Acid Party (1969)

Acid Party (1969)
Anthony Yewker
(Bell House Classics)

Big LSD shindig in Rome. As so happens in these tales, someone freaks out during the party and murders one of the other acid heads. Everyone is so high that no one discovers the body until the next morning. Also, no one has any clue who actually committed the murder including, apparently, the murderer himself. But then other members of the ill-fated acid party begin to die one by one as the killer tries to cover his tracks Agatha Christie style. Scenes of drug-crazed sex appear intermittently throughout. In a final confrontation, the last surviving witness knees the killer in the groin, causing him to lose his grip and fall to his death in front of a speeding train.

"Satan's Sleepover" (2013)

Back when Johnny Cash had ambitions to follow Elvis into the movies, he starred in the woefully confused cheapie Five Minutes to Live, shot during an extended lunch break in 1961.   Better known today as Door-to-Door Maniac, the film centers on a bank heist masterminded by Vic Tayback (later to flip burgers on the CBS sitcom Alice).  Tayback hires Cash as sociopathic muscle to hold the bank president’s wife hostage at her home so that Tayback can waltz into the Savings and Loan and demand the cash quick, clean, and simple-like.  Complications ensue, of course, and most of the film centers on Cash menacing the wife with threats of sexual assault, stabbing, gunfire, and post-sync guitar strumming.  There is some additional gimmick about Cash having to answer the phone every five minutes (thus the original title), or else the wife gets it, but the film is so poorly directed that I found it very difficult to follow the logic here (Door-to-Door Maniac is “bad,” not in the spectacular Ed Wood school of cinematic disintegration, but in that much less satisfying mode of failure where everything—script/staging/acting—is just tepid and slightly off, like the entire movie is taking place under water.  The most competent moments in the film come courtesy of little Ronnie Howard as the terrorized wife’s kid.  At 8 years old, he was already more of a pro than anyone else on the set).

Just a few years later, Ann Margaret co-starred with John Forsythe in a somewhat similar film, Kitten with a Whip (1964), made at Universal with more money and much better equipment.  Although Margaret had already been in Bye Bye Birdie (1963) and Viva Las Vegas (1964), Kitten was to be her first “dramatic” role and thus a crucial stepping-stone in making her a bonafide “star.”  Based on Wade Miller’s pulp of 1959, the film is a surprisingly unrevised nightmare about the fragile social constraints designed to keep appropriate male sexuality appropriately channeled.  Forsythe plays David Stratton, a rich middle-aged San Diegan, happily married, who is on the verge of announcing his candidacy for the U.S. Senate.  With his wife away for the weekend, Stratton comes home late one night unaware that 17-year old hellion “Jody” (played by Margaret) has broken into his home to hide from the police.  When he wakes up the next morning in what he thinks is an empty house, he finds the magnetized jailbait asleep in his daughter’s former bedroom.  But Stratton is a gentleman and has a political future to worry about, so he agrees to buy the bad girl some new clothes and put her on the next bus to her hometown--anything to get her the hell out of there before his better half returns from her trip.   But this act of kindness backfires as it convinces the emotionally unstable Jody to stick around and live the good life for a few days.  In between threats to commit suicide or go to the police to file rape charges, Jody prances seductively around the Stratton home in a twisted bid to make "daddy" love her.  Things get worse when Jody’s friends arrive for a night of partying.   As the jazz plays and the liquor bottles empty, Stratton must hide the entire affair from both his wife and potential political donors. Worse yet, a weaselly beatnik lectures Stratton in nihilist philosophy while his meat-headed sidekick repeatedly threatens to beat Stratton to a pulp. 

Will Stratton throw away his marriage, life, and career by succumbing to the temptation of Jody’s seemingly indefatigable gyrations?  Will he be murdered by the Leopold and Loeb of Redondo Beach?  Will his wife and potential political backers discover that the sexual tension brewing in Stratton’s mind is so intense as to make an underage Ann Margaret physically materialize, in a negligee no less, in Stratton’s home?   Many dismiss this movie as marginal trash, but I think you would be hard pressed to find a more terrifying expose of the Eisenhower libido cowering at the threshold of the ‘60s sexual revolution.  Kitten with a Whip is less a “suspense” picture than an index of another  “whipping” that lurks unrealized just beyond both the plot and the title.  Universal clearly understood this, as should be most evident by the publicity still that features Ann Margaret continuing to torment Forsythe with her pussy, even during a seemingly candid moment away from the set.

Both Kitten with a Whip and Door-to-Door Maniac have their roots in The Desperate Hours, the 1955 adaptation of the famous novel and stage play by Joseph Hayes about a suburban family held hostage by a trio of escaped convicts.  Why use this premise to introduce aspiring dramatic actors like Cash and Margaret to the screen?  Acting gives me the hives, but if I had to guess, I would imagine it’s easier for a novice performer to play borderline crazy than something more naturalistic.  What better way to channel the nervous energy of an awkward and unpolished actor than to have him or her pacing around the set in a state of constant agitation? It's not bad acting, it's an electrifying performance!

Which makes me think of Justin Beaver.  Sadly, this particular rite of low-genre initiation no longer exists anymore for aspiring young actors.  Make no mistake about it, one day that Justin Beaver kid will want to be in the movies, and when he does, whatever synergistic overlord has Beaver’s bloody signature on a contract will stage an appropriately high-profile vehicle to get that kid’s hair up on the screen.  There will be a full media tour and simultaneous CD/mp3 drop, followed by extended warbling at the nation’s most profitable tweener strongholds.   No, Justin Beaver will never have to pay his dues in a series of creepy and potentially embarrassing genre films.  Unlike Jennifer Aniston, he won’t have to fight off a homicidal leprechaun for the right to get a shot at a network sitcom, he’ll just have his people drive him straight from the recording studio over to the main stage at Paramount. 

