Saturday, August 09, 2008

Day Off

Electronic Cerebrectomy's apparently run dry o' the thinkin' juice today. Peace, y'all.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Throwdown: Who Cares?

When I got on the computer this morning, one of the top stories on the Associated Press was: "Katie Holmes chops the bob down to a pixie." Yes, one of the top news stories on 8 August 2008 was that Katie Holmes, an actress probably no one would care about anymore if she weren't married to the world's most closeted alien-worshiper, had cut her hair. And it was a real article, too, with celebrity sylists and the co-host of What Not to Wear weighing in with their opinions on this important story, what it means for Holmes, and how her look has evolved over the years.

Add this to a campaign that has become so irritating I can't even pay attention to it anymore and the fact that I've never cared a wisp about the Olympics in my life, and all of the news has a very "Who cares?" quality to it right now. Nothing really worth talking about.

Here are some thing that caught my interest, though:
* Distributorcap has a great post about why the entire election needs to be tuned out right now.
* Johnny Yen has one of his typically fascinating historical-political posts, this one about Beirut and Grenada.
* Bubs comments on some of the weirdness out there.
* And Devilham has a slow-motion video of a lightning strike that is unbelievably cool.

A Long Ramble on Adaptations and Such

This is all pretty vague and unformed, it's just that I think about this stuff a bit and a lot of it has come up lately in my internet travels.

And yes, some of it has to do with the trailers for The Spirit. Not to keep harping on this, because I've really got no reason to defend a movie I've never even seen--that's not what I'm trying to do--but I've had a number of people ask me now, some with a tone that implies I'm the biggest drooling moron they've ever tried to reason with, if I've ever even read Will Eisner's original comic strip. I mean, if I'd ever even peeked at it, I would never stand for a moment while Frank Miller drags Will Eisner's name through the mud, right?

Well, yeah, I have read The Spirit. And I still don't care if Frank Miller's not simply transubstantiating the comic page to the movie screen. Why should I care?

(Aside from that, I do think Eisner's The Spirit is pleasant, but monstrously overrated. I love Eisner's graphic novels, but I've never been much into The Spirit--even in its less that racist moments, seriously. A Contract with God or... well, why take the time? Nearly every one of Eisner's graphic novels far outreaches The Spirit for me. But that's not to imply that I don't have a problem with a movie adaptation doing whatever it wants because I'm just not that invested in The Spirit. I really don't care either way.)

See, this is unfocused. But let me go back to the place where I became completely disillusioned with fandom in any form.

When I was a kid, I became very interested in Robert E. Howard. For the non-geeky, Howard was the pulp writer who created Conan (and a lot of other great pulp characters, but Conan will do for now). See, when I was a kid, we couldn't jump on the internet and get the answers to any query we could form. The only people who had the internet where those rare people who had that big phone sleeve for the entire handpiece to go into and those big-ass computers that took up an entire corner of the room. My dad worked in computers (we were one of the first people in the neighborhood with a PC, back when they had those black screens and green letters), and we didn't have the internet. It was expensive and unwieldy. So my love of Robert E. Howard could only be fostered by my local libraries and the occasional lucky find at a used paperback store. So, really, my exposure to Howard began with L. Sprague de Camp.

This is a lot of backstory, but bear with me.

L. Sprague de Camp was a great science fiction and fantasy author mostly known for his Incompleat Enchanter. He also ended up taking over the literary works of Robert E. Howard. Depending on who you talk to, he either did a service of disservice to the Howard legacy. He's one of a few people in the sixties who took up the gauntlet from Howard and tried to keep his works in print (Glenn Lord was another). De Camp, working with another author, Lin Carter, published a paperback series of Conan books that covered Howard's work. What he also did, unfortunately, was rewrite some of those stories, finish others that were uncompleted, and even rewrote some of the non-Conan stories so that they became Conan stories. As a kid, I didn't know any of this, I just had the series of books at the library available to read. I also read Dark Valley Destiny, the biography of Howard that de Camp wrote, and another book (practically a pamphlet) of Howard criticism by someone else. And that was all I had available to me.

Now, come the internet age, and I ended up joining an email group (which, it seems to me as a slightly more experienced person, is just a mistake all on its own) devoted to Robert E. Howard fandom. And this was around 2000 or so, when fandom had already taken its turn into vicious back-biting and self-important over-analysis. And 95% of the people on that group just completely drove me away from Howard fandom. People who are now, in the years since, praised with restoring Robert E. Howard to his rightful place of serious appreciation, are people that I found to be smug assholes. These are, unfortunately, the people who are now the self-appointed custodians and guardians of Howard's legacy.

In their eyes, de Camp had purposely engaged on a campaign to steal and overtake Howard's fiction, and then published Dark Valley Destiny as an act of slander, in order to make Howard look crazy and his talented fiction seem accidental. (I know that Howard superfans really want to make the case that Howard didn't have severe emotional problems, but a guy who is super well-adjusted doesn't kill himself when he's thirty because his mom is dying.) And if you didn't find L. Sprague de Camp, from many accounts a nice and personable human being, some kind of abomination that had taken human shape, you were treated like an absolute imbecile who had no real appreciation for Howard and his works.

