Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, December 07, 2002
      ( 12/07/2002 07:23:00 AM ) Bill S.  

THE WORKS OF SHAN YU – Though hiatusville is reportedly just around the corner, I continue to faithfully follow Joss Whedon’s Firefly. Last night’s ep, “War Stories,” brought back a villain introduced in the season premiere, psychotic Euro-dealer Nishka. The unsavory wheeler-dealer captured dashing Captain Mal & not-so-dashing pilot Wash (who, increasingly, is this series’ Xander Harris), subjecting ‘em both to prolonged torture sessions.

It was an effective ep, but at one point during commercial break, I started wondering: isn’t a bit soon to start pulling out the torture sequences? (Took at least two seasons before we got one on Buffy – at the hands of Angel, if I remember right.) And when did we start accepting protracted physical torture in our entertainment, anyway?

I blame Lethal Weapon. Used to be torture was primarily confined to hot & cold war movies – and flicks w./ sinister Oriental villains in ‘em – and, then, it was often just suggested. Richard Donner’s holiday buddy flick brought it into the world of the rollicking cop action movie (still kept the Oriental villain, though: the sinisterly named Endo). Where henchmen were once satisfied with just sapping the good guy, then maybe kicking him once or twice when he’s down, now it’s part of the job to break him physically & psychologically, preferably using a car battery or something sinisterly medieval looking.

You could argue that most s-f shows & movies are spiffed-up war flicks, of course: wasn’t Jean-Luc Picard put through the wringer by intergalactic foes in several eps? That’s as may be. Perhaps torture has become more acceptable to an audience that thinks nothing of watching a man clamp cinderblocks to his nipples. But when you get down it, I’d personally rather watch less excruciating sideshow acts.
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Thursday, December 05, 2002
      ( 12/05/2002 08:31:00 AM ) Bill S.  

WEEKLY DC’S – I’ve been enjoying two current weekly mini-series, Batman: Family and Superman: Day of Doom, more than each character’s monthly titles (yes, I’m including the current Jeph Loeb/Jim Lee Batman arc in that estimation). I wasn’t particularly looking forward to Dan Jurgens’ revisiting of the Death of Superman – a storyline that may’ve gotten a ton of press in its day but still was irredeemably lame – but Jurgens seems to’ve found a neatly indirect approach to the story. (Tony Isabella has some sharp thoughts on this.) Sienkiwicz’s inks are some of the friendliest I remember seeing from him in some time; working over Jurgens’ pencils seems to have brought out the best in both of ‘em.

Batman: Family is structured around a less momentous plotline. Set following the events of the multi-title crossovers “Bruce Wayne: Murderer?/Fugitive,” it concerns the efforts of a snaky Wayne Enterprises executive to take over Gotham City’s underworld. Each entry in this eight-issue series is designed to focus on a character in the Bat Canon – #5, for example, is devoted to Robin – as well as introducing a new antagonist. The series is tighter than the ramshackle crossover storylines: scripter John Francis Moore keeps the focus on telling his story and maintaining its momentum; artists Rick Hoberg & Stefano Gaudiano inject a nice hint of cartooniness to the dark Gotham goings-on.

Basic comic book hero fare, well done: wish we got it more consistently on main titles and not just the big event mini-series. . .
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Wednesday, December 04, 2002
      ( 12/04/2002 10:30:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“DONE & DONE” – Gotta wonder what Dave Grohl thinks, deep down, about the recent release of Nirvana’s “Greatest Hits.” Damn thing comes out within weeks of his present band’s newest release – Foo Fighters, One By One (RCA) – so, naturally, the Nirvana disc is the one that receives all the press. For a band with its own solid discography of guitar-based pop-rock, that has to be frustrating as hell.

And yet, and yet . . . listening to the pop-focused Nirvana collection, I can hear the problem. When he wasn’t pissing on his own pop talents – or striving to establish indy cred by including well-nigh unlistenable tracks on the group’s discs – Kurt Cobain was a damn fine tunesmith. If the band produced only one fully solid studio album, well, that’s one more than the Doors ever did.

