Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, December 21, 2002
      ( 12/21/2002 04:59:00 AM ) Bill S.  

AND THE INARA FOOTAGE WAS PLENTY HOT, TOO – Well, the two-hour pilot of cancelled Firefly finally aired last night, giving viewers the op to see what complete, tone-death idiots the Fox programmers are. According to reports that circulated about the show before it debuted, Fox’s honchos were concerned about airing this ep first since it supposedly was too talky and didn’t have enough action. Were they watching the same show I saw? The gorram thing opened w./ a ten-minute war sequence, had several suspenseful gunplays within it and ended with a nifty fx-laden space chase. And Joss Whedon’s dialog not only did a great job establishing future milieu & characters, it was crisp as all get-out.

Seems pretty clear that Fox had no real confidence in this show from the outset: here’s hoping the Mutant Enemies find a safer berth before crew & cast all scatter.

UPDATE: According to two Commenters below, the original pilot did not have the opening battle sequence. But even sans the big explosions, I still found the pilot pretty suspenseful. The war flashback was apparently added to revamp the pilot to meet the Fox brass’ criticisms, though, reportedly, nobody at the network bothered to watch the revised version before making their decision to hold on airing it. Figures.
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Friday, December 20, 2002
      ( 12/20/2002 02:04:00 PM ) Bill S.  

“CHRISTMAS COMES THIS TIME EACH YEAR!” – No matter what your particular religious preferences, in America, at least, Christmas music is well nigh unavoidable: piped through grocery store speakers, playing city streets, inexorably taking over the airwaves until all you hear on 12/25 are remakes of Irving Berlin & friends. Here at the Gadabout we favor celebrating Solstice, but we also love a good holiday tune. So why should we resist the urge to come up with a list of favorite songs & performances?
  1. “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus,” Mabel Scott (Santa as the Old Man of the Mountain: “He never had a haircut and he never took a shave!” – great jump r-and-blues that’ll "boogie all your blues away. . .");

  2. “’Zat You, Santa Claus?” Louis Armstrong & the Commanders (in which our hero hears some late-nite knocking and indulges in some good ol’ urban paranoia; “Kindly slip it under the door,” he asks the unseen presence out in the hallway, while his band does the spooky big band music bit);

  3. “We Wanna See Santa Do the Mambo,” Big John Greer (my wife Becky has a tradition of playing Kris Kringle during the holidays for charities like the Humane Society; first time she made a public appearance in holiday garb, it was to a recording of this wacky mid-50's mambo number: “Take your big fat belly and make it shake like jelly!”);

  4. “Christmas Spirit,” Julie Lee & Her Boy Friends (there are lotsa good Xmas blues numbers out there – Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas, Baby” is probably the best known – but I’m also a fan of this moaner by this underrated piano blues mistress: “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year/It’s all just a joke when your man isn’t here!”);

  5. “White Christmas,” Otis Redding (yeah, Bing’s version is the one you hear to death, but is there anything more soulful – or intriguingly conflated – than the sound of Otis wishing his core audience a “so-white” Christmas?);

  6. “Little Saint Nick,” The Beach Boys (utterly frivolous in its blend of car tunery & Santa myth, it still manages to make me grin every time I hear its opener: yeah, I’m easy when it comes to Bri & the boys);

  7. “Father Christmas,” The Kinks (wherein Ray Davies dons his Santa suit, brother Dave taggin’ along & slammin’ his 80’s rock guitar, and proceeds to get himself mugged in the London streets by some Dead End Kids: “Give all the toys to the little rich boys!”);

  8. “Fairytale of New York,” Pogues & Kirsty MacColl (a fave among yer more discerning rock fans for good reason: w./ the able daughter of a Brit folkie holding up the distaff end, the rum-sodomy-&-the-lash boys show us Christmas in the NYC drunk tank; the moment when Shane MacGowan states, “I could’ve been someone,” then Kirsty replies, “Well, so could anyone!” is one of the most heartbreaking moments captured in a holiday song);

  9. “Thanks for Christmas,” The Three Wise Men (XTC in disguise in service of a frothy paean to holiday celebration: even w./ the thick production, it sounds like something that could’ve appeared in the soundtrack of a Rankin-Bass special – but then that’s part of its charm);

  10. “Christians and the Pagans,” Dar Williams (a multi-generational tale of bonding over the December dinner table, describing a holiday many of us wish for but few actually experience – a great song, even for those not normally enamored with Williams’ over-refined singer-songwriting style).
Honorable Mentions: “Merry Christmas, Baby,” Charles Brown & Band; “Santa Baby,” Eartha Kitt (but not Madonna); “Run Rudolph Run,” Chuck Berry and/or Dave Edmunds; “Back Door Santa,” Clarence Carter; "Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern)," Miles Davis (w./ Bob Dorough); “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” Darlene Love; “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” Foghat; “All I Want for Christmas,” Timbuk 3; “Space Christmas,” Shonen Knife; “Mary Had A Baby,” Bruce Cockburn; “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight),” The Ramones; "Merry Christmas Emily," Cracker.