What really bothered me about the de Camp-bashing is that there was never any attempt to find out why he'd done what he did. Was Dark Valley Days simply the result of faulty research, or a limiting of resources available to de Camp? Did he rewrite the Conan saga because of publishing demands? The Howard fans did not care. They just painted him as evil, and themselves as that much-cherished self-appellation, True Fans. But in doing so, I think they were not only demonizing de Camp, they were completely whitewashing Howard, making excuses for his racism and his emotional problems and turning him from a real human being into the stoic, noble poet that they wanted their hero to be. And that was (and still is) completely distasteful to me. It became this epic conflict, a misunderstood hero against an evil force. This was no longer about two writers who probably had reasons for doing what they did, reasons which might not always be understandable. And anyone who disagreed was pushed away. I was one of the people who was pushed away.

(And this is my problem with fandom, by the way; it's never about sharing something anymore. Now, when you enter the lair of the fan, they always want to force you out instead of helping to build your personal appreciation. They really want to be the gatekeepers, hoarding for themselves and few others, the guardians of this knowledge about something obscure that makes them feel special. The problem is, very few people care how much you know about it.)

So, one of the biggest fights in Robert E. Howard fandom was over the issue of pastiche and adaptation. The movie Conan the Barbarian, one of my favorite movies, was somehow an evil because it had too much "de Camp influence" and wasn't an exact replica of Howard's words. The Marvel comics Conan the Barbarian and The Savage Sword of Conan, which kept interest in the character alive, were also very maligned and demonized, and Roy Thomas was put in the same mould of evil as de Camp was, because he had written his own stories about Conan without this slavish devotion to Robert E. Howard that those fans see as respectful and not sad. Funny how none of them have said the same about Kurt Busiek and his excellent Conan comic for Dark Horse, which does exactly what de Camp did to Howard--inserts new stories to link the material. And that's part of my point: when people do something with Conan that the fans really like, suddenly the issue of "pure Howard" is less important.

(And this isn't to disparage everyone who is a fan of Robert E. Howard; on the contrary, I'm glad you like him. He's a fantastic author, still one of my favorites, and I get all of the reasonably-priced reprints I can. The Del Rey reprints of those pricey Wandering Star books, for example, are excellent and affordable and exactly what I want on my library shelf. You're lucky he's available to you in abundance now.)

So, pastiche and adapatation. The pastiches were given the least amount of respect, because de Camp's work was pastiche and he was, remember, a great evil. So, if someone like Robert Jordan wrote a Conan novel (and he wrote several), that wasn't a "real" Conan novel and was to be disregarded. Adaptations were also looked down upon, but not as badly.

Anyway, where this is all leading is to a conversation I once had with my friend Ben, a fellow refugee from that Robert E. Howard group. He did a lot more scholarly work on Howard than I did, and found himself a bit of a pariah for his troubles, his research often being looked down upon either for mechanical errors or because he, too, wasn't toeing this exact party line that goes around in any kind of fandom (but with special viciousness in Howard fandom). He was a little more fervent than I was, but not in that obnoxious, sad, touchy way we both fled from.

We were talking about Hellboy, a comic book we both loved, and I said I'd been enjoying the recent Hellboy Tales comic book, which featured stories with HB by other creators. Ben asked me "Would you say that you enjoy pastiches, then?"

I thought that was an unfair question, implying that I had no problem seeing Mike Mignola's work bastardized by someone else, and I told him as much. Then I countered with: "So, would you also say that it's wrong to read Spider-Man? I mean, do you think any Spider-Man comic not done by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko is a bastardized pastiche and therefore not pure in some way? What about Batman? Are we to completely disregard The Dark Knight Returns because it wasn't written by Bob Kane and Bill Finger? If we adhere to these strict guidelines of not allowing pastiches, the entire comic book industry is going to crumble."

He admitted he hadn't thought of it that way. And most people don't. I mean, Spider-Man has been around for, what, 46 years now? Batman for 59? They're not really characters now, they're properties, and those properties are sometimes reinterpreted in a way that makes them briefly interesting or put in a story that stands out above the monthly product. But, still, those works are technically pastiches, because they aren't written by their original creators.

And, honestly, do you care?

Then why is it so important that film adaptations adhere so closely to their comic book, novel, or television origins? What is the big deal here? Why is heavily stylized, slow motion imagery with barely any connection to the original comic book so cool in the Watchmen preview, but so offensive in the trailer for The Spirit? I'm asking because I honestly don't understand what the difference is.

Hell, I remember a time when it was the accepted wisdom that Watchmen could never be made into a movie. Alan Moore said it, and so did Terry Gilliam, and comic book fans agreed. Seriously, if you've ever read Sam Hamm's unmade 1990 script for the movie, you'd be hard-pressed to disagree; it's terrible. A couple of years ago I was shouted down when I said that one could easily do a Watchmen movie, but the person adapting it would have to have the artistic courage to be okay with dumping huge chunks of the story and turning it into something more streamlined to make it entertaining as a movie. The thing that always amazes me is that people seem to think "It's not like the book" is a reasonable, sensical criticism. It's not. It's just a fact with no bearing on whether the film is good or bad. It's completely meaningless. Now, you may not like the adaptation, and that's somewhat legitimate, and I understand the feeling, but that doesn't mean it might not work as a movie. The whole point is that something work as a movie. It's not like the book? Well, part of that is because you're not reading it. It always--and I don't mean this as a personal judgment--seems a little childish to me to see someone talking about how one thing is not exactly like another thing, and that somehow makes it not good. Don't we allow for interpretation anymore?

