|Pop Culture Gadabout|
Saturday, May 07, 2005 |
( 5/07/2005 10:19:00 AM ) Bill S.
HAIRCUT 100 – Guess who had their locks shorn for spring? Yeah, I got a haircut this weekend. But since we don't have a picture of me, here's a jpg. of Ziggy Stardust from the backyard this a.m.
Friday, May 06, 2005
( 5/06/2005 02:37:00 PM ) Bill S.
"MAY HE REMAIN THUS. . . FOREVERMORE!" – Culling through the home library, I recently picked up the first of several trade comic book collections that I decided to revisit over the next few months: 1989's Marvel Monster Masterworks, an out-of-print collection of big rampaging creature stories that were originally published in the days before Marvel Comics reinvented itself as a superhero line. Written by Stan Lee and predominately illustrated by the team of Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers (with two five-page Steve Ditko shorties tossed in for seasoning), the stories were originally written in the late fifties and early sixties, though the stories published in this set appear to be versions that were reprinted over ten years later in a series entitled Where Monsters Dwell. The book's limited four-page cover gallery only gives us covers from the reprint series, as opposed to the original books (Tales to Astonish, Tales of Suspense, et al) where they debuted. At least one fannish reviewer has subsequently fallen for the assumption that these stories are from the late sixties/early seventies since those are the copyright years indicated in the collection. Those of us who grew up with these cheesy gems know better, of course.
As a pre-teen reader, I was a devoted follower of the Marvel (then called Atlas) monster comics. I was too young to be a part of the fifties EC horror comics boom, but these books – so close to the Creature Features that I also loved as a boy – were perfectly keyed to my sensibilities, so much so that when Lee & Kirby & Ditko started producing their early superhero titles like Spider-Man or Fantastic Four, I initially resisted 'em. I couldn't have been the only reader who needed to be won over: re-read the intro to the first Spider-Man and you can practically hear writer Lee wheedling to get the reader to take a chance on the story ("But we think you may find our Spider-Man just a bit. . .different!") Sure, Spidey was different – but he still wasn't Fin Fang Foom.
As collections go, Masterworks (edited by Marc McLauren) is just a bit . . . haphazard. Story attribution, listed on the Table of Contents, only indicates where the tales appeared as reprints: "Titan, the Amphibian from Atlantis," for instance, is credited on the contents page as appearing in a title called Uncanny Tales from Beyond the Grave, but when you get to the story itself, a small footnote on the opening splash panel indicates that it first appeared in Tales of Suspense #28. Two pages (one from "I Learned the Dread Secret of The Blip!" and the other from "The Glop") are so poorly reprinted that they look like bad color Xerox, though, thankfully, most of the reproed artwork is more vibrant and clear. With comics like this, the art overrides the formulaic stories.
Back when these tales first appeared, Marvel didn't include script and artist credits – so as a kid in the early sixties, looking at the Kirby & Ayers signatures that appeared on the splash page of many of these stories, I assumed Kirby was the writer and Ayers the artist for these tales. The trade edition corrects this potential problem at least, though most readers in the 80's were well aware of scripter Stan Lee's contributions to these deathless comic works. Much of Lee's writing was utilitarian at best, though you can see story elements that would also appear in the early superhero books: the misunderstood isolated hero who defeats the villain through trickery shows up time and again in these stories, though unlike poor "puny" Peter Parker, they usually receive credit for their deeds. In "I Challenged Groot, the Monster from Planet X," for instance, our scientist hero is initially berated by his wife for not being rugged and manly. After he implausibly breeds a batch of termites in his lab that defeat the wood-based alien (we see the creature "feeds on wood" in the forest, but amazingly there are no termites in that area!), his fickle spouse states that she'll never complain about his 90-pound-weakling physique again. I give that marriage another six months at the most. . .
But, like I say, the primary draw of Marvel Masterworks is the art. Page after page of bald-faced Kirby spectacle: scaly monsters tossing cars and tanks, trashing buildings, rising imperiously from the depths of the ocean (an image that also memorably recurred in the early Fantastic Four Submariner adventures) or stomping through Transylvanian villages that you know come from the artist's memories of old Universal horror flicks. In "Zzutak, the Thing That Shouldn't Exist," Kirby's pencils are inked by Ditko – always a fun combination to read since the latter often added an atmospheric stylization to Kirby's more physicalized creations.
