Oh, the Humanity!

Rotten Tomatoes just unveiled a “Worst of the Worst” list, counting down the 100 most poorly reviewed movies of the decade (and thus the new century).  If you enjoy your contemporary Hollywood filmmaking best when it’s in full-on Hindenburg mode, then your Netflix queue just got some good news on the collapsing gasbag front.  Let’s get to it, shall we, with a few highlights.   

#99: Glitter (2001) It seems impossible that there are actually 98 movies with worse reviews than Glitter, a movie so spectacularly bad that it allegedly drove Mariah Carey insane.  Surprising as well in that it’s no worse than Coyote Ugly (2000), which didn’t make the list despite also encouraging tweener girls to dream of making it big in pop-world, except in that case by reconciling the virgin/whore dynamic of sensitive singer-songwriter by day and drunk-wrangling dominatrix by night.  Kind of like Angel (1984) but with no sense of irony. 


#91: Surviving Christmas (2004):  There are 3 Christmas comedies in the top 100 “worst of the worst,” demonstrating that the market can only bear a limited number of comically stressed men falling off the roof as they attempt to string up X-mass lights.     

#89 Basic Instinct 2 (2006):  The best thing about this film is the one-sheet, which features a woman about to uncross her legs and flash her vagina for a millisecond or two.  This proved to be a very popular reveal in the original, and so the producers are making an explicit vow here to repeat this thrill from 14 years earlier--even though young Hollywood’s penchant for flashing the “power muff” has made such fleeting exhibitionism somewhat irrelevant.  Weirdly, this scene became notorious in the first film because people thought they were accidentally seeing something they shouldn’t see, like the "ghost" in Three Men and a Baby, when of course they were meant to see it--and so now the sequel promises you will see what you thought you shouldn’t have seen in the first place, which should make seeing it again wholly uninteresting—but I can’t say for sure as I haven’t seen it--the second one, not the first, which I did see, albeit briefly.


#88: Kaena: The Prophecy (2004):  This film looked at first like it might rocket to the top of the rental queue as an opportunity to repeat the epic hokum of Roland Emmerich’s prehistoric prison-riot/man vs. saber tooth cat film from last year, 10,000 BC—but it turns out Kaena is animated.  So who has time for that?  As Raquel Welch taught us years ago with her mammoth-fur bikini and stone-age depilatory regime, stone-age crap is only interesting if it's live action stone-age crap. 

#79:  The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002) It is safe to say now that Pluto Nash qualifies as canonically bad, in the pantheon of legendary awfulness—all the more sweet in that it cost a ton of money and relegated Murphy once and for all to wearing fat suits and/or talking to hamsters. 

#74:  Envy (2004):  Saw this on cable one night—Jack Black and Ben Stiller as best buds who have a falling out when Black gets rich on a spray that makes dog crap vaporize.   It wasn’t great, but still has to be better than anything with Dane Cook in it.  It also is hard to believe on the scatological comedy front that Envy got a worse reception than Mr. Woodcock. 

#73:  Gigli (2003):  Really expected this to be in the top 10.  Any film promoted as the indexical record of two celebrities falling in love is ripe for populist revolt, so good job America.
 
#67: The Hottie and Nottie (2008):  Paris Hilton promoted this bomb by saying the movie was on the side of the “nottie” and not the “hottie”—as if that were some astounding reversal of generic logic.  But it does suggest a more interesting project for Hilton, perhaps with Todd Solondz at the helm: hottie abuses nottie for 18 years as they grow up together in rust-belt town.  Hottie moves to Hollywood and becomes a big celebrity.  Nottie moves to Toledo and gets addicted to Percocet and Access Hollywood.  (Kudos, in this regard, to Eddie Murphy’s Norbit, which does have the courage to portray the thin sexy girl as the heroine and the morbidly obese nag as the villain).   

#64: Corky Romano (2001):  The last I saw Chris Kattan he was making a supposedly spontaneous cameo on Sunset Tan.  I guess he was there to get a tan—perhaps in anticipation of taking a meeting about bringing his feral apple-eating character to the big screen.  

#48: Bloodrayne (2006) Apparently director Uwe Boll got in trouble with this film for hiring prostitutes at 150 Euros each to appear in a scene with Meatloaf (seen above in full loaf mode).  But what exactly is the outrage here?  Is it taking working girls away from their careers in legitimate prostitution? Is appearing with Meatloaf more degrading than turning tricks in a back alley in Bucharest?  Is 150 Euros a bad wage to have Uwe Boll tell you to amp up the libertine decadence for the day?  I want to be outraged here, but I don’t really see a downside, except perhaps for the aspiring extras who would have had sex with Bloodrayne’s crew for free in order to get their collective feet in the industry’s door.      

#43: House of the Dead (2003):  Uwe Boll again in one of four, count ‘em four appearances in the worst 100.  Clearly a director to continue watching for future celluloid atrocities.  Anyone seen 1968 Tunnel Rats? 

#30: Fear Dot Com (2002):  Stories of radio and/or television killing you were big in the last century, especially when people still didn’t really understand how voices or images got into those little boxes from so far way.  There have been many attempts to turn new media technologies into terrifying monsters, but so far none of them have really worked very well.  The Ring is still arguably the best and it’s about nothing more complicated than a telephone and videotape. 

#27: Battlefield Earth (2000):  The absence of any talent in this project allowed us all, by the grace of Xenu, to escape a mass conversion to Scientology.   The ball is now in Tom Cruise’s court to find the proper vehicle for bringing Hubbard’s anti-Freudian Freudianism to the masses.  Yeah, that’s the reactive mind speaking, but so what? If being “clear” is so great, how does it still allow someone to appear in Valkyrie? 

#22: Disaster Movie (2008)/#21: Epic Movie (2007):  Seems a bit unfair to categorize these two as “movies.”  Granted, they might be two of the worst mall babysitting strategies of all time, right next to leaving your kids with the mumbling cutter by the men’s room or letting them run around Crate and Barrel after eating a brace of Pixie Stix—but to call them movies is a bit of a stretch. 

