Pop Culture Gadabout
Wednesday, September 07, 2005
      ( 9/07/2005 10:25:00 AM ) Bill S.  

WHERE MY MIND SOMETIMES WANDERS AT LUNCH TIME – So I was watching this Red Bull cartoon commercial last night. It opens with a husband and wife, and wife tells her spouse, "Your mother-in-law is coming for a visit." This leads to the hubby fantasizing about gettin' rid of the old biddy in suitably cartoony fashion, but the thought that lodges in my head is: would a wife say, "Your mother-in-law" as prelude to a stale in-law joke – or would she, more likely, go, "My mother" or, more simply, "Mom"?
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Tuesday, September 06, 2005
      ( 9/06/2005 08:58:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"IF YOU SAY YOU WATCHED THE MOVIE, THEN YOU'RE A LIAR!" – Johnny B. has posted an enjoyable appreciation about the drive-in theater of his youth - whicn naturally got me thinking about my own experiences at drive-in movies. As a kid, I recall going to the drive-in in Massachusetts with my parents, sitting in the back seat with my sister and being told to lie down after the cartoon and first feature. We usually hit the drive-in once a summer when we were visiting my grandparents, and many of the double features back then were divided into a "family hour" feature followed by more "grown-up" fare. Nothing "adult," just something that the average kid viewer wouldn't understand: the last movie I remember seeing in that venue was the Sean Connery flick, A Fine Madness. By then, I was old enough to stay up and watch both features, but as I recall I didn't get much out of the movie.

By high school, I was living in the northwest suburbs of Illinois, and I spent a lotta time at the now demolished 53 Outdoor Drive-In in Palatine. Because my friend Tom Michalski and I were nerds, we didn't do any of the "traditional" teen things like sneak in beer or bring our non-existent girlfriends along: we were there to simply watch the movies. A couple of times a summer, the 53 ran horror double features – and I remember seeing quite a few sixties era Hammer and AIP films in that outdoor venue. Also caught a few mildly sexy features there – though since I was watching 'em at an age when practically anything could turn into sexy imagery – they sure seemed hot at the time. I recall seeing several items with a young Jane Fonda: Barbarella, of course; Spirits of the Dead and a movie about a young woman being kept prisoner in her house. (Only remember a few quick images from that last, and I'm not even sure what its title was, though it may've been Roger Vadim's La Curée.) Back in the day, Jane was the go-to girl for hot and titillating movie fare.

When I left for college, the place for drive-in action was the Bloomington Drive-In, which was located right behind Sinorak's Smorgasbord off Business Route 55. (Dinner and movie!) In the early 70's, Bloomington's theater alternated between second- and third-run mainstream movies – and double features that were pure "drive-in." Back then, I'd go with my first wife Barb and a twelve-pack of beer. Saw the inimitable Death Race 2000 there, along with David Cronenberg’s Rabid. Good times, but, then, as with Johnny B.'s beloved Twin City Drive-In, the theater switched to primarily showing X-Rated movies and we stopped attending. Wasn't prudery that kept us away – we'd already seen several skin flicks at the then-struggling Castle Theater – just disinterest. It was always a kick to watch for the drive-in if you were driving on the Bloomington-Normal beltline because you could see the screen for a couple of seconds from the highway. If you were lucky, you got a flash of silicone-enhanced breast.

The Bloomington Drive-In is gone now, replaced by a strip mall with a Dollar Store and an oak furniture place. Many of the movies that we used to think of as pure drive-in fare today are getting shown on in-door mall screens, though I've gotta admit that it's not the same watching 'em in a darkened theater. In some strange way, the drive-in experience – with its tinny speakers and big wall screens – encouraged greater involvement in the movie itself. Instead of being spoon-fed, the moviegoer had to do some work themselves, which I suspect gave us a stronger connection to the events we were watching on screen. I do know I have stronger visual memory of more horror flicks that I first experienced through a bug-spattered windshield than I do bigger budget multiplex fare . . .
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Sunday, September 04, 2005
      ( 9/04/2005 09:44:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"WHAT HAS HAPPENED 'ROUND HERE IS THE WINDS HAVE CHANGED" – Took me a couple days to decide to put up the uncensored (when Aaron Neville covered the song in the 90's, he changed "cracker" to "farmer," thus nullifying the song's stinging indictment of not-so-benevolent politico condescension) lyrics from Randy Newman's Good Old Boys. The reasons for my hesitation are obvious, but in the end my anger over our present government's malign neglect won out.
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      ( 9/04/2005 07:57:00 AM ) Bill S.  

