Pop Culture Gadabout
Friday, May 07, 2004
      ( 5/07/2004 08:08:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"WITH HIS LIQUOR AND DRUGS AND HIS FLESH MACHINE" – Okay, so I was willing to not get too bent out of shape when Royal Caribbean Cruises started utilizing "Lust for Life" as the soundtrack to a montage of pasty white baby boomers having a grand old time on their summer vacay – it's a great song and all that. But, seeing the cruiseline's newest ad, featuring a grade school girl who apparently is familiar with the Greatest Hits of Iggy Pop, I really have to wonder if we haven't reached some irreversible spoilage point on this whole Western Civilization Thing. . .
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      ( 5/07/2004 04:35:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"TRA LA, IT'S MAY, THE LUSTY MONTH OF MAY" – A busy day at work and on the "creative writing" front, but I had to pop in and note that Ken Lowery, that onetime ragin' fucker, has seemingly grown twitter-pated in the fresh Spring air. Check out his cuddly new blog!

UPDATE: Never mind. . .
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Thursday, May 06, 2004
      ( 5/06/2004 08:23:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"WHEN I HOLD YOU IN MY HANDS/AND I FEEL MY FINGER ON YOUR TRIGGER. . ." – A few random bullets from the pop culture blogosphere:
  • In follow-up to Ringwood's Losers contest, Near Mint Heroes (aligned w./ Johnny Bacardi, Rich Geerling, Ken Lowery and Kevin Melrose) is holding a new contest, wherein contestants are given a shot at winning a bunch of AIT/Planet Lar titles, including the first five issues of the buzz-worthy Demo. I've only started dipping in my copies of that title this week, but after a quick read of the first two issues, I'd say this is definitely a cool prize.

  • Pulp Culture guy Franklin Harris takes a look at three enjoyably bad movies being released on DVD. Of the three, I most love Sssssss for its old pro performance by Strother Martin as a boozy mad scientist – and its carny sideshow moments, of course. Also featuring Dirk Benedict and Heather Menzies, this flick is an exemplar of everything that’s cheesy about the early 70’s.

  • Forager has a strong post (reacting to an early discussion on un-Beastmaster Marc Singer's blog) on the nature of the word "middlebrow," arguing that the term – which is usually used as a pejorative – actually has more valuable usage in delineating pop culture. I think Forager may be onto something here, but I also suspect that the class-based connotative constructions that gave us low-, high- and middlebrow are too imbedded in American culture to disappear any time soon.

  • Jim Treacher has become your one-stop shop for tracking stories related to the disgraced Micah Wright. For me, the money quote comes from Jim himself:
    Oh, and I'm seeing all sorts of stuff about how "This Wright dude just goes to show what all lefties are like!" and "He's a symbol of the moral vacuum in the antiwar movement!" and so on. I don't know about any of that. Seems to me Wright doesn't represent anybody but Wright. And besides, the way this guy lied and lied, who knows if even his political views are authentic? Or if they were just part of his shortcut to becoming the big shot he always wanted to be?
  • Mark Evanier has a fascinating pessimistic posting on the current contract negotiations between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. Must reading for anyone who worries about the state of teevee and movie writing today.

  • Bruce Baugh has started blogging about the most recent run on DC's The Legion, and, as a former avid reader/current mildly interested fan of the series, it's a good reintroduction. "The Legion" is one of those series that in the wrong hands can get bogged down in elaborate muddlesome continuity, but the early issues of Abnett & Lanning's run generally manage to avoid that pitfall. Baugh does a great job catching the series' high points. No mere middlebrow, he. . .
More later.
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Wednesday, May 05, 2004
      ( 5/05/2004 10:53:00 AM ) Bill S.  

FANG-TASTIC – The blurb on the cover to the DVD release of Horror of Dracula strikes the right cheesy Famous Monsters of Filmland note. "Christopher Lee's fang-tastic first ever performance as the Lord of the Undead," it trumpets alongside the requisite graphic of the man himself holding a suitably buxom victim in his arms.

Recently reissued as part of a Hammer Horror collection (which also contains Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, The Mummy and Taste the Blood of Dracula – but, alas, no Curse of the Werewolf), Horror is the first pic in the British horror film company's long-running Drac series. Along with Curse of Frankenstein, the company's gory remake of Mary Shelley's novel, it ushered in a new brand of monster cinema when it was first released. Colorful and bloody, with brazen full-bodice sexuality, Hammer films were the late fifties' answer to a franchise of monster movies that looked pretty staid at the time. In their day, the Hammers provided a demarcation line for young horror movie fans: between those who thought the films' new relative explicitness were just what the genre needed to keep vital and those who felt the movies a poor substitute for the early moodier black-and-white Universal monster pics.

