda (who is so over-the-top as an alcoholic that she could have been in a Stallone movie). Raul Julia is good, of course. The plot is nonsensical. Jagged Edge was a way better movie. ** stars.

Engrossing and highly interesting movie about the English Civil War. It compromises a bit on the spectacle (the rubber swords at the battle scenes actually bend), but the central performances and the political discussions are so good that it kept me rapt with attention. Richard Harris plays Cromwell as a liberator, a tired revolutionary whose hand is constantly forced to take action for the cause of democracy. Ken Hughes, who wrote and directed, paints Cromwell as the George Washington of England--at the same time, he never forgets that Cromwell was a harsh Puritan who (maybe) wanted people to be equal. He still believed in a king, but in a king supported by the democratic process. Alec Guinness gives a typically beautiful performance as King Charles I, playing a slight stammer that humanizes and sympathizes the monarch. When Charles is led to his death, I found myself moved to tears by the way he accepts it, even though his fear is palpable. An excellent movie, especially given the obvious limitations of the filmmakers. ***1/2 stars.

Too late for the nineties wave of lame teen comedies, too early for the 2000s wave of lame teen comedies. Lots of people in it (Seth Green, Ethan Embry, Lauren Ambrose, Peter Facinelli, Melissa Joan Hart, Jaime Pressly, Jenna Elfman, Erik Palladino, Breckin Meyer, Donald Faison, Jerry O'Connell, Selma Blair, Charlie Korsmo, and many, many other recognizable actors), and starring a very young-looking Jennifer Love Hewitt from her Party of Five days. It's the kind of pointless drivel you've seen a hundred times about the sensitive guy who loves the popular girl, then agonizes over telling her, and then they end up together no matter how improbable that is. Lame, predictable, tired. Seth Green is always awesome, though, and J. Love is pretty cute. I kind of feel for J. Love, because she was supposed to be the next big thing and never even came close (Becca thinks it's her attempted singing career what did it), and she's kind of, I dunno, defeated about it now. Either way, this movie's too pointless to even suck. ** stars.

Do you believe that SamuraiFrog is a self-professed film buff about to hit his 29th birthday and he's never seen Easy Rider? I think I just got sick of hearing about the impact of the movie on the hippie generation, and the way it kicked off the Seventies New Wave or the Second Golden Age, or whatever they're calling that shit on IFC right now, and after hearing over and over and over and over and over again about how fucking important the bloated, overrated Apocalypse Now was, I honestly never wanted to see another one of those movies again. But I sat and watched Easy Rider, and I'm so glad I did. Surprisingly lyrical and very American in its execution (though European in its reflection), you could almost turn the dialogue off and just watch the film and still get it. The American countryside is captured so well by cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, and the music tells the story all by itself. I finally understand why my dad sees a sort of romance in motorcycles. The interesting thing is, this movie doesn't come down on the side of hippies at all; in fact, it abandons them. Instead, it comes out on the side of American individuality and freedom. It doesn't believe in movements, but it does believe that America is falling apart because of fear and misunderstanding. The ending says it all: Americans literally allow (and perhaps invite) their fear to maintain the status quo by violence. Saying you want freedom and being free are very different. I hate statements like this, but here we go: one of the best and most important American films ever made, beautiful and simple and, natch, **** stars.

Lon Chaney's only performance without makeup, and one of his best, as a drill sergeant in the Corps. He clashes with William Haines, a ne'er-do-well who loves the same girl Chaney does (and, in typical Chaney fashion, he lets the girl go to the young man she loves). Great stuff, and one of Universal's most popular silent films. ***1/2 stars.

That title's a lie: this labored comedy isn't "fun" at all. George Segal's made many better comedies (The Owl and the Pussycat, for example), and Jane Fonda is totally wasted. Like I care that two idiot rich people lost their money. Snore. An inconsequential ** stars.