#10: Witless Protection (2008): With Jim Varney gone, Larry the Cable Guy had the chance to corner the redneck comedy market—but so far he has done nothing that even comes close to the elegant cornponery of Ernest Scared Stupid.  Plus Varney launched his career doing milk commercials, which is much more impressive than simply moving horizontally from stand-up comedy to vaguely narrativized stand-up comedy—both of which are destined to sop up the same overnight hours on Comedy Central anyway.

#1: Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever (2002):  If this movie does in fact exist, which I doubt, it looks to be amazing. Antonio Banderas and Lucy Liu…explosions….nanobot assassins.  Keeping my fingers crossed for a speedy arrival in the mailbox, assuming this honor as the absolute "worst of the worst" doesn’t make the one forelorn copy floating through the Netflix universe into a rare and precious artifact.  

See you next decade!

Rock 'n' Roll's Waterloo?


Here are this year’s nominees for induction to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, which, by the way, is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary.

ABBA
LL Cool J
Jimmy Cliff
Genesis
Kiss
Red Hot Chili Peppers
The Stooges

This list raises a pressing question.  Has the time come to shut down the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in this its 25th year of operation?  Many purists would argue opening such a venue was a totally un-rock ‘n’ roll mistake in the first place, that the best way to achieve the status of a true rock legend is to  O.D., whip your cock out on stage, eat a shotgun, get arrested on a morals charge, or—in a pinch—bite the head off a bat (even if it was only accidental, as Ozzy so often claims).

Of course, opening a Hall of Fame for “rockers” always had more to do with tourism and commerce than any actual grassroots demand to honor “rock ‘n’ roll,” so complaining about its induction process is probably a waste of precious outrage,  not unlike Kanye West passionately defending the integrity of the VMA’s obviously specious criteria for honoring the creative visualization of inane pop songs.  Still, even fake awards and wholly manufactured honors need to maintain some pretext of credibility.  Without at least the illusion of informed authority, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame might quickly find itself outflanked by a particularly well-appointed Hard Rock CafĂ©.

This year’s nominees threaten to bring down the entire house of cards.  Consider:

ABBA: Okay, everyone, or almost everyone loves ABBA, and the band has converted many an ironic smirker into a bonafide afficiando.  “S.O.S.” is one of the greatest pop singles of all time precisely because it so deftly mixes crystalline production and phonetic English with such an intensely blank sense of emotional crisis—something really seems to be at stake in the chorus, even if it is actually nothing at all.  But to call it rock?  Sadly, the market probably won’t bear a Pop Hall of Fame, where ABBA would be a slam-dunk on the first ballot.  And shouldn’t their already dubious rock credentials have been revoked at the precise moment the first line of  "Mamma Mia" emerged from Meryl Streep’s mouth?  

LL Cool J:  They’ve already inducted Run DMC and Grandmaster Flash, so this is part of a trend—the trend of having a business model that extends beyond aging white AOR listeners of the 70s. But shouldn’t there be a Rap/Hip-Hop Hall of Fame by now?  I say this, not as a musical crypto-segregationist, but out of sympathy for these architects of the most vibrant of post-rock popular aesthetics.  Any institution that groups LL Cool J and Ricky Nelson under the same roof either has no discernable logic or no shame. 

Jimmy Cliff:  Ditto for reggae.

Genesis:  Awesomeness is in the ear of the beholder, a relative, subjective judgment of taste—except when it comes to Genesis, who are just flat out horrible.  I say this as a veteran of the prog-rock seventies, as someone who can still anticipate most of the gratuitous and inordinately difficult time changes in a Yes record.  How Genesis gets through the doors before Yes, or Jethro Tull, or even Rush for that matter, is beyond all comprehension.  I used to hate Rush—but the wisdom of age has finally made me realize that even though Neal Peart is a Randian fascist who still makes his poor roadies needlessly tote windchimes and a gong on every tour, I would rather have “Tom Sawyer” drilled into my skull every day during rush-hour than, say, “Land of Confusion” or “No Reply at All” or “Taking It All Too Hard” or any number of the other Genesis songs that make anyone with a soul want to drive off the overpass.

Kiss: Against all reason, Kiss somehow outlived their own embarrassment and that of their fans to actually enjoy a series of freakish comebacks.  They are the ultimate nostalgia bubblegum costume act, fondly remembered—not for their music of course—but for reminding a generation of man-boys what it was like to be twelve years old and anticipating how awesome it would be to reach sixteen--that magic age when boys believed they’d finally get to drive, spit blood, and  understand what it means to be “workin’ hard” and deserving of “a deuce.”  What’s next for the Hall of Fame—the Banana Splits?  Josie and the Pussycats?  Gwar? 

Red Hot Chili Peppers: Has any band ever gone so far with such a terrible lead singer?  Whats-his-name never met a note he couldn’t miss. Obviously there are a lot of “non-singers” in rock history that are fantastic—Mick Jagger, Alice Cooper, Dylan, Hilary Duff.  But whats-his-name is clearly not of this caliber.  The secret to not being able to sing is to avoid trying to sound like you’re singing--but this truism has escaped whats-his-name.  If he can get within even a quarter-tone of the alleged key, a grateful sound engineer is apparently willing to call it quits for the day.   Particularly horrifying is that video where whats-his-name walks around L.A. for three minutes in the grips of some agonizing beatitude and then tortures an entire choir by forcing them to back his flat, overwrought croakings.  I don't wanna feel like you did that day either...just please stop.

The Stooges:  Surely the Stooges are worthy, right?  Absolutely.  So much so that they should have gone in long, long ago-- so this is only more evidence that no one there actually knows what the hell they are doing. Fleetwood “Tusk” Mac got in before the “Search and Destroy” Stooges?  And they call themselves a “rock” hall of fame?  The Stooges probably made it this year only because a hip intern from a college radio station shamed them into it.

As the criteria for “rock” excellence has become so completely ridiculous and/or meaningless, there obviously needs to be a new way of picking the inductees.  My vote is for band on band knife fights, or drinking contests, or seeing who can hang in there the longest on a collective rendition of “Sister Ray.”  Any institution that would enshrine The Clash before the Sex Pistols, The Ventures instead of Dick Dale, or Simon and Garfunkel in any capacity whatsoever clearly needs to have its license to rock revoked.  