(By the way, it's the same people who shouted down my assertion that someone could make an entertaining Watchmen movie if they had the guts to do it without sucking up to the comic book fans and apologizing constantly, who are now extremely excited over the movie itself. Couldn't have predicted that one at all.)

I just don't see the point in being pedantic and precious about someone else's intepretation of something, when subjectivity is going to enter into it at any given point. Sure, Christopher Nolan didn't create Batman, but a hell of a lot of people seem to be enjoying The Dark Knight. Do you think The Dark Knight is what Bob Kane and Bill Finger would've had in mind? Who cares! It's Nolan's movie, it's Nolan's interpretation, it just happens to be one that hit with a lot of people.

(Two ironies: one, there is going to be someone who reads that and thinks "Actually, Finger and Kane's original Batman stories were quite dark." I'm giving you a pass on that; you don't need to put it in the comments, because that's not the point. The point is: would Finger and Kane have written or even liked this story? Obviously, we don't know. And the second irony is that both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, which are massively popular, borrow heavily from Frank Miller's Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, even though Miller is apparently on the outs with the majority of comic book fans, and he's not even being given any credit for the inspiration.)

Do I care that Sam Raimi's Spider-Man is not Stan Lee's Spider-Man? Or that Disney's Tarzan isn't Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan? Or that the Jonas Brothers's "Hello Goodbye" isn't the Beatles's "Hello Goodbye"? Or that Frank Miller's The Spirit isn't Will Eisner's The Spirit? No, I don't, and neither should you, probably. Because the originals are still there in their original form, and no amount of adaptation or fanboy guardianship or dull literalism is ever going to change the physical reality of something already extant. I thought Steven Spielberg's Minority Report was a pretty awful movie, and apart from that a pretty awful adaptation of Philip K. Dick. But did it make me angry? No, I don't really care, because I can read my Philip K. Dick books whenever I feel like going back.

This is what's great about anything in pop culture, from comic books to science fiction to Doctor Who to pop music to Shakespeare: anyone can interpret them however they want, and if you don't agree with the interpretation, it doesn't really matter. It doesn't affect yours or anyone else's life. It's just something you didn't like, and you don't need to be deeply, personally offended. You can be disappointed, but why are people taking this kind of thing so damn personally? Is America one giant fanboy who really thinks everything out there is for them to analyze and approve of rather than to enjoy or not?

It goes like this for me: transposition is impossible. The mere act of telling the same story in two different media and at the hands of two (or more) different people automatically changes it, if only because literature is a personal experience where words create images and film is a communal experience where images describe words. Most adaptive interpretations are commentaries or analogies.

And as far as authorial intent goes, why even take that into account? Can Alan Moore's intent for Watchmen really be preserved when it's being told by someone else? A transposition would be homogeneous and boring; isn't an interpretation, even a bad one, more interesting than an impossible transposition? It's exciting and unique. Creating an entertaining and thoughtful work that stands on its own should be more important than the faithful recreation of something which, because it would be a copy, can never be repeated exactly. There can't be two originals.

The explanation I most tire of hearing when it comes to something that doesn't make sense in a film is: "Well, that character (which goes nowhere and does nothing for the story) was there in the book, so they had to be in the movie." Why? If the character doesn't serve the film adaptation, throw them out. Then the novel or what have you simply becomes a companion piece to a film made by someone who didn't just have the guts to dump the character.

Another example of dulled imagination is David Lynch's Dune adaptation. I remember when this came out on video in 1985, and my parents renting it from the video store and being given a sheet of paper. I looked at it and saw that it was a glossary of terms used in the movie. I didn't think much of it then (only being 9), but years later, I think it's a little ridiculous. David Lynch's adaptation of Dune is so bad that it needs supplemental material in order for it to be understandable? (Aside: yes, it is.) Not to blame Lynch too much, because I know there was a lot of interference with the movie, but if you can't trust the audience to just figure it out, why even bother? Why even make such films in the first place if you can't make them their own entity? Jeez, it seems like most adaptations these days are just there to make money off of name recognition of other material, anyway.

You know, Farscape used made-up words, too, but they were pretty easy to figure out. But Farscape gave its audience credit for being smart, which is something else you don't see in a lot of films and television series these days.

Recently, someone commented on a post that he didn't care much for the Harry Potter movies, because what he was seeing was an interpretation of the world of Hogwart's that was so markedly different from what he had imagined when reading the books that he felt it just wasn't for him. And I thought that was a wonderfully reasoned comment. No "Warner Bros. is raping my memories!" or "This offense shall not stand!" or "Everyone who likes those movies is an idiot!" Just: others like it, but it's not for me. Simple, honest, and rational.

(Those movies do get a lot of flack for leaving so much of the books out of the movies, which is kind of funny considering the first two movies got slammed by critics for being too exact to the books; you can't win. I love the Harry Potter movies for what they are, which are basically commentaries on the books. The books, of course, are far richer and their length is rewarding. Movies, being forced into a certain expectation of running time, have to work with what will make the most sense in a certain amount of space. Which, as I've said in the past, is a little silly: I mean, what, people won't go see them, anyway?)