I guess I should've known from the title that this wasn't going to be very good. It was a documentary for the History Channel, and it sort of followed the same lines as every other "overview" doc of the genre: Frankenstein to Verne to Wells to Meilies to Metropolis to Gernsback, Campbell, Asimov, and Heinlein to Orson Welles's War of the Worlds to serials to television to movies to Star Trek to 2001. And then, of course, it makes it look like Star Wars saved SF from obscurity, and Star Trek came back in movie form, and then, suddenly, SF was popularized for everyone, William Gibson wrote Neuromancer, and that was the entire story of science fiction. Bullshit. As always, literary SF is just a springboard for pop culture, and there is no mention of Smith, Huxley, Lovecraft, Stapledon, Williamson, del Rey, Kuttner, Leiber, Simak, Van Vogt, Aldiss, Anderson, Bester, Clement, Dickson, Harrison, Herbert, Pohl, Kornbluth, or Wyndham (Bradbury and Clarke rate brief mentions, and Clarke only in conjunction with 2001). And, as always, the important SF New Wave of the 1960s is totally overlooked: no Ballard, Burgess, Brunner, Disch, Farmer, Norton, Piper, Silverberg, Zelazny, Donaldson, Delaney, Dick, Smith, Sturgeon, Knight, Russ, or Harlan Ellison. No, it all comes down to Star Wars and Star Trek. So, thanks for nothing there. A time-wasting ** stars.

Peter Fonda's follow-up to Easy Rider and his directorial debut, about a frontiersman (Fonda) who gets tired of wandering and goes home to his wife and daughter, neither of whom he's seen in seven years. Beautifully shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, and well-acted (Warren Oates is always great), it did tend to drag a little bit. Still, it was hard to look away from, artfully directed. ***1/2 stars.

Monday, June 06, 2005

When the baby boomers die, we're all fucked

I was looking at a study done a few weeks ago about the shittiness of the average driver. Turns out something like 20 million drivers out there would fail the driver's test if they had to take it right now. It shouldn't be a surprise at all, but the sheer largeness of that number is overwhelming. Think of how many drivers you see in an average day, and imagine that, for real--not just getting pissed about things and guessing a large hyperbolic number because you're pissed off--just imagine that only 1 out of every 20 drivers you're looking at knows anything about driver safety.

I remember taking the driving test: it was so simple that a retarded orangutan could have passed it. Like everything else in America, the award is given just for showing up and putting in the least amount of work possible. A friend was just explaining to me that he knew somebody who became a doctor on an average of 60%. I go to school with idiot kids who say things like "C's get degrees" and "D is for done." No one cares about quality, because they think that someone else will clean up the important things. Makes me seriously reconsider the need for a degree.

Which means our schools are dumber than ever, and our roads are more dangerous than ever. I live in Illinois, and was not surprised to see that my state ranked 40 out of 49 (the continental states plus Washington, D.C.) for driving ability. The average score on the driving test was 81.6, which is about 11 points over a failing grade. That's Illinois: America's C minus student.

When the baby boomers all die, there's going to be no one left who knows how to run anything. No one will care about job satisfaction, or quality, or fixing the dialysis machine. We're on a crash course with obsolescence. Why don't we just give the Chinese the keys to the broken down car that is America now? As long as they let us keep our iPods, I don't think anyone is really going to care.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Let's get our priorities straight for a moment...

Okay, obviously I attach some importance to pop culture: I'm fascinated by how something so ephemeral can cause so much lasting damage on our society. But how important is it really? Is it really that dire? I do believe that the moral health of a civilization can be surmised by what that civilization raises as its icons, even by what movies it goes to see on weekends or how many goddamn series of Survivor it's willing to sit through. And buddy, we ain't doing well.

But this morning I read a news story on AOL, with fairly dramatic pictures, about just how much we've destroyed this planet in the last thirty years. Deforestation, greenhousing, pollution: if the Earth had a consciousness she would've wised up and shaken us off like the parasites we are a long time ago. I think it would be unfair and selfish for me to ever have children: look what I'm giving them. No real future.

Right next to that was a story about how some guy in England had stolen copies of the next Harry Potter novel and was defending them at gunpoint. Seriously, some ass was willing to die for his book about a teenage wizard. What the fuck?

I think this is a massive indication that Western Civilization is headed right for another Dark Age, and probably a longer one than we had in the Middle Ages. Time to start handing the important books to the monks. A guy who can't wait the six more weeks or so for a book to come out takes up as much importance as the destruction of the Yellow Sea? Don't you get it, people, pop culture is just a distraction. That's all it's meant to be. And yet, due in no small part to the attention people like me give to it as a societal force, it has come to dominate our lives.

That's my point, really. I keep an eye on these things in no small part because I believe obsessive attention is dangerous. It distracts people from more important things that need to change if we're to survive. I hope I'm managing to point that out.

Not that anyone is going to do anything about it. Sadly, probably not even me.