Pop Culture Gadabout
Monday, June 07, 2004
      ( 6/07/2004 08:17:00 AM ) Bill S.  

BEST CABLE MOMENT OF THE WEEK – Beating out Tony Soprano's handling of a pesky family problem (Tony B.=Pie-Oh-My?): Al Swearengen's beautifully crafted soliloquy at the end of the penultimate season ep of Deadwood. . .
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Sunday, June 06, 2004
      ( 6/06/2004 09:45:00 AM ) Bill S.  

TNE END OF THE REAGAN ERA – So Ronald Reagan has passed on, long after many of us had considered him gone. I never thought much of his presidency, which strikes me as not much different from the current regime in the way we're supposed to accept that an Average Joe surrounding himself with Top Advisors can be CEO of this country – the superficial difference being that Reagan's years of Hollywood work made him more skilled at creating the illusion he really and truly was in charge.

Living in Central Illinois, less than a half hour drive from Reagan's old alma mater, Eureka College, I'm anticipating plenty of public fare-thee-wells in the next few days. The man was beloved in this region by a lot of people: I knew a good number of Illinois and Iowa farmers who more typically skewed Democrat, who voted for the man simply because they had fond memories of him as a Midwestern radio man. Reagan was a lot like Bill Clinton (now there's a comparison designed to piss some people off!) in the way that he was able to get folks who might disagree with most every aspect of his politics to vote for him by coming across more "presidential" (whatever that vague term means) than any of his opponents. He also shared Clinton's Teflon ability to keep even the most negative of political actions (think Iran/Contra) from affecting his popularity.

Per the focus of this blog, I spent some time trying to recall my favorite Reagan performance from the movies. The one I finally came up with was his role in the sixties era remake of The Killers, by no means a great movie (though Don Siegel directs what was originally meant to be a teevee flick with his usual blunt efficiency) but intriguing for the way Reagan was cast against type to convincingly play a murderous crime boss. It was his last movie role, and, much like his part in the unfairly maligned B-comedy Bedtime for Bonzo, received more misdirected attention because of his later presidency than it deserved. Still, for all the slams he took over the years as a second tier leading man, Reagan definitely could act. . .
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Saturday, June 05, 2004
      ( 6/05/2004 08:42:00 AM ) Bill S.  

A TV EYE ON ME – Responding to emails from both Shawn Fumo and myself, Sean Collins discusses the credulity snapping "Reality TV" plotline that American translator Keith Giffen has attached to the Battle Royale graphic novel. It's best, he argues, to act as if that aspect of the storyline had never been brought up – and, in the current volume in the series (#7), Giffen seemingly does that very thing: giving us a scene where the evil overlord monitoring the big kid battle is only able to keep track of 'em by listening in. But now that this door's been open, I've gotta ask: why isn't the fascist government that's sent these students to an isolated island to fight to the death using cameras to follow the action? Couldn't a small mini-cam be included in the electronic collars attached to each contestant? The picture might be shaky (like watching the "hat cam" shots on P.B.R. Rodeo,) but it'd suffice.

Be that as it may, I also agree with Sean's assertion that Volume Seven is the strongest entry in this ultraviolent (heh) series to date: some powerfully uncompromising moments in that puppy. . .
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      ( 6/05/2004 07:46:00 AM ) Bill S.  

EDUGANDA – I'm making my through one of the newest limited edition Walt Disney Treasures collections, On the Front Lines, a set of training, propaganda and "educational" films and cartoons produced by the studio during World War II for the Armed Forces. Fascinating stuff, though best viewed, I suspect, in limited doses: that a major studio would turn its energies to producing so much propaganda material during a time of war is probably inconceivable today. I also hadn't realized how much of this material was familiar to me in other contexts. Disney plundered its vaults for material to use on its long-running Wonderful World of Disney teleprogramming. I remember seeing parts of the 'toon "Reason and Emotion" in one of the show's Ludwig Von Drake educational episodes – they took out all the original refs to Hitler's manipulations of Emotion at the expense of Reason but kept the scenes where an average guy and gal disastrously let pure Emotion control their lives. . .
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      ( 6/05/2004 07:38:00 AM ) Bill S.  