Which is a shame, because that kid would be great in a straight-to-DVD psychopathic hostage-taking movie, even if it did mean watching him perform a couple of mid-tempo dance numbers in some terrified family’s living room.   Actually, to work, the formula probably would need just a few tweeks to make it more age-appropriate.  For example, Beaver wouldn’t be all that convincing holding an entire family or any actual adults hostage inasmuch as he looks like he would be easily distracted by no more than the promise of a root-beer float.  Until the voice drops and he hits the weight-room, he'll need to tangle with more managable fare.  Teenage girls, perhaps, maybe at a slumber party?  But of course he couldn’t really threaten to go all Speck on them, so the narrative stakes would have to be changed somewhat.  Rather than play a true psychopath or criminal, perhaps he could merely be “troubled”—sent away to military school by his abusive father.  Maybe mix in a touch of dyslexia or a dead brother so that tweener girls feel extra sorry for him.  Then, like kitten before him, the Beaver could escape and seek refuge in a seemingly empty house.  But let's face it, no one would take him seriously as a hostage-taker, even if it was a nursery run by elderly blind nuns.  So here’s the twist: he finds himself taken hostage, perhaps by a gaggle of 13 year old girls who arrive unexpectedly for a secret slumber party. Everything seems innocent at first. Milkshakes and pillow fights, followed by Beaver opening up with the girls about what a creep his father is and how he just wants to sing, which he would then do.  Truth or dare?  Sure, why not?  The girls dare Tina, clearly the misfit of the group what with her glasses and unhighlighted hair, to give Justin a French kiss.  She's humiliated, he slightly embarassed...but somehow their eyes meet in tortured sympathy. 

Truth or Dare gives way to “light as a feather, stiff as a board” which then gives way to a Ouija Board.  Beaver gets worried as the questions and answers become increasingly freaky and cryptic. Something weird is going on here.  Just as he tries to make his excuses and leave, he feels woozy and blacks out. A mickey in his milkshake!  When he wakes up, the girls have removed the tarp from the pool table to reveal a pentagram hastily scribbled onto the green felt with pink bubblegum lip-gloss.  Bound and gagged, Beaver watches in astonishment as the girls don black robes, light candles, and coax a goat down the basement stairs.  His only hope is Tina--who has fallen in love with the troubled little mop top at first kiss.  Loosening his bonds while the other girls begin their Latinate chanting, she tells Beaver she's a good girl and never wanted to worship Satan in the first place.  That was all Ashley's idea!   Their destiny is clear. Tina and only Tina can save him from the fate of human sacrifice and a life of troubled, tussled brooding.  

Not only would this make for a brutally frank unpacking of the entire sexual economy informing the teen heart-throb racket, it would also make for great post-midnight Showtime fodder. 

Length: 79 minutes
Tone: From Justin to Kelly, if Kelly worshiped the Prince of Darkness.
Rating:  PG, obviously.
Budget: Can be done very cheaply.  Really only need about 15 million for a convincing suburban basement set and the appropriate hair care products for Justin. 
Estimated global box-office: pre-sold to cable, baby, can’t fail.

Please send whatever residuals you believe are fair to my home address.   

(P.S. I am aware the singer’s name is actually Justin Beiber, but I prefer calling him Beaver as it is funnier and more befitting of his luxurious coat). 

The TV Kid (1976)

The TV Kid (1976)
Betsy Byars
Puffin Books

Lennie lives with his Mom who runs a motel out by the lake. Lennie really, really loves television, so much so that of late his grades have been slipping. He fantasizes about meeting The Partridge Family and competing on game shows. Lennie also enjoys sneaking into empty vacation homes around the lake. When a police car comes by on patrol one day, Lennie hides in the crawl space where he is summarily bitten by a rattlesnake. He imagines how TV Guide would describe his plight as an episode of either Medical Center or The Rookies. As he recovers, Lennie becomes extremely invested in researching and writing a school report on snakes. Back home, two girls his age staying at the motel express interest in Lennie's puncture wounds and beg to hear his account of the ordeal. Suddenly, Lennie feels less inclined to watch television. Moral: Anything, absolutely anything that happens in the "real world" (like getting fanged by a diamondback) is intrinsically more valuable than the "fake" experiences of television.

Case of the Village Tramp (1959)

Case of the Village Tramp (1959)
Jonathan Craig
(Gold Medal Books)

17-Year-Old girl found dead in Greenwich Village. She's 100% totally NUDE except for an authentic medieval chastity belt, confirming the Village's status as the great perv magnet of the late 1950s. Chief assumption: you're a weirdo if you keep your jailbait under lock and key, but you're not a weirdo if you like reading about a guy who keeps his jailbait under lock and key. Hard-boiled on-the-job cop rousts the various suspects, slightly disgusted but generally immune to the decaying morality of the Big Apple. Has some champions, but I found this one rather pedestrian.

I Am South Park!