TONE-DEAF DENNY – I don't blame Dennis Hastert for wondering out loud about the advisability of rebuilding the devastated New Orleans – considering the expense and people power it's gonna take, this "tough question" needs to be considered honestly and openly from all angles – but I do fault the man's egregious timing. Reading about it earlier this week, I was reminded of the inaptly timed statements by Noam Chomsky in the aftermath of 9/11: whatever good points the man had to make were lost through his sheer stupidity in bringing 'em up while Americans were still in shock and mourning. Hastert's foot-in-mouth property-over-people moment was even more thoughtlessly timed since he spoke it out loud while human rescue proceedings are still in process, and if Illinois Democrats have any sense at all, they'll never let him (or us) forget these statements. When re-election comes along, I'd play his words about New Orleans over and over and then ask, "What would Denny have said during the Great Chicago Fire?"
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      ( 9/04/2005 07:06:00 AM ) Bill S.  

SITHING IN THE THEATER – Months after its release, we finally made it to the theater to watch Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. (Never said we were timely around this joint!) It was showing as a Labor Day Weekend matinee at Bloomington’s Castle Theater, the moviehouse where Becky and I had our first date two (gulp!) decades ago, so we had to take advantage of the opportunity. I've written about the Castle in the past: a couple of years back, the downtown Bloomington theater reopened after over a decade of abandonment. To offer a different experience from trad multi-plex viewing, the owners replaced the seats with couches, love seats and small modular tables; moviegoers can order eats and drinks which are delivered via waitress during the movie. The weekend matinee costs $6.00, but from the looks of the menus, the food is where the big money is.

Sith was showing at noon, and we definitely got the sense that theater personnel weren't accustomed to running their movies so early in the day. (When I've been to other matinees there, it's usually been around four o'clock. The theater doors all have head-level windows in 'em, and the bright noon sun glared through onto the movie screen for the first ten minutes or so – until one of the ushers started taping menus over the windows. Because the movie's opening is a battle that takes place in deep black space, we saw large white boxes along the bottom of the screen: they were so distracting, especially when the usher's head appeared in one and he started putting up the menus, that I couldn't tell you what that opening fight was all about. Ben & Anakin get out alive, though, I know that much . . .

Don't have a whole lot to say about the movie that hasn't been chewed to death in the blogosphere already (which won't stop me from nattering a bit, of course). I'm one of those viewers who saw a pretty clear political warning message in the film. When Padmé notes in the Senate session passing power over to the Supreme Counselor Palpatine that liberty dies "in thunderous applause," we're meant to see a comparison to the abrogation and erosion of civil liberties in this country under the Patriot Act. (Seems to me that this is the first flick where scriptwriter Lucas uses the words "Senate" and "Congress" interchangeably, though I could be wrong on this.) Anakin/Darth's move to the dark side of the force is motivated, first and foremost, by fear and an overwhelming desire to protect his loved one, though in the end he nearly winds up killing her himself.

I'm not bothered by Lucas' infusion of possible political metaphors into the film: unless you're a pundit writing on deadline – and you haven't hacked out a column on Evil Hollywood in the past two weeks – I suspect it's possible to enjoy the film while ignoring its politics and simply view the story as a larger-than-life cautionary on the dire effects of living your life ruled by any kind of fear. You can really see Lucas, the director, getting off on those scenes detailing Anakin's descent into the dark side (the moment when he prepares to kill that cute group of younglings from the last movie is suitably appalling) and the scenes where evil triumphs through betrayal (the mass murder of the Jedi knights) also have plenty of power.