But I think part of the value in an adaptation is in the way it interprets a story through a unique viewpoint. Without the freedom of interpretation, an adaptation is completely meaningless. The best adaptations put the same story in a different context and in different terms to find the universality of it. Other great adaptations take the same idea and do something different. The value of an idea is only in the way it is interpreted, the way it inspires, and how it is acted upon. A transposition is merely repetition; saying what someone else has said is not saying anything. But interpreting something through a visual medium is merely showing the manner in which one person sees another person's work. No one sees things the same way, so why keep pretending that there are faithful and unfaithful adaptations? The original work should merely be a jumping off point, because it doesn't change the original work in any way. The original work is still there.

Personally, I think it's shortsighted not to admit that even a bad interpretation can strengthen one's understanding of a literary source. Commenting on art through new art is a way to inform or reflect society's tastes and understandings. The example I always use is the Venus. Think how many different artistic representations of Aphrodite or Venus there are in the history of art. What if one Greek sculptor had created his Aphrodite and everyone said, "Well, this is done, we can't ever do it again?" Think what we would have missed. Every single one speaks to the way a society views, understands, and appreciates women. The variation is incredibly important. Adaptation is, basically, a window into what can be said, but may not have been said. That doesn't mean the original work is incomplete, but any work worth commenting on stimulates some sort of discussion. Why criticize someone for not producing a work of art in the exact same way as another person? Personally, I think when you break it down into terms like that, the idea of slavish adaptation becomes even more ridiculous. Film and literature aren't substitutes for reality; they comment on reality as seen subjectively by the creator(s). Everything is this way, from history to music to art: someone is telling you how they see the world around them. Adaptations are someone telling you how they viewed someone else's work.

I don't know, it's all conceptual and theory and unfocused and rambling, and I've said a lot of this before. The main point is this: I think it's silly to be so precious about something that's based on something else, and that it's ridiculous to hold it against films that they're different from books or comics or what have you. You can't penalize a movie for not being a book, or an image for not being a word, anymore than you can penalize an expressionist or impressionist painting for not being an exact representation of an object (or, more tenuously, an emotion).

Criticizing a movie for not being a comic book is criticizing a painting for not being a photograph.

An adaptation isn't a story, it's a method of crafting a story.

Comparison weakens both; it makes one seem inadequate for not being the same thing as another. Content changes form, and the original form has no bearing on the later form.

An expression that depends on another expression for clarity has no value.

Opinions of quality, entertainment value, emotional depth, and intellectual worth are subjective. As they should be.

Nipple Slips

It's not that I don't appreciate the effort of a nipple "mysteriously" popping out of a woman's top, it's just that it's the laziest way to draw attention. Come on, isn't there something else a woman can do for attention? Like, actually being talented? I know it's too late for Lily Allen to attempt something so radical, but come on... I see women walking down the street all the time, and I never see any of their breasts leaping out of their tops. Much less the same women over and over again.

I mean, at what point does this just become an incredible failure to wear a shirt?

Thursday, August 07, 2008

My 20 Favorite Creature Shop Creatures

Because I've just got a thirst for Henson this week, I guess. These are my favorite creations of Jim Henson's Creature Shop.

20. Labyrinth Worm
"No, I said 'allo, but that's close enough." I always love it when creatures in fantasy lands act like British country gentlemen. It just makes me laugh; it's a nice Terry Jones touch (one of the few in the finished movie).

19. Fizzgig
The most Muppety character in The Dark Crystal. It's neat to see how much personality Dave Goelz can get into a little creature with the motion range of a handbag.

18. The Minotaur
From The Storyteller: Greek Myths. One of the best things about Henson creatures is the way they can be so expressive and garner sympathy, despite not being real, living things. The Minotaur in the Theseus episode has never quite left me: "Mother, father, sister..."

17. Ape
I don't think I've ever met anyone else (other than Becca) who liked the George of the Jungle movie, but I thought it was hysterical and I like the way Ape is handled (though it's hard for me to not like something with the voice of John Cleese).

16. Gryphon
The Henson/Hallmark Alice in Wonderland was a mixed bag (why do they always have to try and force a through-story on these things?), but there were parts of it I really dug. One of my favorite episodes from Carroll is the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle, probably because I've always had this love for gryphons (which is my favorite spelling of it, too). The scene is played a little more wistfully than I'd imagine, but the Gryphon is just so neat. I like him a lot more than the other Henson Gryphon in Dreamchild, a movie I was never that thrilled with.

15. Dormouse
Some day I'm going to have to make a list of the massive volume of things I still quote from pop culture. This is one: "Treacle!"

14. Marvin the Paranoid Android
This is not at all how I pictured Marvin when I read Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. But, like surprisingly everything in the movie, it works incredibly well. He even sort of has the look of something that would have been invented in the late seventies, all quaint and off of an Omni cover or something. Damn, I'm sorry we won't ever be getting a sequel.

13. The Devils
From my absolute favorite episode of The Storyteller, "The Soldier and Death." What's that? A sack. Well, then, you'd better get inside. This episode is just one of my favorite anythings ever.

