Pop Culture Gadabout
Monday, February 07, 2005
      ( 2/07/2005 05:14:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"JUST TO HAVE SOME COMPANY, TO SHARE A CUP OF TEA WITH ME!" – Last night, in the waning minutes of Super Game between Carnivale and The Simpsons, we switched over to Animal Planet's Super Bowl counter-programming, "The Puppy Bowl." We came into the middle of the two-hour event (which was conveniently rerun on the cable channel throughout the night), so we didn't get to see the credits, but I'd love to know the programming geniuses behind the show: two hours of cute puppies frolicking in a large pen designed to look like a football stadium, complete with puppy level thru-the-bottom-of-the-water bowl cam shots and the chintziest background music this side of the Weather Channel. Can you imagine being the director for this thing? ("Camera four! The little white lab is peeing!") Yeah, that's somp'n to put on the ol' resumé.

And you can buy a copy of the DVD for $9.95. . .
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Sunday, February 06, 2005
      ( 2/06/2005 06:54:00 AM ) Bill S.  

WE DUMMIES IN THE AUDIENCE – Well, the debate around Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby (a movie that I fully expect to watch on cable since I so infrequently make it to the movie theatre these days) reached the wire news this weekend – it showed up in our local paper, The Daily Pantagraph, on Saturday. Reading the frothings of a former-critic-turned-family-values-hack like Michael Medved, I can't help asking out loud, "Have we grown so dense as an audience that we take any movie protagonist's actions as reflective of an automatic and whole-hearted endorsement of that action by the movie and its makers?" (In which case: how should I take, oh, Travis Bickle?) Whatever happened to the idea that a good story can stimulate discussion among moviegoers after the lights go up? What most annoys me about this whole brouhaha is the presumption among commentators like Medved and Rush Limbaugh that audience members are so accustomed to being spoon-fed everything that we're incapable of reaching any independent conclusion: "Clint Eastwood did it to that sweet Hilary Swank – so it must be the right thing to do in all occasions!" Pfui.

UPDATE: Milo George, who has clearly seen the movie, offers his own sardonic take on the controversy.
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Saturday, February 05, 2005
      ( 2/05/2005 08:39:00 AM ) Bill S.  

TWO MURDERS; TWICE THE PREDICTABILITY – Watching last night's Monk, it's become increasingly apparent that the show’s writers have decided to push that tricky mystery thing aside in favor of more fully concentrating on character comedy. Neither of the episode's two murders had an ounce of surprise – a plotline where increasingly dense police underling Randy Disher (Jason Gray-Stanford) gets conned by fortune cookies was so obvious that the audience went, "Surely, the guy can't be that dumb!" (though, of course, he could be), while the second mystery couldn't even bother to be the least bit puzzling. The interplay between lead Tony Shaloub and the Ted Levin's surprisingly Edgar Kennedy-ish police captain remains amusing, though even here, when our OCD hero tied his temporary bunkmate's foot to the bed, the comedy slipped into such over-the-top slapstick that it violated the series's original premise. At one time, you had the sense that with a little more therapy, Adrian Monk maybe could be reinstated to the police force. Not anymore.

And, for the record, I think that Traylor Howard is doing a fine job in the thankless job as Bitty Schram's replacement. Like Schram's Sharona, Howard's Natalie Teeger has the ability to get testy without becoming irritating – and her character has enough of a California vibe to differentiate her from Sharona’s Jersey Girl. Sure wish that she and her boss had tougher mysteries to solve, though. . .

UPDATE: Tom the Dog, who also shows up in the comments below, has some choice words over at his place about the season's first two episodes.
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Friday, February 04, 2005
      ( 2/04/2005 05:00:00 PM ) Bill S.  

FROM PILLAR TO POST – After sneaking a ferret pic into the bottom of the previous review, here's a stand-alone pet photo for Friday:

Willow and Xander hanging around the cat post, giving a "Woddya lookin' at, Mac?" to the guy behind the camera. . .