If anyone is offended by the opinions above, I apologize...but in truth, you have horrible taste in music.

Climbing Down the Ladder of Comedy

Curb Your Enthusiasm probably has no business doing a seventh season.  Still, it will have been worth it just for Catherine O’Hara’s rather extraordinary turn as “Funkhouser’s Crazy Sister” in this week’s premiere episode.  As the title suggests, O’Hara plays a particularly deranged member of the Funkhouser family, “Bam Bam,” who has only recently been released from a mental institution.  Hilarity ensues when Bam Bam rather unexpectedly hooks up with Jeff Greene in the afternoon and then shows up at the Greene’s dinner party that night.  To play the role, O’Hara taps into the demented child-woman persona that she so perfected in her earliest career at SCTV.  It was like seeing Joey Heatherton re-emerge again after twenty years in the booby hatch.

By almost any yardstick, O’Hara has had a very successful career as a comedienne. After SCTV ended in the early ‘80s, she went on to appear in Beetlejuice, After Hours, Home Alone, and in several of the Christopher Guest “mockumentaries” (perhaps most poignantly as Mickey Devlin in A Mighty Wind).  Seeing O’Hara as “Bam Bam,” however, serves as a melancholy reminder that actors—especially comedians-- often do their most path-breaking work during their first vehicles on television.  Sadly, the logic of the entertainment industry dictates that once a comedian achieves any degree of visibility on TV, he or she almost immediately migrates to the movies in search of more money and more status.  Sometimes this works out, but more often than not, said comedian is called upon to simply repeat over and over again a tepid version of whatever made them great on television. 

Television—and especially sketch comedy—encourages experimentation, if only to kill the final program blocks at the end of a weekly episode.  Those who watch SNL with any regularity have probably noticed that the truly inspired, weirdest material appears in the last twenty minutes of the program—after the front-loaded crowd pleasers of: a). the requisite political/topical sketch; b). more shennanigans by the reigning recurring characters;  c). the musical guest; d). the Week-End Update segment, which now often goes all the way to the 12:30 break.  Will Forte and Kristin Wiig’s sporadic appearances as Clancy T. Bachleratt and Jackie Snad, a country duo with a passion for songs about toddlers, space ships, model-T cars, and jars of beer, is a great example of the "filler" that-- in a perfect world--would open the show. 



Once in the movies, however, the demands of character/narrative based comedy—most often grounded in some degree of verisimilitude—require only a certain essence and not the more jarring “edges” of so-called edge comedians.  Consider this sad honor roll:

John Candy, O’Hara’s alumnus on SCTV, reduced in the movies to playing a series of often maudlin loveable losers.

Dan Ackroyd—a performer seemingly born to mock the entire history of television in 5 minute bits—forced to play a series of TV-ish characters unable to sustain 90 minutes of interest (Dr. Detroit, anyone?)

Chris Elliot—star of the path-breaking dada-com Get A Life—relegated to wacky second-banana roles in Groundhogs Day, Something About Mary, and eventually Everyone Loves Raymond.

David Cross and Bob Odenkirk of Mr. Show: Cross trapped for a couple of seasons as a one-dimensional doofus in Arrested Development, and now back doing stand-up (a format that does not particularly suit him) and Odenkirk making cameos here and there in homage to his influence on modern comedy.

Molly Shannon—from veteran sketch player to a series of mediocre movies and one season of Kath & Kim.   

Tom Green—like him or no, the move from improvised live gags in public to scripted material released to coincide with fraternity rush week was not a good one (except for the extraordinary Freddie Got Fingered, the exception that proves the rule—a debut feature apparently unsupervised by the studio and thus allowed to go places taste and economics dictate it should not have gone).

Will Amy Sedaris ever be offered something as "out there" as Strangers with Candy?   How long until Tim and Eric are in a crappy road movie with a hack director and a mandatory uplifting ending?  Enjoy them while you can.  It's just a matter of time until Wiig is playing the wacky best friend of some less talented actress, either in the movies or on a terrible sitcom.

I See Dead People...F#¢king.

News from Germany: copulating corpses are coming soon to a museum near you.  Created by anatomists Gunther von Hagens and Angelina Whalley, the frisky dead are part of their latest installment in the Body Worlds exhibitions, PG-versions of which have already toured the globe extensively.  You've probably seen these figures before--real cadavers that von Hagens and Whalley skin, dehydrate, and then coat with plasticine, no doubt with The Cure playing in the background and clove cigarette smoke aloft in the air.  The current exhibit is called "Cycle of Life," charting  human anatomy from conception to old age to ending up in a Museum of Natural History contemplating your own skin.  It's been to Berlin (surprise!) and now a more "explicit" version dedicated to human sexuality is making its way to Zurich.

Where to start?  Well, first of all, the show in Berlin apparently met with some resistance, which seems incredible as Berlin long ago cornered the market on being the most paraphilic-friendly city in the western hemisphere.  It's difficult to imagine anything shocking anyone there--but apparently a few locals have deemed the sight of cadavers "doin' it" to be "revolting" and "unacceptable."  Perhaps sensing Berlin is losing its edge (and Paris too, which banned the exhibit outright), Zurich has moved in and upped the ante.  Below is a direct quote from a Reuters story about the copulating corpse controversy:

The way a plastinate is exhibited can vary from country to country to reflect local sensibilities. A vote of local employees decided that one of the copulating female cadavers should wear fewer clothes in Zurich than was the case in Berlin.

This should make us all stop and think for a moment.

(Note of genuine despair: writing now at 10:35pm CST on 9/15 and Colbert has just led with this same goddamn story...must wait momentarily to see where it goes...okay, just a few jokes about how these exhibits make being dead look like so much fun...let us resume)

A vote of local employees decided that one of the copulating female cadavers should wear fewer clothes in Zurich than was the case in Berlin.