Of Ditko's own two contributions, the most enjoyable has to be "The Threat of Tim Boo Ba" (Lee was fond of giving his creatures nonsensically "ominous" sounding names, but this 'un is especially tin-eared – sounds too close to the name of a Pogo character to be scary), a five-page fantasy featuring a tyrannical alien conqueror who lords it over his subjects only to himself drown when – big surprise! – a kid spills a drop of water on a tiny plastic globe. Ditko's imagery has an appealingly blunt simplicity: in one panel we see the power-mad despot kicking the flag of surrender from a fallen victim's hands, looking like one of Maurice Sendak's happily tantrumming young boys as he does so. (We know the Where the Wild Things Are creator was familiar with "Little Nemo in Slumberland." Do you think he read Amazing Fantasy, too?) Subtle it's not.
But, hey, you want subtle, you don't look for it in a book where brutish monsters deliver three pages worth of exposition on their plans to conquer the planet, stopping only to sneer at the "puny humans" incapable of thwarting them. It's the kind of story world where most of the guys wear fedoras or bookish spectacles so roundly thick that they're practically opaque, and the women dress like they wax the kitchen floor in high heels. It's a world Where Monsters Dwell, but you know we'll be able to hold our own "against any form of life in the universe" with the force of our intelligence and imagination. Even as a none-too-critical kid I recognized all the patented clichés, tricks and contrivances – the cipher heroes, the cornball dialog, the pieces of story presented in the opener that you know will be used to defeat the menace – that Lee & co. were perpetrating in these dashed-off stories. But I loved 'em anyway.
Turns out, I still do.
Wednesday, May 04, 2005
( 5/04/2005 09:01:00 AM ) Bill S.
THAT "GET THEE TO A NUNNERY" LINE WAS PRETTY DIRTY, TOO! - Reading about our Commander in Chief signing a law giving legal protections to the new filtering technology that automatically skips or mutes sections of commercial movie DVDs brought back memories of studying Shakespeare as a grad student and reading about Thomas Bowdler, the 19th century editor who sought to make the Bard respectable by eliminating all the naughty bits from his plays. These days you're hard-pressed to find a copy of The Family Shakespeare in bookstores, while the unexpurgated plays, with their references to "cuckolds" and making "the two-backed beast," are readily available. Which sez something heartening to me at least about the enduring power of Smut. . .
( 5/04/2005 08:14:00 AM ) Bill S.
GREEN TEETH! – So we’re watching an episode of Navy N.C.I.S. and who should appear as a small-town deputy but Scut Farkis! Naturally, we assume he's the killer since one of the reliable premises of network crime teevee is Never Trust A Character Actor Who You Recognize. But the writers threw us a curve and made the murderer someone else. . .
( 5/04/2005 07:53:00 AM ) Bill S.
MOVIN' ROUND – In an economy-minded move, we've decided to temporarily close down our "oakhaus.com" business domain at Earthlink – the act doesn't much effect this 'ere blog, though the music links on the right are being shifted and, in some cases, are off-line. (I'm re-thinking my Rhino tribute pages and plan on replacing 'em with a pared-down version.) Every so often I get an email from someone who's happened on one of my pop tribute pages, though (few weeks back I received one from a woman – a recovering anorectic who connected to the song "Temporary Beauty" - who'd discovered my Graham Parker page), so I wanna keep 'em going. But if you're looking for the Rhino or Zappa pages, they're temporarily out of service. . .
Tuesday, May 03, 2005
( 5/03/2005 12:04:00 PM ) Bill S.
"WHEN I PUT THE TURKEY IN THE OVEN, I THOUGHT OF YOU!" – Though generally known as a solid character actress for her work in the silent comedy Tillie’s Punctured Romance and such early sound successes as Tugboat Annie and Min And Bill (for which she'd win an Academy Award), Marie Dressler's work as part of a comedy duo opposite Polly Moran (who'd later make an impression as a lady foreman in the Tracy & Hepburn comedy Adam’s Rib) has been largely forgotten today. But, thankfully, Turner Classic Movies dumped a quartet of the pair’s early thirties films in the early hours of its final day of April Fools Month movies. I was able to record three of 'em and watched the 1931 release, Reducing, last weekend. Found it a sporadically effective mix of broad comedy and sentimentality: fairly typical for the era though not as cut-loose funny as I'd like.
The movie centers around two sisters: Polly Rochay (Moran), the proprietress of a successful NYC beauty parlor which advertises "Reducing Our Speciality," and Marie Truffle, an earthy working class ma whose husband Elmer (a comically ineffectual Lucian Littlefield) is an out-of-work postal carrier. Marie and her family take the train from South Bend to come live with her well-to-do sister, an act of charity for which Polly repeatedly congratulates herself, though we know she'll eventually regret it. We first meet the Truffles – Marie, Elmer, older daughter Vivian (Anita Page) and two out-of-control young boys – as they're in the train station ready to disembark. Marie gets a good bit with a stuttering ticket taker played by Roscoe Ates (the same comedian who appears as the spouse of one of the Hilton Sisters in Freaks), and there's some funny business with the whole family in a sleeping car. But once we arrive in the Big Apple, the male side of the family largely gets shunted into the background.