NOTE: Comics artist Ned Sonntag shows up in the comments section to this post - with a brief note in praise of Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely's WE3.
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      ( 2/04/2005 03:31:00 PM ) Bill S.  

SIXTY MINUTE MANGA – (This week's episode: Scratch 'n' sniff – and a menacing hand.)

As part of a ferret house – with three of the li'l weasels currently living under our roof – it was inevitable that I'd be drawn to Lindsay Cibos & Jared Hodges' Peach Fuzz, the new Tokyopop "All Ages" manga series about a girl and her fer't. The work of American artists who first test-drove the material in Tokyopop's "Rising Stars of Manga" competition, Fuzz tells the story of nine-year-old Amanda Keller, sole child in a single parent household who has just gotten her first pet: a strong-willed ferret named Peach. Told from the PoV of both Amanda and Peach (who sees herself as a kidnapped princess stolen away from her kingdom), the book examines the relationship between child owner and pet in a way that's designed to illuminate both its pleasures and pitfalls. Reading the book, I found myself thinking of children's book author Maurice Sendak's dog training classic, Some Swell Pup, in the way both works whimsically strive to instruct first time pet owners. If Cibos & Hodges come up short matching Sendak's assurance and pronounced sense of play, I suspect we can put that down to their comparative inexperience. On its own amiable terms, Peach Fuzz does a fine job showing readers the Ferret Experience.

The cover to Volume One features big-eyed Amanda as she brandishes her big-headed pet ferret to the reader: at the bottom right of the cover is the scratch 'n' sniff image of a peach ("Come closer! I smell like peaches!" it tells the reader, but, I've gotta tell ya, it smelled more like book to me!), a fun gimmick that I sincerely hope other manga series don't copy. (Battle Royale: "Come closer! I smell like gunpowder!" or GTO: "Come closer! I smell like girls' underpants!") But, I'll ya: anyone who tries to convince you that a de-scented ferret "smells like peaches" is definitely not to be trusted.

The books opens with Amanda and her mother, work-stressed Megan, as they're visiting the Super!Pets store in search of the perfect companion animal. After rejecting all the standard house pets as being "too boring," the girl gloms on the ferret cage, even though it has a cartoon sign warning customers that "We bite!" First time she sticks her hand in the cage, one of the inhabitants chomps on her finger. "Are you all like that?" she asks, but when she spies a small girl ferret sleeping, she decides it is the right pet for her. She doesn't realized that the ferret she'll name Peach is too sleepy to be scared – or that once they bring the pet home, they'll be making a commitment to it.

One of the smart themes of Peach Fuzz is the way that pets, any pets, can eat away at your budget. The inexperienced pet owners buy the wrong housing for Peach – and later wind up spending even more to get a decent cage for the ferret – while a trip to the vet proves even more costly. (Neither Peach's owners nor the unsavvy vet realize that ferrets sleep up to twenty hours a day and can be deucedly difficult to rouse.) And then there's that biting bizness: visualizing Amanda's hand as a multi-headed monster that torments her (the "Handra"), Peach nips at it every chance she gets. Because Amanda's mother has threatened to take the ferret back to the shop if it does start biting, the girl attempts to hide it. Of course, Ma Keller isn't so easily deceived.

Cibos & Hodges include some standard ferret training tips (having lived with a former nipper, I can attest to the effectiveness of the approach), but they also have fun showing Amanda pointedly mishandle Peaches at every turn. From the ferret's perspective, much of what Amanda does is simply designed to torment her: when the girl inadvertently gives her snacks that are tainted with anti-bite liquid, Peaches is convinced the "Handra" is trying to poison her. "I'll never be able to entirely trust it," the ferret decides at the end of volume one, and you know this'll be an issue in volumes to come. (At this writing, the Tokyopop site is promising at least two more books in the series.)