As a raving hypochondriac, I have never seen a Body Worlds exhibit in person--I already know my body is a rotting sack of meat and certainly do not need to have an acute panic attack in front a 7th grade biology class field trip.  But from the pictures I've seen of these "plastinates," I have never known one to be wearing clothes.  Tennis-playing cadaver might sport a jaunty headband as a joke, but the whole point of this exhibit (allegedly) is to witness the symphony of musculature beneath the skin as it engages in common human activities, be that wailing on "Freebird," playing cards, or doing the hanging parallel ring exercise that no one cares about in the Olympics.

The addition of clothing--apparently only to the female cadaver in this coitus scenario--seems the most perverse confirmation ever of Roland Barthes famous observation that "the naked body is less erotic than the spot where the garment leaves gaps."  But where does that leave the "skinless naked body?"  Incredibly, von Hagens and Whalley appear to have felt a need to add clothing to an already hyper-nekkid woman so as to....well, what exactly?  Make it more "tasteful?" Hotter?  More legible as a sexual scenario?  Obviously there is no "good" answer to this question, only a strangely unexamined set of assumptions about representing sexuality itself.  Contrary to the famous credo of anti-porn feminism in the '70s, the ultimate ambition of the male gaze is apparently not "women without skin," females objectified to the point that clothes, identity, and the epidermal layer all melt away into supreme obscenity, but is instead a skinless "frenzy of the visible" (google it, perv) tastefully framed by an appropriately seductive outfit.

Even more incredibly, there is apparently a group of "local employees" in Zurich with a union so strong that they get to vote on appropriate attire for copulating female cadavers.  And even more disturbingly, once enfranchised with this awesome responsibility, these employees decided this particular copulating female cadaver should wear even less clothing than in Berlin.  I guess this is either a perverse compliment to the woman who donated her body to this project or a subtle dig at Berlin for becoming the Kansas of Europe.  Berlin!  In Germany!  A country that only twenty years ago gave the world Nekromantic, a film in which a a guy wakes up one morning to discover his girlfriend has broken off their menage-a-macabre by running away with the corpse!

Like all freakshow carney routines, Body Worlds bills itself as educational.  Seems to be the same lesson every time--hey, you look like a bacon blue-plate special underneath your precious, precious epidermis, meatbag.  But perhaps something more useful is going on here.  Maybe the "Let's Get It On" edition of Body Worlds is an elaborate scheme to smoke out a few necrophiles, much like those Sheriffs who post offers for a free speedboat to lure boneheads with outstanding warrants into coming down to the courthouse for easy cuffing.  Or, perhaps, it's a cogent reminder that you should leave incredibly specific instructions for your body after death--lest you end up working a pole in the Kitty Korpse Klub with Teamsters voting on whether or not you get to wear a G-string.




Death from Above!



Disgusted with the pace of urban life in the mid-nineteenth-century, esteemed crank Soren Kierkegaard observed:  

"Of all ridiculous things in the world what strikes me as the most ridiculous of all is being busy in the world, to be a man quick to his meals and quick to work.  So when, at the crucial moment, I see a fly settle on such a businessman's nose, or he is bespattered by a carriage which passes him by in even greater haste...or a tile falls from the roof and strikes him dead, I laugh from the bottom of my heart.  And who could help from laughing?" (Either/Or)


If this sentiment strikes you as reasonable, just imagine how much more hilarious the world would be if man-eating birds still circled the globe.  The Maori have apparently passed on stories of a bird called "Te Hokioi" for hundreds of years.  Scientists believe this legend refers to Haast's Eagle (Harpagornis moorei), a truly humongous bird-beast that went extinct around 500 years ago.  Long thought to be a lowly scavenger, Haast's Eagle recently received an upgrade to dive-bombing carnivore status, a winged killing machine that was apparently able to swoop down on its hapless prey at 70mph.  The painting above depicts Te Hokioi arriving to deliver sweet death to his absurdly flightless cousins, totally screwed by their awkward place in the grand scheme of evolution. 

Once humans got to the top of the food chain, a certain hubris, boredom, and indolence set in that has not been good for the species.  But imagine if we lived in a world where a gigantic bird with razor sharp talons might at any moment dive down from the top of a skyscraper and carry off an account executive tapping away at her Blackberry, an assistant manager stopping for a moment to adjust a stubborn heel, a sluggish schoolboy unwilling to sacrifice his Doritos and Big Gulp so that he might better evade this mighty bird of prey.  It would be a more terrifying world, certainly, but also a world of noble hilarity--for there would be no shame in having been taken by Haast's Eagle. As rare and deadly as a lightning strike, falling into the clutches of Te Hokioi would be at once a horrible fate and yet testament to the unknowable caprice of nature's majestic design. 

How much more vibrant daily life would be if every trip to the market began by searching the horizon for a killer bird, if seeing Te Hokioi perched atop your neighbor's carport made you calculate the distances involved and your respective land/air speeds--cunning human and colossal eagle locking their gazes in a primal standoff of mutual respect.  Consider your pride in displaying the talon scars you earned in escaping the creature, a beast you defeated with only your wits and bare hands that fateful morning when an entire flock dropped from the clouds to rain death upon your neighborhood Starbucks. 


Sure, it would be sad when these beasts took away a beloved house pet or a child or people we might actually know, but that would be counterbalanced by our pride in looking into the mirror each day and proclaiming with true gusto: Somedays you get Haast's Eagle.  Somedays Haast's Eagle gets you.  If enough of these birds could thrive to pick off a hundred or so Americans each day, we would remain excitedly vigilant without becoming overly paranoid, now suddenly alert and truly alive as we ran our idiotic errands, edged our stupid lawns, or truly tempted fate by tanning our tasty bodies. 

And the sublime, hilarious beauty of seeing Te Hokioi arrive as a messanger of death for someone who really deserved it-- a pompous valedictorian, a stray Kardashian, an outfielder for the Yankees, a guy waxing his Hummer, Eric Cantor, Kanye West, Octomom...the list is endless.  We would of course have to observe a period of appropriate respect and call for added protections against Te Hokioi, but deep inside would ring the laughter of cosmic retribution, the hilarity of watching human folly transported up into the clouds never to be seen again.

Kentucky Fried Vinyl


Yeah, I know.  WTF? I mean, really, what were they thinking?   Feel free to contribute your own hyperbolic exclamation of pop-cult astonishment.

