Pop Culture Gadabout
Monday, November 07, 2005
      ( 11/07/2005 09:52:00 AM ) Bill S.  

WING-LESS – West Wing's much-ballyhooed "live debate" ep aired last night, and – while you just know that the show's overseers were hoping viewers'd come away going, "Wow, why can't real political debates be like that?" – the actual dramatic results were less-than-riveting. For those not following the show at this stage of the game, "The Debate" centered around two presidential candidates, mildly liberal Democrat Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) and mildly moderate Republican Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda), as they stand before the cameras in their only scheduled televised debate. Both characters have proven over the past Wing season to be commanding figures – Smits and Alda are old hands at winning over audience good will – but neither of these teevee pros could make much of the flat drama offered on-screen.

At its best, West Wing makes political debate palatable by keeping it in the context of its characters’ lives. We care, for example, about Toby Ziegler's passionate animosity toward clandestine military ops because 1.) we know he's at heart a face-to-face confrontational kinda guy and 2.) we know it's gonna ruin his career sooner or later. Last week's ep, where we saw the two candidates dance around the abortion campaign issue, was similarly fascinating for the way it showed both men (who essentially stood on the same side of the issue) accept or reject political tactics and arguments. Each move they made told us more about what they were as political people. (One of the show's great themes is the constant conflict between political belief and political expediency.) No such luck with the debate hour, though, which largely consisted of the two faux candidates shouting and lobbing predictable talking points at each other.

While I do admit that I'd love to see real-life candidates drop the restrictive rules of debate like they do on Wing - it'd be revelatory for voters to see that much spontaneity from actual candidates – but since we've spent so much teevee time with the Wingers behind the scenes already, we have a pretty strong hand on both Santos and Vinick. (Would like to learn more about some of the latter's crew – like Patricia Richardson's no-nonsense campaign manager – but then the Dems have a leg up on this since we already know about Bradley Whitford's Josh from years of seeing him act roguishly in the White House.) In the end, "The Debate" wound up telling us less about the series' candidates than we already knew. Chalk this 'un up as a noble failure – if arguably more watchable than Aaron Sorkin's notorious dashed-off post-9/11 talkathon . . .
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Saturday, November 05, 2005
      ( 11/05/2005 03:00:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"YOU MAY THINK IT'S STUPID, BUT I THINK IT'S ART!" – Didn't take the time to add my own categories to the Favorite Songs meme last week. But since stalwarts like Johnny B., Sean Collins and Ben Varkentine have on their fine/fine/superfine versions of the meme, I just hadda go back and put some in. And so:
  • Favorite Alt-Country Song: "Victoria" by the Old 97's

    Rhett Miller loves playing the overly self-aware cad, and this song, where he meets his match in an equally twisted femme ("She started out on percodan and ended up with me") is one of his catchiest moments.

  • Favorite Cramps Song: "Surfing Bird"

    Wherein our band of merry psychobillies takes this classic slab of Stoopid Surf Rock and drives it into utter psonic psychosis with the most deranged, willfully inept extended Poison Ivy guitar freak-out goin' – definitely the track that separates the dabblers from the true believers.

  • Favorite Instrumental (Rock): "Rebel-Rouser" by Duane Eddy

    Some days I think it should be a mandatory test of American citizenship as to whether you're capable of diggin' Duane Eddy.

  • Favorite Kinks Song: "Sunny Afternoon"

    Definitely a tough 'un to whittle down for this Kinksophile, but the second I hear that great descending bassline, I'm lost.

  • Favorite Nick Lowe Song: "Cruel to Be Kind"

    If you're gonna do Elvis Costello, then you've also gotta go Lowe.

  • Favorite One-Hit Wonder: "96 Tears" by ? and the Mysterians

    Tex-Mex sounds from the northern Midwest. Is this a great country or what?

  • Favorite Post-Punk Song: "Love Will Tear Us Apart" by Joy Division

    Don't have much use for most of Ian Curtis' moaning mopiness, but this is a gloomy pop wonder – and a hint of the bigger things his band would go onto as New Order.

