Man with Easter Cake

Tammy's a Gangsta

Melissa McCarthy's Tammy (2014) has finally made it down the pachinko machine of secondary distribution to land on HBO this month, readily available now to those who were too lazy or cheap to shell out for On-Demand fat jokes. In case Tammy doesn't ring a bell, it's that movie where McCarthy wears a greasy bag over her head and inelegantly slides across a countertop to rob a fast-food joint of some money and a few fried pies.

I try to see every film about the fast-food industry that I can.  It may not be a genre, per se, but it is as distinctly an "American" chronotope as a western saloon, a beach party weenie- roast, or a multi-vehicle freeway shoot-out.  After all, what could be more American than taking a simple human pleasure like eating and industrializing it into a vertically-integrated hellscape of killing, compositing, and freezing meats for commuters to cram down on their way to the hellscape of alienated labor?   Imagine an elderly Italian couple on the Mediterranean coast putting the finishing touches on their evening puttanesca.  Now imagine an Olive Garden. 

Your table HELL!
The fast-food industry is also an excellent barometer of America's changing economic and social structures.  As an educator and former "cook," I used to have an exercise where I would ask undergrads how many of them have "flipped burgers" at one point in their life.  Many years ago, about half of a typical undergrad class had experience on one side or another of a restaurant counter. Now I just get blank stares.  White kids sure as hell aren't doing this work anymore (despite GOP fantasies to the contrary)--unless of course they are teenage mothers in the rural midwest putting in a few hours each week at the Hardee's near their dying town's freeway exit.

Fast-food work is horrible, so I'm not surprised that few see it anymore as a decent "first-job" to save up for installing an awesome 8-track--cassette--CD--mp3--Spotify unit in the car. You will learn some brutal truths working fast-food.  As a 16 year-old, you might suspect you are horrendous to behold, but you'll only know for sure when your first boss, a 30-year-old pothead named Rocky, assigns you to work "behind the counter" (frying, cleaning, chopping, washing...essentially anything dirty and dangerous).  Meanwhile, those whom Rocky hopes he might lure into the backseat of his car will get counter duty (smiling, making change, running over to Rocky's apartment to score more weed, etc).  Weirdly, both pay the same shitty wage--only you are much more likely to DIE behind the counter (although, in fairness, Rocky is much more likely to impregnate the front of the counter squad). 

Your jalapeno poppers are HELL!
Avoid contact...period.
Recently, McDonalds has been under attack once again, this time for managers who have told employees to treat their burns with "condiments" rather than say, medicine. Veterans of this work know that every fast-food kitchen should have a burn-unit out back near the dumpster. You might think the only hazards are those deliciously charbroiling flames leaping from the grill, but in fact fast-food work is a third-degree obstacle course where all you win is the right to return the next day with all of your skin. Cleaning the grease-trap on the fryer is a good E-ticket to some welting, as is accidentally opening the steam-washer in mid-cycle.  And don't forget the chemical burns! Those grills don't get scrubbed with a little soap and water, compadre.  They are scoured with an industrial cleaner that will blind or de-flesh you on contact, despite the fact that this goo has been dyed pink or purple or yellow to make it look more innocuous and even "fun!"

But I digress.  We were talking about Tammy.  The movie is not as terrible as the reviews suggest.  From the cast, you would think it might be a comedy for the ages.  But do not be deceived.  Toni Collette and Allison Janney are both in the film, ostensibly, but are essentially used as props (as I recall, Collette has two scenes and remains mute in both).  Tammy is a white-trash Bildungsroman wherein McCarthy and Susan Sarandon, as grand-daughter and her grandmother Pearl, embark on a very minor road trip that allows McCarthy to find herself (and a Duplass brother to boot).  If Identity Thief made you chuckle, here too you will chuckle.

Tammy goin' all gangsta and shit. 
The robbery sequence, however, is somewhat jaw-dropping.  Given that McCarthy's shtick with the bag over her head constituted 80% of the marketing for this film, the following should not be a spoiler.  At one point in the story, Tammy needs to raise some quick cash, inspiring her to knock over a local burger joint (the same chain she used to work for, only in another town).  A virgin at armed robbery, Tammy tries to "psych" herself up before entering the restaurant. She has no gun, so she needs to project enough "attitude" to convince the employees that she is armed and dangerous. What would a middle-aged white housewife in Missouri do to take on this mantle of criminal invincibility?  Listen to Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise" while strutting around the parking lot, of course. 

As the last couple of elections demonstrate so vividly, the racial divide cultivated during Reconstruction between impoverished whites and any and all people of color remains a potent force in American politics.  But I'm not sure having Tammy "go gangsta" is really the answer to social, economic, and cultural reconciliation.  One might say it's just a "joke," but of course no joke is just a "joke."  From a comedy perspective, this brief bit allows McCarthy to do her patented physical comedy of the "big girl" dancing, prancing, and preening to a dope beat.  What is troubling, however, is the naturalized and totally unexamined invocation of rap as a signifier of criminality--Tammy can only do the crime if she can first do some time as a black teenager.  

This is even more odd considering the entire film takes place among white people in Missouri, Illinois, and Kentucky.  If the filmmakers wanted to engage in stereotypes of race, class, and criminality, why not have Tammy perform some tweeker courage to Judas Priest's "Breaking the Law," or maybe a little Kid Rock?  Given that the film opens with Tammy providing a spirited rendition of the Outfield's "I Don't Want to Lose Your Love Tonight," Priest and Rock seem more appropriate options.  

Perhaps because of the better verisimilitude, those options would not be as funny.  To do the unthinkable, Tammy must gather strength from a more potent stream of pure criminality--gangsta rap!  

As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I take a look at my life and realize there's nothin' left.

Cause I've been laughing and blasting so long,

That even my mama thinks that my mind is gone!