I found this elpee in a thrift store in Merrillville, Indiana--and it has haunted me all weekend.  We often encounter strange images and bizarre objects in daily life, but rarely do we subject them to the rigorous semiotic analysis necessary to fully explain--if only to ourselves--just what makes them so unnerving: a mass punctum of perversity, to quote another lover of home cooking.  It's easy to look at Tijuana Picnic and think, "Whoa, that's weird," without truly considering the texture and density of said weirdness.  But that would be lazy. 

So, now that we've all calmed down a bit, let's consider what makes this image so truly arresting. 

First and foremost, it features Colonel Sanders chillin' under a tree with a bucket of chicken.  That much is obvious.  It's the first thing you notice--"hey, that's Colonel Sanders, the real Colonel Sanders."  Back when KFC was still Kentucky Fried Chicken, the Colonel (Harland Sanders) frequently appeared in the flesh in his venture's various promotions.  It was a good strategy for advertising the new franchises as suburban plantations of downhome cooking rather than as just another gulag for resentful fry-basket jockeys.  Problem was, Harland Sanders was already in his sixties when he realized no one had cornered the market on capturing, killing, and frying every chicken in the nation, and with him getting older and the company bigger, KFC eventually realized the Colonel needed to make the gradual transition from living legend to timeless icon.  Hence his Kim Jong Il-like transformation into  an eternally cheerful batter enthusiast. 

In the era of mass imaging, seeing the "real" Colonel becomes--somewhat ironically--borderline uncanny, a reminder that there actually was some kind of deep-fried referent behind all the cornpone semiosis that we now associate with KFC.  Imagine, for example, if there had actually been a real Ronald McDonald--not the cartoon, plastic, or costumed carney versions that scare children at grand openings--but an actual guy named Ronald McDonald who made the rather risky post-war decision to start cooking hamburgers in a clown suit.  Seeing him now in person would be profoundly upsetting, not only to little kids, but to anyone who only knew him as an abstracted signifier of mirthful burger culture. 

Most consumers would probably agree that they prefer their Dixie fantasies to be populated by imaginary Colonel Sanders, Aunt Jemimas, Sambos, and Uncle Bens, because seeing them as real people only serves as an unpleasant reminder of the actual power relations involved in creating such branding.  For example, culinary historians generally agree that fried chicken first began as a staple of American cuisine among antebellum slaves, making the "Colonel" to southern cooking what Elvis was to rock 'n' roll--a living, breathing white guy rich enough in a certain type of capital to exploit black culture for white consumption (I mean, look at that family behind him). Plus, for what it's worth, Elvis' manager was named "the Colonel"--an ultimately meaningless coincidental detail, but one I feel should be aired in this particular context.

As this blog's dozen or so unaccidental readers might recall, KFC product turns up in a couple of Herschell Gordon Lewis movies in the mid-1960s. In the Gruesome Twosome (1968), dancing co-eds share a bucket of KFC chicken before the one capable of remembering her dialogue gets snuffed by the titular psychopaths (for an extended analysis of this scene, click here).  Even more disturbing, in its own way, is the Colonel's cameo in Lewis' The Blast Off Girls (1967), in which Harland compels a reluctant rock band to jam for a bucket of chicken.  Life is short, but truly, you owe it to yourself to witness these two minutes of fruggin' product-placement. 

 


Not quite the same as Michael Bay putting a CGI Pepsi in the pincers of a thirsty alien murphy-bed robot truck, but charming nevertheless.  In fact, mass entertainment could only improve if product placement were required by law to be this integral to the storyline, like in 30-Rock when Jack discovers that a cup of frozen sugerfat at McDonalds means more to him than dessert at a 5-star Manhattan restaurant.  These embarrassingly naked moments of financial servitude are a great reminder that freedom isn't free and neither is massively-capitalized entertainment programming.  H.G. Lewis demystifies the entire economic foundations of the cinema here by saying, in effect, "Sure, I'll show you what ends up happening to this happy-go-lucky band of mop-tops, but only after we stop and pimp chicken for a couple minutes so I can buy some more film stock."  In a way, it's an even more brilliant commentary than Godard showing his producer signing checks in the opening of Tout Va Bien (1972).  That villain is anonymous and off-screen, a moving hand metonymically and thus tastefully evocative of French capital.  But the Colonel has the balls to interrupt the story and essentially tell everyone on set, especially Lewis, to dance for his amusement.  "Come back anytime for the same deal," he chortles menacingly, shuffling back to his rocking chair and shotgun to guard his greasy vault of gizzard dollars. 

But back to "Tijuana Picnic."  Tijuana?  Picnic?  Here the Colonel hoped to cash-in, not on the impending influx of poorly paid migrant workers who would eventually staff his empire's network of chicken-rendering plants, but on the mid-60s craze for Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.  Alpert's combo was the anchor of his own A&M record label, churning out a ton of albums with a sound so unique that eventually all the songs sounded exactly the same (quick, in your mind, differentiate "Spanish Flea" from the theme to "The Dating Game."  It can't be done).   Below is Alpert's take on "A Taste of Honey," an archival clip that will be of interest to anyone who has ever consumed a martini ironically. 


Of course, to the modern eye, there is an added perversity to seeing the words "Tijuana Picnic" emblazoned over the Whitey McProtestant family frolicking on the grass in the background.  It is an unsettling reminder that "Tijuana," in the besieged white cultural imaginary of the 21st century, has transformed from an exotic vacation playground of tequila, bullfights, and subservient hotel workers to a warzone where fratboys get kidnapped on their way to donkey-shows and are forced to mule condoms of smack back to San Diego.  And speaking of donkey-shows, "dirty sanchezes," muling, and other North American constructions of sexual deviance south-of-the-border, there is also the hint that a "Tijuana Picnic" might involve something more nasty than eating a bucket of fried chicken in the open sun.  Just what will happen once the two kids get lost to go fly a kite or something?  Will it or will it not involve Harland, who for now sits discretely to the side biding his time?  As everyone here has no doubt also ingested a gravied mass of the Colonel's K-Ration mashed potatoes, perhaps a "Tijuana Picnic" is code for some type of vomit fetishism.