Figuring out the politics of South Park over the past fourteen years has always been somewhat of a challenge.  As far as ridiculing popular stupidity goes, Trey Parker and Matt Stone have been consistently inspired.  “Guitar Queer-o” remains unsurpassed as grumpy commentary on the bystander logic of virtual life, as well as the generational gulf dividing those who actually remember "Carry On My Wayward Son" and those who inexplicably continue circulating the song purely as annoying game data. Similarly brilliant: the episode examining how the young ‘uns have completely (or at least mostly) disarticulated all vestiges of homophobia from the word “faggot.”  Finally, Cartman’s hand possessed by Vietnam Vet Mitch Conner in drag as a taco-loving Jennifer Lopez giving Ben Affleck a handjob is perhaps the most brilliantly sophomoric negation of celebrity wankery ever aired on television.   

For each of these gems, however, you have to sit through a tedious attempt at provoking controversy like the “manbearpig” episode, which seems to have had no motivation other than disliking Al Gore and calculating that skepticism about global warming would somehow be edgier than joining all the popular kids on the Eco-bandwagon. And Lord knows Parker and Stone can simply be dicks from time to time, like with those narcissistic swipes at Family Guy for not having exactly the same structure and sensibility as…well, South Park (somehow the world survived having both Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton—two comedians with diametrically opposed approaches to comedy—I think in the new multi-billion channel universe there is room for both South Park's juvie-picaresque and McFarlane’s dada factory.  Plus, can't both empires see they have common enemies in Dane Cook, Carlos Mencia, and Jeff Dunham?).

I suppose many would describe South Park as vaguely libertarian or even “post-ideological” (if such a thing is actually possible).  Whatever Parker and Stone’s putative politics may be, however, God bless ‘em for the new two-part episode currently garnering headlines, death-threats, and what has to be the most extraordinarily protracted sequence of censorial “bleeping” in the history of American television.  For those who’ve missed all the fun, Parker and Stone have once again drawn attention to their corporate master’s willingness to appease Islamic fundamentalism by censoring any and all representations of the Prophet Muhammad.  The first episode was an absurdist shell game that involved hiding Muhammad in a U-Haul Van and then later in a bear costume, a rather elegant way of demonstrating that there are worse fates in fictional life than direct caricature.  When this inspired some perfunctory wrath from some entity calling itself, Comedy Central decided in the next episode to bleep even the name “Muhammad” (who as it turns out, wasn’t in the bear costume after all—it was just Santa Claus doing the boys a favor).  The second episode ended with a run of incredibly long bleeps censoring, not just objectionable words, but entire sentences and ideas.  As Parker and Stone state on their website: 

It wasn't some meta-joke on our part. Comedy Central added the bleeps. In fact, Kyle's customary final speech was about intimidation and fear. It didn't mention Muhammad at all but it got bleeped too.

So in the world of TV comedy, the terrorists do indeed seem to have won…for now at least.  And in a somewhat pyrrhic victory, Parker and Stone have demonstrated once again that media conglomerates only really invoke P.C. sensitivity when it dovetails with C.Y.A. anxiety.

No doubt there is some legitimate concern here.  As an extension of Viacom, Comedy Central does not want to endanger personnel, property, publicity, and stock shares by provoking a nasty little incident at their corporate headquarters.  And who could blame them?  After all, why should one little cable network (even if it is part of a global media behemoth) shoulder this First Amendment struggle all on its lonesome? 

But has no one seen Spartacus?  Specifically, isn’t there at least one industry vertebrate who remembers the scene where the Romans demand the slaves surrender their rebel leader, inspiring the men to stand up one at a time to proclaim, “I am Spartacus!”  In a class I’m teaching this term on the classical Hollywood Studio System, we’ve been looking back at how the industry—through both friendly cooperation and illegal collusion--used to work together to solve the various knotty little problems facing their collective empire: sound, censorship, rogue talent, rebellious exhibitors, etc.  While still in competition against one another, the old studios also realized that it was in their collective interest to solve certain structural challenges together.   So, like the mafia, once the movie family made a decision, it became the law of movie-land.

Given the intervening history of media mergers and conglomeration, such cooperation should be even easier today.  If the “media” wanted to solve this embarrassing little First Amendment fiasco once and for all, they need only cooperate and all stand up at the same time. For example, after NBC-Universal-Comcast finishes with its annual “Green Week,” why not recruit the rest of the industry to sponsor a coordinated celebration of “Secular Humanism” or even a week of programming that extols the virtues of agnosticism and atheism?  If every channel spent an entire week ridiculing every single organized religion, or indeed the very concept of organized religion itself, it would go a long way to diffusing the ability of any one sect to focus its wrath on an individual program or company.  Rather than see more tired jokes about thrifty light bulbs and the virtues of water conservation, I would much rather watch a 30 Rock wherein Liz Lemon loses her glasses and mistakes a crucifix for an EPT stick.  Or how about a trial on The Good Wife that radically contextualizes the historical genesis of kosher food practices?  Or maybe a special live episode of Deal or No Deal in which every suitcase contains, not only a money card, but also a tasteful portrait of Muhammad that Howie Mandell then faxes one at a time to  

Better yet, perhaps there is a way to pit religious extremists against one another directly for our televisual enjoyment.  I see a reality show here, Battle Royale style, with various radical sects airlifted to adjacent training camps in the middle of Kansas where they are then encouraged to convert one another by the end of the month for cash, prizes, and the fate of all eternity.  I would so watch the draining of that gene-swamp that I’ll make a pledge right now to buy every product advertised on the show in triplicate.  