Like Coolio's "gangsta" protagonist, Tammy is also out of good options at this point in the film.  Out of money and facing even bigger troubles, she awkwardly relieves the greasy spoon of a few thousand dollars.  The politics of this are questionable, but given that comedy depends on incongruity, I guess you could let it slide (although it might be funnier to see McCarthy getting amped up by Adele or Meghan Trainor or someone else equally unlikely). 

Having a rich relative is very convenient. 
This moment of rather unconscious racism might pass unnoticed.  But then, in an odd twist, we meet Lenore (played by Kathy Bates) and her wife Suzanne (Sandra Oh).  As it turns out, this burned-out desperate family of drunks, delinquents, and felonious fast-food workers has an incredibly wealthy lesbian couple in the family tree.  Lenore and Suzanne, we discover, made it big in the organic pet food business, and now occupy a palatial country estate where they are about to host a gigantic 4th of July party for the region's most affluent and fashionable lesbians.

Lenore still has some street in her, however, so first she helps Tammy and Pearl torch the car used in the robbery.  There follows a weekend idyll at the country estate that allows both Tammy and Pearl to work out their issues and re-stabilize their lives.  

Now, I would suggest this is not an option available to the young man at the center of Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise."  In fact, this weird moment of explicit white privilege makes the entire robbery scene and Tammy's earlier hip-hop routine a little hard to stomach.  As is made clear by the close bond between Lenore, Pearl, and Tammy--no one is really in any actual trouble here.  Lenore is adamant that she and Suzanne had to fight hard for everything they have (even when being gay wasn't so popular, she notes), and in a decisive moment she lectures Tammy about the necessity of taking charge of one's life and doing the hard work it takes to succeed.  And yet, the utopian space of Lenore's estate ultimately stands as a powerful figure of a white safety-net.  Lenore demonstrates tough love--but clearly, if Tammy needs a loan to get through this rough patch, it's a good bet Lenore will come through with the check.  

Tammy isn't an evil movie by any means.  But it is weird that in the end, all of the economic distress experienced by Tammy--as well as her resulting brush with "urban" crime--is explained away through low self-esteem.  If only the kids in Boyz in the Hood had had a similar fairy godmother to let them chill for a weekend and get their shit together.  

Your Fantasies are My Fantasies

Somewhere in the bowels of the Mattel Corporation sits a disgruntled science-fiction writer. Frustrated over decades of rejected manuscripts, he now molds his most perverse ideas into those 11.5" plastic torsos that we know as Barbie.  As a synthetic female, Barbie has always been at the center of various second and third wave firestorms.  But in the 21st century, she aspires to be an ambassador of dystopic posthumanism.  A bad role model for little girls?  With the new generation of Barbies, we'll fondly remember the day when all anyone had to worry about was whether or not her plastic stilts would support her plastic lady humps. 

Case in point: Hello Barbie.  

In her new Big Data incarnation, Hello Barbie comes equipped with a microphone and wi-fi connection, allowing her to record the words (and thus fantasy play) of her owner and then upload this "data" into the Cloud.  Ostensibly, this storage of the child's speech allows the doll to craft an interactive repertoire of banter, thus "personalizing" the experience and essentially "imprinting" the doll on the owner's personality.  

Where to begin?

Most of the alarm sounded so far centers on "privacy" issues, but that's just a smokescreen for the more disturbing exchange at work here; namely, the use of childhood fantasy as a data set for tweaking a lifetime of future marketing. Even at their most despondent, Marx and Engels probably couldn't have foreseen a day when capitalism would expand its markets by reaching directly into the heads of little girls, extracting their private fantasy lives in order to better program the future parameters of fantasy itself.  

There is nothing data fascists hate more than the idea that a person--child, teen, or adult--might still possess a fortressed interiority that remains beyond the grasp of empirical quantification.  In this respect, Hello Barbie may be only the first in a series of devices designed to "trick" the user into confiding otherwise private marketing information (beyond the reams of material one already willingly surrenders through random encounters with "click-bait."

Hello Barbie is a brash intervention, to be sure, but not entirely unpredictable.  We long ago outsourced our fantasy lives to the cultural industries, so it is only appropriate that marketers in the service of cultural commodities would eventually try to map taste and desire in its most formative moments.  The Holy Grail would be an algorhithm that can predict a fetus' consumption patterns while still in the womb, allowing the infant to emerge into the world, not as a nascent subject struggling toward some approximation of selfhood, but as an evolving target triggering a preplanned sequence of marketing campaigns.  Timmy turns 3 today--initiate powder-blue-jumper subroutine 7-A.  

Mattel claims Hello Barbie will "imprint" on its child custodian to provide a uniquely interactive experience.  But we all know how computers and capitalism work. If Hello Barbie can upload your child's speech into the Cloud, it can also download directives straight from Mattel.  And if Mattel produces too many Nimbie the Blue Unicorn units, what is to stop Hello Barbie from prattling on endlessly about how much she'd like to have Nimbie the Blue Unicorn as her new special friend?  Nothing, that's what. When kids used to beg for things they saw on TV, one could at least try to distract them until their tiny addled minds landed somewhere else.  But what power will parents have once Hello Barbie spends every night on your kid's pillow, whispering sweet marketing nothings into her ear for eight hours straight?  
We agree on everything....EVERYTHING. 
The mercenary aspects of Hello Barbie are disturbing enough, but so too are the implications for adult psychical development.  As props for fantasy play, dolls have traditionally served as objects for rehearsing various identities and the mechanics of social interaction.  As thrift store hunters know well, many kids arrive at a moment when they decide Barbie must receive a new!  Here is a classic moment of old-style classic resistance with a progressive "R" as little Janie decides Malibu Barbie the surfer girl would look much better with a mullet.