(For other worthy lists, check out John Fogde’s Blogcritics entry, Johnny Bacardi & skippy, the bush kangaroo.)

Blogcriticky Addendum: And for those looking for the above Top Ten tunes, check out Hipster’s Holiday (Rhino) for cuts 1 – 4; Soul Christmas (Atlantic) for cut 5; all sorts of anthologies for cuts 6 – 9; and Dar Williams’ Mortal City (Razor & Tie) for track 10.

Happy Winter Solstice!

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      ( 12/20/2002 09:12:00 AM ) Bill S.  

HUNGADUNGA, HUNGADUNGA & McCORMICK – Don’t believe what you read on the cover of Birds of Prey #50; the issue is not the work of Strangers in Paradise writer/artist Terry Moore, but of Love and Rockets master Gilbert Hernandez in collaboration w./ artist Casey Jones. Not sure what I think of the blend of early L&R elements to the current DC Universe (that guy in the gorilla suit is pure “BEM,” even as it’s also Silver Age DC). But even if the whole magilla falls apart, Beto’s brief run promises to be an entertaining hybrid.

As an incoming scripter on a book that theoretically is receiving new readers from the TV spin-off, he has a commendable sense of series responsibility: the writer effortlessly devotes space to telling newcomers who the mainstays are, something too many superhero books forget to regularly do these days. The pacing seems a bit jarring at times (as a scripter, Hernandez favors quick cuts that aren't always immediately obvious), but I often think that about Gilbert’s s-f romps on the first read-through. When his Vertigo series Grip was being released as a five-parter, for instance, I found I had to read the thing from scratch each time a new issue came out. As I did, some of the elements that appeared off in my first reading suddenly made sense. Beto may be cognizant of the need to bring new readers up to speed, but he still doesn’t coddle ‘em.

Recommended to L&R fanatics – plus any comics reader who'll appreciate a good Bwana Beast ref.
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      ( 12/20/2002 08:56:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“DID I REALLY WRITE THIS?” – The note at the top of Hate Annual #3 (Fantagraphics) asserts that this latest entry from the mind & pen of Peter Bagge is the “Special Boring Mundane, Middle-Aged, Middle-Class Issue.” I’d take issue with the boring & mundane part, but the rest seems right on the money.

Always neat to see a new collection of Bagge cartoons, even if most of ‘em are culled from websites where they made their debut appearances. (The broadly disrespectful “Murray Wilson: Rock ‘n’ Roll Dad” was an Icebox animation series done in collaboration w./ comedian & Simpsons writer Dana Gould; the extended Chet & Bunny Leeway strip originally appeared on Bagge’s own website.) Of the small group of cartoonists to come out of the East Coast Punk zine scene, Bagge has proven to be the most durable and for good reason: the cranky libertarian satirist has an eye for pointed detail, a big foot style that is appealingly over-the-top & dynamic yet accessible, and – oh yeah – he can be pretty darn funny, too.

After producing smaller issues of Hate on a regular basis, Bagge has been putting out these Annuals more sporadically. This may’ve ruined his long story continuities – the earlier Hate gave us a extended string of Buddy Bradley tales quite remarkable in their capacity for blending wacky Gen X antics w./ unflinching looks at youthful self-destruction – but it’s afforded him the opportunity to expand his writing talents. The first two Annuals contained illustrated articles by Bagge (a hard-nosed look at Alan Keyes, an appreciation of the Beach Boys & more) that were craftily idiosyncratic.