12. Ludo
One of the things I love most about Labyrinth is that it's essentially what the inside of my imagination can be like: a mish-mash of all kinds of things I've seen in the past, taken as a jumping off point and mixed together. Ludo is basically one of Maurice Sendak's Wild Things.

11. Garthim
A triumph of somewhat simple design and tremendous sound effects. They're just neat, but also powerful.

10. Griffin
From another Storyteller episode, "The Luck Child." This is one of the best shows I've ever seen, honestly. The Griffin on this episode is unexpected, sort of like a spoiled, unpredictable child that doesn't realize how scary it can be. "So if you come one day to a black lake where the curlew calls and there is an island in the mist and a ferry goes back and forth, back and forth, rowed by an old man, turn around: Griffins live there; you may never get off the boat. For the ferryman was once a wicked king who ignored a prophecy, and nature, my dears, is a wise woman who pays us back, tit for tat."

9. The UrRu
I can't pick one over another, really, because they aren't distinctive enough in the screen time they have. They're like a neat amalgam of every "wise tribal" stereotype you can think of, but I like the slow, deliberate manner of their movements. I saw one of the costumes at the Museum of Science & Industry, and it was kind of fascinating seeing it. It was a bit like taxidermy to my 11 year-old brain.

8. Augrah
This entire list could easily be stuff from The Dark Crystal. Augrah is a very Frank Oz sort of character, isn't she? I mean, the way she moves is kind of similar to Miss Piggy. I just find that kind of neat.

7. The Skeksis
Again, I wasn't sure I could pick one over the other (though this one, SkekSil the Chamberlain, is the most obvious choice for me), but the whole species is a triumph of design and puppetry. They're just so non-human, nothing warm about them, and they still kind of scare me a little for that reason.

6. Sir Didymus
Labyrinth's most Muppety character, in my opinion (it's not much of a leap from him to Gonzo or Rizzo, for example). But he's also a Don Quixote-type, and those are the kinds of characters I tend to really gravitate towards.

5. Robot
I just think the Henson version of the Lost in Space Robot is so freaking cool. I want eight of these, with Dick Tufeld's voice booming out of them, they're just so damn awesome. "That was a mistake." Love it.

4. Landstriders
Their gentleness is just kind of warm; I like these things. The scene with the Landstriders in The Dark Crystal is the kind of scene they did a few times in eighties fantasy movies. The heroes get on something fast and take off; it's my favorite cue on the Krull score, for example.

3. Kira
I'm such a dork; ever since Kira, I've been attracted the most to women who have this sort of Gelfling look (like Tori Amos, for example--I also find those women are usually Irish or Polish). I don't know, I guess I thought Kira was the perfect sort of girlfriend in this fantasy adventure in my head. The fact that I could relate to her on a human level says a lot about how good she is as a Henson creature, in a movie I've repeatedly said is the most alien thing I've ever seen.

2. Pilot
Ah, Farscape; the show that proved aliens on science fiction TV could be so very, very much more interesting than just humans with skin diseases on their foreheads (among many other things, including that SF could be sexy). I love Pilot; he's an interesting character, caught in a situation he doesn't altogether understand or know how to deal with (in short, he's an inexperienced Leviathan pilot), and that makes him much more dramatically interesting instead of just functional. Not much on Farscape was ever that simple.

1. Dominar Rygel XVI
My favorite Creature Shop creation, and another main character on Farscape. He was supposed to be the one who was greedier and more self-serving than any other character, but I always thought he was misunderstood and, when threatened by it, he'd retreat into the stereotype people expected. I felt for him; he was so little, and every time he was hurt it would make me feel very, very bad because it was hard for him to defend himself in such a big world. And that kind of sympathy comes from expressiveness, an emotional integrity, and some damn good storytelling.

Honorable Mentions:
Jack Pumpkinhead
Though not a Creature Shop character, he was performed and voiced by Brian Henson. Return to Oz is one of my favorite films of all time, and Jack Pumpkinhead has always been my favorite inhabitant of the Land of Oz. The movie captured him perfectly. If it had been made today, he would have been far less compelling CGI.

Yoda
Also not a Creature Shop character, though created and performed and voiced by Frank Oz. And one of my favorite fantasy characters (even if the prequels did kind of turn him into a hardass).

The Kind of Deep Arguments That Erupt in Geek Homes

While watching TV the other day.

ME: Oh, man, a Chuck Jones Tom and Jerry cartoon? You know this is going to suck.

BECCA: Seriously? You don't like the Chuck Jones Tom and Jerry?

ME: No way! They're even worse than the Gene Deitch cartoons! There hasn't been a good Tom and Jerry since Hanna and Barbera stopped doing it in the fifties. It was never good again.

BECCA: You're crazy! Chuck Jones is a genius!

ME: He is, but his Tom and Jerrys suck.

BECCA: But I love the way he draws Tom and Jerry!

ME: They look like everything else he draws! They're just bland copies of his superior Road Runner cartoons. You're insane.

BECCA: Fuck you, you don't know what you're talking about.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Film Week

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

THE MAN FROM PLANET X (1951)
This is one of those movies about earnest, stalwart young men who defend terrified young women from space monsters. In this case, the Man from Planet X, an alien design I've always loved, who comes to Earth looking for help and instead runs into a scientist who wants to take from him the secrets of the universe (in order to make himself rich, of course). It's an alright movie, kind of a potboiler, and though similar in theme and execution to The Day the Earth Stood Still, also released in 1951, it hasn't aged as well. Director Edgar G. Ulmer treats his film like a horror movie, which is actually pretty neat considering who the real monster is. **1/2 stars. William Schallert is great as the villain.