But what hope for such interventions will there be once the child, through Hello Barbie's parrot-like imprinting, is basically involved in a conversation with her or himself?  More valuable would be a doll that listens to your fantasy life and then constantly argues with you about it.  So you want to be a princess, do you?  Yeah, well you and about a million other girls. Princesses are dumb and they make you be stupid. Why don't you think about becoming a neurosurgeon instead?

Things might turn out even worse, however. Imagine an entire generation of kids who, barely on this side of the Symbolic, are immediately taken hostage by a doll that simply echoes whatever desires and fantasies the child has cultivated up until the age of purchase. These kids will be doomed to become like those creepy twins who invent their own languages, dress in matching crinoline, and stand alone at the edge of the playground smiling at their own private plans to murder everyone.  

Believe it or not, there is an analog precedent for this mad scheme.  At some point in the 1960s, a "Miss Rosemary Rice" recorded "The Talking Record for Girls."   As the cover art suggests, the record "engages the child in conversation" by asking her various questions and --through the interactive miracle of pausing a few seconds-- gives the child a chance to respond (if you'd like to talk to this record, please click here).

As conversations go, the entire exchange remains rather benign. But more importantly, if Mom and Dad actually left the child alone, none of her answers were recorded or even overhead.  So, when Rosemary asks the child if she has any brothers or sisters, she can answer, "Yes, and I want them all dead," without attracting any unnecessary disciplinary or psychiatric intervention (I don't have a brother or sister, but I can imagine there is something in Piaget about wanting all your rivals for food, attention, and toys DEAD--we are talking about fantasy life, after all). 

Incredibly, Hello Barbie allows parents to sign up for a weekly email that allows them to download all of their child's conversations with the doll over the past seven days. Any stray moment of "abnormal" fantasy thus has the potential to trigger various interventions, protocols, and psychopharmacological regimens.  If your daughter repeatedly asks for protractors, compasses, and surgical knives so that she might perfectly bisect all the dolls she keeps in a pretend jail under her bed, you might have a problem.  But every little kid is going to say something at some point that will strike many as "disturbed."  Usually this form of play remains hidden and eventually evaporates in the move toward somewhat normative socialization.  But with Hello Barbie, no "abnormality" shall go uncatalogued.

Over at, an attempt has been made to calm the paranoid.

While it's true that Hello Barbie can record and transmit household conversations, the same could be said for nearly every smartphone, almost all newer televisions, and a number of other personal gadgets. Hello Barbie's interactivity may have alarmed some parents, but it is similar to voice recognition features included on many popular technological devices and by itself presents no more risk or exposure than an iPad or a smart TV. 

So, take heart, everything else in your home can listen to you and send data up into the cloud, so why should you care if your kid's Barbie can do so as well.  

Happily for those who hope to keep the data-miners at bay just outside their kid's skull, Mattel's scheme may face a court challenge.  All of these issues are best summarized in the video below, courtesy of Adult Swim, which it would behoove you to watch before it's too late. 

Physical Graffiti, Revisited.

There are some rock critics who slag off Physical Graffiti as not being Led Zeppelin's best work.  It's not as authentically blues-rocky as the first two records, they say, nor does it gesture toward the surprisingly pop impulses of the final record.  It's a double-album, thus opening the door for the easy critical bromide of "excess" (as if "excess" in Zeppelin was anything other than a virtue).  Some will even claim the freak-folk weirdness of Zeppelin 3 is the band's greatest achievement.

These critics are all wrong.

As any cisgendered teenage boy of 1975 could tell you, Physical Graffiti is the Alpha and Omega of Zeppelin-ness, the most loosely of the tight, the tightest of the loose.  It is the juggernaut of HARD ROCK against which all subsequent posers have breached their balsa-wood multi-layered guitar preciousness for the past forty (gulp!) years.

You are free to disagree with me.  In fact I hope you do.  One of the most ridiculous tasks of "rock criticism" is to rank best and worst in an art form that is so thoroughly imbricated in the neurological development of adolescence.  What music was most important to you when you first realized you might one day actually touch a girl?  Drive a car?  Get out of school and live on your own?  Congratulations, that music still probably ranks among your "greatest hits," that secret Spotify playlist of regressive shame that you go to when the more tasteful stuff reviewed on All Things Considered doesn't float your boat.

With Physical Graffiti recently remastered for a 40th anniversary edition, I decided to do something I probably haven't done since 1978--put on a pair of headphones and listen to this monster straight-thru from A to Z.  Here is my report.  (Note: If you don't already really, really love Physical Graffiti, the below will probably bore you.  Also, if you have a low tolerance for men singing about their cocks and where they would like to put them, the below may also be somewhat off-putting).

Custard Pie
I'm pretty sure most 13-year-old boys in 1975 figured out fairly quickly this was a song about vaginas, but given that the vagina itself was so unlikely and terrifying a reality to contemplate, most concentrated on the song's elemental presentation of all that was to follow: a bass, clavichord, guitar (with minimal overdubbing) and yowl beating you over the head until a more primitive, lizard-brain response took over.  Not the best song on the record, by far, but in some ways the most emblematic of the record's relentlessly monochromatic texture.

The Rover
A hard rocker that throws in just enough minor chord changes to make you think something thematically important might be afoot.  Still obsessed with that galloping bass transition John Paul Jones makes in the wake of Jimmy Page's decaying chords.

In My Time of Dying
"In my Time of Dying" as T-Shirt
Adult me can't really remember if teenage me had the necessary musical background to recognize this as a straight-out blues rip-off turned up to eleven (both in volume and minutes).  All I do remember is thinking how easy it would be to blow-out your speakers and ear-drums turning up the middle 6 minutes beyond the safe parameters of sonic legibility.  Hearing it now, the song has completely lost any pseudo-mystical sheen it had in 1975.  It is what it is: 3 or 4 basic parts repeated over and over again until everyone is too tired to go on.  Mostly, it's an opportunity for John Bonham fetishists to hear a perfectly-miked snare drum beaten to a pulp atop his still uncanny kick-drum shuffling.  No offense to Page or Plant, but a great feature on the Deluxe edition would be a bass and drums only mix of this track.