Sadly, none of these projects are likely to happen anytime soon, nor is the muzzle liable to be lifted from South Park should it ever revisit the Muhammad taboo a third time.  Those sympathetic to South Park's cause here have been framing this as a “First Amendment” issue, but I think the anger evoked by this latest example of censorial appeasement is actually more a displaced form of anxious fascination.  We are often led to believe that “freedom of speech” means protecting the right to express provocative ideas.  That may be true on a street corner, but in the media, the First Amendment has always taken on a slightly different inflection, serving more as a thematic device than an inviolable principle.  Accommodating “radical” expression, no matter what its source, is of less concern to commercial media than maintaining the pluralistic fantasy that we all respect, in theory at least, the principle of free and open communication.  In fact, most polite liberal pluralists are taught from a young age to respect the right of all people to believe whatever they want to believe, no matter how stupid, ridiculous, or even potentially damaging to the society at large, just so long as they are also willing to remain invested in the overarching principles of “balance,” “dialogue,” and open expression.  Even “birthers” and “truthers,” though clinically insane, remain loyal at some level to the principle of a democracy guided by freedom of inquiry, expression, and debate. 

Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion as long as they also subscribe to modernity’s highest precept that all knowledge/belief is provisional and thus subject to debate, revision, and even occasional ridicule.  But from the fundamentalist perspective, what could be more insane than believing matters of religious faith are open to dialogue or discussion?   By refusing to play this Enlightenment game of honoring open and “rational” communication, radical Islam has very successfully thrown a monkey-wrench into the entire system.  While many are mad at Comedy Central and Viacom for a gutless stifling of South Park’s imagined  “freedom of speech,” much more unsettling is the realization of just how easy it has been for fundamentalists to derail three centuries of modernity by reverting back to the most primitive of all power configurations—moral absolutism grounded in magical thinking and bolstered by a willingness to commit physical violence.   As the South Park episode itself demonstrates so powerfully, there is now one lone constituency in the world that has effectively leveraged itself to a place beyond representation-- not by “winning” any arguments in the west's cherished forum of open debate--but by regressing quite effectively back to the impervious childlike logic of supernatural certainty.  Could we find a more persuasive example of the political advantages to be had in behaving like an irrational object rather than an "enlightened" subject, the gains one can accomplish simply by refusing to participate in another order’s system of meaning?

As Jean Baudrillard noted as far back as the '70s, terrorism's efficacy as a political tactic resides wholly in disrupting the field of meaning.  It has little to no impact in changing national boundaries or governmental policies directly, only the ability to shift frames of meaning and the conditions of debate.  What more stunning semiotic victory could there be, then, but to literally scare your opponent off the field and force him to sit mutely on the bench?  And as this is a struggle over images and signification, there is really no other way to fight back than through a massive and coordinated campaign of representational violence--not in the form of cheap shots and obscene insults, but through the very act of reclaiming the right to signify.  Someone needs to get South Park's back on this.  If we want to maintain any hope of eventually thinking our way through the various messes of human history, or failing that, at least have decent television programs, then fundamentalists of all kinds--those who would wed violence and mysticism--need to be invited to star in their own version of The Benny Hill Show, baited to chase multiple infidels, blasphemers, and other transgressors through a hallway of fake doors, prefably to the hilarious strains of "Yakety Sax".

Homicidal Cactus Fodder

Few would dispute that the worker-drones in the contemporary entertainment industry have become exceedingly lazy.  In the old Hollywood factory system, the movie studios cranked out hundreds of titles a year, fare that ranged from ornate costume epics to one-reelers featuring schnauzers in pie fights.  If a shoot was behind schedule, all concerned simply grabbed a handful of Benzedrine from the big Benzedrine jar by the front gate and made sure they didn’t sleep until the premiere.  Now we are supposed to be impressed that it took ten years to create the wonder of Avatar, or grateful that Jennifer Aniston descends from her Malibu compound each solstice to unveil that year’s romantic-like approximation of comedy.  

The situation is equally bad in television.  The standard order for a season used to be 32 episodes.  At some point this got whittled down to 28, then 26, then 22.  In the time it takes a current TV writer to wake-up, walk over to Starbucks, call his agent, pick through some melons and kale at Whole Foods, and then finally sit down at his computer, Rod Serling would have churned out a half-season of The Twilight Zone. Sure, he dropped dead at 51, but his legacy is The Twilight Zone, not 2 or 3 episodes of CSI: Doesitevenmatteranymore, but the entirety of a world beyond time and space.

Still, one might ask, isn’t it better to focus on a few high-quality projects each year rather than simply strip the gears on a conveyor belt of crap?  Isn’t it better to have 10 episodes of John Adams or Treme rather than 32 episodes of Alf?

No…it isn’t.  And here’s why.

One of the few benefits afforded by the mass production of culture is the opportunity for odd, bizarre, and otherwise demented “filler.”   If a production company must by contract cough up 32 hours of television each year—even if one hour involves little more than all the characters sitting around remembering clips from the previous 31 hours—there is almost an iron-clad guarantee that at least one or two of the episodes will go off the rails in some interesting fashion.  Remember when Beaver Cleaver made friends with the son of the garbage-man, causing June to freak out about class-mixing and the possibility of junkyard rat bites?  Or when Kramer accidentally mocked the Puerto Rican Pride parade on Seinfeld?  Or when Danny Bonaduce joined the Black Panthers on The Partridge Family?  None of these jaw-dropping moments in our televisual heritage would have been possible without the crushing demands of sheer volume.  Each required a harried producer or show runner to look at his watch and say, “To hell with it….I have Dodgers tickets for tonight. Just get it in the can by next week.”