THRONE OF BLOOD (1957)
Why it took me so long to see this great movie, I don't know (and I still haven't seen Ran, dammit). Kurosawa's feudal version of Macbeth is a nicely creepy film, probably better than any movie version of Macbeth I've actually seen. The acting is superb, with Toshiro Mifune in one of his great performances as a powerful man who gives way to paranoia and desperation. Isuzu Yamada is excellent as his wife, and Takashi Shimura is always at the top of his craft. I love the heavy mist and fog, and the witch in the forest, and that famous finale with the flurry of arrows (which, even though I knew it was coming, is visceral and powerful). I'd say it's one of Kurosawa's masterpieces, but which movies aren't, really? **** stars.

THE PEOPLE AGAINST O'HARA (1951)
John Sturges tries for bleakness in this movie but comes up with something that I found surprisingly uninvolving. Spencer Tracy plays a semi-reformed alcoholic lawyer who defends the son of a friend on a charge of murder. Johnny O'Hara (James Arness) is being framed, but Jim Curtayne (Tracy) finds it difficult to prove and all of the cards stacked against him. There's some good stuff in here--notably Tracy, even Arness, and William Campbell years before he became "The Squire of Gothos"--but overall it didn't come off, I think. Curtayne can be hard to sympathize with, and his daughter, who has sacrificed her youth to help keep him straight, is kind of irritating and holier-than-thou. Just go get married, kid, jeez. **1/2 stars; fitfully good. And hey, there's William Schallert again, delivering one hell of a last line!

JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (2008)
It's surprisingly okay. I mean, it's made for kids (Roger Ebert pointed out that he'd have loved it very much as an eight year-old, and that's really what they're aiming for here), but it's not outrageously stupid or insultingly bad, and it doesn't overstay its welcome. Seriously, it must run about 70 minutes or something. I like Brendan Fraser in adventure movies. *** stars. And I didn't see it in 3-D. 3-D sucks unbelievable amounts of ass.

A MAN CALLED HORSE (1970)
Richard Harris plays a British lord hunting in America who is captured by Sioux and put to work (a "horse") before eventually being allowed into the tribe and marrying the chief's daughter. This is quite a hard-edged movie, like Dances with Wolves with realism. One of the things I loved about the movie was this sort of brutally realistic way of life depicted in the film. It never becomes an easy friendship; Harris is treated like property for a long time, and even when he's proved himself the language and cultural barriers are never quite overcome. It's not like you usually see in movies like this. Very violent, right down to the famous (and harrowing, but hypnotically fascinating) ritual which involves Richard Harris hanging naked from his nipples. It's a weird movie to describe, and I'm not sure I truly loved it, but it did command my attention and kept me involved. There's not an over-abundance of dialogue, either; this is another testament to the fact that you can make a movie and tell a story without constant talking. The Sioux tribe includes the Polynesian Manu Tupou, the British Dame Judith Anderson, the Greek Corinna Tsopei, Italian Iron Eyes Cody, and even some actual Indians. Dub Taylor has an all-too-small role. ***1/2 stars. Jean Gascon, as a fellow prisoner, doesn't deserve to go unmentioned, either. He's very good.

THEY WON'T FORGET (1937)
Disappointing legal drama in which a Northerner is railroaded for the murder of a Southern woman. Did he commit the murder? Interestingly, we never find out; it's beside the point, which is that the South is still fighting the Civil War and hostile to outsiders. Claude Rains, one of my favorite actors, is fantastic as the rough-voiced district attorney who prosecutes the case, but he's about the only thing really going on here for me. He's excellent in a movie which doesn't do very much. Lana Turner is pretty as hell in her brief role as the victim, and Gloria Dickson isn't too bad, either. William Schallert isn't in this movie, but a guy who kind of looks like him is. Elisha Cook Jr., for the first and hopefully only time, really irritated me with his overly-mannered accent. ** stars.

THE HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929 (1929)
Not so much a film as a catalog of what MGM has to offer you, the discerning moviegoer, in 1929. And it's a showcase of sound. Like a lot of early sound films, it's self-conscious and stagey, like one of those Foy Family shorts from the same period which are basically vaudeville acts with no energy. Your enjoyment really depends on which MGM stars you like. I enjoyed beautiful Joan Crawford singing and gorgeous Bessie Love dancing; I howled with laughter over Laurel and Hardy, as I always do; Buster Keaton was fantastic as ever, and I love Marie Dressler. The Shakespeare parody scene with Norma Shearer and John Gilbert doing a modern language version of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet under Lionel Barrymore's direction was pretty funny (and in color, no less). Probably the person who came out of this the best was Cliff Edwards, who is natural and relaxed and gets to sing "Singin' in the Rain." He was great. The color scenes, by the way, especially the big singalong in the end, don't do the women any favors; those poor ladies, slathered in too much stage makeup and not realizing how splotchy the whole things was going to look. Oh, and I really hate Jack Benny. I just find him and his arrogant shtick entirely unamusing. ** stars.