This track is also important, I think, in giving precise definition to the loose terminology of "rockin' out."  This term is applied liberally to all kinds of music that really hasn't earned this designation.  "In My Time of Dying," however, is perhaps the locus classicus of "rockin' out."  Four musicians who have an almost telepathic feel for chord and tempo transitions, just grinding it out for as long as they are having fun doing so.  What many a garage band has imagined they sound like, even as they do not.

House of the Holy
It's that song that should be on the other record, but it's on this one.  Did they release a single from this record?  I bet it was this one.  Still raw, but with a hook that might have gotten it somewhere on the charts.  Who knows?  The Top 40 is for wusses, man.

Trampled Under Foot
Want to have some fun?  Play this song during the big ape fight in Stanley Kubrick's 2001.  On an album that has already pledged itself to propulsive bashing in the key of Z, this track takes that already minimal formula and somehow makes it even more minimal.  If you could transport a guitar and amp back in time to the caves of Cro-magnon, France (with attending amplification), this is probably what you would get.

Zeppelin was a great rock band, but they were also saavvy marketers.  After the success of "Stairway to Heaven," each album required another "serious" piece of music to appease those who wanted to forge a link between Zeppelin and the era's prog rock scene.  It's the one song on the album that has been played to death, to the point that it's tempting to skip it (calculate, if you will, how many minutes of your life you have already spent listening to that thudding ascending riff that opens the track).  But that's not Kashmir's fault.  It's still a great track, as this recent viral video of xylophone kids rediscovering its vague menace demonstrates.

In the Light
For me, this was always the one blemish on an otherwise perfect elpee.  The swirling "dreamweaver" synths have not aged well, and the riff is basically Sabbath 101.  If you need a stronger structural place holder for this track, insert "No Quarter" from Houses of the Holy instead.

The folky throwback to Zeps 3 and 4.  I guess even he who wields the "Hammer of the Gods" still feels the need for acoustic cred.

Down by the Seaside
A pop song!  By Led Zeppelin!  In 1975, I'm pretty sure I thought this was just a momentary change of pace to prepare for the aneurysms of side four.   But now I get the joke (and it's a much better musical joke than the rather embarrassing "Hot Dog" from In Through the Out Door).

Ten Years Gone
Suddenly I'm sad.  Thirteen years old and full of feelings I don't understand.  Like most Zeppelin songs that weren't about fucking, I'm not entirely sure what this song is about.  Except that it's sad.

Night Flight
Another contender for a single--It's nice and all that, but really just a warm-up for the spike-to-the-brain that is....

The Wanton Song
Has any other song introduced more teenagers to the absolutely brutal power of the amplified riff?  You could make a case for "Smoke on the Water," I guess, but that Deep Purple sludgefest is simply no match for the staccato economy of Wanton.  The famous breaks on the 4 showcasing Bonham's snare are perhaps the apotheosis of concussive rock.  Just relentless.  Listening to it forty years later, it still makes me want to kick over trash cans as I walk down the street.  Why?  I don't know.  Sound waves converted into pure amygdala secretions, I guess.

Boogie with Stu
Yeah, it's probably filler.  But so what?  The album could have ended with The Wanton Song and still have ranked among the all time greats.  Anything else the Zepp deigns to give you at this point is just icing on the cake, so quit complaining.

Black Country Woman
Another song I didn't really understand as a teenager.  Hearing it now, I'm wondering if Jimmy Page was thinking of Physical Graffiti as the band's Exile on Main Street.  A short visit by the acoustic blues that references the Stones just long enough to make the listener realize that, at this particular juncture, he does not want to be listening to the Stones.

Sick Again
Kashmir became the fetish object.  The Wanton Song is probably the fan favorite.  But if I had to pick one song that captured the essence of Led Zeppelin, it would be the side four closer Sick Again.  It's sexual politics are horrible (from what I can tell, the song is an ode to groupie jailbait), and yet crucial to  the track's sloppy sleaze. No song better captures the feel of the "loosely tight" sound so often attributed to the band.  Utterly shambolic, and yet somehow perfectly precise in staging its thunderous racket. Listening to this track (and the whole album), the Zeppelin sound seems like it would be easy to replicate--and yet "Sick Again" also underscores why such imitation is impossible.  It's like trying to reproduce the sound of drunken train grinding to a halt in the middle of a swamp, on the verge of crashing, and yet somehow ending up in the station still upright and on the tracks.

Existential Woodchucks

"When I see the blind and wretched state of woodchucks, when I survey the whole universe in its deadness, and each chuck left to himself with no light, as though lost in this corner of the universe without knowing who put him there, what he has to do, or what will become of him when he dies, incapable of knowing anything, I am moved to terror, like a woodchuck transported in his sleep to some terrifying desert island, who wakes up quite lost, with no means of escape. Then I marvel that so wretched a state does not drive chucks to despair."  Blaise Pascal
"There is much in being that woodchucks cannot master. There is but little that comes to be known. What is known remains inexact, what is mastered insecure."                                                Martin Heidegger
“Thus it amounts to the same thing whether one gets drunk alone or is a leader of nations.” Jean-Paul Sartre
“I can't go on, I'll go on.” Samuel Beckett

Some Stuff I Saw Recently on British Television

Recent circumstances have conspired to allow for an unexpected and prolonged review of British television.  The following addresses some of the current highlights now screening in the UK.  British citizens might want to skip this post as they may well find it highly a). boring in its obviousness or b). offensive in its ignorance of local custom.

Many in America only know British TV through the feeble gatekeepers that are BBC-America, a network that seems to subsist entirely on Top Gear, Dr. Who, and the Graham Norton Show.  Others only know the Edwardian porn that ends up on PBS.  A few more Anglophiles may know such workhorses as EastEnders and Coronation Street (both still going strong--on one of these two, a tram or a pram either just crashed or blew up or something, so if you haven't tuned in for awhile you might want to check and see what's up). 