FIGHTING THEM DRAGONS – As the last regular viewer on the planet to see the series finale of Angel, there's probably little that I can legitimately add to the eulogy – but I will state that I felt the show ended on just the right "the-battle-goes-on-even-when-the-cameras-stop-filming" note and that the death of a longstanding Whedonverse character was touching in ways I hadn't really expected, particularly in the way it also offered full closure on the "nope-we-ain't-gonna-pull-a-Dark-Phoenix-resurrection-on-you-in-the-last-minute" death of Amy Acker's Fred. (Also liked the dying hero's request for the grieving Illyria to "Lie to me.") Yeah, I'll miss this show - and I don't really hold out hopes that we'll be seeing any teevee movie follow-ups, not with the series lead expressing a strong desire to make a bigger impression on the Big Screen . . .
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Friday, June 04, 2004
      ( 6/04/2004 02:24:00 PM ) Bill S.  

SIXTY MINUTE MANGA – (Episode Fourteen: It's not just horror; it's Hino Horror!)

As I've continued my explorations into manga, one name that's regularly popped up in considerations of horror manga is Hideshi Hino. A prolific writer/artist, with more than 150 titles to his name, Hino is apparently such a familiar brand name that when Cocoro Books recently initiated its American translations of his work, they chose to call the series Hino Horror – attaching a number to each title, even though the first two releases, at least, don't really connect as a series. After reading the first two books of Hino Horror recently (The Red Snake and The Bug Boy), I've gotta admit they're some damn strange manga.

Unlike most of the Japanese graphic novels released in this country, neither volume has an age recommendation on its cover. Though from the cover of Red Snake (a Beardsley-like image of a young girl in the throes of ecstasy with a quartet of snakes winding in and out of her robe), it's clear that this is not a tale for kids. Inside Snake, we get visions of blood-&-pus, graphic dismemberments and body violation, plus some evocatively creepy (though largely implied) sex. Plenty disturbing stuff, but what somewhat tempers it is Hino's drawing style, which has an element of cartoonishness (both it and Bug Boy feature leads who resemble Charles Addams kids – with large button eyes that bulge outlandishly and look ready to pop out of their sockets at any moment) that at times made me think of American comic primitives like Mark Beyer or the late Rory Hayes (who used to populate his horror undergrounds with crudely drawn teddy bear protagonists). If some of this material were too realistically rendered, it'd probably be unbearable.

Snake is narrated by one of Hino's deer-in-headlight kids: a young boy who lives with the rest of his Lynchian family in a labyrinthine house stuck in the middle of a foreboding forest. Our unnamed hero wanders through the house, spying on his family who each are involved in unsettling activities (his sister, the sexually evocative figure we see on the cover, is obsessed with creepy-crawlies; his grandfather and mother have a daily rite where the woman walks on a large lump attached to the old man's face to squeeze out the infection; his senile grandmother believes that she is a chicken and nests in one of the house’s many rooms, while his father gets an excessive thrill from lopping off the heads of chickens) and regularly returning to an ominous looking mirror. Beyond that mirror, the boy's grandfather asserts, is a land "more wicked than hell" itself (the line is repeated, which makes you wonder just how much the grandfather knows about hell). After he dreams about walking through that same mirror, a crack appears in the glass. Not long after, a massive red snake appears in the house, slithering out from within the sister's futon and biting her on the leg.

From there, catastrophic event piles upon catastrophic event as each of the boy's family members is transformed, disfigured and/or killed in turn. (Gramma, for example, becomes a - shades of Freaks! - squawking bird/woman.) The boy ends up fleeing into the mirror, which gives Hino the opportunity to go to town with the stygian imagery. Our hero finally reaches the Gates of Hell, where he has an inevitable confrontation with the ominous Red Snake.