When the two manga artists keep the focus of their book on girl + ferret, Peach Fuzz moves along swimmingly, though a subplot involving Amanda's status as a new girl in school and the young boy who teases her in class is less smoothly folded into the storyline. The art utilizes manga conventions – decorative backgrounds that pop up regardless of the actual setting (in this case, paw prints), characters that can suddenly become more cartoonish to reflect their mood, an unabashed reliance on sound effects (only in manga can "Glance!" be a sound effect) – effectively and simply, befitting its younger audience. The book is not, incidentally, laid out in the "100% manga" style of right-to-left, which makes sense considering the creators are American, though, somehow, I still expected to be reading it back-to-front. When I gave the book to my wife and fellow ferret fiend Becky to read, her first response was, "I thought that manga were supposed to be backwards!"

So maybe Peach Fuzz isn't "100%." But as manga continues to build its fan base in this country – along with a generation of artists who are more influenced by it than they are mainstream American comics – we'll be seeing more works like this. If only a fraction of 'em are done as amusingly and sweetly as this children's comic, then who cares if they're "pure" manga or not? Not me.

NOTE: The Friday photo to the right is of our own household nipper – though, for the record, it should be stated that Piglet hasn't latched onto a finger in at least six months. . .
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Thursday, February 03, 2005
      ( 2/03/2005 09:09:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"SHE STARTED LISTENIN' TO THAT FINE, FINE MUSIC!" – Beaucoup Kevin is passing along a music meme that I thought I'd play along with:
  1. Total amount of music files on your computer: It's pretty paltry – the only music currently on my computer at work is the set of eighteen files Kevin himself put up on his blog over a month ago: it takes up about 153 megabytes, though, so I suppose I'll be cleaning it out one of these days. I've grown especially enamored of the Belle & Sebastian track ("Your Cover’s Blown") in his selection.

  2. The last CD you bought was: Zutons, Who Killed the Zutons - January is typically a tight month for new purchases, and this year is no exception.

  3. What is the song you last listened to before reading this message? "Party Line" by the Kinks from Face to Face.

  4. Write down 5 songs you often listen to or that mean a lot to you:

    • "(What's So Funny) 'Bout Peace, Love And Understanding," Elvis Costello (by way of Nick Lowe);
    • "Sunny Afternoon," Kinks;
    • "Think About Your Troubles," Nilsson;
    • "Opportunity," Pet Shop Boys;
    • "Rock 'n' Roll," Velvet Underground.

    There are plenty more, but these are the first that came to mind.

  5. Who are you going to pass this stick to? (3 persons) and why? Whoever chooses to follow this up on their own blog will suffice. First three I find I'll gladly take credit for!
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      ( 2/03/2005 04:41:00 AM ) Bill S.  

THEY ALSO SNUCK A ZAP! AND POW! INTO THE STORY – I really and truly am heartened by Stan Lee's legal victory against the forces of Evil Corporate Marvel, yet watching the man on 60 Minutes Wednesday, I still felt the urge to regularly shout at the television – not just when the show gave him sole credit for creating the Marvel Universe (we've seen that lazy misconception more than once when it comes to stories about the venerable comics writer). When Stan Himself – years after Marvel's shabby treatment of artist collaborator Jack Kirby – tells us that before his recent lawsuit he'd always considered Marvel a good company because "we always did the right thing," all I can do is sigh over the power of selective memory. And lament CBS's seeming unwillingness to hold this nice old man accountable for his own revisionist spin. . .

UPDATE: Not surprisingly, Mark Evanier has one of the first takes on the 60 Minutes story, while Nik Durga and Franklin Harris also weigh in and find CBS' story wanting. Later in the morning aftermath, reporter bloggers Heidi MacDonald and Tom Spurgeon also contribute some choice thoughts.
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Wednesday, February 02, 2005
      ( 2/02/2005 05:09:00 PM ) Bill S.  