These are all fine programs, but they have little to do with the truly gobsmacking schlock that British TV produces so effortlessly.  There is a lot of crap on American TV, obviously, but none of the U.S. shows have the same feel for the medium as do the British series.  Yes, various branches of the BBC, ITV, and other venues put much time and attention into high quality drama, but they also generate hours of chatty and delightfully disposable television, series that are more about amiably killing a little time than demanding riveted attention or cultish adoration.  It's a bit of relief, quite frankly.  

Keep in mind that what the British allow Americans to see on Tv is like what the Columbians allow Americans to snort in cocaine--a fine product cut many times over by horse tranquilizers and talcum powder.  In fact, there are some programs on British television that might very well kill the unsuspecting American viewer, especially if s/he is expecting something along the lines of Downton Abbey.

I saw this on Channel 4. Now you've seen it too.
Case in point--Channel 4's Embarrassing Bodies: Live from the Clinic.  Here distressed citizens can Skype their embarrassing bits live on national television so that two physicians (at least they claim to be physicians) can give them a quick diagnosis and a possible program of treatment.  "How bad can that be?" wonder those who have had the FCC sheltering their sensibilities for 80 years.  "It's just people asking about nose jobs or diet regimens, right?"  I have just two words to disabuse you of that notion: anal fistula.  Yes, on British television, it is absolutely okay to broadcast--live and in HD--an oozing, weeping, bloody anal fistula. This "embarrassment" is such a crowd-pleaser in fact, that I saw two such fistulas in back-to-back episodes.  

You might be asking why any sane person would unveil a bloody anal fistula on television.  That's the genius of Embarrassing Bodies--it walks the narrow line dividing "freak show" and "public health campaign."  In other words, it's educational!  And as the show repeatedly reminds the viewer, "There's no shame, we're all the same."  It's an admirable sentiment.  Still, it's a bit startling to see a 17-year-old girl reveal the infected ingrown hairs on her labia, only to have one of the physicians comment, "Well I can see you've begun your menses, so we'll leave it there, shall we?" Twenty years ago, an aficionado of teen menses porn had to know a guy who knew a guy who knew about a one-armed man in a certain alley in Kyoto where such a sight might be arranged for a few thousand dollars.  Now it's on the TV!

Other segments are more traditionally educational though no less naughty, as when the lady doctor on the show did a taped segment interviewing some teenage lads about the hazards of coitus interruptus (that hazard would be a baby, btw).  To make her point, the physician invited one of the boys to retire to another room for a quick wank, instructing him to spray his ejaculate (as best he could) in equal spurts across three specimen cups.  Why?  She wanted to demonstrate to the boys that the first spurt not only contains the most sperm, but also the most aggressive and determined of the ovum-busters.  Lesson learned for the lads--pulling out is not a plan. 

Slightly less astounding but no less entertaining is a panel show called Celebrity Juice.  This has been on since 2008, apparently, but this was the first I had seen of it.  Celebrity Juice is a particularly raunchy example of a staple in British television--the panel/chat/gameshow.  This format is on every channel in the U.K, and consists of a loquacious host with a colorful personality asking questions or assigning tasks to a couple of panel teams sitting on either side.  In the USA, NBC has recently attempted this genre in the wrist-slashingly awful Hollywood Game Night, a program that mistakenly thinks viewers actually want to see celebrities playing stupid parlor games  (as if anyone wants to watch Lisa Kudrow or Tom Arnold pantomiming the titles of Tom Cruise movies).   

The British chat-panels center more on a seemingly endless roster of minor celebrities who are famous primarily for appearing on television, either as a "presenter" or as a regular panelist on one of these programs.  Imagine a world of Carson Dalys and Ryan Secrests moving from program to program every night of the week.  Actually, that's not a fair comparison.  To be on the British chat-panels, one has to be quick-witted and amusing--most of the contestants are people who make a living by improvising on TV/Radio everyday.  As most Americans know, however, the talents of Daly and Secrest remain completely unknown--perhaps dormant, but maybe even wholly non-existent. 

Recent hilarity on "Celebrity Juice"
Celebrity Juice is hosted by a character named "Keith Lemon" (the alter ego of a comedian named Leigh Francis). He is assisted by two ITV presenters, Fearne Cotton and Holly Willoughby, who lead two teams of guest celebs through an obstacle course of low comedy and bawdy pranks.  Highlights that I witnessed included two women flicking each other in the forehead until one of them forced the other to spill a plate of baked beans balanced on the head; a contestant invited to sniff and identify stains on a bed sheet (strawberry jam, some variety of shit, and bull semen, if you care); a blindfolded man told that he was sticking his big toe in Holly Willoughby's vagina when in fact he was inserting it inside a whole fryer chicken; a host of Britain's Got Talent invited to "motorboat" the enormous breasts of an elderly woman; another guest made to lick marmalade from the naval of an elderly man; two women with pens in their mouths attempting to draw penises on one another's foreheads; and host Lemon asking a seemingly well-known brother and sister singing duo if they had ever shagged.  Throughout these contests, Lemon frequently inserts his two big catch-phrases:  "Bang Tidy!" and "Potato!"  

Not everything on British TV is this delightfully crude, of course.  I spent a perfectly tranquil twenty minutes with BBC1 watching a barn owl harvest voles from a meadow while the host, standing nearby with his binoculars, whispered over-and-over again, "marvelous ...marvelous... what a privilege."  And there are many formats currently in vogue on both sides of the Atlantic--houses to be flipped; deadbeat dads to be DNA-tested; amateur gourmets meals to be cooked. 