NIM'S ISLAND (2008)
Charming as hell. This was a movie I heard nothing but bad about, but it's not a bad movie at all. It's a perfectly solid, enjoyable movie for kids. Abigail Breslin is just the top of child actors today, I think--she doesn't try to act like a little adult like, say, Dakota Fanning always did. Jodie Foster is much better here than anything I've seen her in for a long time, too, as an agoraphobic author trying to find Nim (Breslin), a little girl living on an island whose father (the always-dispensible Gerard Butler--sorry ladies, he sucks) is lost at sea. Bonus geek points: I noticed in small roles both Jay Laga'aia (Draco from Xena) and Anthony Simcoe (D'argo from Farscape). ***1/2 stars. Nim, by the way, totally has the life I want: living out in the middle of tropical nowhere with a friendly seal and an internet connection. Sadly, I'm more like Foster, afraid to get on a plane.

Hot Plate of the Vanities

JOHN McCAIN: Barack Obama hasn't done anything. He's just famous for being famous, like Paris Hilton.

KATHY HILTON: Hey! We contributed to your campaign and you attack our daughter? Not cool, man.

McCAIN: You gave me less than five grand. Besides, I'm a maverick and a bulldog! Bark! Bark! Maverick!

BARACK OBAMA: I am a citizen of the world.

CONSERVATIVES: How dare he not put childish nationalism above the paltry prize of peace!

LIBERALS: Sweet! Finally, a candidate who thinks making peace with our neighbors is kind of important! Suck it, neo-cons!

UNDECIDEDS: I don't know, isn't he just taking this little rock star tour of Europe so everyone will forget that he compromised on FISA, essentially becoming a presidential candidate voting that it's okay for the president to commit illegal acts that go against the Constitution? I mean, what is his campaign policy now: act like he's already president until people just assume he is?

SUPPOSEDLY LIBERAL MEDIA: OMFG! The Dark Knight's made $400 million!

PARIS HILTON: My campaign ad is supposed to be a satire, yet it somehow makes more sense and is more articulate than either of the real campaigns filling headlines every single day.

GOSSIP BLOGGERS: It's also made by Adam McKay and is funnier than either of his last two movies! Wocka wocka wocka!

McCAIN: Obama is a flip-flopper! A FLIP-FLOPPER!

UNDECIDEDS: Of course, you've also flip-flopped on several key positions in order to suck up to conservatives.

McCAIN: But I'm a maverick! Obama's an elitist!

OBAMA: I'm not an elitist, and to prove it I'm going to run an ad with Gwyneth Paltrow, elitism in human form, urging Americans abroad to vote Democrat!

McCAIN: See? You just want to be a celebrity, Obama! Quit sucking up to Hollywood and the media! Scarlett Johansson's your best email friend!

OBAMA: Dude, I emailed her back once and she thinks it means more than it does.

SCARLETT JOHANSSON: But... I was just trying to let people know you were a nice and personable guy... Thanks a lot. I'll say hi to Wesley Clark under the bus, okay?

MOVIE BLOGGERS: Wait a minute; Obama's never appeared in anything as himself, but wasn't McCain on an episode of 24? And didn't he have a cameo in Wedding Crashers?

McCAIN: ... Maverick!

My 30 Favorite Muppets

Splotchy commented yesterday in my post about despising the "Muppets Band" tee shirt that he thought a Lew Zealand or Crazy Harry shirt would be much cooler. I had to agree, and started thinking about Muppets that would make better tee shirts (another choice: Pops). For some reason or other, that led me to do this: a list of my 30 favorite Muppets.

30. Bad Andy
I admit, this is mostly out of sympathy. In a particularly Muppetless time, I thought it was neat that the Domino's Pizza mascot was a Muppet. And I also admit, I'm still pretty irritated with the reason why he was quickly axed from the commercials: sales went down because people couldn't figure out what he was supposed to be. Was he a monkey? Was he some kind of child? No, morons, he was a Muppet, and I don't think I can function in a world where a Muppet's identity goes questioned.

29. Doc Bullfrog
He just looks neat; I've always been very drawn to this frog design for some reason. He's from Emmett Otter's Jug Band Christmas. And his restaurant has mashed potatoes.

28. Count Von Count
Why? I'm not sure, I just think he's funny. He always reminds me of Count Floyd from SCTV.

27. The Doozers
I just always thought they were neat, too. I used to love watching them ride their little machines and build structures out of sticks. I remember seeing a bunch of mechanized Doozers at the Museum of Science & Industry when they had the Jim Henson exhibit there. You could also go into the Fraggle Rock tunnel, but the way. I think I was about 11 at the time, and it was wonderful.

26. Doglion
25. Thog
I always have a soft spot for the giant Muppet monsters, and these are two of my favorites. Poor Thog always looks nervous and confused.

24. Boober Fraggle
I always like the depressed ones who hate company. That always resonated with me, and now I'm a hermit, so there you go.

23. Bert & Ernie
Still my favorite gay couple on television. Sometimes, when I say that, people tell me I'm ruining their childhoods. Personally, I like Bert & Ernie better as a gay couple; they not only teach acceptance (which is way better than tolerance), they kind of show you how you can make relationships work. True SamuraiFrog fact: my first word was "Ernie."