I’ve read several fannish slags of the new Nirvana collection (the best of which is probably Kenan Hebert’s), and it’s understandable how such clear holiday product could inspire the wrath of fans. But I’ve personally been playing & enjoying the disc quite a lot over the last month. Removed from all the surrounding artsy noise experiments, the band’s Beatlesque tendencies come to the forefront. Not a bad thing, thinks this pop geek.

But how ‘bout that new Foo Fighters’ disc? I like it a lot. Grohl and co. have developed their own strong alterna-pop sound – a little bit more metallic on the guitar, less vocal pleading & more straightforward lyrics – even if it does get a bit samey at times (Grohl clearly lacks Cobain’s range of vocal expressiveness). Shrieking opener “All My Life,” the melancholy “Tired of You” & power ballad “Lonely As You” are the instant standouts. But, as with all the other Fighters’ discs, the whole thing plays well all the way through.

I think of the Foo Fighters as grunge rock’s version of New Order: another band that rose from the ashes of their self-destructive leader’s demolition. May not be a glamorous as the original, may not have the fleurs du mal whiff about ‘em – but they’ve sure got a good beat. If few of the band's songs attain the level of transcendent pop bliss that Saint Kurt could seemingly summon up at will, that's just the unjust draw of the Creativity Lottery . . .
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      ( 12/04/2002 08:22:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“LIFE IS A CARNIVAL, TWO BITS A SHOT . . .” – Carnival of the Vanities is a weekly blog feature devoted to bloggers submitting what they consider their best posts of that week. Now in its eleventh week of Internet vanity presswork, the feature has moved from its blog of origin, Silflay Hraka, to Michele Catalano’s A Small Victory for a week's stay. I submitted my first offering to the Vanity Faire over the weekend (the Mad Libs goof), so it was the first I actually devoted time to reading through the rest of the offerings. (Yeah, I know: egotistical s.o.b. doesn't really look at the thing 'til he's posted on it!) Discovered some darn good writing and a genuinely touching piece about losing a pet – as a result, I'm planning on backtracking through the first ten Carnivals.

You can find the Carnival at Michelle’s site or Blogcritics.
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Tuesday, December 03, 2002
      ( 12/03/2002 01:31:00 PM ) Bill S.  

WHAT’S BEYOND THE SKY – As HBO's Band of Brothers is to Saving Private Ryan, Taken is to Close Encounters of the Third Kind: a mini-series elaboration of themes introduced by producer Stephen Spielberg’s source flicks.

On the basis of the preview ep of this new ten-part series, it looks like SciFi Channel may’ve gotten the better deal. Charting the lives of three families from the mid-forties to the present, Taken touches on U.F.O. mythology that’s become more common currency since the days Richard Dreyfus first sculpted a mountain out of spuds. Some of this is thanx to Spielberg himself, of course. When one doomed character experiences contact on the same type of isolated country road we saw in Encounters, the moment can’t help but recall the earlier scene in the Indiana countryside. (The car’s electrical system dies mid-radio song, only to be revived several minutes later with the same song playing – one of those moments of pure movie time.)

But years of govt.-bred cynicism have dulled the Peter Pan optimism of the original. In place of saintly humanist Francois Truffaut, we now get a sociopathic military careerist overseeing things. Should’ve known that we were gonna be in for a darker trip once I saw Tobe (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist) Hooper’s name on the director’s credits: the man is not exactly known for warm & fuzzy.

The opening two-hour ep is set in the mid-forties and follows three basic plotlines: the travails of Illinois family man Russell Keys (Steve Burton), seemingly abducted during the war and slowly remembering what has happened to him; the Machiavellian machinations of Owen Crawford (Joel Gretsch), an Army man looking to take advantage of the proliferation of sightings around Roswell, New Mexico; and Sally Clark (Catherine Dent), a waitress in Lubbock, Texas, who has the closest kind of encounter with a mysterious stranger “from Des Moines.”