Perhaps the most striking difference between British and U.S. TV at the moment is that the U.K. still treats television as television.  "On-Demand" and streaming formats are the future in the U.K. as well, obviously, but the actual channels--BBC, ITV, Channel Four, etc--still do their best to engage in some form of cohesive address (no doubt with all the political difficulties attending any illusion of consensus broadcasting).  As a nation state, the United Kingdom may well be as fictional as the United States at this point, but it still maintains some of the broadcast protocols of currency and orality that give the programming a temporal order rapidly evaporating in the USA.  Much of the evening fare in the U.K. has a casual, conversational feel to it that favors dipping-in over DVR-ing.  There are the big "quality" series, shot on film in limited episode runs, but these feel like presentations that emerge from the larger live address of the network itself.  In other words, whereas shows in the USA now simply appear in their designated slots (often for the purpose of recording), British television still has a sense of presenting its program to the viewer (hence the uniquely British occupation of being a "presenter").  

In the USA, for example, the McFarland empire of Family Guy and American Dad has colonized four or five different channels (Fox, Cartoon network, syndication, TBS).  The programs unfurl rather unceremoniously--they just happen to be what's on at the moment.  These series are also currently running late-night on BBC3.  But on the Beeb, there is still enough devotion to the art of broadcasting that someone, somewhere, actually goes to the trouble of writing original continuity to introduce each and every episode (along with such real American stinkers like Two and a Half-Men, 2 Broke Girls, and The Big Bang Theory).  In other words, an announcer takes a few seconds to preview whatever hijinx Sheldon, Peter, or Charlie are about to get into, as if the episode itself was actually unique, substantial, and a scheduled event of some kind rather than yet more interchangeable product coming down the boredom pipe.  

Sure, it's the same program in the U.K. as in the U.S., but at least in the U.K., someone is paid to appear enthusiastic about whatever is coming up next.  Given the collective depression of network identity in the U.S., it's a nice change of pace.  

Science-Fictiony Writing in "Beyond the Sealed World" (1965)

Select prose from Beyond the Sealed World (1965) by Rena Vale

"Daly 1444 moved cautiously on his sponge pallet."

"Was he not pledged to mate with Calinda 1066, the most desirable and influential female in all the world of Science?"

"One of them drew a nozzle from his belt and played a paralyzing ray over the girl's twitching form."

"'I come now to the name of Daly 1444, the promising young scientist who has given Civilization the delightful Fragarian flavor, formerly known as Strawberries and Cream.'"

"'The banishment spool!' Claude whispered in surprise."

"His organs had rebelled against what was called rabbit stew, but he had been able to ingest some quail broth."

"He had not considered it beneath the dignity of an official of the Useless Center to visit a public Recreation Hall and to exchange signals with the first receptive female of sturdy hips and oversized mammary glands who entered."

"He began to dress, noting that the organ of which he was unduly proud had become engorged. He whistled air through wide-spaced teeth. Did he dare?"

"'Brugo make big feast for buzzards with Corn People.'"

"'That shall be the name of this tasty fat grain.'"

"'Jerome excited an endocrine indicator and rather than betray us, he threw himself in an induction oven.'"

"'Your current is deranged, Daly.'"

"'Paralyze the pariahs with your nozzle.'"

"'I am your love, Prince Daly! she shrilled. 'You promised my father you would marry with me, and I gave myself to you when you squeezed my naked teats!"

"As if to emphasize his statement the sirens of zero blasted, their goose-like whonks echoing through the center, adding a note of doom."

Rena Vale (1898–1983) was a writer who was a scriptwriter for Universal Studios in Hollywood from 1926 to 1930 and in the 1930s was an investigator for a U.S. House of Representatives committee that later became the House Committee on Un-American Activities. (wiki)

I Have Questions for Godzilla

1. What's in it for Godzilla?

2. Did the filmmakers forget that killing Bryan Cranston so early in the movie would leave a sucking void on the human investment front? 

3. Wouldn't it be easier to go AROUND Las Vegas?

4. How did Ford Brody find his son at the end?

5. Dr. Ishiro Serizawa is a specialist in what, exactly?

6. Is Godzilla such an "alpha predator" that he doesn't even need to eat what he kills?  

7. Is Godzilla just a homicidal asshole?

8. Was there another cut with Ford Brody having to decide between snipping the red or blue wire?

9. When the MUTO surprise attacks the train carrying the nuke, how did the military lose track of where that MUTO was? 

10. Why should I be rooting for the Brody family over the MUTO family?

11. Can Sally Hawkins sue? 

12. There are two MUTO pods at the beginning, but the female MUTO lays a billion eggs in that trench, so what's up with the MUTO reproductive cycle?

13. Again, does Godzilla simply kill for sport?

14. All in all, would this attack make the real estate values in San Francisco go up or down?

15. Wouldn't the task of opening Bryan Cranston's 1999 floppy drives be even more daunting than nuking a MUTO?

16. Why, exactly, are all the reptoids heading to San Francisco with a flower in their scales?

17.  Was the Japanese boy sidekick a clever red herring or just shitty writing?

18. Where the hell was Godzilla when all those monsters were sneaking through the cracks in Pacific Rim?

19. Where the hell was Godzilla when all those aliens were blowing up Hawaii in Battleship?

20. Where the hell was Godzilla when they were shooting Grace of Monaco? 

"Game of Thrones" Might Kill You

Despite my best efforts, the audience for HBO's Game of Thrones continues to grow.  Over the past two seasons, I've done my best to shame all responsible adults into rethinking their attachment to this faux-medieval malarkey, first here and then here.  But to no avail.  As season three begins this week, "Thronies" show no sign of relenting in their effort to further imperil an already moronic culture with even more toxic levels of regressive fantasizing. 

I can only make one final attempt to convince Game of Thrones fans to cease and desist before it is too late.   Below are actual case histories, gathered from regional press coverage and psychiatric journals, that demonstrate just what a terrible influence Game of Thrones is having on the culture at large.  After reviewing these true accounts of the series' harmful impact on its viewers, it is my sincere hope that all people of taste and intelligence will stand together to wipe out the scourge of "fantasy"--in print, on film, on TV--once and for all.  Thank you.