Where the first completed trilogy of Star Wars movies were marked by youthful vigor and focus, I suspect this second threesome will in retrospect be seen as an older man's story. Between Christopher Lee's Dooku (gone too soon, alas) and the enjoyable mano-a-mano twixt Yoda and Emperor Palpatine in the empty Senate stadium, some of the biggest movie fight scenes focus on sprightly geezers as opposed to attractive 70's coiffed actors, while the story essentially details the destruction of Anakin's childhood innocence. (It's not irrelevant to note that Yoda, the wisest of the wise, has possessed an element of kid-ness from the very first moment we met him.) After all the understandable reaction against the excessive kid-flick elements in Phantom Menace, turns out that Lucas was leading us into a place where that one severed limb in New Hope's cantina was only a flesh wound . . .
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Saturday, September 03, 2005
      ( 9/03/2005 07:38:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"IT'S THAT SMELL AGAIN!" – Reading about the film on kiddie.matinee.com, a ginchy website devoted to the Golden Age of Children’s Cinema, I learned this week that there is more than one version of Barry Mahon's Santa And the Ice Cream Bunny. In some parts of the country, apparently, the two-in-one movie was shown with a different Mahon short subject in its chewy center. In place of Thumbelina was the busy exploitation director's Pirate's World production of Jack And the Beanstalk (1970).

So let's take a quick look at that one, okay? Just so we can have the full Ice Cream Bunny Experience. . .

Unlike his take on Hans Christian Anderson, Mahon's Jack doesn't open and close with an ad for Pirate's World: it begins on its story, though the viewer might immediately assume otherwise since the characters we see appear to be modern day 70's Americans in an ordinary tract house, dressed in godawful poly clothing. Hero Jack (Mitchell Poulos, looking like he'll someday grow up to be bass player for the Knack), for instance, wears a polyester shirt with a big-assed collar. We plunge into an exposition-heavy dialog between Jack, sister Rosemary and his depressed affect mother ("Is it true that we had a hen that lays golden eggs and a harp that would play beautiful tunes by itself?" Jack asks – as if he'd never heard the facts before) and learn that the family is living in poverty because their money-making goods had been stolen from 'em years ago. Sister Rosemary still has memories of the good ol' days, though, when she would sit in the house and count the golden eggs laid by their mechanical hen (very Scrooge McDuck-like, no?) Both hen and harp were inventions of Jack & Rosemary's late father, but nobody has been able to duplicate his marvelous inventions.

Though Jack and his family are poor, their home doesn't look that bad – a little light on furniture and knickknacks, but it's comfy and the window looks out onto a beautiful green painted backdrop of the hilly countryside. Jack, too, seems to be pretty happy-go-lucky: he sings a song by the fireplace which asks, "What's the use of being sad?/It won't help you or me!" and we have to admit that the guy has a point. In any event, mom sends him to the village to sell the family cow, and before he gets there, we jump ahead to meet Honest John, a cow salesman who (satire alert!) talks like a used car salesman. When one of the villagers (wearing – my hand to God – checked flair trousers!) storms up to HJ to complain about the fallow cow he's been sold, the con man answers, "How would I know the cow would stop giving milk after the 5,000 mile guarantee ran out?" Mahon regularly returns to Honest John for more of this comedy gold. After he swindles Jack by buying the cow for a handful of magic beans, he later changes his occupation to singin' magic bean salesman ("Honest John, yes, that's my name/Magic beans, that's my game!") after word of Jack's unexpected good fortune hits the village – and even later has a soliloquy where he complains how he has been "cheated" out of the riches that Jack had garnered from his magic beanstalk. But for all his time-filling posturing, he doesn't really do much.