Annual Three doesn’t have the room for such pieces: the Leeway continuity no doubt took up the space. The longest piece in the story, it chronicles the adventures of Chet & Bunny, a modestly boho middle-class couple who get swept up in dot.com insanity. Copyrighted 2000, the eighteen-page series of one-page strips chronicles our duo’s increasing descent into Internet obsessiveness & e-business foolery. On the latter front, these strips already seem a bit dated (the fact that the Dot.com Boom was pie-in-the-sky has since become conventional wisdom), but the pages depicting Chet’s first attempts at developing a family web page still ring true – as do the moments when the generally affable married couple compete for control of both the site and their computer.

Opener, “The Domestication of Lisa Leavenworth-Bradley,” is a brief but well-aimed check-in on the married life of 90's hero Buddy Bradley, the Jersey slacker who we’ve seen “mature” from punk doper into struggling business & family man over the years. Married to borderline personality Lisa, father of a child who is only referred to as The Baby, Buddy actually seems a picture of relative contentment – until his wife (who has caught the HGTV decorating bug) – starts pressuring him to get a bigger place so she can totally redecorate it. Lisa, who has shown plenty of self-destructively manic behavior in the past, appears to be directing most of her crazy behavior toward channeling Martha Stewart. But when she hears that Buddy’s mother is considering moving out of the family home to go to Florida, her more extreme behaviors start to re-emerge. Learning that Buddy’s sister Babs may be getting the house instead, she sends her an anonymous email claiming that the house has been built on a toxic dump.

Though presented in domestic sitcom terms (the title is the clue), the Buddy Bradley tale has darker undercurrents. “Just when I though you outgrew your old crazy ways, you go out and pull a stunt like this,” Buddy moans as he confronts his wife, and we’re meant to get the idea that if Lisa isn’t given something else to do, she’s likely to spin off into even worse stunts. Basically, the strip is about living with the mentally ill, though Bagge relies on our knowing enough about the characters’ pasts to get this point. Many newer readers are just as likely to take the tale on its “mundane middle-class” terms.

Two other strips are much less complicated. “Dildobert Joins the Al-Qaeda” is a parody done in collaboration w./ Angry Youth artist Johnny Ryan. It’s a studiously “offensive” piece that re-imagines Scott Adams’ core characters as members of a terror cell. But the sum effect of it is ultimately rather mild. (Bet if Ted Rall had composed a panel that featured Dildobert & his animal chums all jerking off to footage of the WTC attack, we’d already be buried in outraged Internet postings, though.) The “Murray Wilson” strips are libelously hilarious if you’re a nerdy Beach Boys fan (as am I), though I preferred ‘em as animations.

Bagge ends this issue w./ a back cover lamenting the devolution of his youth culture (describing the rote moves of mid-90's “alternative rock,” for instance, he notes, “I became immune to it’s [sic] relentlessly whiny, cynical lyrics. Its [sic] no wonder ‘grunge’ was quickly supplanted by Hanson and the Spice Girls!”) It reads like something Crumb would produce – if that lovable underground crank were twenty years younger – and it ends on a particularly droll note: the “middle-age” Bagge reading one of his Weirdo pieces and noting about his 90’s strips, “When I re-read them today I’m amazed someone didn’t put me out my misery!”

But, Peter, we need good comics that’ll make misery funny. Long may Hate fester. . .
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Thursday, December 19, 2002
      ( 12/19/2002 08:16:00 PM ) Bill S.  

WILLIAM THE BLOODY GETS BLOODIED – A few more words on this week’s Buffy after scanning several blog comments: lots of debate back & forth about the uncharacteristic-seeming behavior of Rupert Giles on this ep. Without going into the various theories (some of which make a lot of sense), I’m still wondering if we’re not being faked out via too-obvious clues (e.g., the inclusion of that seemingly imminent decapitation in the opening summary footage).

I am in agreement with Elayne Riggs & Peter David in criticizing the Buffster’s big rallying speech (follow the Comments section on David's blog posting). It was the kind of breast-thumping monologue that the show’s writers typically deflate, so the whole time I kept waiting for something to undercut it. (Expected a similar moment in the previous ep – when head Watcher Quentin gave his stiff upper lip speech to the rest of the Watcher’s Council: I kept watching for the female assistant standing behind him to impale the guy mid-sentence w./ a big knife or something.) And after watching Spike go through another hour of torturous travails (again with the torture!), I couldn’t help thinking, “This is supposed to be the Light & Fun Season of Buffy?”
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      ( 12/19/2002 08:54:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“OO! THAT LUCKY DUCKY!” – Among the alternative press cartoonists currently appearing today, Ruben Bolling rivals Tom Tomorrow in his ability to mesh leftist smarts w./ a sense of humor. This week’s entry of “Tom, the Dancing Bug” shows the cartoonist at his best. Taking off from a remarkably tin-eared & condescending comment in the Wall Street Journal’s op ed page that basically called welfare recipients “lucky ducks,” Bolling imagines a “Lucky Ducky” comic strip set in the Carl Barks universe of Uncle Scrooge & the Beagle Boys. The joke is twice as funny when you consider Barks’ Scrooge as an emblem for American hard-working entrepreneurship.
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      ( 12/19/2002 08:27:00 AM ) Bill S.  