These days, of course, those trendmaking Hammers look a tad musty themselves: their colorful use of well-placed grue is pretty restrained compared to the buckets o' blood flung about in modern movies, while the acting of established thespians like Peter Cushing (who early had appeared as Osric in Lawrence Olivier's filmization of Hamlet) and Michael Gough (the British Whit Bissell) has a whiff of old-time staginess to it. And though a pic like Horror still looks great – the studio made wonderfully evocative use of deep rich color, particularly in Dracula's castle – it remains a comparatively low-budget affair. This shows in scenes like the climactic battle between Cushing's Van Helsing and Lee's Dracula, which just doesn't come across as dynamic as you'd hope. Or the moment (much more obvious in the DVD than in regular network broadcasting or videotape) when a sultry vampiress' breath can be briefly seen on what must've been a chilly set.

That noted, Horror of Dracula remains a primo example of solid B-picture making. Hammer's primary strategy was to emphasize blood-and-thunder storytelling over the more atmospheric imagery of directors like Tod Browning and James Whale, and it stood 'em in good stead through years of costumed horror pics. House screenwriter Jimmy Sangster took the source material and tweaked it in intriguing ways – making Cushing's Frankenstein in Curse an unrepentant blackguard, for instance – and you can see this approach in the company's first Dracflick. Though they followed the general outline of Bram Stoker's original novel, Sangster and director Terrence Fisher worked to surprise audience members overly familiar with the story. Thus, Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen), who serves as our introduction to Castle Dracula, is presented not as a naïf (as he is in Stoker's book and the Bela Lugosi movie) but as someone who already knows what Dracula is. When Dracula leaves his castle to stalk Harker's fiancé, it's not to London but to another European city, Carlstadt, which turns out to be a half a day's hearse ride from the vampire's home turf. Warner gets this detail wrong, amusingly, on the DVD box text, incorrectly noting that Dracula shows up in London – an understandable error to make since a.) that's the way the original novel worked and b.) most of the actors, including the mittle-European villagers, speak with British accents.

But what about Christopher Lee's "first ever" performance as the Count? Simply put, he carries the film, so effectively that you feel his presence even when he's not onscreen. Unlike Lugosi, who played the vampire as a Valentino-esque lover, Lee's sire is a pure force of masculine will: his imposing height and bass voice (which for some strange reason, was rarely used in the Hammer sequels) are utilized to maximum effect. And in the middle of the film, when Dracula comes in the night to seduce and vampirize two different female victims, you accept every heavy breasted sigh. Lee's Drac is a vicious bastard (you know he beats his vampire lovers), but he's an attractive vicious bastard.

Cushing's Van Helsing (who alternately is called "Helsing" in the film) is suitably authoritative, but I find his amoral Frankenstein more fun to watch. He definitely wields a mean stake, though. Unlike so many vampire pics, the act of staking clearly takes a strong forearm (remember that Buffy ep where Willow dispatched a vamp with a sharpened number two pencil?) and more than one hammering. Director Fisher knew that dispatching vampires was exertive work more than a calling, and his staging of the story's second big vampire slaying – the second death of the once innocent Lucy Holmwood – emphasizes that fact. In Hammer's heroes, you can also see the roots of Sean Connery's teeth-gritting James Bond; when Cushing's fearless vampire hunter leaps and slides across a table to bring down a light-shielding curtain in his final fight with Drac, you can't help flashing on Bond sliding across the floor of Fort Knox, reaching for that big ol' wire to electrocute the imposing Odd Job.

In short: an enjoyable DVD and my favorite of the early Hammers (Curse of Frankenstein shows its budgetary limitations more clearly, while the studio's remake of The Mummy is kinda plodding). And as with the current Universal Legacy DVD packs, I'm hoping that the upcoming Van Helsing renews enough interest in this type of material to spark future DVD sets. Keep your candlesticks crossed. . .
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Tuesday, May 04, 2004
      ( 5/04/2004 10:43:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"MOTHER SUPERIOR JUMP THE GUN" – Some quick bullet pointiness from the world o' pop culture:
  • I don't have much to say about the recent Micah Wright disclosure: in any creative community, you're gonna have a number of self-involved gits, and while those who didn't like his politics may wanna wave Wright's failings all over the place, to me the whole story is more a cautionary example on the tenuous nature of personal reinvention. (Makes you wonder if Wright ever read The Great Gatsby.) For the record, I think Sean nailed the matter with his posting on political stridency, though.