No, the story is Jack's who, true to the original fairy tale, climbs a fantastically towering magic beanstalk that has instantly (and conveniently) right grown outside the set's one window after mom disgustedly tosses 'em out of the house. As he ascends the giant beanstalk, using green rope loops that fortunately are attached to the stalk for footing, Jack stops partway to take a look around at the unseen vistas beneath him – which is something he'll do every time he climbs up or down the beanstalk, even when he's being pursued by a pissed-off giant. The stalk takes our hero up to a land in the clouds, which are solid enough to walk on, though apparently kinda squishy since Jack starts bouncily striding as he proceeds toward a painted castle in the distance. Said castle is, of course, home to a giant – the same thief who stole the family hen and harp, lo those many years ago, though, considering his size, we have to wonder how he was about to sneak about and get away without being seen.

The giant is a burly sort with a faint Southern accent, married to a giantess wife who mainly exists in the movie to bring him his supper and bicker with him. Each of the three scenes featuring the creature revolve around his eating something icky ("There's nuthin' like a good meal of creepy-crawlies to make a man feel good!") and his wife showing disgust at his dining habits. After watching this and Thumbelina, I'm starting to think that Mahon had Women Issues.

Our hero Jack sneaks into the castle, holding up in the same type of closet that Jamie Lee Curtis used to hide in Halloween (only here, of course, the closet's folding doors are mounted into castle walls), as the Giant faintly sings abut smelling the blood of an English-mun. He sings a variation on this tune (composed by George Linsenmann and Ralph Falco, who did all the numbers in this flick) every time Jack sneaks into the castle, but the song never gets any better. Jack steals the golden egg-laying hen – which appears to be made of papier maché and painted gold – and returns it to his family. You'd think the family's financial troubles'd be over, but they ain't.

Turns out Jack's sis is engaged to a Hispanic-accented lothario who is pressuring her for a sizable dowry. Jack's brother-in-law to be has dreams of buying the local inn and becoming an innkeeper, but the mechanical hen doesn't lay eggs quickly enough to suit him. So Jack re-climbs the beanstalk to steal the bag of golden eggs in the giant's castle. After he returns with these, the couple-to-be purchase the inn, only to discover that a competitor across the street is pulling in all the customers with live entertainment. (Must be a Shakey's Pizza!) "We should've spent the money on a farm - or some business that's easy to operate," the idiot girl sez. They prepare to coerce patsy Jack into climbing up the stalk a third time, so he can retrieve the magical harp. But this time Jack has anticipated their request and gone up the beanstalk before they can ask.

What follows is inevitable: the giant, concerned about the sneak thieves roaming around his house, has set up a Wile E. Coyote-style booby trap over the harp that consists of a 500-lb. weight attached to the harp with a thick rope. Our observant hero (who'd need to have forgotten his tri-focals to've missed it) unties the rope from the harp and safely dashes away with the loot. The giant catches him in the act, but as he rises from his chair to pursue the boy, he bonks! his head into the hanging weight. Jack makes his way to the beanstalk before the giant rouses himself – which is fortunate because otherwise Mahon might've had to actually shoot a scene showing the giant running, and Lord knows we don't want this thing to be too exciting – and returns to Earth where a wedding party is taking place. Jack chops down the stalk while the giant is still hangin' on it and taking a look around, then he joins the wedding party to sing a song about happy endings. "Wasn't it worth waiting for?" he rhetorically asks the audience. (Dumb question, Barry.) To show off his compassionate conservative side, he tells the wedding party that, "I feel sorry for Mrs. Giant; she wasn't so bad! She just got mixed up with the wrong kind of man!" Oh, and like your sister didn't?

Of the two inner movies, Jack arguably edges out Thumbelina as the more entertaining entry – though, admittedly, this is a bit like debating whether a boot or a bat to the crotch is the less painful experience – if only because its non-stop anachronisms are so much fun to parse. I really have to wonder about those children whose parents actually dropped 'em off for weekend matinees of this stuff, though: what did these kids grow up to be? Spoiled whiney brides? Use car salesmen? Worm eaters? If they grew into average ordinary folk, than I've gotta wonder about all these adults who spend so much worrying about kids' entertainment. As a grown-up viewer, I'm still feeling stunned from watching Jack in the Beanstalk; perhaps kids' psyches are more resilient than we give 'em credit for. . .
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Friday, September 02, 2005
      ( 9/02/2005 09:02:00 PM ) Bill S.  