JUST LIKE JARED – Okay, I’ll admit, I chuckled at one of the subplots on this week’s Ed. Taking off from last week’s gastric bypass storyline, hapless opportunist Phil Stubbs (Ian Michael Black) tried to set himself up as the next Jared-from-Subway by donning a fat suit, then claiming a local hoagie shop helped him to lose weight. (So I guess we can assume Phil watches South Park.) Once in his makeup, Phil became the butt of all the standard “wide load” fat jokes. But since the guy is such an insensitive boob and the makeup was so palpably fake, the jokes came off funnier than they had a right to.

Context is everything.
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      ( 12/19/2002 08:24:00 AM ) Bill S.  

LIKE LEX OR VOLDEMORT – Plenty of comics-related gags in this week’s Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, best of which was Xander & Andrew’s moment of fanboy bonding over Wonder Woman. But did I mishear or did Mr. Delusions of Evil Grandeur compare himself to a planet (Apokolips) instead of its supervillain ruler Darkseid?

UPDATE: Good ol' Captain Spaulding corrects my misapprehension in the Comments section below.

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Tuesday, December 17, 2002
      ( 12/17/2002 07:19:00 AM ) Bill S.  

WHAT’S BEYOND THE SKY (REPRISE) – So Week Two of Stephen Spielberg’s Taken has drawn to its close w./ one more innocent willingly entering one more unidentified flying object: twenty hours to get to a conclusion it took Close Encounters two-hours-plus-change to reach.

From a storytelling standpoint, the second half was more fully realized than its building block episodes. Where the first six entries chronologically rushed through snatches of foo fighting mythology, the final four brought us into the here-&-now where we finally got to meet narrating Allie (Dakota Fanning). Fanning is so wise in her role as a little kid part-alien that you quickly realize why she was given voiceover duties. More than the repetitive fx, she’s the element that kept us watching to the end.

It sure wasn’t the adult actors: primary baddies Dr. Chet Wakeman (Matt Frewer) & 3rd generation Crawford schemer Mary (Heather Donahue) never gained enough villainous heft to really push the story along. Frewer was so over-the-top irritating that when James McDaniels’ military man finally slugged him for just one too many know-it-all wisecracks, it brought applause in my house. (To be fair, I liked a moment in the final installment where Wakeman appears on a computer screen to deliver a final message to his killer: ticking his head to the side, he was like a less frenetic Max Headroom.) And while Donahue had moments of neatly sociopathic menace, for much of the series she had the awkward air of someone wearing adult clothes for the first time.

As for the other main players: neither of Allie’s parents (who conceived the child while abducted in a nicely fuzzy sex scene that got flashbacked once too often) conveyed the same level of fear & wonderment as their forbearers. But when Eric Close’s line-initiating alien John popped back up in the final episode, his appearance was welcome.

Midpoint into the ninth installment – where it became obvious where the series was heading – I found myself thinking that scripter Leslie Bohem and co. might’ve done better by their audience if they’d presented Taken as a six-day series, starting in modern times then introducing pertinent background material as lengthy flashbacks. Could’ve spared us some of the go-nowhere irrelevancies, but then it also probably would’ve lessened the series’ event stature. I know I’d have been willing to make the sacrifice.

In the end, we learn, all the sightings & abductions & probing tubes up victims’ noses were the actions of amorally inquisitive extraterrestrials. The aliens, we’re told, are much like us, only further evolved down the road to the point where concepts of right & wrong or guilt & empathy are meaningless. By breeding w./ humanity, they hope to regain the emotional component that they’ve lost.

Or something like that, anyway. It was all kept deliberately murky in the meant-to-be-uplifting humanistic mode of other Spielbergian fare. I didn’t quite buy it – any more than I bought hard-assed military guy McDaniels’ uncharacteristic yielding in the last ten minutes of the series – but then I guess I’m more an X-Files kinda guy. When I hear a character tell us to “Keep Watching the Skies,” I don’t think of cuddly bug-eyed E.T. I think of James Arness as The Thing.
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Monday, December 16, 2002
      ( 12/16/2002 04:53:00 PM ) Bill S.  