The Beatles’ White Album is another great example.  The White Album is at once 100% genius and 50% crap.  How can that be?  The 50% crap—"Rocky Raccoon," "Honey Pie," "Wild Honey Pie," "Bungalow Bill," etc.—helps put the genius of "Prudence," "Long Long Long," "Cry Baby Cry," and "Helter Skelter" into relief, serving as a type of sonic compost that allows the brighter flowers to flourish.  If you simply edited the record down to one disc—excising this “filler”—it would be a great elpee, but lost in the surgery would be the fascinating documentation of an increasingly dysfunctional band commiting every half-assed idea to tape and hoping no one would be too embarrassed in the end.  How else would that creepy song about McCartney’s dog ever have seen the light of day?

And so it is with comic books as well.  Imagine you are a young man living in the greater New York City area in the late sixties.  As a staff writer/artist for Eerie publications, you are charged with the responsibility of generating monthly content—not only for Eerie Comics—but also for all the other jewels in the Eerie crown: Terror Tales, Weird, Tales of Voodoo, etc.  Thirteen-year old boys across the nation are depending on you, waiting eagerly at the Five and Dime with their bubblegum money in the hopes you will shock and/or spook them for an hour or two. 

A year into your job, you’ve plagiarized just about everything you can remember from Poe, Lovecraft, and assorted Victorian ghost stories.  There are few bloody folktales, urban legends, or B-movie monsters that have yet to appear in the magazine.  But the July 1969 issue of Witches’ Tales is fast approaching deadline and you need five more pages, only five more pages.  “The Telltale Spleen?”  Nope, did that a couple issues back with a pair of blood-soaked eyeballs that appear to stare through the guilty killer's lead safe.  Perhaps a “July 4th” version of A Christmas Carol with the ghosts of Uncle Sam past, present and…no, even 13-year-old boys will think that’s super-retarded. 

Then you think back to your last vacation.  Driving home at twilight through the Sonora desert.  Your wife sees a saguaro cactus and says aloud, “Why, they almost look human.”  And thus is born, “Green Horror,” Witches' Tales (July 1969): 19-23: a truly inspired example of demented filler, the odd brilliance that comes from running out of ideas, time, and patience. 

We open with a young couple driving across the desert.  Martha wants to stop and take a cutting from one of the saguaros for the garden back home.  Her husband thinks she’s nuts, but does nothing to stop her. 

Months later the cactus flourishes in the garden, but the husband harbors only loathing and suspicion.  “Filthy thing!...I simply hate that obscene plant!”  Strange invective to hurl at a cactus, but as we will see later, this is indeed an “obscene” succulent.  Oddly, the husband doesn’t seem to notice that this cactus appears to have sprouted eyes and a fearsome scowl; still, he is unnerved enough by the plant to attack it with his garden hoe.  But Martha emerges from the house just in time to stop him.

More time passes and the husband cannot get the creepy cactus out of his mind.  “It’s like some strange force in me, driving me!  Somehow I know that either the cactus goes or something terrible is going to happen!"  Even though he realizes it might mean divorce, he sneaks out one night when Martha is asleep and begins wailing on the cactus with an ax.  I’ll chop you up and burn the pieces! he screams. 

There follows a most extraordinary high-wire act of exquisite bullshittery wherein the cactus seizes the ax and exacts its revenge.
Ax in head, hubbie is dead.  Story over, right?  But no.  There are still two more pages to kill, and so our hard-working and hard-pressed writer must forge ahead and find some way to add more resonance and nuance to this tale.  

Confronted with the husband's head cleved in two, the police hypothesize that a prowler must have overpowered him and attacked him with his own axe.  Certainly, no one suspects the saguaro.  Time passes and Martha meets a new man.  Standing in the garden one night directly in front of the homicidal cactus, he implores Martha to marry him.  At first she hesitates, but with a little persuasion, finally agrees.  But, observes our narrator, “How can either one of them see the evil leer on the ‘face’ of the cactus?”  Martha goes inside to make some celebratory cocktails, and before you know it, the cactus sucker-punches her fiancé right in the kisser.  “With a horrible screeching sound of living roots being torn from the ground, the cactus pounces on the amazed man…”

Two important bits of narrative information are now in place: (1) the cactus is motivated by lust for Martha and jealousy over other suitors; (2) in addition to having mastered carnival-style ax throwing, the cactus is now no longer bound by the ordinary rules of roots and irrigation. 

Inside, Martha continues to mix the drinks unaware that her new love has been pummeled into hamburger helper.  A knock on the door.  It’s the cactus—enraged enough to murder, and yet polite enough to knock before entering.  The final confrontation unfolds:

The cactus pulls her into a jealous embrace, crushing her against its sharp spines!  And at the last moment Martha realizes the truth!  It wants her…

I’m not exactly sure what “It wants her…” would mean to a 13-year old boy in 1969, especially as an index of cactus-on-woman desire.  Undoubtedly there is some perverse and highly overdetermined Oedipal anxiety at work here.  Martha, after all, gave “birth” to the cactus by harvesting and planting him as a young cutting, and it is Martha that protects him from castrating ax-husband #1. 

At any rate, the story should be over with this fatal embrace.  But something, guilt perhaps, forces our desperate scribe to add one more panel. The police arrive on scene to find Martha and her fiancé dead.  Interestingly, while the cops were wholly unable to decipher the previous scene of cactile horror, this time everything makes perfect sense to them.  “Figure this one Mike!  A cactus plant rips out its roots and walks and grabs the woman and crushes her to death!  It can’t be…,” says Cop #1.  “Can’t be is right, only it is!” offers his partner.  “And the man dead too!  Brother, how are we ever going to explain this one to the commissioner?”