  • Favorite Ramones Song: "Rockaway Beach"

    "Sun is out, and I want some . . ." A quintessential summer rock track.

  • Favorite Otis Redding Song: "Try A Little Tenderness"

    Though a host of vanilla imitators have worked hard to trash his legacy, this remains the real deal. From one of the Great Soul Albums of All Time, Dictionary of Soul.

  • Favorite Roxy Music Song: "Street Life"

    I've raved about this song before, and I haven't lost any affection for it since.

  • Favorite Steely Dan Song: "Dirty Work"

    From the non-group's first elpee, a track not sung by Donald Fagin – I don't care what devotees say, I liked David Palmer's choirboy vocals in the Dan. They provided a great counterweight for Fagin's sardonic lyrics and sounded purty besides. But if I must pick a Fagin-voiced song to establish my Dan cred, let it be "Show Biz Kids."

  • Favorite Frank Zappa Song: "Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance"

    Though Zappa made the instrumental version of this track part of live shows for decades (perhaps feeling that it's hippie pastiche lyrics had passed their time), I prefer the sarcastically vocalized track – as presented in all its glory as part of We're Only in It for The Money's cycle of songs.
Still, no Abba on the list, but I suspect I've flogged this meme to death by now, so let's just call it quits with an even dozen, okay?
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      ( 11/05/2005 07:21:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"EVERYBODY'S SORRY FOR SOMETHIN'" – Well, the premiere ep of Showtime's new anthology series, Masters of Horror, finally made it to Video on Demand late this week, and if Don Coscarelli's "Incident On And Off A Mountain Road" is typical, then screw all those major network namby-pambies – this is where the True Teevee Horror'll be festering!

Adapted from a typically hard-nosed Joe L. Lansdale short story, "Incident" tells the tale of Ellen (Bree Turner), a young woman stranded on a mountain that is miles from civilization ("No gas or services 75 miles" a sign tells us), pursued by a towering murderous lunatic called Moonface (Ethan Embry) who lives in a cabin bedecked with the eyeless corpses of his victims. (Yup, we get to see how these bodies are made sightless.) In a series of flashbacks, we learn that Ellen has been in a relationship with a "survivalist whack job" named Bruce (John De Santis), who has given her the wherewithal to fight back against Moonface. The brutal back-and-forth between the two, played out in the woods and in the madman's cabin, is intensely played and captures much of the Texas horror writer's rigor. Though most viewers'll see the story's ending coming long before Coscarelli delivers it, getting there is definitely worth the time. And as an added bonus to Phantasm phans (I'm one of 'em), Coscarelli casts Angus Scrimm (the menacing Tall Man from those movies) as Buddy, the dangerously loquacious Moonface captive.

This is hard R-rated fare, I should point out. The debut includes a sexual assault scene that serves a similar function as the assault against the Bride in the opening half hour of Kill Bill (that is, it wakes the heroine to satisfactorily strike back against her assailant), and though the story is primarily filmed at night and in a dim basement, there's some effectively deployed grue (as well as one truly disturbing eyeball popping sound effect). Like I say, it's not the show for a viewer whose idea of primetime scares is Surface.

The basic idea behind Masters – of giving directors like Coscarelli who are known for horrorwork (among the others slated for this season: Dario Argento, Joe Dante, Stuart Gordon, Tobe Hooper and John McNaughton) an hour of cable series time to adapt a scary story – has been promising from the get-go. (I'm especially curious as to how Argento will handle the adaptation of Bruce Jones & Bernie Wrightson's obsessive horror romance, "Jennifer.") Comin' off of Coscarelli & Lansdale's mountain road, I'm feeling even more optimistic about this series. Some day Showtime, I may manage to forgive you for canceling Dead Like Me. . .