The lead of Bug Boy also inadvertantly initiates the story's horror: not through dreaming or voyeuristic behavior, but from some dark part of his inner being. A sickly loner more at home with animals than either his classmates or family, young Sanpei becomes a monster after vomiting up a huge red bug, which stings him and starts a long painful transmogrification that makes what Jeff Goldblum underwent in Cronenberg's The Fly look like a simple overnight makeover. Disgusted by the creature he has now become, a giant-sized caterpillar-like bug with spines, his family attempts to kill him. But Sanpei escapes and makes his way out into the world.

Unlike the first person narration of the first graphic novel, The Bug Boy is told by an omniscient narrator almost as if he were telling a fable. The BBoy grows more monstrous as the story progresses, developing poisonous appendages and a taste for killing humans. He takes revenge on a trio of school bullies but does not, interestingly, enact anything on his appalling family. One of the last images he "remembers," in fact, turns out to be a false one of the happy times he had with his siblings and parents.

Hino is even broader with his art strokes on this outing: a few of the secondary figures (most notably, a city drunk who appears more than once) have the hyperbolized look of art comics guys like Mark Newgarden or Kaz, while some of the more "realistic" pages invoking nature and the young boy’s animal companions have an ironic sentimentalism. As a killer insect, our hero has an expressive baby face that also looks like something Charles Burns might've concocted.

As with most monster stories, Bug Boy does not end well for the titular hero. If Snake works with the surreal logic of a child's nightmare, Sanpei's tale is more simple and straightforward; it moves remorselessly toward our doomed hero's fate. Both of the first two Hino Horror entries seem to circle around the theme of family cruelty. The publisher, in its artist bio, makes a point of noting that the manga creator grew up "in the immediate post-war landscape of Tokyo," in an attempt to explain his visual fascination with physical transformation and deformity. Me, I also wonder what his childhood family life was like.

On the basis of his first two American translations, I'm definitely intrigued by Hideshi Hino. I can easily see plenty of manga newcomers being turned off by this stuff, though – by its blend of art comics and mainstream manga storytelling, its grim take on childhood and downbeat tone. (Both books contain moments that'll have even hardened horror hounds turning back the page and going, Whoa, what'd I just see there?) I think they'll be missing something special, but, then, I keep foolishly trying to convince my wife she'll really like David Cronenberg, too. . .
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Thursday, June 03, 2004
      ( 6/03/2004 02:39:00 PM ) Bill S.  

MEASURED POLTICIAL DISCOURSE DEPT. – Via Tom Tomorrow comes this story of onetime underground artist Guy Colwell (creator of the criminally underappreciated political ug, Inner City Romance, plus the sexual fantasia Doll), his recent painting about Abu Ghraib – and the thuggery inspired among some of those offended by the painting's public display. Pretty damn creepy, think I. . .
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      ( 6/03/2004 08:00:00 AM ) Bill S.  

SOME AMERICANS – After grousing about the lyrics to the opening track of Morrissey's new album, I started thinking of the a more measured and quizzical take on Yanks from quintessential Britishers Difford & Tilbrook (a.k.a., the main songwriting talent behind 80’s Brit poppers, Squeeze). So here are the words to "Some Americans," which is not, of course, to be confused with Bowie's "Young Americans. It was written during the Reagan Era and appears on the band's Babylon And On elpee:
Some Americans are very pretty;
Some Americans are very shy;
Some Americans are Disney people;
Some Americans eat apple pie.

Some Americans scare me, the leader of the pack;
Living in this theatre,
I'm waiting for the trap to drop in the show;
Some Americans, gung ho.

Some Americans are very happy;
Some Americans will always win;
Some Americans are party people;
Some Americans go out and sing.

Some Americans are very lucky;
Some Americans are very poor;
Some Americans are burger people;
Some Americans say no to war.
And, look, they even included a burger reference! (Meat is murder, my ass!)
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Wednesday, June 02, 2004
      ( 6/02/2004 03:57:00 PM ) Bill S.  