This final frame, I imagine, is actually a displacement of the conversation the writer imagined having with his editor once the ink dried on this prickly masterpiece.  Brother, how am I ever going to explain this piece of crap to the boss?  Four years at Brown and the best I can come up with is a horny cactus on a murderous rampage. Another year like this and I'll be living on the streets.

In a perfect world, all “above-the-line” personnel in the entertainment industry--comic book writers and otherwise-- would be compelled, by federal law if necessary, to work to the point of absolute exhaustion, to struggle against deadlines and consequences so unforgiving that they would be forced to move beyond a certain comfort zone, ushered into the hallucinatory panic of free-form improvisation. There would be no “sleeping on it,” no month-after-month of careful franchise-honing, only the raw crisis of compulsory creativity--in the moment, by midnight, before anyone in this room can go home tonight.  I want to see a Law and Order episode or Final Destination sequel written by someone in just under two hours with absolutely no rewrites. I want to see an entire season of Mad Men outlined on a napkin and faxed without revision from a strung-out story editor in Cancun who forgot principle photography begins on Monday.  It might not achieve genius, but I’m sure it would at least avoid the predictable mediocrity of measured competence. 

Questions in a World of Farts

Oddly, no one seems particularly upset or even concerned that David Lynch is now voicing a recurring character for The Cleveland Show on Fox.  It’s a testament to just how completely all media and all cultural hierarchies have collapsed into one another.  If Blue Velvet-era Lynch had done even a cameo on The Cosby Show back in the day, perhaps in a very special episode featuring a battered and bruised Lisa Bonet showing up on the Huxtable stoop crying that a neighborhood boy had put his seed inside her, that would have been a big deal.  But when Inland Empire-era Lynch takes a semi-regular role, not on Family Guy, not on American Dad, but on the third and so far most unstable outpost in Seth McFarlane’s animated empire, no one seems to even notice.  And yet, until American Idol can secure Yo Yo Ma as a judge or Kim Kardashian somehow figures in the solution to the Lost enigma, this has to stand as the most bizarre collision of taste cultures currently on American television.

This may seem like a knock on the McFarlane/Mike Henry empire, but really it’s not.  I was a late convert to Family Guy, and with the exception of its inexplicably brutal penchant for paraplegia jokes, generally find it to be consistently amusing.  And American Dad, despite a shaky start, has gradually developed its own credible identity, especially after arriving at the perhaps inevitable realization that its real hook is McFarlane’s intergalactic Paul Lynde shtick as Roger the bitchy alien.  And with the addition of The Cleveland Show last year--- a spin-off of Family Guy—McFarlane introduced hardcore structuralism to the American public with a clarity that had somehow eluded a half-century of Levi-Strauss scholars.  Suddenly, anyone with a TV, a computer, and electricity shared the astounding insight that all three McFarlane franchises were extremely similar in their structure, emplotment, and character distribution.  Most hilarious is a chart from the Cracked website (yes, that Cracked, the one boys used to buy when they couldn’t find the latest issue of Mad).  As you can see, the editors here provide a Morphology of the McFarlane Folktale, revealing to us just what a scam that rich bastard is trying to pull by remaking the same show over and over again! 

Backlash is inevitable, of course, especially in the consistently neurotic and overly-charged affective playpen of television fandom. But I’ve never understood how people who watch so much television could be so clueless as to the factory logic that must eventually take charge of all programming, no matter how “ground-breaking” it may have once seemed.  For years we have suffered with Simpsons fans irate that the now 50-year-old franchise abandoned the template established in the first three seasons, as if the nation could stand decade after decade of “heartwarming” stories about a family that never ages.  The same has been true of Family Guy, its earliest fans angry that the show no longer amazes them in the same way it did when they were ten years younger, and who seem to think the world really would be better off if Fox canceled the show to make more room for another shot at a Brad Garrett vehicle. 

I may be mistaken, but I think Family Guy even did a little meta-commentary on this issue in a recent episode.  In a rather bizarre B-plot a while back, Stewie cloned himself to create a clumsy and stupid “bitch-Stewie” to do all of his menial labor.  Brian then demanded his own clone, and before you knew it, both were plagued by the moronic antics of their slightly deformed genetic cousins.  Is Bitch Stewie really American Dad?  Is Bitch Brian actually The Cleveland Show?  I’d like to think so. 

But back to Lynch.  As a semi-regular on The Cleveland Show, Lynch voices the character of “Gus,” proprietor of “The Broken Stool” (the requisite sitcom watering-hole that allows the eponymous Cleveland to shoot the shit with his equally requisite “three buddies"). Stranger still, Gus is drawn to resemble Lynch—an insider joke aimed at that miniscule audience segment out there who might actually recognize a pen-and-ink rendering of the director.  Actually, Lynch is proving to be one of the more inspired additions to the program.  His characteristically nasal deadpan is certainly much funnier than the baroque vocalizing of the three sidekicks originally assigned to Cleveland (idiot redneck guy, short-guy living with his Mom, and that insufferable Russian Bear character).  If Lynch, like Patrick Stewart over on American Dad, is willing and able, I’d much rather see “Gus” become Cleveland’s regular foil than these other three—all of whom remain, even well into the show’s first season, painfully mannered and unfunny (their only real contribution is to make viewers appreciate just what an inspired sidekick Quagmire is). 