DOIN’ THE FRENCH MISTAKE – Marvel’s newest p.r. ploy – the upcoming Rawhide Kid mini-series – just keeps on givin’. Not only has it generated beaucoup buzz on the Internet, it even led to a discussion on CNN’s Crossfire. (And I thought the Trent Lott story signaled a slow news week!) For those who’ve missed the brouhaha, basically, the comics company is reviving a western property of theirs via an upcoming mini-series that reveals along the way that the character is (gasp!) gay.

The results have been as expected: fans decrying Marvel’s decision to mess w./ the history of a suddenly “beloved” character; social conservatives lamenting in their usual stiff-necked fashion; and the inevitable smart-ass jokes that are at least as funny as anything that’ll be proffered by series scripter Ron Zimmerman. I’m respectfully holding judgment, but considering Zimmerman’s track record (viz., his current Spider-Man Get Kraven series, which recently topped its run of crass insider show biz jokes w./ a merry li’l rape scene), I’m not very optimistic.

Marvel’s current regime has been pretty bi-polar when it comes to overseeing its properties. On one pole, they’ll take one of their longest-running characters, Captain America, and plunk him into a mini-series that’s as awkwardly reactionary as a Chuck Norris flick; then they’ll convince Simpsons comics cartoonist Bill Morrison to do an entertainingly light goof on the Avengers. Do Whatcha Can to Grab Attention would seem to be the prime editorial edict at the House of Ideas. If it’s led to some truly dubious artistic achievements (Marville, anyone?), I've got to admit it’s also occasionally paid off (as w./ the present Truth mini-series – which manages to convincingly evoke both Chester Himes & W.E.B. duBois). My sense, however, is the ratio of crap to quality continues to heavily favor the former.

But at least the company’s getting good press, right?
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      ( 12/16/2002 03:38:00 PM ) Bill S.  

RETURN TO THE VALLEY OF THE VALLEYS – Caught A&E’s two-hour doc on Cleavage over the weekend: plenty of shots of same along w./ the serious talking heads (I just watch boob documentaries for the commentaries!) plus a concise overview of America's subtly shifting erotic values.

The thing was at least a half hour longer than it needed to be (could’ve done w/o. dueling facelifts Helen Gurly Brown & Joan Rivers – who together offer as frightening an image of Science Gone Wrong as the much-abused Michael Jackson). But it also had enjoyable snippets of ace pin-up illustrator Coop (happily unabashed in his appreciation of the topic at hand), plus some neat old burlesque & Russ Meyer footage.

One bit worth snickering about: whenever they showed paintings or illos of nekkid breasts, the filmmakers superimposed stars to cover the nipples. When they featured footage of breast enhancement surgery, though, we got no free-floating pasties, just uncovered breasts. Clearly, the hospital setting was meant to de-sexualize them much like National Geographic’s old native photos were also supposed to be Strictly Educational. So has anyone at A&E ever been a twelve-year-old boy?
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Sunday, December 15, 2002
      ( 12/15/2002 02:54:00 PM ) Bill S.  

AIN’T THAT KICK IN THE HEAD – Because I’ve been spending much of my discretionary teevee-viewtime Watching the Skies, I didn’t see The Sopranos’ season finale ‘til last night. Already knew there was a major chorus of dissatisfied nay-sayers out there, so perhaps I’d adjusted my own expectations accordingly. But – know what? – I really enjoyed the episode.

So no big names got whacked? Part of what’s made the show so enjoyable is its willingness (nay, eagerness) to confound audience expectations. And, face it, the one big name on the table was probably too big for Tony & the crew to take on. Underlings or seconds-in-command are one thing, but one of the heads of the New York Families? Naw. . .

For this viewer, the scenes that capped this season were the ep's face downs between Tony & Carmella: the scenes had emotional heft plus full-throttle acting from both players. You can quarrel w./ about some of the two characters’ behaviors earlier in the season (I thought Carmella’s attraction to the thuggish Furio seemed arbitrary when it began, but over the season the character grew more appealing). Yet it’s clear that the show’d been building to a gut-level confrontation between its central couple from the onset. In this, the end to Season Four did not disappoint.
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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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