REAL LIFE DEPT. – (Skip this if you're only here for the pop culture stuff – and head to the bullet point posts below): my original plans to be more productive blogwise once I returned from vacation hit a snag while we were still in Savannah. Those of you who've been following the Gadabout for some time may recall that – in addition to a large menagerie of dogs, cats & ferrets – wife Becky and I have been living with my mother-in-law in the upstairs bedroom. Ma Fox, who suffers from congestive heart failure, emphysema and a host of attendant ailments, moved from her own place after a series of hospitalizations made it clear she could no longer live on her own. She moved into our guestroom upstairs, a loft-like former attic with its own bath, and has lived there for the past eighteen months.

One of the most complicated aspects of our even taking vacation involved making arrangements for my mother-in-law. We finally worked things out with her sister-in-law, who lives fifty minutes away in Peoria and offered her guestroom to Ma Fox for a week. Took some doing transporting her (she has, for instance, an oxygen machine that she needs to be on 24/7), but with the help of Becky's brother we were able to get her to Peoria the day before our trip. The same day we reached our vacation destination, though, Ma Fox was hospitalized for a build-up of fluid. (Though this must have started before we left, she gave no indication that she was feeling any discomfort, probably out of a desire to make sure we got to leave on our trip.) She spent three days in hospital, then was transferred to a Peoria nursing home for rehabilitation.

We didn't learn of this situation for several days: the rest of Becky's family contrived to keep it from us. By the time we heard the news, she was already in the nursing home and undergoing rehab. Since we've returned, my wife and I have made several long day trips to Peoria – bringing additional amenities (including: an electric cart that she uses to wheel around the home) and attempting to carry on conversations with a woman even more heavily medicated than usual. Without getting into the exceedingly messy family dynamics involved, let's just note that this all has been distressing for Becky and (on a more superficial level) it's forced us both to rearrange our schedules considerably. We still don't know what the longterm ramifications of this most recent hospitalization will be, but if I'm MIA from this blog sometime in the next few weeks, it's probably due to Family Matters.
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      ( 6/02/2004 03:40:00 PM ) Bill S.  

LATE BREAKIN' BULLET POINT – Went to Acme Comics in Normal (my comics store of choice) today, only to belatedly remember that Memorial Day meant a day delay on comics delivery. Feeling the pressing need to spend money, I went and bought a copy of the new Morrissey album and put it in the CD player on the drive home. First song in, I hear Mister Mope broadly declaiming against Americans and tossing the "fat pig" epithet at us hamburger snarfing Yanks. Find it rather sad that the guy who once charmingly told a lover, "You're the one for me, Fatty," is now resorting to mundane fat slams. . .
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      ( 6/02/2004 12:32:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"MY BROTHER AND MY SISTER AND THE FAMILY GUN. . ." – Just have time for some quickie bullet pointing again, so let's do it:
  • Wandering through the DVD section of Best Buy recently, I came across two Japanese videos featuring Tomie, the creepy anti-heroine of Junji Ito's horror manga series. Both (one entitled Re-Birth, the other Replay) appeared to be sequels to an earlier movie adaptation: doing some investigation later on the web, I discovered that there are at least five Tomie movies out there, which are receiving mixed reviews from American Japanese horror fans. But the fact of a movie Tomie put me in mind of Sean Collins' first exposure to Ito's original manga: recalling one of the series' more haunting images, he noted that the only way he visualized it was with panel borders surrounding the scene, which essentially diluted the moment's horrific power. If it's done well, I bet Sean would have no such issues with the movie version of the story. . .

  • Didn't buy any of the Tomie videos because I was using my entertainment money that day to buy some compact discs: Modest Mouse's Good News for People Who Love Bad News, a sharp new Shout! retrospective of Maria Muldaur (to be reviewed later) and the new remastering of Rockpile's Seconds of Pleasure. I owned CBS' early cheapy issuing of this pub/roots/new wave classic, but I was pulled into buying the new edition by the addition of three new live tracks and the promise of brighter sound. On both, the cd delivers.