UPDATE: Argento's version of "Jennifer" is currently available through Showtime's Video on Demand option, though the description it is presently under is for Stuart Gordon's adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story(!) While actor Steven Weber's script doesn't fully solve the problems of stretching a short claustrophobic horror comic into a one-hour telemovie, it does effectively portray its policeman protagonist's deterioration as he falls further and further in thrall with the grotesque-but-voluptuous anti-heroine (played under heavy Nicotero/Berger FX makeup by Carrie Anne Fleming). Weber is truly fine as the doomed hero, though many of the secondary actors are so flat, they seem like they've walked in from another lower-budgeted movie. The story's icky erotic scenes are done with director Argento's customary flair, however, so the results are definitely worth checking out . . .
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Friday, November 04, 2005
      ( 11/04/2005 03:27:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"I'M READY FOR MY CLOSEUP . . ." – And now, for this weekend's Pet Pic, a big ol' shot of apple-headed Xander Cat:

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

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      ( 11/04/2005 03:02:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"LISTENING TOO LONG TO ONE SONG" – Been nurturing a major crush on the New Pornographers' Twin Cinemas (Matador) for some time now. The third release by this on again/off again gang of artfully poppish Canadians, the disc's a thickly packed collection of pop-rock pleasures (as dense in its own particular sound as the Stones' Exiles on Main Street was in its) and barely made out elliptical lyrics. While not as spritely as the band's earlier releases (Mass Romantic and Electric Version), it's arguably Carl Newman and Company's most consistent and accessible disc. In terms of the degree to which it takes what was formerly more conceptual and actually backs it up aurally, I'd compare it to Blondie's third, career-defining record Parallel Lines, it's that damn good.

Though officially led by keyboardist, vocalist and primary songwriter A.C. Newman, the New Pornographers are masters of a form of sonic democracy other groups can only dream of approximating. Hollies-indebted Newman and alt-country chanteuse Neko Case frequently swap primary vocal responsibilities (Is it right for me to say flat out that Case's Bloodshot country albums have done nuthin' for me?), while the gang of ten-plus players swap minor key riffs and smart harmonic hooks over Kurt Dahle's implacable drumming. Where so many attempts at group democracy (think back to Jefferson Airplane in its Volunteers era) sound like mush, these studio habitués realize that even faux democracy is hard work – while its rewards are plentiful.

Among the album's considerable peaks: "Bones of An Idol" (Neko sings a spooky pop tune about sifting thru "the bones of an idol" – is it a political rant or a comment about pop royalty? Who cares?); guitarist Dan Bejar's Byrds-ishly hooked "Jackie Dressed in Cobras;" "Sing Me Spanish Techno," which rides along the ground on a churning Bejar guitar riff 'til the chorus harmonies lift the song into the air; "These Are the Fables," with its sharply insistent group vocal insertions (a typical Pornographers ploy used to maximum effect here) and, my personal Pick to Click, "The Bleeding Heart Show," which morphs from a simple piano-based look-back-at-love pop-rock ballad into a transcendent African group chant (a move that brought back positive echoes of "Life in A Northern Town"). A stunning pop moment from a band that makes it all sound natural even as it works its ass off to achieve it. Obsessive craftwerk may be over-valued in pop circles, but when it's used as beautifully as this, I know I ain't gonna argue against it . . .
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Thursday, November 03, 2005
      ( 11/03/2005 05:45:00 AM ) Bill S.  

QUILTY UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT – A nice literary joke from last night's C.S.I.: New York case centering around a club where moneyed middle-aged predators hook up with knowing teenaged girls. Name of the club: Nabokov's.
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Tuesday, November 01, 2005
      ( 11/01/2005 07:36:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"MACHINE GUN GONNA DO FOR YOU, MACHINE GUN DO FOR ME" – There's left-over candy in the bowl by the door, Katrina and the Waves are on the Sony, so let's do some post-Halloween bullet-pointing:
  • It rained pretty heavily last night, which put a kibosh on the neighborhood trick-or-treaters. We only saw about a dozen this year, a pretty low turn-out. Thanks to the existence of two short-term Halloween specialty shops in the area, the costumes were largely indistinguishable. We counted three little kids in Scream costumes (a movie that I would've thought was too R-rated for these tykes to see – but maybe the young 'uns wanted to go dressed as their favorite Edvard Munch print?) Still, the uniformity was pretty depressing.