22. Grover
Another childhood fave. I used to put a blanket around my shirt and pretend I was Super Grover. I could relate to him a lot; I always felt like I was saying and doing the wrong things all the time.

21. Sweetums
Jack not name; jack job. He's just awesome.

20. Uncle Traveling Matt Fraggle
He used to inspire me; my whole life, I've had this unfulfilled urge to wander and travel and see new things, and it's always, always quashed by this pragmatic/fearful side of me that says it's better to stay home. Every morning, calling me away.

19. Uncle Deadly
He's just so neat to look at. Plus he's got that great Vincent Price connotation, since he appeared with Price on The Muppet Show (and they sang "You've Got a Friend").

18. Koozebanians
For some reason, this is still the most vivid Muppet sketch in my head.

17. Animal
He gets tiresome, sometimes, but he's still really funny.

16. Big Bird and Barkley
When I was a kid, we lived in a neighborhood with two of those big sheepdog things like Barkley; I was always afraid of them, but I loved the idea of having a dog that was gentle and fun and big like Barkley. Big Bird was also naive and childish like I was (as a naive child, natch), and I just... I don't know, they make me feel like I haven't lost something that makes me me, because they help me remember.

15. Oscar the Grouch
We share the same temperament. Shout-out to Slimey (who never gets shout-outs).

14. Bobo the Bear
"And I'm the bear currently known as 'not amused.'" I loved Bobo when they made him the doorman on Muppets Tonight. His gentle humor and amiable nature makes me laugh hard; he's probably my favorite part of Muppets in Space. I like that the Muppet family keeps growing; there were some pretty good characters from Muppets Tonight (although I could probably live without Clifford), including Dr. Phil Van Neuter, Johnny Fiama, Sal Minella, and...

13. Pepe the King Prawn
As little sidekicks go, I find this smooth-talking shrimp a hell of a lot funnier than Rizzo the Rat. (Nothing against Rizzo, I just don't think he's that funny.)

12. Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker
Now, a Muppet Labs shirt would be awesome. Every joke about scientists, from Pinky and the Brain to Dr. Philo Farnsworth, originates here. And their sketches are still among the funniest I've ever seen.

11. Pigs in Space
I couldn't decide between the hilarious Dr. Julius Strangepork and the also hilarious Link Hogthrob, so I picked the whole thing. First Mate Piggy only adds to the fun. I think the "Pigs in Space" sketches illustrate something that's great about the Muppets: yes, there are great nods and parodies of Star Trek, Star Wars, Buck Rogers, etc, but it's not a parody of one specific media. A lot of the humor comes from Link being a pompous ass, Piggy being vain but kind of smart, and Strangepork being a little crazy. That's why so many shows like Family Guy fail for me; for humor to really last, it has to come out of the characters and not just repeating something.

10. The Swedish Chef
No, not Dane Cook. I defy anyone to watch the Swedish Chef and not laugh. Can you say the same about Dane Cook? The guy doesn't even have a kitchen.

9. Dr. Teeth
I miss him. I always liked the way he talked, in this sort of faux-hippie jive that sounded like some weird prospector slang, consarn it.

8. Cookie Monster
Former IBM spokesmonster. I loved his fanatical devotion to cookies. Did he turn me into a fat guy who eats too much junk? Nope, I did it to myself. Isn't it really the job of the other monsters to teach kids to balance their diet? C is for cookie, and that's good enough for me, dammit.

7. Wilkins and Wontkins
Those Wilkins Coffee ads are so laugh-inducing it's hard to breathe.

6. Fozzie Bear
I can sympathize, man. I can sympathize. Man, Frank Oz performed a lot of characters who were easily hurt and frustrated.

5. Statler and Waldorf
Anyone ever notice these guys are referred to as "Statler and Waldorf," but Waldorf is always on our left side? How come it's not "Waldorf and Statler"? There's some kind of conspiracy going on here. Anyway, how could I not love these guys? This is what I turn into when I watch 90% of television.

4. Snuffleupagus
Remember back when everyone thought Big Bird just made him up? There's something forever sad about Snuffy, like the Little Tramp, that I just really hold on to.

3. Gonzo
The Muppet who wanted to go to Bombay to be a big movie star. So much of my worldview is based on abject weirdness, and there you go. Plus, he sings my favorite ever Muppet song, "I'm Going to Go Back There Someday." I still remember every word.

2. Kermit the Frog
Always one of the great fictional figures of my life. In fact, for fun, I once made a list of my 100 favorite fictional characters, and he came in first. Yes, I make lists for fun.

1. Rowlf the Dog
My favorite Muppet. Obviously, Jim Henson is a pretty influential person in my life, and now I recognize that I like Rowlf the best because he just seems the most Jim Henson to me. Something really comfortable and never forced, always funny and relaxed and never frustrated or full of pathos. He didn't have to be a symbol the way Kermit sometimes did. When I was a kid, I liked Rowlf the best for some of those same reasons; he was funny and amiable and easygoing. He reminded me a bit of my Uncle Ralph, who not only had a similar name but was a big guy with a slightly gruff voice (mostly from smoking) and who laughed an awful lot. Rowlf is something special for me, more than the rest of them, and watching him sing "Cottleston Pie" or "New York State of Mind" is a beautiful thing.