In the city, we're introduced to Polly in her stylishly designed reducing salon – which appears populated more by Hollywood chorus girls than BBWs (though the first customer we see is a chubby woman trundling on a treadmill) – and her daughter Joyce (Sally Eilers). Both mother and daughter are prone to putting on airs, while Joyce is also gallivanting about town with a wealthy playboy named Johnny Beasley (William Collier Jr.) The set-up's ripe for class-based conflict 'tween the two sibs.
Polly offers her sister a job at the reducing salon, and though the plus-sized Marie wonders aloud if her girth won't discourage possible customers, her sister breezily asserts otherwise. Nobody thinks anything about a bald barber giving haircuts, she states, and if this comparison is dubious, we don't much worry about it since it gives the two actresses opportunity to engage in some decent salon pratfalls (Moran getting dumped by the treadmill into a mud bath or locked in a steam room, for instance) while Dressler also inadvertently trashes the glitzy environs. The beauty parlor sequences are the funniest aspect of the flick – and you wish the writers had done more with that setting. There's a genuinely amusing scene where Marie leads a line of customers in calisthenics (including one openly disenchanted fat girl), but midway into Reducing, we swoop away from the salon to concentrate on a rivalry between the sisters' two daughters over the ne'er-do-well playboy Beasley.
The sisters get into a big spat, siding with each of their daughters, and the Truffles move out of Polly Rochay's high-toned townhouse. With this, the movie's setting shifts to the Truffles' working class city digs – and its tone teeters on the bathetic. In the months since the family's move, Polly's daughter Joyce has been dumped by Beasley in favor of blond Midwesterner Vivian, who's had her head turned by "automobiles and yachts and things." On the eve of Thanksgiving, Joyce comes to Marie to confess that the cad has gotten her pregnant. (The word's never said aloud, though the girl repeatedly asserts that Beasley "must" marry her.) Marie elevates her high dudgeon and storms over to the rich boy's mansion (watching her toss a snooty butler aside, you can't help thinking that you really don't want this woman pissed at you), where she confronts the young bounder and convinces him to Do the Right Thing. Once Polly learns what her sister has done to help her daughter, she makes her way to the Truffles for an apology and a big sisterly hug. The movie ends with the two women blubbering happily together in Marie's humble kitchen.
Watching Reducing, I got a sense of why Dressler & Moran were so popular in their heyday and have not hung on with more modern audiences. As an actress, Dressler, in particular, was extremely watchable: a homely older woman with a matronly body, baggy eyes and an imminently welcoming acting style, though in the latter part of the film she veers into the same kind of sensitive acting voice that makes you wanna slug Robin Williams every time he pulls it out of his arsenal. Moran plays the would-be bourgeois businesswoman with enough small-town clunkiness to keep her from becoming an unappealing caricature. The two actresses – one unself-consciously proletarian, the other striving to hide her class roots – play off each other beautifully, and the inevitable bellowing showdown, staged across a bedroom hallway, is particularly fun to watch.
If the twosome weren't constrained by the dictates of dated family melodrama, Reducing would be a much more enjoyable picture. You can understand why releasing studio MGM would want to keep Dressler in that mode, given the critical and popular success she had with the even more button-pushing Min And Bill. But, given a choice between watching the fulsome Dressler comically struggle into the upper berth of a sleeping car or display her softer side by comforting a stricken fallen femme, I'll go with the rickety comedy bits, thanks. . .
Monday, May 02, 2005
( 5/02/2005 08:56:00 AM ) Bill S.
IT'S THE PELVIC THRUST THAT'LL DRIVE YOU INSANE – Last night's episode of Cold Case did some interesting playin' around with series formula. Focusing on an unsolved murder that centered around a midnight showing of Rocky Horror Picture Show, the ep guest-starred Barry Bostwick as a soon-to-be-released serial killer who may or may not have murdered a movie usher back in 1977. A clever bit of stunt casting, but it's not the primary element that made this night different from the series' usual fare.
Part of the show's standard storytelling technique is to dramatize the background and the cold case crime itself with younger actors playing suspects and victims. These sequences are typically played straight, with attention to period detail since the time and setting are frequently a factor in understanding the characters' motivations. This week, though, all the flashbacks were acted in the same campy style that Bostwick and Susan Sarandon used in RHPS – with lighting and camera angles also calibrated to recall the movie and lots of songs from the musical on the soundtrack. One of the suspects even lived in a mansion with the same style elevator that Dr. Frank N. Furter used to make his memorable movie entrance.