For those who find the entire idea of chicken-fried genocide appalling, you might consider visiting kentuckyfriedcruelty.com, and in particular their "sign generator" function.  There you can make and post your own KFC marquee--as in the simple yet elegant "FCK KFC." 

For those whose politics run slightly less vegan, might I also suggest http://lpcoverlover.com/, a great site for perusing this and other jaw-dropping album covers.

And finally, for any vomit fetishists out there, many websites exist to serve your needs--but you'll need to track them down yourselves.

There are many remaining secrets in "District 9."

Are there really Nairobi Warlords out there who believe eating an arm would give them supernatural powers?  Did any Nairobi Warlords ever believe it, or is this just a nod to the average moviegoer’s conviction that cannibals must still exist somewhere and that somewhere is probably Africa?  Seems especially weird that a Warlord sophisticated enough to put together and supervise an intergalactic trading post would believe in cannibal-power-ingestion theory. 

Do hot women have an irresistible attraction to awkward kiwi guys in sweater vests?  This was played for laughs in Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive.  But here it seems we’re supposed to believe these two are really, really in love.  I remain unconvinced…or at least uninterested.

Is the conceit of making the “prawns” sign eviction papers a joke about fascist bureaucracy, or is it just a poorly conceived narrative device?  Or is it both?  Also, are we to take Captain Prawn’s synthesis of rocket fuel in his home lab as a sign of prawn solidarity with rural American meth-addicts? 

Was the film set in Johannesburg in order to demonstrate that even native Africans can be racist sons-of-bitches, thus making racism a human universal and absolving any white guilt over apartheid? 

Also, it seems like no one, human or prawn, was very happy with this arrangement on earth.  Why didn’t Captain Prawn tell the authorities he knew a way to restart the ship and take everyone back on their merry way?


Does every movie now just assume it is entitled to a sequel, building it into the final act even before audience has a chance to vote with their eyeballs?

I Know What It's Like to be Dead

This is the big week—perhaps the beginning of a new tradition that may last decades, even centuries: Beatles Global Reformatting Day. On Tuesday, the datastream will cough up two new digital iterations of the band’s work: re-mastered editions of all the albums and the fab four’s debut in their own version of Rock Band.  So far the reviews have been extremely positive, especially for Rock Band (which as many point out is the more significant arti$tic event here). Forty and fifty-something music writers are gushing over how this will make The Beatles relevant for a whole new generation (i.e. their own increasingly distant and snarky kids).  The once vexed Apple Corp. (the old record company, not the new religion) is getting Kudos all around for taking the time and effort to get all the details just right.  Testimony is pouring in from parents proud that their children--raised in a world where John Mayer must pass as a functional “songwriter”--are now bursting into tears as they master the haunting plastic-slapping complexities of While My Guitar Gently Weeps.  Maybe twenty years from now, these children will introduce their own kids to the holographic edition of the game, left under the Lennon tree with a Beatles Global Reformatting Day card from Hallmark. 
Most graying rock critics have no doubt figured out that hating this new incarnation of Beatlemania would only make them even more irrelevant than graying rock critics already are.  Most excited is McCartney himself.  Sir Paul recently observed that rock ‘n’ roll, comic books, and video games are all similar in that each began as a juvenile time-waster but eventually attained the status of “art.” Apparently Macca is determined that no one-legged half-his-age ex-model is ever going to make him look like a senile old man ever again.  Look for the imminent debut of the I Wanna Hold Your Junk iphone “sexting” app.
As to what impact Rock Band will have on the legacy of the band’s music, that’s probably not all that important.  And Your Bird Can Sing, Rain, and Paperback Writer will remain the exemplars of a certain pop form forever and always, even if one day kids only slog through them to win an extra life, or a floating strawberry, or access to the 8-track gameplay at the Abbey Road level. No, what’s more disturbing about translating The Beatles into game form is the continuation of the very idea of “The Beatles.”  Music is music—but the “idea” of The Beatles has wrought untold psychic devastation for nearly half a century, and now apparently will continue to do so well into the new millennium. 
“Be the Beatles,” proclaims the game’s tagline.  No, please, don’t be the Beatles.  We’ve already lost two, three, maybe four generations to the narcissism industry that erupted in the wake of their initial invasion of America.  You can’t blame the lads, of course, who often said they had no real ambition beyond getting out of Liverpool.  But in the wake of the incredible fame-vortex opened by The Beatles, their singular warping of the time-space continuum within the boomer imaginary, we have all suffered for some 40 years now with an adolescent fantasy world that simply will not go away—the very world that produced, not only Mark David Chapman, but also the uncomfortably similar logic of Rock Band itself.
The Beatles™: Rock Band™ gives fans what they’ve been waiting for: a chance to experience the Beatles’ legendary story from the inside. You won’t just watch and listen as the Beatles make rock history, create landmark records and conquer the world — for the first time, you’ll be part of the band.
No, actually, you won’t.  The Beatles are dead and you never bothered to learn a musical instrument of any kind.  Why not try your hand at something more useful, like Middle-Management Hero or Bureaucrat-Who-Makes-a-Difference Idol?  Hang out around “Strawberry Fields” in Central Park for a day: there are enough scary people walking around who have done everything within their power to look just like John Lennon.  We don’t need them sliding deeper into psychosis by thinking they’ve mastered the rhythm guitar part to Octopus’s Garden. 
A few have expressed surprise that the band would enter into a gaming venture.  But of course the Beatles licensed their music to Rock Band—they invented this game in the first place, inspiring millions of teenage boys to pick up tennis rackets and mime Strawberry Fields into a mirror, forcing their friends to attend an imaginary concert of the mind wherein other boys could only stand in mute awe of such creative genius while the girls went absolutely wet-knickered at the prospect of potential sexual congress with you, yes you, the skinny kid in the mirror playing Strawberry Fields with a tennis racket.
At least there used to be some degree of privacy and shame around adolescent redemption fantasies—an embarrassment captured so masterfully in The King of Comedy as Rupert Pupkin conducts mock celebrity interviews in his basement and imagines his high school principal officiating his marriage on national television. But at some point this fame-play of self-worth = envious attention became a spectator sport rather than a form of auto-ego-eroticism, and before anyone knew it, an entire part of the gaming industry began actively encouraging America’s youth to play at being rock stars…. performing “air guitar” in public with no sense of shame…wearing a Rock/Porn Star t-shirt with no apparent talent or discernable hotness…slamming down a “Rock Star” Energy Drink so that one might have the energy to continue promoting a digital avatar’s extraordinary career.  There is a touch of pathos in these only half-ironic performances of vain self-delusion, like being unable to avert your gaze as the school spazz dangles by his underwear in front of the pep squad, telling his football team tormentors, “One day I’m going to be a famous rock star and you will idolize me.  Just wait and see.” 
Harmless adolescent fantasies you say.  Perhaps.  But consider how many crappy sets you had to sit through in high school, college, and beyond by actual bands populated by men in their teens, twenties, thirties, and (gulp) forties who simply could not let this fantasy die.  Sure, they might have treated the whole thing as a joke and named their band “The Accountants,” or “Doom Pigeon” or “The Corbin Bernsen Experience,” but somewhere in the back of every band member’s mind remains the fantasy of absolute commercial and critical dominance, a daydream of what it would be like to float in a swimming pool surrounded by groupies while a respected documentarian quizzes the band about the genesis of their zeitgeist changing album, Slacker Piranha. 