NO MORE ROLLIN' AND TUMBLIN' – Nik Durga has a good appreciation for bluesman R.L. Burnside, who passed away at the age of 78 Thursday in a Memphis hospital. The singer was probably best known outside bluesfan circles for a blues/electronica track, "It's Bad You Know" (from Come On In), which was used to strong effect in an episode of The Sopranos. His signature sound was often sparer and darker, but even a ton's worth of remixery couldn't bury the essence of the man – which was raw and honest in the best country blues manner. I first noticed R.L's music on "The Delta Doctor" blues show on WGLT, our local NPR station. Deejay Frank Black played a lot of the remixed tracks from Come On In, and it encouraged me to seek out several of Burnside's Fat Possum CDs. I was never disappointed in any of 'em. One of his more recent albums (and a personal fave) was entitled Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down. Hopefully, the man now is. . .
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      ( 9/02/2005 07:14:00 AM ) Bill S.  

WRAP IT UP, I'LL TAKE IT – Savannah Cat gets all tangled up in green & red. . .

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Thursday, September 01, 2005
      ( 9/01/2005 02:41:00 PM ) Bill S.  

WALKIN' TO NEW ORLEANS – With so much chaos surrounding the evacuation of New Orleans, fans of the city's music have started wondering about the many singers and musicians who've made that city their home. I received an email from blues deejay Frank Black this afternoon with worrisome news about one of the city's biggest rock-'n'-roll legends, Antoine "Fats" Domino. Per Frank's email, the 76-year-old musician lives with his wife, Rosemary, and daughter in a three-story pink-roofed house in New Orleans' 9th ward, which is now under water. On Monday afternoon, Domino reportedly told his manager that he would "ride out the storm" at home. At this writing, the whereabouts of Domino and his family are unknown.


UPDATE: About four hours after the abovewritten post, Cap'n Spaulding directed me to this Fox News feature which indicates that Domino (along with another city native and classic R & B great, Irma "Time Is On My Side" Thomas) is no longer missing. Good to know.
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      ( 9/01/2005 11:46:00 AM ) Bill S.  

WELL, I WAS AN ENGLISH MAJOR – Haven't played with one of these Quizilla dealies in a while, so let's see what kinda Indy Kid I am:

You're an Indie Pop Kid. You like songs about
relationships and the prettiness of nature.
You're sentimental, but not certainly not emo.
Oh, and if you aren't an English Major, you
should be.

You Know Yer Indie. Let's Sub-Categorize.
brought to you by Quizilla
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      ( 9/01/2005 11:34:00 AM ) Bill S.  

WHERE MY MIND SOMETIMES WANDERS AT LUNCHTIME – Back in the days when X-Files was still riding high and it was still considered okay to fantasize about monolithic government conspiracies ('coz the presidency was in the hands of the Democrats at the time, don't ya know), the Federal Emergency Management Agency played a role in the feature film X-Files: Fight the Future as one arm of the shadow government conspiracy that was either in league with and/or combating a sinister alien invasion. In '98, F.E.M.A. was so concerned about the p.r. issues arising from this film that they apparently prepared a Public Affairs Guidance document for answering questions that might arise from the movie basically saying that, contrary to what the movie asserts, the agency does not have the power to declare martial law and give us over to the our new E.T. overlords. But per this Independent story from 2004, X-scribe Chris Carter's conspiracy theory wouldn't fly these days since our present Chief Exec (no conspiracy theories now, folks – he's Republican!) pretty much disemboweled the agency. . .
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      ( 9/01/2005 07:24:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"JUST BECAUSE MY COLOR'S SHADY. . ." – Lookin' back once more at my music list from 1968, I keep honing in on a bolded item quite a bit different from the other big pop hits of the day: #86 – the Mills Brothers' "Cab Driver."