1. Roy Tolcheck (42) Tampa Bay, Florida

Co-workers first began to worry about Roy Tolcheck when he brought in the "diorama."

Barbie's severed head.
"Roy dressed up this Ken doll in some kind of weird chain-metal," recalls Sarah Vallens, a fellow accountant at Terra Rock and Gravel.  "That wasn't too bad, except the Ken doll was holding up a decapitated Barbie head in its hand.  And it was really grisly. He had painted all of these little strands of dental floss to hang out the bottom of her neck like veins and tendrils and such.  It was really gross."

When HR manager Ken Bakerson asked Roy about the display, he explained that it depicted a key scene from his favorite TV show, HBO's Game of Thrones.  "A place where they have honor," Roy added, "not like here at Terra Mock and Grovel." 

Bakerson asked Tolcheck to remove the display by the end of the day and to also refrain from calling the company "Mock and Grovel."

"Roy took an early lunch," remembers Vallens, "and when he got back, everyone acted like nothing had happened.  Still, we were concerned."

Two weeks later Roy brought in another diorama. "This time it was two Barbie dolls wearing only fur vests, really going to town on each other," remembers Vallens.  "He had them on this chunk of foam rubber that he had cut and painted to look like a giant slab of rock, and there were these little maces and jousting javelins on the floor under them."
Bakerson was less patient during their second confrontation.  "I told him to 'cut the shit.'  You know this isn't appropriate in an office environment. What the hell is wrong with you?"

Tolcheck agreed to remove the offensive display immediately, but oddly, he first circulated through the office demanding that his co-workers stroke the little fur vests on the two Barbie dolls. "They were very soft and realistic," recalls data processor Gus Zeitman.  "He seemed really proud of the craftsmanship."

In the days that followed, Bakerson began the necessary paper work for a formal reprimand and possible dismissal.  But in the end there was no need.  After Tolchek missed an entire week of work without notifying his employer, Bakerson called the police to check on their troubled employee. 

They found Tolchek dead at the bottom of the staircase in his condo, his neck cut at the jugular vein.

"We thought for sure it was a suicide," said Detective Harry Coupland, the first investigator on the scene.  "But in the end the coroner ruled it an accident."

"Mr. Tolcheck had apparently been running down the stairs in some homemade medieval pantaloons when he tripped and landed on his broadsword.  He was knocked unconscious by the fall and bled out on the carpet."

Finding Tocheck's exsanguinated body was disturbing, certainly, but even this did not prepare authorities for the weird spectacle in Tolcheck's basement.

Coupland again: "He had made his own little guillotine. Apparently he was using it to mete out justice to local animals that he believed had wronged him in some way."

Authorities found nine small animal cages stacked in three rows of three against the back wall of the basement.  At the top of the cages, Tolcheck had fashioned his own crude coat-of-arms cut from balsa wood with the motto Ludus Thronis ("Game of Thrones" in Latin) written in red magic-marker.

By the time authorities arrived, only two animals remained on Tolcheck's "Death Row."  A corpulent raccoon dozed in a cage affixed with a note card reading, "Judged guilty for repeated and wanton mischief in the Kingdom's trash cans."  Inside another cage was a shoebox, taped shut and punched with air holes.  Inside the box was a small field mouse, condemned for "pillaging the Kingdom's last box of Devil Dogs." 

"It was a pretty weird sight," Coupland recalls.  "And then we found the tannery." 

In the back of the basement, Tolcheck had been drying several cat and dog pelts--the apparent source of the realistic detail in his dioramas. 

"In a way it's fortunate he stopped himself before we had to stop him," reflected the Detective. "Nut jobs like that almost always escalate to hunting and killing humans.  I blame Game of Thrones."

Krissy Ronson (15) Yazoo City, Mississippi

Sitting in the shadows of her kitchen in Yazoo City, Mississippi, Angela Ronson is crying.  Her daughter, Krissy, has been missing for three months, and with each passing day her return seems more and more unlikely.

"If we could go back in time, I'd make sure Krissy never saw a second of that goddamn show," sobs Mrs. Ronson.  That "goddam show" is Games of Thrones, the HBO series Ronson blames for turning her impressionable daughter into a witch, perhaps even a thrall of Satan.

"My husband and I didn't really think it through when we let her watch the show with us.  At first we couldn't even tell if she understood it, but by the second season some dark force had obviously come over her.  It's all she talked about."

Krissy's love of Game of Thrones proved to be a gateway to an interest in magic, witchcraft, and other forms of mystical horseshit.  On the night of Krissy's 13th birthday, the Ronsons found an old suitcase under Krissy's bed.  "It was full of tarot cards and books on Wicca," remembers Mrs. Ronson.  "Her father made her throw it all out--He wouldn't abide any devil stuff in the house."

But this only made Krissy pursue her occult interests in private.  Through the fall of 2012, relations in the Ronson family became increasingly strained as Krissy worked to perfect her "white magic."

"I can conjure a unicorn," she announced one morning at breakfast.  "After she left for school, her father and I just sat down and cried for an hour," Mrs. Ronson remembers. 

Mr. Ronson's photo of the backyard pentagram.
And then on October 30, 2012, Walpurgis, Mr. and Mrs. Ronson sat in their living room watching television.  "We heard a bloodcurdling scream in the back yard. We both ran out back and that's when we saw it."

What the Ronsons saw was a pentagram burning in their grass.  In the middle, mysteriously untouched by the flames, was Krissy's backpack-- still full of her magic books and witchy totems. 

But Krissy was nowhere to be seen.  She has not been seen since.