But the question would be: can Lynch stand the stench?  In the most recent episode, for example, Cleveland follows in the footsteps of so many other fat-guy TV husbands by acceding to his doctor’s demand that he change his diet.  Adding “high-fiber” items to his daily repast has the unintended but hilarious side-effect of making Cleveland particularly gassy, and soon Cleveland is farting with wild abandon.  Now understand, Cleveland is no stranger to farting.  He farts frequently and with great gusto on the program, taking full advantage of the landmark comedic victories won by Peter Griffin’s carnivalesque colon on Family Guy.  But this time Cleveland’s new diet creates such copious farting that he can no longer control his gas; indeed, one might say the gas begins to control him, a recurring cheap gag elevated here to be the central engine of the plot.  This leads to a series of diverting vignettes in which Cleveland farts, both discretely and explosively, in a number of inappropriate situations.  One fart, delivered in a car with the windows rolled up, is so egregious that it causes his co-worker to run off the road and crash!  As one might imagine, all of this farting eventually begins to annoy Cleveland’s family and friends, leading finally to a crisis wherein Cleveland’s riotous bowels threaten to derail his participation in a karaoke duet competition with his wife.  Things look bad as the wind begins to break during their rendition of “Love Will Keep Us Together.”  But then the fast-thinking Cleveland realizes that if he sticks a rubber hose up his ass, he can manipulate his farts to provide accents and coloratura to augment the old Captain and Tennille standard.  This improvisation proves a huge success. 

Keep in mind, all of this occurs under the watchful eye of bar-keep David “Gus” Lynch. Other stuff happens after that, but once you’ve seen Lynch, celebrated director of Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Mulholland Drive, presiding over a protracted spectacle of musical toots, it becomes a bit hard to pay attention.  Given the typical practice in contemporary animation wherein voice actors simply read their lines in sequence without the participation of other characters, one has to wonder if Lynch knew his dialogue would eventually be intercut with a man blasting 70’s MOR pop-farts from his asshole. And truthfully, I don’t know if I’d respect Lynch more for knowing or not knowing.

It’s a strange bit of stuntcasting, and next to McFarland and Alex Borstein’s oddly straight take on a live-action variety special last year, this has to be weirdest symptom of McFarlane’s continuing clout at Fox.  To preserve my own sanity, I’m going to pretend Lynch isn’t actually on a show that is 80% farts (Cleveland’s home town, by the way, is called Stoolbend.  Stoolbend!), but is instead lending his talent to a program that is engaging in a sustained critique of scatological humor through various forms of “meta-farting.”  And I will also hope that whatever Fox money is flowing his way for these appearances will eventually help fund another Lynch feature or TV project, one that can perhaps resist the temptation of using a lighter-assisted butt-cheek flamethrower as its comic topper. 

Future Cinema: Meth Mob (2014)

We open as three caravans set off for the world’s first and probably only meth-based flashmob, an event organized by a mysterious benefactor who promises a bottomless, pure, and incredibly potent batch of crank to be cooked-up in a chain of virgin septic tanks on a farm somewhere in Georgia.  Two brothers from Detroit—long unemployed and with nothing left to lose—set off in their battered old pick-up.  In Iowa, a small circle of friends from high school, now intermittently employed by the local meatpacking plant, rent a stretch limo with no plans of ever coming back.  In New Mexico, finally, a young speedmetal couple pawns their guitars for two Amtrak tickets to Georgia.  For the first 30 minutes or so, we cut between these three caravans as they discuss the accelerating implosion of the social contract in America over the past decade.  The brothers torch a Walmart, just for the hell of it.  During a violent thunderstorm, the limo kids clip a bank truck and send a million dollars in cash up into the swirling wind.  Impossibly high, the speedmetal couple laugh themselves sick throwing the luggage of an Ivy League Polo Team off the train.  

Arriving at the farm, our protagonists find themselves quickly absorbed among 50,000 fellow tweakers in an event that is larger and more awe-inspiring than anyone could have imagined.  It is the Woodstock of crank, taking the entire nation by surprise.  But before the police can organize a response, the mysterious benefactor, still unseen, orders the tanks of liquid ice to be uncorked.  There unfolds an unprecedented orgy of manic insanity fueled by a new strain of meth so strong that all are incapable of feeling any degree of pain, vulnerability, fatigue, or conscience.  The benefactor speaks once again through the loudspeakers—hundreds of school buses are now arriving for a short trip, a pièce de résistance to be staged for the world audience now watching via cable news.   Riding on the bus, our protagonists wonder what the ultimate destination will be.  They are a bit apprehensive, and yet exultant in a sense that there is no turning back.

Cut to road-sign as the buses roll by: Augusta National Golf Club

From this point on in the film, there will be NO MORE DIALOGUE.  Over the next 30 minutes, Part Chimp’s 30 Million People will play in a continuous loop, brought up in the mix 1db per minute until it plateaus for the final 10 minutes of the film (this is non-negotiable).  On screen, the buses come to a stop and the now thoroughly amped mob descends upon the golf course during the climatic final round of the Masters Tournament.  Shrieks of terror fill the air as panicked golfers and golf enthusiasts flee the line of advancing meth fiends.  They quickly take the clubhouse. Network golf commentators are shanked live on the air.  Purely ornamental sweaters tied around the neck now become nooses of pastel strangulation.  A rich old bastard tries to bribe his way out of the melee, but a crazed tweaker simply takes his C-notes and eats them one by one, never breaking eye contact.  The crystal army weaponizes all golf carts, golf-clubs, and assorted paraphernalia.  Using a water-trap to aid in their defense, a band of frat brothers is able to hold out for awhile with little more than a few well-thrown golf balls and a couple pitching wedges.  But in the end they are no match for an advancing flank of speed freaks armed with titanium drivers.   It is an unprecedented spectacle of violence and destruction—issuing not from “displaced” zombies or the “alibi” of an imaginary virus--but from years of repressed class conflict suddenly made most manifest in a brutal and globally-telecast beatdown.    