  • This got me thinkin' about my first good Halloween costume: a hand-made robot costume that my father put together with two boxes, some cardboard tubes and a bunch of silver paint. I loved that costume and was eager to put it on for Halloween, but, fortunately, it rained that Halloween night, too. To make it up to me, my parents took me around the Leonia, New Jersey, apartment complex the following afternoon, but most of the folks we visited had already given out their candy to older kids who had no qualms about getting their minimal costumes wet the night before. One guy even had the gall to give me an "I Like Ike" button (this would've been 1956), an outrage that doubtless soured me on Republican politics ever since.

  • Speakin' of politics and Halloween tricks, listening to new about new Supreme Court nominee "Scalito," it's pretty disheartening to hear the usual cultural conservatives crowing about the prospect of a thoroughly unbalanced Court. If anything drives home just how full of malarkey right wing condemnations of "activist judges" are it's the sound of a Grover Norqvist eagerly anticipating a court that'll finally rule the "right way." At which point it becomes clear that those dreaded "activist judges" are really only those who don't rule the way you want 'em to . . .

  • Turning back to make-believe horrors, I was hoping to be able to review the debut episode of Showtime's Masters of Horror (Don Coscarelli reunites with Joe L. Lansdale) for Halloween, but the show hasn't shown on Video-on-Demand yet. Spent our Monday evening watching the Medium marathon, a show that I've grown more fond of thanks to the appealingly specific relationship between Patricia Arquette's Allison Dubois and her hubby Jake Weber. Recorded two 60's era Italian horror flicks that showed up on TCM in the middle of the night: Horror Castle and Castle of the Living Dead, both featuring Christopher Lee. I vaguely remember seeing the latter on late night television decades ago, but the only image that sticks in my head is of Donald Sutherland in witch drag. (Admittedly, an unsettling thought, considering his role on the current Commander in Chief.) Will, of course, report on all of the above in the future.

  • As for the still-running crop of Big Net Dark 'N' Creepy Shows, I caught up on a couple of episodes of Supernatural over the weekend, and despite the presence of former X-scribes like John Shiban, it's easily the most disposable on my list. On Sunday night, they reran the "Hookman" episode (one I particularly wanted to see since its subject resonates so deeply into anyone who ever went camping as a kid) and found it particularly disappointing: one of those stories where you're two steps ahead of the writer all the way ("See how they're making it look like Dan Butler is responsible for the Hookman when it's obviously his daughter?") Perhaps if the show possessed more diverting series leads, it could distract us from the sleight-of-hand, but a month-and-a-half into the series, and our two hunky heroes have seemingly already settled into a rote rhythm. Pretty weak.

    Equally disappointing have been subsequent episodes of Threshold since its promising pilot: emphasizing the sci-fi procedural elements ahead of the truly unsettling stuff, not giving its cast much to do beyond occasionally chafing at the restrictions being imposed on 'em as draftees of an emergency government program. Don't know if we're gonna make it to the end of the season with this one. On the flip side, Invasion continues to be more engrossing than it deserves to be: the introduction of a sinister "support group" for survivors of the mysterious hurricane reminds me of the insertion of pop psych self help tropes in Phil Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake – and it still works.

  • Finished Neil Gaiman's American Gods recently: an entertaining read that I couldn't help feeling would've work even better as a Vertigo comic series. (If nuthin' else, the book's somewhat deflating finale could've been fun with the right artist pulling out all garish stops in rendering the Big Cast of Gods.) Still, Gaiman's take on the modern American Heartland, where most of the story is set, is lovingly and wittily done; it's clear he's learned about as much about the landscape as any mortal eye can gather.
More later.

Background Music for This Particular Round o' Bullet Pointing: The first Katrina and the Waves disc: this meeting of a great brassy female vocalist and the poppiest member of the Soft Boys is criminally underrated, in part due to the presence of their overplayed big hit, "Walking on Sunshine." Lots more great songs on this disc besides "Sunshine" - including the sublime "Going Down to Liverpool."
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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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