First entry moves at a fairly decent clip – fifteen minutes into the show, and we’ve already seen our first alien skulking in a tree – thanks to Leslie Bohem’s expedient script. Could’ve done without the sub-Bradburyish child’s narration that crops up periodically (watching it w./ closed captioning reveals that the lyricism is courtesy a character named Allie – who we haven’t met yet). But anyone with enough taste to end his premiere outing w./ a Bob Wills song has won me on his side for at least another episode.

Much of the cast of Taken, with the exception of Michael Moriarty, is largely unfamiliar (though in our house, we did a loud double-take when we realized that Angel’s Darla was now a Midwestern housewife). The ship fx & aliens look cool (a pile of dead ‘uns comes across as pretty rubbery, though). The extraterrestrial interlopers, we learn, can look like humans – but prolonged exposure to their presence appears to lead to nasty physiological side effects. Having just experienced Thanksgiving family time, I can relate.

SciFi Channel is scheduling this massive mini-series in solid weekday blocks chunk, though fortunately for those of us with loyalties to other series, the net reruns each outing three times in a row the night it premieres. (Phew – and here I was worried about missing Kim Bauer’s flight from a psycho abusive yuppie!) Can’t blame SciFi for plugging most of its weeknights w./ the Spielberg Show. In terms of network p.r., this is even bigger than the time South Park took on Crossing Over.
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      ( 12/03/2002 08:31:00 AM ) Bill S.  

WELL, THAT EXPLAINS HIS BEHAVIOR OVER THE LAST SEASON . . . – Boy, that David E. Kelley sure has a mad-on for the Catholic Church. It showed up on The Practice this season – as Dylan McDermott’s self-righteous lawyer left the church out of outrage over cover-ups of ongoing sexual abuse. And now it’s become a full-blown subplot on Kelley’s other surviving series, Boston Public. Last night’s ep introduced a traumatized high schooler who, it was revealed, has been repeatedly molested by the same priest who abused judgmental teacher Danny Hanson (Michael Rapaport). As strained as the plot seemed, it’s a definite step up from the show's just-completed storyline about Principal Stephen Harper's (Chi McBride) murder charge. Winslow High: the most melodramatic learning facility in all New England!

UPDATE: A recent edition of Mickey Kaus’ Kausfiles upbraids the New York Times for misidentifying Kelley as a Catholic writer in a story on his recent Practice plotline. Haven’t read the story – because I hate frippin’ log-ins! – but I can imagine how the mistake was made. Kelley is a former Boston lawyer writing a show about a Boston lawyer who’s agonized over his Catholic faith. Not surprisingly, many folks automatically assume the two figures are interchangeable: an assumption reinforced by the school of criticism that looks to all art as an autobiographical mirror of its creator. Doesn’t excuse the error made by the esteemed NYT, but it does help to place it in context.
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      ( 12/03/2002 04:49:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“I JUST PICK MYSELF UP AND GET BACK IN THE RACE . . .” – The cover to Mystic Funnies #3 (Fantagraphics) is reassuringly familiar to anyone who’s followed underground comix guru Robert Crumb all these years: a car-choked urban setting where Flakey Foont – Crumb’s whiney everyshlub – is being lectured by a typically statuesque femme. “Out of the pain comes the pleasure, out of the pleasure comes the pain! Okay?” she states, pointing an assertive finger with one hand, holding a shopping bag for “The Fru Fru Frippery” in the other. Another day in the dirty ol’ city for expatriate Crumb.

Reading a new R. Crumb comic is like playing a newly released disc by some randy blues geezer: you pretty much know what you’re getting – the interest lies in the artist’s ability to find small bursts of expressiveness within a rigidly predictable structure. Crumb’s newest has all the elements we’ve come to expect: big butt babes & brandished dicks, whining misanthropy & images of urban sprawl at its ugliest, elegant cross-hatching & base human behavior – all the things that make Crumb the comix artist so lovable and irritating at once.

May seem odd to use “lovable” re: an artist who came across so obsessively creepy in Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb documentary. But for all his milquetoast’s rage & misogyny, there remains something endearing about Crumb’s work. Perhaps it’s his ability to look at his own appalling impulses and render ‘em with such kid-like clarity. This is the guy who once accurately named one of his underground titles after Freud’s Id, after all.