    Rockpile was the quartet that for years had served as the musical vehicle for Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe, two savvy pop-rockers who both had a string of sterling releases in the midst of the late seventies/early eighties DIY movement. The year before Seconds' release, for instance, Edmunds and Lowe each released albums under their own name (Repeat When Necessary and Labor of Lust, respectively) that still hold up as models of wit and good ol' fashioned rock 'n' rolling. Fans of both artists (myself included) held such high hopes for the Rockpile release when it was first announced that it couldn't help but fail to fully meet those expectations when it actually hit the stores. Under the official Rockpile affiliation, the boys "merely" put out another exemplary set of rockin' music: clever originals (e.g. Lowe's "When I Write the Book" and rootsy covers. They even allowed guitarist Billy Bremner to sing on the hard-driving "Heart," a song Lowe would later reggae up and record more slowly for one of his solo albums – to considerably lesser success.

    Played today, though, the album sounds better than ever. As a rock unit, Rockpile was the dynamic answer to age-ist rock snobs: the foursome had been playing rock for over a decade (Edmunds and drummer Terry Williams went even further back, to the sixties band Love Sculpture), but you never would've guessed this from their high-speed live performances. (Submitted as proof: the three new bonus tracks, tiptop performances of songs that originally appeared on Edmunds' & Lowe's solo releases: "Back to Schooldays," "They Called It Rock" and Graham Parker's "Crawling from the Wreckage.") I saw the band perform in a Schaumberg rock club not too long after this album was released – and I was lucky to do so, since they disbanded not long after, leaving behind this one "official" Rockpile studio artifact.

    A great album to be resurrected, in other words. Now if only Sony/Columbia'd do likewise with the Nick Lowe albums in their catalog. . .

  • Hmm, that was considerably longer than a bullet point, wasn't it?

  • Recently finished reading the first trade collection of Robert Kirkman & Tony Moore's The Walking Dead. (Between that and Steve Niles' Remains, it's a good time for zombie comics.) Having just driven through Georgia, I can appreciate Moore's depiction of Atlanta and environs, but Kirkman's script is what makes the book: he smartly balances the humane and inhumane, giving us heroes and victims that we actually care about. "Days Gone Bye," the first collection, covers issues #1-6, and it's got me curious enough about what happens (the book ends with a very effective father/son moment) that I intend to pick up the recently released issue seven this week.

  • Several comics blogs (among ‘em, Johnny B., Sean Collins and David Fiore) have been answering a circulating survey of questions about their buying habits as they pertain to comics. I started to fill the thing out myself, but about halfway through, something about the questions seemed increasingly removed from where I am as a comic book reader (it's been decades since I’ve gone to a comic convention, for instance – or bought titles simply based on the character they feature), so I gave up. Should I resign from the comics blogosphere?
More later.

(Background Music for This Round of Bullet Pointing: Why, Rockpile, of course.)
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Tuesday, June 01, 2004
      ( 6/01/2004 11:30:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"A POINT IN EVERY DIRECTION IS THE SAME AS NO POINT AT ALL!" – Took me years to catch up with the cartoon version of Harry Nilsson's The Point. When the telemovie debuted in 1971, I was immersed in junior year college studies and barely cognizant of network teevee. (That'd quickly change, of course, once I got through grad school.) When I finally had my first viewing of the 73-minute 'toon, twenty years later, it was being aired as holiday programming on my local PBS station. The version they showed looked a bit washed-out, but the tone and feel of Nilsson's children's fable remained unchanged.

I knew the basic story by heart at that point. A Nilsson fan, I'd bought and nearly memorized the 1970 RCA album adaptation ahead of the telemovie's first network broadcast: a blend of music and Nilsson narration capturing all the plot points (okay, last time I do the "point" thing!), the long-playing Point was the last release of fresh Harrysongs 'til his chart-breaking Nilsson Schmilsson. Even recognized one of the seven songs ("Poli High") from a rate live appearance by the studio recluse on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Nilsson's resolutely tuneful melancholy is at its best on this soundtrack: one track, "Me And My Arrow," would become a minor hit for him (and be used in a car commercial), but even better are the wry "Think About Your Troubles" (neatly covered by Jellyfish on a Nilsson tribute album) and the gorgeously mournful "Lifeline." Though the songs were attached to a putative children's fantasy, the sentiments expressed in 'em were often recognizably adult: one song has the singer confessing that he's "had a drink or two an hour or so ago," while two of the songs repeat the lyrics, "And in the morning when I wake up, she may be telling me goodbye." Clearly, there's more behind The Point than a story about a little round-headed kid and his dog.