  • And speakin' of pathological political stridency, that wacky Ted Rall is at it again: producing a cartoon guaranteed to get right-leaning poli-bloggers frothing at the mouth while left-leaners are forced into distancing themselves from the guy even as they still feel mandated to assert his right to Free Speech. Hey, let's just say that Rall's Pat Tillman cartoon is poorly focused crapola and note that its basic message (whoa, government and media will cynically use the wartime death of a celebrity soldier for propagandistic purposes!) is nothing fresh.

  • Caught the final eps of Tru Calling's first season: I remain mildly interested in this series, though not to the extent of feeling like I'd seriously miss it if Fox doesn't renew for a second year. Crisper writing would've helped: the penultimate ep's revelation that Jason Priestly's Jack was yang to Tru's yin didn't reveal anything that a mildly attentive viewer hadn't sussed out weeks before – and it took forever to do tell us, too. . .

  • Been listening to the Vines' sophomore effort this week, and while I can get behind the "fuck the world" sentiments that bookend this disc, to my ears this band still sounds best when it bypasses the faux grunge sound in favor of more poppy sentiments. Title song "Winning Days" is the Hit Pick in my house: sounds like something that'd be used as the background track to a let's-make-up-and-be-friendly moment on The O.C. Which is not meant as a put-down.

  • In the midst of rhapsodizing about Fantagraphics' "Peanuts" volume, I nearly ignored the company's other hep hardbound release, Tony Millionaire's The Ear Mite. A mini-book (4-¼" x 5"), it basically contains two slightly longer, parallel "Maakies" tales that meet up with each other by the end: the grimmer story is rendered in gray and white panels on the left side of the book, the second (featuring the titular hero) is done in fuller color panels. Minor Millionaire, perhaps, but still a visual treat.
And lastly:More later.
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Monday, May 03, 2004
      ( 5/03/2004 12:03:00 PM ) Bill S.  

SIZE MATTERS – Sean Collins, in his guise as Bookstore Guy, notes the growth of manga titles and also ponders the way graphic novels get shelved: "I'm not actually sure if this is company-wide or simply how our staffers have organized things, but the dividing line between what gets shelved with manga and what gets shelved with non-manga is simply one of format and size." I noticed the same thing (as has Steve Pheley in his spiffy new Gutterninja blog) back when Oni issued its digest-sized Courtney Crumrin GNs. Recently, I nearly passed over the first volume of Viz's new full-sized Nausicaa edition, simply because it'd been shelved away from the digest-sized manga. But looking at the gorgeous and detailed art (which at times evokes Moebius) in that series, I'd sure hate to see it shrunk down to the size of yer average Tokyopop pb.

Our local Barnes & Noble has two sets of manga shelves, incidentally: one alongside the rest of the graphic novels, the second in the Young Readers section of the store. The latter seems to be a better source for long-running series titles like GTO, while the former appears more focused on the flavor of the month. Don't know if that's intentional or not. . .
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      ( 5/03/2004 08:51:00 AM ) Bill S.  

KEEPING THE SPRING IN SPRINGFIELD – With the news that the cast of The Simpsons has reached a new contractual agreement, fans of the series can relax once more. Even if the show isn't as surprising as it once could be (last night's Homer As Superhero ep, for instance, trod ground that'd been more efficiently covered in a third the time as a "Treehouse of Horror" entry), it still remains one of the greatest sitcoms ever.

If pressed, however, I'd opine that this season's run of King of the Hill has it over present-day Simpsons. A more conservative show (in every sense of that word), it takes advantage of its Arlenites in ways that'd be inconceivable to the chroniclers of Springfield's First Family. The results – like last night's priceless offering placing spudboy Bobby Hill on the Tom Landry Middle School academic team thanx to his encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture trivia – can often be more precisely telling than the more broadly drawn satire on The Simpsons.

Bottom lining it, though, that Sunday back-to-back of King followed by Simpsons is still the funniest hour on network television.
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Sunday, May 02, 2004
      ( 5/02/2004 12:47:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"WHY DON'T I LIKE YOU MORE THAN CHARLIE BROWN?" – First time we see good ol' Charlie Brown, in the opening volume of The Complete Peanuts ($28.95, Fantagraphics Books), it's in a fairly unfamiliar pose: walking down the sidewalk, arms a-swingin', big ol' smile on his round face. Not a queasy half smile, not an eyes-shut, lost-to-the-world-around-me smile – just a happy li'l folk's smile.