Mystic #3 has a few short strips devoted to familiar Crumb cast members: Foont, Mr. Natural, Stan Shnooter (the oily mainstream comics spokesman). But the book’s prime feature is a nineteen-page meander featuring “The Hipman,” a middle-aged trend slave who pursues and struggles to impress one of Crumb’s towering, capricious thick-legged goddesses. We’ve seen variations on Hipman before (in the 60’s & 70’s, he would’ve been an arrogant hippie cocksman): Crumb loves taking preening alpha males and humiliating ‘em almost as much as he digs visually assaulting big asses. The tale itself ends on a typically ambiguous note: our hero embracing his steatopygic conquest and thinking to himself, “Somehow I’ll pay for it later, I know.” Right he is, the cartoonist agrees.

The “plot” of “Hipman” is repetitive and rather aimless. We get that his hero is a shallow boob pages before Crumb stops belaboring the point. But with the exception of two panels that look like the artist has momentarily channeled the neo-primitive talents of wife Aline Kominsky-Crumb, the whole thing is wonderfully rendered. Few graphic artists can capture urban seediness as recognizably as Crumb.

The rest of Mystic is a trace more focused. “Don’t Tempt Fate” is an autobiographical excursion; in it, the cartoonist ruefully describes an incident from childhood that led to his getting whomped in the mouth by a large chunk of cinder block: one of those all-too-typical childhood incidents that remind us it’s a miracle that any of us survive into adulthood. A whole generation of autobiographical cartoonists has taken from Crumb, and this six-page piece shows why. His images of boyish thoughtfulness and vandalism can’t help but conjure up similar childhood memories.

Third and final full story is a smutty goof: the artist resurrecting a third-tier funnybook character from his youth (in this case, Archie Comics’ Super Duck) and fashioning a sex comic around him. The conceit’s amusing – particularly when you consider that this character has his origins in the most hypocritically squeakyclean comics line extant – but not much more that that. The big (literal) climax concerns our hero’s disastrous attempts at spicing up his relationship w./ his girlfriend Uwanna by overdoing it on a Viagra-like drug. The results are as visually dirty as you imagine they’d be.

For a book entitled Mystic Funnies, we sure spend a lot of time wallowing in the profane. But that, for Crumb, is one of the central contradictions of human existence. For all that we may yearn to experience something profound, if given a choice, most of us’ll pick quick-&-dirty gratification every time. “I don’t go with this ‘Mystic’ bullshit,” comics guy Shnooter tells Crumb in an introductory one-pager – just before holding a gun up to the artist’s head to get him to produce. (“Don’t get upset,” he tells the reader. “It wuz only a metaphauh!”) The strip ends with Shnooter singing 60’s Sinatra’s strutting Statement of Purpose, “That’s Life.” As funny as it seems, that’s the closest most of us Americans get to mystic crystal revelations, anyway. . .

Mystic Funnies is probably not the book for someone wanting a good intro to this curmudgeonly underground legend. For that, I’d recommend one of the volumes in Fantagraphics’ ongoing reprint series, The Complete Crumb Comics, starting with Volume Four which offers the man’s early Zapwork up to the most recent book in the series, Volume Sixteen, which presents his more nuanced mid-80’s material (“The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick,” for instance.) But those of us who’ve faithfully followed the man when he was up & down (& over & out) will be happy to see him putting out another comix book – even if it was produced with a “metaphauhical” gun to his head.
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Sunday, December 01, 2002
      ( 12/01/2002 07:47:00 AM ) Bill S.  

LIFE’S MINUSCULE IRRITATIONS – Picked up the new Foo Fighters disc (about which: more later) and was annoyed to see they’d included one of those magnetic theft-prevention dealies inside the jewel case. Usually, they stick these babies on the plastic piece holding the disc, but this release was a two-disc set (2nd being a “bonus DVD”) so they couldn’t affix the sticker to the plastic center. Instead, the damn thing was placed on the paper backing, covering some of the credits in the process – and looking damn ugly to boot. Tried gently peeling the thing off, but no go.

One more reason to bemoan the death of the big ol’ elpee format . . .
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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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