The approach, while fun to note at first, eventually outstayed its welcome – undermining the more naturalistic tone that this police procedural usually strives to sustain. This became most blatant whenever the show returned to one of its season subplots (cop Scotty Valens' disastrous relationship with partner Lilly Rush's sister), a much more straightforward storyline. But it also muted the sadness and sense of inevitability that characterizes the series' more enduring cold cases. Hard to take these Victims of Their Time seriously when they're emoting with so much naïve hamminess. File this 'un under Failed Experiment.
Like hearing some of the songs again, though. . .
Sunday, May 01, 2005
( 5/01/2005 12:58:00 PM ) Bill S.
"IT'S LIKE THE NATURE OF FEAR, MAN!" – Can't say I wasn't warned – advanced word on this direct-to-Sci-Fi-Channel comics adaptation was pretty harsh – but I've long had a soft spot for the original Marvel Man-Thing comics, so in spite of all the warnings, I had to watch the flick's cable premiere. Kind of like those dumb movie heroines who go into the swamp even though they’ve been repeatedly warned not to, I just don't know what's good for me. . .
What I viewed was a fairly standard low-rent horror flick. Even opened with the drive-in movie staple: the horny teenaged couple who venture out into the swamp, only to have the title creature pop up on them in mid-embrace. We don't get to see the creature yet, of course, only a large-busted actress assaying the kind of palsied scream that Brian DePalma ridiculed in Blow Out. The beast doesn't put in a full body appearance until the movie's final showdown – at which point it becomes at least twice as large as the shadowy figures that've been quickly dashing in the movie fore- and backgrounds.
The movie's primary plot (credited to Hans Rodinioff) is about a string of disappearances and killings that occur in the swamp alongside the southern small town of Bywater. Doesn't take long for new sheriff, Kyle Williams (Matthew Le Nevez), to realize the killings are connected to the Schist Petroleum oil rigs that've been erected in the swampland – most specifically the solitary untended job that's in the deepest, darkest center of the swamp. Owner F.A. Schist (Jack Thompson) is the kind of unrepentant bad guy capitalist who doesn't feel the least bit self-conscious about cackling villainously in the cab of his truck as he imagines dire things happening to that damned nosy sheriff. All his underlings are broad old-style Southern racists ("You can't trust 'em," one proudly proclaims, "Indians and Coloreds alike!"), while his crew-cutted foreman son is such a dimwit, he thinks nothing of firing off a semi-automatic rifle at a figure running near the oil rigs. Within this realm of B-pic stereotypes are two walking victims named after two of the original comic's creators, Steve Gerber & Mike Ploog. I bet they're quietly proud.
Fighting Schist is a loose affiliation of environmentalists and Seminoles who are just as likely to fall to the movie's monster as the swamp's despoilers. Though the creature is alleged to be the area's "guardian," it's fairly indiscriminate in its selection of victims. Where the old Marvel Comic established the Man-Thing as the agent of others' fate ("Whoever knows fear, will burn at the Man-thing's touch," said fear nearly always being the consequence of a character's guilt), the movie version is just your standard shamblin' beast with red eyes and a lotta rooty tendrils waving all around it. He/it's just as likely to tear an innocent deputy apart or shake a kindly tribal elder man to death as impale a thuggish Cajun with a root.
Director Brett Leonard delivers a couple of decent jolt scares that would've probably worked better on a big screen (most effectively in a hospital sequence where the big-busted teengirl instantly freaks out after Sheriff Kyle asks the nurse to "Tell me if anything changes") and plenty of moody shots of the swampland spiked with sudden unexplained ripples and sped-up Sam Raimi-esque camera swoops. But he's defeated by a budget that shouts Cheap! Studio! Setting! every time we see the creepy bayou. Our hero and heroine (a third grade teacher who's called a "hippie bitch" during a confrontation with Schist's hirelings, as in: "Why don't you frig a tree, you hippie bitch?") are on hand for the big confrontation between the Man-Thing and the Environmental Rapist – and, of course, the big rig gets blowed up unconvincingly. When we arrive at the end credits to learn who to blame for the entire shoddy enterprise, Sci-Fi has reduced 'em to microscopic size in the left-hand column and then sped it up so quickly that all the guilty parties are masked.
Sci-Fi probably did all concerned a favor – though thanx to Internet resources like IMDB, it's none too difficult to identify the culprits. In the annals of horror moviedom, there've been plenty of weak movies built around monsters in a swamp setting (Alligator People, Legend of Boggy Creek, et al), but you'd have to look long and hard to find one as bad as Man-Thing. Even Wes Craven's Swamp Thing, the 1982 kid's flick version of DC's competitor swamp denizen, had enough sense of exploitational basics to spice its nonsense with shots of a topless Adrienne Barbeau. Would that Man-Thing had a comparable level of anything-to-goose-the-audience-awake crassness. . .