Though the era is generally characterized as a peak period for rock 'n' roll, you still saw a certain amount of this in the 60's: an earlier generation's hitmakers (see also: Louis Armstrong & Old Blue Eyes) periodically popping up on the charts, like the last grasp of our parents' hold on pop radio. As a teenager, I wasn't much interested in this music: I'd grown up on my father playing Sinatra and the like – and they'd pretty much been relegated to the category of Easy Listening/MOR in my mind. Old Fart's Music: I knew it didn't have much to say to me.

I was wrong, of course, but considering the way so many of these singers and musicians were being packaged and produced back then, it's understandable. I mean: Louis Armstrong's "What A Wonderful World" may be one of the man's biggest sellers – knocking the Beatles off the chart in its day – but it's weakly sentimental tea compared to the dynamic jazz and rhythm-y blues that the man invented in the 30's and 40's. Same goes for the Mills Brothers: their '68 hit "Cab Driver" is a smoothly laid back slice of pop vocal harmonizing honed from four decades of singing together as a vocal group, but there's also an air of quaintness about it that keeps it from being anything more than a Really Likable Track. Listening to the Bros.' early work is a much more energizing experience.

For this, let's look to the Sony collection, Four Boys And A Guitar: The Essential Mills Brothers. (For the record, the potentially racist CD title actually refers to the name that the Bros. first went by when the first started out.) Released in the mid-nineties as part of the label's "Art Deco Series," the 18-track disc looks to the quartet's earliest recordings from 1931-33 for its material – a selection that's just plain wonderful. The early Mills Brothers were jazz vocalists supreme, and in their best early tracks they typically didn't bother with any instrumentation beyond John Mills Jr.'s guitar. Instead, John bopped the basslines (you can hear the birth of doo-wop in these cuts) while brothers Herbert and Harry impersonated muted horns over lead tenor Donald's vocals. Group-fostered legend has it that the foursome originally played instrumentation with kazoos, but when they forgot them for a performance they decided to just make the sounds with their own mouths and, happily, preferred the results. True or not, makes for great pop history.

The Mills Brothers' repertoire in that era was divided between vocal and instrumental jazz: "St. Louis Blues" and "Bugle Call Rag" both appear on this collection, along with sprightly nonsense numbers like "Diga Diga Doo" (done with Duke Ellington's band). They were meant to be dance songs, and even the slow cuts ("Dirt Dishing Daisy," Hoagy Carmichael's "Rockin' Chair," "Sleepy Head") have a sweetly loping rhythm to 'em. Four Boys also contains a trio of enjoyable vocal collaborations – two with Bing Crosby ("Dinah," the borderline condescending "Shine") and one with Cab Calloway ("The New Low Down.") In each track you can hear the quartet holding back to let the solo vocalist shine, but once they step up, they take their place right alongside 'em: no mean feat when you contrast the foursome's low-key vocal style against a dynamic belter like Calloway.

The group underwent a major change in 1936 when guitarist John Jr. died and was replaced by John Sr. As their early scat style grew less fashionable, the quartet refashioned themselves as a suave pop vocal group. They had some big hits in the forties ("Paper Doll" most notably), but none of it matches the swinging energy of Four Boys And A Guitar asking us "How'm I Doing?" It's a familiar pop music tale: inventive and dynamic young popsters start out strong and grow more professional, losing some of their spark along the way. The Mills Bros. of "Paper Doll" and beyond are smooth to the Nth degree – their harmonies yield plenty of pleasure to those (like me) attuned to the sound – but the energy and invigorating vocal gimmickry which make the early tracks so much fun are in short supply. The Four Boys And A Guitar had clearly become Men – more's the pity. . .

By the time the quartet had its '68 hit, they were primarily remembered for their forties sound. The early funky jazz stylizations were so out of radio fashion that the only way most Baby Boomers knew anything like 'em was from Betty Boop cartoons that we'd watched as kids (two songs on this collection, "How'm I Doing?" and "I Heard," were also sung by the Boopster on a pair of Fleischer 'toons). It's no wonder that I pooh-poohed the Mills Men when they had their final big chart-climber. I didn't know, back then, all that the group could really do. . .
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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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