EVER GET THE URGE TO BOWDLERIZE YOURSELF? – Okay, I pitched an easy one to Larry Young yesterday with the capper to my White Death review. And Larry, bless his plug-happy heart, swung. (It's the opening item on his February 2nd posting.) One day after posting it, I was considering loppin' that sentence off the piece (it doesn't really add anything to the review itself), but now that I see it's a part of the AiT blog, I'm letting it stand. . .
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      ( 2/02/2005 02:01:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"ALL ACROSS THE ALIENATION" – This month's offering of Robert Christgau's "Consumer Guide" has been posted on the Village Voice site, and I note with interest that the Dean of Rock Critics has firmly placed American Idiot in his "Dud of the Month" slot. Nails the disc for being politically superficial – which, of course, it is – and for being culturally woebegone – which, of course, it is, too. But having lived with Idiot on the road for over a month now (took it on several extended work-related road trips), I've fallen even more firmly in love with it. If alienation is one of punk rock's most enduring bedrock themes, than Green Day's newest catches its sound perfectly. Even the more obvious numbers, like the much-played ballad "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," are so hooky and emotionally straightforward that I surrender to 'em. Sorry, Bob, but we're gonna have to agree to disagree. . .
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      ( 2/02/2005 01:58:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"IF MEN WERE ANGELS" – Unlike those bloggers who already knew what they were gonna think about it long before it happened, I remain both heartened and wary by the election in Iraq. Fareed Zakaria, a writer who was both supportive of the need to topple Saddam Hussein and smartly critical of the way the administration has handled it, has what appears to be the most measured take on this week's election. (It originally appeared in the February 7th issue of Newsweek, but is also available on his own site.) In it, he lists three conditions necessary for a stable liberal (as opposed to "illiberal," a distinction that has nothing to do with the liberal/conservative dichotomy in this country) democracy and offers his view on just how well Iraq meets those conditions. Valuable reading. . .
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Tuesday, February 01, 2005
      ( 2/01/2005 12:57:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"MAD BASTARDS AT THE FRONT" – It's winter, time to hunker down and catch up on your reading, so I've been digging into the small pile of AiT/Planet Lar books that, for one reason or another, I haven't read yet. First up – and it seemed appropriate for the last weekend in January – was Rob Morrison & Charlie Adlard's White Death. Set during World War I on the Italian Front, the book concerns a cast of Italian soldiers as they wage battle along the Trentino mountain range. Amidst this bedraggled crew we meet Private Pietro Aquasanta, an Italian rifleman who initially was conscripted to fight for the Austro-Hungarians but now fights for the other side (we first see him killing one of his former comrades), and Sergeant-Major Orsini, a hardnosed career soldier who think nothing of fragging a lieutenant who wants to retreat. Orsini looks to Aquasanta with suspicion. "Kill them. Kill us. Anything to survive," he sneers disdainfully. "How can you trust a man like that?" And perhaps the mad s.o.b. has a point.

The book follows these two through a series of grueling battles (with temporary respite at a military sanctioned bordello) and is unstinting in its depiction of the horrors of war in the winter trenches. In this, Morrison & Adlard are following in the paths established by Harvey Kurtzman and the EC artists in Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales, though EC-era Kurtzman never would've been allowed to show us soldiers using urine-soaked rags for protection during a gas attack, let alone give us a full-blown whorehouse sequence. The book's title battle detail, the use of mountain avalanches as a weapon of war, would've certainly fit the EC war comics, though, as would Morrison's vision of the essential ruthlessness of war.

Adlard's art, rendered in charcoal and chalk on grey paper, is effectively moody during the quiet moments and grimly chaotic in the battle scenes, though at times I found it difficult telling individual characters apart. This doesn't much damage the story any more than the fact that you don't know who's who in the first half hour of Saving Private Ryan does either – what matters is how well writer and artist convey the madness of combat, where individuality is a luxury few can afford. And in this, White Death is a success: though the details may be a bit more explicit, at heart it's a good-old-fashioned gritty war comic. In an era where the most basic facts of warfare are shielded from the public – when even the sight of coffins is considered disruptive to American support of the war – it's telling that one of the best places to get the scoop on the hard realities of combat is in a graphic novel.

I sure feel dumb for having taken so long to read this book. . .
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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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