If anything, this syndrome has only gotten worse.  As many have lamented, at some point the popstar division of the culture industry realized it was simply too expensive and time-consuming to keep generating new product to anchor this fantasy economy (paid labor, after all, actually had to write and record a new song for each episode of The Monkees). Thus the brilliant one-two reality punch of The Real World and American Idol, two shows that radically shifted the fame terrain from “creating” and “doing” to simply “performing” and “existing.”  American Idol…Guitar Hero…these franchises could never have succeeded if based on actual song craft (Randy Jackson at a coffeehouse audition in Topeka…”Congratulations, dog, you’re goin’ to the Village”)—instead they are designed to reward technical competence in the replication of prevailing performance codes—be it following Lars Ulrich’s drum patterns on Enter Sandman or seeing if it is possible to break the land coloratura sound-barrier by belting out yet another version of that horrifying "I'll go on and on" Titanic song.    
Perversely, even Grand Theft Auto provides players more creative control than the current iterations of Rock Band or Guitar Hero.  At least GTA allows you to drive around the city running down random pedestrians, if so inclined (or in an even more perverse subversion, I have been told, you can simply drive around Liberty City obeying all the traffic laws).  Shouldn’t the new Beatles’ Rock Band have an option where acing Tomorrow Never Knows allows the players to push their mop-top avatars into a polyphonically perverse open jam session, leading to a final “trip-out” level where the entire gig transforms into a LSD-fueled orgy on Carnaby Street?  
There is an argument that popular art was meant to be “of a moment” and thus eminently disposable—songs, movies, TV shows, celebrities.  They are ephemera born within a very narrow historical window to service a fleeting moment of cultural affect and social imperative.  “In my merry Oldsmobile,” “Beware of the blob,” “a mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido, “my hump, my hump, my hump, my lovely lady lumps” all of this shit should be utterly incomprehensible within five years, tops.  It is a testament to the evil genius of the entertainment industry and the regressive attachments of its audience that certain artifacts continue to be “passed down” from generation to generation as holy relics. 
Sure, maybe your toddler does look cute in a Kiss Army Onesie.  Maybe you’re proud your kid knows how many moons orbit Tatooine.   Perhaps you are looking forward to seeing your own flesh and blood hike the trail of tears from bell-bottoms to drainpipes and back again.  But if your child still shares your taste in music after the age of 14, if they rifle through your music collection (whatever the format) and respond with anything other than stunned disbelief, we have all failed them--utterly and miserably. No child should be put in the perverse situation of remembering her first kiss by associating it with the same song to which she was conceived (or even to which both she and her parents were conceived).  It’s sick and it’s wrong.
Were The Beatles the greatest 3-minute Verse/Chorus/Verse/Chorus/Bridge/Chorus band of all time?  Who knows…probably…they did invent the form, after all.  But the nation's youth should not be taught to believe this before they’ve had a chance to make up their own minds about it, or indeed even before deciding if they care about guitar based harmonic pop in the first place.
So as you watch your child comfortably riffing his or her way through “Back in the U.S.S.R.” on the game controller this weekend, be ashamed, be very ashamed.  The country is so screwed up right now, we no longer have time for such nonsense.  We need every smart, creative person under the age of 25 working on how to recycle used breast implants into affordable housing—or harnessing Jonas Brothers pheromone-release clouds into some form of renewable energy—or devising schemes to divert Ryan Seacrest’s bank account toward relief work in the third world.  What we don’t have time for is to lose yet another generation to “being the Beatles.” 



Badger McGee and Direct-Mail TeeVee


There is a grizzlyadams.com.  This is remarkable because it brings together two constituencies typically not associated with one another—itinerant woodsmen and the Internet.  Maybe the name Grizzly Adams means nothing to you.  Probably it shouldn’t.  As entertainment franchises go, Grizzly Adams ranks somewhere between Quark and My Mother the Car, and in its own way, is equally implausible.
Unjustly accused of murder, an old-timey trapper (Dan Haggerty) flees into the mountains to avoid the law.  In his roaming he happens upon a bear cub, an orphaned grizzly he adopts and names “Ben” (although this Ben has nothing to do with Gentle Ben—television’s other short-lived attempt at bear-centric programming, in that case starring a bite-sized Clint Howard just after he blew everyone’s mind as the eerily dubbed baby spaceship captain in Star Trek). Now known as “Grizzly” Adams, the trapper develops a Doolittle-ish ability to understand cougars, rabbits, foxes, skunks, eagles and other high-altitude varmints, many of whom Ben would probably like to eat but, as I recall, doesn’t since he must endorse the program’s post-"all nature is one" -hippie/pre-"let the world burn"-Christian environmentalism (I may be wrong here, but I certainly don’t remember Ben shredding any of God’s creatures after Adams had just talked to or empathized with them).