He'd grow out of that grin, of course, and one of the pleasures of the first volume in this ambitious book series reprinting cartoonist Charles Schulz's landmark comic strip in its entirety (starting with 1950-52) lies in watching him "mature" into the more familiar emotionally battered everyman we all know and love. In the first strips of 1950, he's clearly meant to be younger than either Shermy or Patty, the two kids he'll eventually push out of the limelight: he's not yet in school nor tall enough to meet either of his co-stars eye-to-eye. Yet thanks to the kind of aging process only seen in comic strips and soap operas, Chuck quickly catches up to the other two, where he'll remain for the duration of the strip's forty-plus years.

The same process occurs with other characters in the series: Schroeder, Lucy and her younger brother Linus are all introduced in turn as babies in volume one, though the first two rapidly sprout to become peers (toy piano genius and "Miss Fussbudget of 1952," respectively) with other neighborhood kids. Linus would take a little longer to age, which may be the real reason he never could abandon that security blanket. Even Snoopy, the final major figure from these early years, is more puppy than full-grown beagle dog. We're not privy to his inner thoughts 'til 1952.

But if the comic melancholy that characterizes "Peanuts" at its peak hasn't fully flowered in volume one, all the basic elements are there: Schulz's elegantly frugal inking style and stylized vision of children's bodies (which exaggerates their heads to, in part, emphasize their thoughtfulness), his unsentimental take on childhood fears and aspirations, his clear-eyed understanding of the volatile nature of kids' relationships. Second strip into the book, Patty, strolling along that selfsame sidewalk, stops momentarily to slug Charlie Brown for no discernible reason. CB himself indulges in violence and tantrums for thoroughly petty reasons in these early strips; he's also an inveterate jokester, who ends many a daily strip being chased by his victim. "It's risky, but I get my laughs," he tells the reader

As a reader born the same year that Schulz's strip debuted, my first experience with the early "Peanuts" was through small Fawcett paperback collections. A lot of the strips in this book never saw reprinting in those early paperbacks, presumably because the artist's vision of his kids had already developed to the point where their jokes were incompatible with their more established characters. In one early strip, for instance, Charlie Brown comes upon a drawing of himself rendered on a neighborhood fence. "That's not me at all!" he proclaims, and he fixes the caricature by affixing a big grin to its face. By the 1960's, our hero wouldn't have dreamed of altering that image: he just would've sighed and accepted it as one more random humiliation in a world packed with 'em.

The "Peanuts" gang may have had some limited growing up to do, but as a newspaper strip cartoonist, Schulz was in control of his medium from the get-go. These fifty-year-old strips remain funny – something you definitely can't say about many other strips from the same era (or, indeed, last week's "Cathy"). In a way, they seem fresher than the strips from the nineties, and not just because we're discovering many of the established strip routines for the first time (first time Charlie Brown gets a football moved away from him, it's not even done intentionally – or by Lucy). No, what helps to keep 'em fresh are Schulz's vision of childhood as a battleground and his sense of timing (influenced by comedian Jack Benny, David Michaelis notes in a supplementary biographical essay, and though I'd never recognized that fact before, it makes instant sense to me) impeccable. A lot of cartoonists have labored to replicate Schulz's voice, but they never quite get it.

It's not saying anything surprising to note that Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" is one of the singular achievements of comic strip art. But it is worth noting – after years of overexposure, diminishing return animated adaptations and Butternut bread commercials – that the strip can still be an unabashed joy to read. Next volume in Fantagraphics' reprint series is scheduled for autumn of this year. I'd start saving my pennies now. . .
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Saturday, May 01, 2004
      ( 5/01/2004 08:23:00 PM ) Bill S.  

FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE COLLECTED! – Even if Stephen Sommer's upcoming Van Helsing proves to be an overly jokey thrill-free piece o' crap, it's already justified its multi-million dollar existence by prompting Universal Pictures to release three monster DVD Legacy Collections. Bought a copy of the Frankenstein set this weekend for $19.95 (the other two are devoted to Dracula and the Wolf Man). Five flicks on two discs: James Whale's 1931 original and its even more baroque sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, plus B-pic follow-ups Son of, Ghost of and House of Frankenstein alongside a passel of supporting features – a great buy, think I. Believe it or not, I'm most looking forward to watching some of the lesser series movies (Ghost, for instance) since it's been ages since I've viewed 'em.
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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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