Mr. Ronson believes he knows where she is.  "She's with Lucifer now, the dark Lord. And we'll never see her again...all because of that stupid TV show where everyone talks in old-timey English about bullshit that never happened anyway."

A broken man, Mr. Ronson pauses beneath the tree where Krissy disappeared. "We should have made her watch Mad Men instead. Worst thing there she's giving hand jobs to strangers at the movie theater...but at least she'd still be alive."

In the kitchen, Angela Ronson bursts into tears once more.

Colby Gunderson (22) Kenosha, Wisconsin

The "summer of thrones" had been magical for Colby and his new girlfriend Chelsea, at least for the first few weeks.

They met on Memorial Day at Six Flags Great America, both standing in line to buy cotton candy for their little sisters. Five hours later, at closing time, Chelsea invited Colby to drive up to her parent's house in Peewaukee that weekend to start watching Game of Thrones.  

Chelsea loved Game of Thrones and knew Colby would love it too.  The plan was to watch two episodes each Saturday until they were both ready for the third season in 2013.  They decided 8pm Saturday would be their standing Thrones "date night," enough time for Chelsea to freshen up after her shift at the Waukesha Taco Bell and for Colby to drive up from his auto-detailing job in Kenosha. 

Inadvertently soaked in motor oil.
By the July 4th holiday, Colby was in love.  "She opened me up to all kinds of new things. And she didn't even get mad when my brother Chuck threw the Anne McCaffrey novel she lent me into an old bucket of motor oil."

By the beginning of August, however, Colby sensed something was wrong. Chelsea seemed distant, almost embarrassed to have Colby showing up on her doorstep each Saturday night.  Colby sensed it was because Chelsea was already thinking of the fall when she'd return to the UW-Green Bay for her sophomore year.

"Gotta do something big," Chuck told him one night, flushing out an engine block in the Gunderson back yard. "College girl like that. Soon as she's back up in Green Bay, she'll dump you for sure unless you do something real big. Got to give her a reason to remember you."

Driving back to Kenosha after a particularly awkward Thrones double-feature, Colby had an epiphany.

He would give her a dragon.

But how?

Colby's first attempt at a dragon was a complete disaster.  Taking his own good idea a little too literally, he had convinced himself that an iguana might provide a suitable foundation for the mythical flying lizard.   With a little latex and paint, he reasoned, he could fashion some fairly convincing dragon wings.  But a trip to the Pet World in nearby Gurnee Mills put an end to that plan.

"Iguanas are like two hundred bucks," Colby recalls.

The Gecko: a cheaper lizard than the Iguana.
A Gecko, on the other hand, was well within Colby's price range.  Soon he was back at his kitchen table in Kenosha fashioning a pair of wings.

"They were pretty good.  I made a frame and a little harness out of pipe cleaners and then stretched some green latex over them.  The little bastard could wriggle out of it in a couple minutes, but for a little while he really looked like a dragon--and that's all I needed."  

Saturday, August 11: Colby is on the Interstate heading to Peewaukee, his "dragon" in a small cigar box on the passenger seat.  But tragedy strikes when he stops at a Shell station on the south side of Milwaukee.

"I left a Gatorade bottle on top of the box, but I guess he found a way out while I was pumping gas.  When I came back from the cashier, I saw him darting across the concrete and into the weeds."

Inside the car, only the bent pipe-cleaners remained.

"I felt bummed for the little guy.  I remember thinking if somebody didn't find him quick, there's no way he was going to make it through the winter."

That night's Throne date was even worse than the week before.  Not only did Chelsea seem distant, she also started taking about "Ryan."

Colby remembers the evening bitterly. "Ryan was some dude in her graphic design class.  Suddenly she's telling me how talented Ryan is, and how funny Ryan is, and on and on.  Like I need to drive ninety minutes round trip to hear how fucking great this Ryan asshole is."

Colby knew he only had one chance left. 

Colby in costume, just before driving to Waukesha
"It was Chuck's idea. He had a friend who used to play in a Kiss cover band down in Rockford.  He was so sure how everything worked, I just let him get all the stuff and put it together."

The plan: Colby, dressed as a dragon, would surprise Chelsea at the end of her shift at Taco Bell.

After making sure Chelsea was working the drive-thru window, Chuck and Colby would drive up to the menu.  As Chuck placed a fake order, Colby would get out of the car and prepare his costume.

"I didn't really have time to make a special dragon suit," remembers Colby. "So I just rented this Godzilla Halloween costume instead."

Saturday, August 18, 2012: The plan is proceeding perfectly.  With the decoy Nachos Belle Grande ordered, Colby exits from the passenger side and makes his way to the drive-thru window.

He stops briefly to prepare a final detail. Inside his dragon head is a small section of quarter-inch PVC piping. Colby inserts a dollop of paraffin into the pipe opening and flicks his lighter.

This dragon will breathe fire.

But something goes wrong, horribly wrong.

"I meant to shoot the fire from my mouth before Chelsea opened the window," Colby recalls. "But for some reason it took a while to ignite.  So just when Chelsea swings the window open, whoosh!"

Luckily, the flames miss Chelsea.  Colby also remains uninjured from the mishap. 

But the errant flame arcs across the kitchen and ignites a leaky pilot light on one of the Taco Bell stoves.  Soon a nearby closet used to store paper napkins and burrito wrappers is engulfed in flames.  Patrons flee as the building becomes a raging conflagration.

Three months later, Colby and his brother Chuck sit in their back yard nursing a couple of beers.

"At least no one got hurt," Colby says, his head hung low.  "But the Taco Bell was a total loss.  And I'm getting sued by Pepsico, so there's that."

"I told you not to blow through the tube so hard," his brother adds.

"Go fuck yourself, Chuck," says Colby. 

"'Summer of thrones,'" he adds, almost in a whisper.  "I am such an idiot."
August 18, 2012: The Waukesha Taco Bell burns to the ground, ignited by a man pretending to be a dragon.