The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams appeared first as a novel and then as a movie in 1974 produced by Sunn Classics Pictures.  If that outfit sounds familiar, oh child of the bicentennial, perhaps you were hypnotized by their frequent domination of after-school advertising in the late 1970s.   Sunn specialized in supernaturalistic family fare, bouncing back and forth between the Fortean and the Christian in films like The Outer Space Connection (1975), In Search of Noah’s Ark (1976), the Bermuda Triangle (1979), and In Search of Historic Jesus (1979).  It’s a schizoid filmography, some films targeting the post-Sunday-school matinee crowd and the others future laser-show enthusiasts.  In 1983 they threw everyone a curve and made Cujo.
Grizzly Adams was such an unexpected hit, and did so well in its network premiere, that NBC decided to bring the premise of buddy man-bear fugitives to TV in 1977.  Here’s a quote from Wikipedia that demonstrates why both Wikipedia and network research departments are so often testaments to the orderly accumulation of useless knowledge:
the company used extensive market testing to produce the series, which was based on tests showing that audiences liked stories about men and animals in the wilderness; that bears were favorite wilderness animals; and that grizzlies were the favorite type of bear.

I think a similar research logic was used to create The Girls Next Door, except by substituting L.A. for the wilderness, women for bears, and blondes for grizzlies (plus Hef seems to be able to intermittently comprehend the crude vocalizations of his Grotto wildlife, making him a "Grizzled" something-or-other).   Actually, it seems suspicious that anyone really did this research, inasmuch as one would assume NBC was writing a check for “Grizzly” Adams and not “Flying Squirrel” Jackson.  But who knows, maybe they were just double-checking that men still pumped their fists at the sight of a bear, particularly the campground clearing superstar that is the Grizzly. In any case, Dan Haggerty reprised his role as the title character and the show ran for two seasons.  To forestall those tempted to write a Donner Pass fanfic tale of Ben eventually eating Adams or Adams Ben, a made-for-TV movie brought the saga to a close in 1982.
Which brings us back to the improbable existence of grizzlyadams.com.  Oddly, the one thing that you can’t find on the website (or at least I couldn’t) is Grizzly Adams himself, either the film, the series, or even a Dan Haggerty t-shirt.  I assume this must be a situation similar to John Fogerty having to shell out money to play his own CCR catalogue—songs that he wrote!  Somehow Sunn appears to have had the foresight to retain the rights to the name “Grizzly Adams” without actually remembering to get a piece of the syndication or merchandising. 
What you will find at the site are media products that continue the company’s somewhat perverse ricocheting between Christian documentaries and the Chariots of the Ghosts of Atlantis stuff.  You will also find a truly fearsome “legal” page, so fearsome in fact that you will see no images from their website here so that a den of Rocky Mountain bobcats do not mysteriously find their way into my basement.   
Particularly prominent is the trailer for their most recent endeavor, a direct-mail DVD feature called Friends for Life (image from Amazon!).  In this one a lawyer devastated by the recent death of his wife has almost hit rock bottom, about to give up on life entirely. But an angel intervenes and leads him to an orphaned pack of wolf pups, which he immediately adopts.  Time goes by in the form of copious slow-motion photography of wolf pups running, wrestling, and licking faces, until at last it is time for them to return to the wild.  Other stuff happens that apparently gets the lawyer in more jeopardy, but then the wolves return in the final reel to repay their karmic debt by “saving the lawyer’s life” a second time. From the ads, it is unclear if they literally intervene to break up a knife-fight or if they perform a more subtle, cosmic miracle of some kind. 
You don’t need to be a structuralist to see the similarities to the original Grizzly Adams.  Man > “lost” > orphan animal > interspecies bonding > final redemption.  Seeing a 60 second spot for the new film on cable, an ad that directs you to grizzlyadams.com for more information, there is a sense that this might be the most viable future for all film and television drama—the economic and cultural circuitry of genre made even more manifest in this form of direct-mail distribution.  I want to see stories about troubled men who learn to live again by befriending heartwarming animals. I will pay you $19.95 for each example of this formula that you can provide me.  
If fictional drama becomes even more marginalized, fossilized, and esoteric (as seems to be the case), there’s no telling just how high the ceiling might be for certain select franchises.  Stories about struggling urban hospitals that reaffirm the bittersweet cycle of life: $24.95 a pop.  Marley and Me, except with a cat?  We can do it in post for $29.95 a disc.  Ever dreamed of having a CSI franchise in your own sorry little backwater?  It’s a sliding scale: $9.95 for CSI: San Francisco to $99.95 for CSI: Lubbock.  Write us a check for a cool million and we’ll come make an episode of Law and Order: Nebraska Ethanol Co-op Unit. 
Harlequin has understood for years that patrons want what they want—why then do film and television continue to go through all the expense of convincing us something is completely new and different, when we know and they know that we actually just want to see another seemingly mismatched couple flirt with each other for 3 to 5 years while solving some type of recurring enigma until they finally end up in bed and in syndication?  How much would you pay for your absolute favorite form of dramatic affect sent directly to your home with no fear that it will contradict your expectations or pleasures in any way, shape, or form?

So it is with grizzlyadams.com, a site that invites us to look forward to the compartmentalized pluralism of the future-a media landscape where everyone can frame nature just as they like it.  In one mailbox (electronic if you like), perhaps that of a rustbelt retiree who never quite followed through on that vow to move to Colorado, awaits the latest Grizzly Adams production:  Badger McGee, in which a father worried about his son's deployment to Iraq learns about the healing powers of nature and the spiritual bonds between all God’s creatures in a universe of unending wonder and surprise, all thanks to the plucky little badger who takes up residence in the trunk of his boy's custom Dodge Dart.  And in another mailbox, perhaps that of a mercilessly snide DMV worker, the latest production from the House of Herzog: Fangs of Senseless Death, in which an adorable family of cottonmouths teaches a khaki-clad expedition of white-watering yuppies that nature is an absurd abbatoir adrift in a cruel universe of unending terror and despair.  
I, for one, cannot wait to not watch whatever it is you think is so great.