Through the years, I've caught the animated Point whenever it showed up on cable television. At one time, Disney Channel apparently had the rights to it and broadcast a version with re-recorded narration by Alan Thicke. The original network broadcast was narrated by a young Dustin Hoffman, but for some strange reason (a contract dispute?) Hoffman's narration has not re-aired. This spring, BMG released a basic DVD of the telemovie, which is now being narrated by Ringo Starr. The shift in narrative voices doesn't hamper the story (and it makes a certain sense to hand the reins to a onetime Nilsson crony), but it is kind of odd.

The movie tells the story of the imaginary Land of Point, where all the inhabitants possess a point on the top of their head, and the young boy Oblio (voiced by Brady buncher Mike Lookinland), who has the misfortune to be the first one born with a round head. Wearing a pointed cap, Oblio gets along with most of the inhabitants in the kingdom – who appear to be a genial lot, in general – with one notable exception: the son of the evil Count. When Oblio, with the aid of his loyal dog Arrow, bests the Count's son in a game of triangle toss, the Count arranges to have the boy banished to the Pointless Forest for violating the law of the land, basically for "being without a point." Boy and dog venture into the forest and meet a group of comically metaphorical creatures: a hipster poet made entirely of rocks, three fat sisters who bounce through the forest spreading merriment, plus a three-headed man who takes all sides of the argument and has arrows and hands sticking in all directions.

The message (see, this time I studiously avoided re-using the word "point"!) of Nilsson's fable (story co-written with Carole A. Beers, dialog done by Norm Lenzer) is that everything in the universe has a point, even those who superficially appear to be lacking one. With this realization, our hero returns to the Land of Point, where he roundly defeats both the Duke and his son. The theme of looking past appearances is not-so-subtly reiterated more times than it needs to be (at least for an adult viewer), but even if it's needlessly delivered in BIG BOLD 3-D LETTERS, the teevee flick’s visuals (designed by Fred Wolf) remain trippily enjoyable, particularly during the musical interludes.

BMG's new DVD is wonderfully remastered, making the colors more vibrant than any of the broadcast versions I can remember. A few sequences are more than reminiscent of Yellow Submarine (the visuals for the most psychedelic number, "Point of View Waltz," even borrows from the same Moulin Rouge imagery that made the movie version of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" so visually arresting), but Wolf makes them work for the story. When I first saw The Point, I remember feeling vaguely dissatisfied by some elements of the cartoon's visual scheme, which show the restraints of a teevee cartoon budget in the years preceding computer animation. But in these days of "Adult Swim" no-frills toonwork, Wolf's animation looks positively lush.

The voicework features several old pros – most notably, Paul Frees in a variety of roles (including: the ineffable King who is pressured into banishing Oblio, our hero's father plus a variety of villagers offering ironic commentary during Obli's banishment trial) – while Lookinland makes a suitably spunky/quizzical hero. (Too bad he didn't get more voicework instead of being typed and trapped as Bobby Brady.) Longtime Nilsson collaborator George Tipton (who worked on the soundtrack for the Courtship of Eddie’s Father sitcom and produced the singer's earliest albums) provided incidental music, which is largely unmemorable alongside Nilsson's compositions.

Per the era when it was created, The Point has elements most adult viewers will type as "60's" (the overlong trial sequence, for instance, is plainly designed to tweak the period's conservative-drummed mantra of "law and order"), but in the end it's more than just a period artifact. Its casually didactic story has loopy charm to spare and, besides, when all's said and done, there are still those great Nilsson tunes. Watching the DVD on a sunny weekend morning, I couldn't help but feel heartened by the resurrection of this appealing 'toon fable. . .
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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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