Cut to a chopper-view from above.  The local news team, now in position to report on the mayhem, notices something strange on the 18th green.  The once perfectly manicured patch of grass appears to be sinking, imploding, falling into the earth’s crust.  Zooming in for a closer view, we see flames and flows of lava rising from below, their luminous orange fury brilliantly framed by the lush greenery of the Augusta canopy.  The chaos continues unabated. Overwhelmed, the police have given up and simply wait for the promised deployment of the National Guard.  And then the reporter in the chopper sees the whole picture.  The tweakers have surrounded the course in a perfect circle and are closing their ranks, compacting the terrified golfers and golf-enthusiasts and pushing them inexorably toward the lake of fire that once was the 18th green.  Slowly at first, a few unlucky souls slip into the pit.  But as the crowd gets denser, entire walls of humanity begin falling to their fiery doom.  Men in green blazers with ridiculous visors that leave their bald-spots exposed.  Pearled women carrying lacy parasols emblazoned with the logos of local banks and real-estate firms.  Trust-fund kids.  Corporate junkets.  A secret reunion of the secret Skull and Bones society.  No one is spared.  The music hits maximum volume and holds.  Dead.  All of them dead, their bones sinking toward the earth’s core. 

Hard-cut to the shock of silence.  No one speaks, only a few birds are heard chirping in the spring air.  The camera slowly pans across the tweaking horde.  We see the ravaged faces, the hard-scrabbled bodies so beaten down by the years of deprivation and addiction.  But now there are only looks of exultation and ecstasy, beaming and beatitude. In the distance we begin to hear sirens and machinery, the advance of military reinforcements.  Slowly, a collective decision spreads almost telepathically through the crowd, a knowing smile on every tweaker’s face.  Wordlessly, a few hundred form a ring around the still-burning hell green at 18.  They look to one another and then to the sky before leaping joyously as one into the churning lava.  Resume Part Chimp—maximum volume.  Laughing.  They are laughing.  As the camera ascends higher and higher, we see wave after wave in concentric circles marching toward the pit for their turn to jump.  Clouds obscure our view.  Fade image and music.

The end.

Length: 82 minutes 
Tone: Vanishing Point crossed with The Devil's Rejects
Rating: Hard R followed by Unrated director’s cut
Odd Contract Stipulation: First suit to mention Thelma and Louisa in a production meeting will himself be tossed into the La Brea Tar Pits.
Budget: 20-30 million
Estimated global box-office: 100-300 million

Please send whatever residuals you believe are fair to my home address. 

Radiating Skull of Evil

There is a store in Chicago called Uncle Fun's, described at its website as "a unique purveyor of fine goods and accessories designed to restore the whimsical nature with which you arrived on this planet." In other words, it's a store full of weird toys and odd ephemera, usually bought in bulk, and stuffed into every nook and cranny of the establishment for a type of retro-spelunking.  Little plastic presidents that once came in cereal boxes, original t-shirts for sub-Ratt hair metal bands of the '80s, old-fashioned classics like fake vomit and fake dog poo--Uncle Fun is your one-stop shopping destination for all this and more.

In a rather inspired idea, the store has of late started selling work by artists under the age of 10 (with all proceeds going directly to the artists--they even have a separate ledger and cashbox for their roster of young bohemians).  It's great marketing, obviously, because you're more inclined to support a store that would be so generous as to give kids the thrill of being working artists, at least for a couple of grade levels. I imagine them stopping by on the way home from school each day, a sno-cone in hand, to see if any big works have gone out the door.  And I assume $1 American still has some purchase in the 8 year-old mind, let's hope so at least.

After much consideration, I chose the untitled piece above.  It was one of several drawings on display that day by "Zac," who the curator informed me is one of the more popular artists represented by the store.   It's easy to see why.  With great confidence, Zac provides here his own take on one of the most familiar icons in boyhood drawing--the awesomely gnarly skull.  Note how Zac weaves together all the elements we expect in a good skull drawing: the clenched teeth; the spooky placement of the orbitals; the gruesome fractures running down from the crown.  I bet if Zac has a sister, she thinks this work is "icky" and "creepy," which no doubt made this portrait an unqualified artistic success for the young man.

It's a good skull, to be sure.  And we can appreciate the skill and effort that went into this drawing by considering the "ghost skull" hovering above and slightly to the left.  Clearly Zac originally envisioned this skull in 3/4 profile, but then made the more audacious decision to confront the horror head-on, and in so doing, force us to stare directly into the unnerving truth that broods within those vacant sockets.

Of course, some artists would have stopped there.  But Zac has chosen to embed this powerful skull within the conventions of another well-known boyhood idiom--the occult physics of evil projection.  This is no ordinary skull, clearly, for it radiates a form of hypnotic doom--undulating waves of evil spiraling out into the universe--perhaps towards Zac's sister.

Look at it for as long as you dare, but know this, I take no responsibility for what might happen to you should come fully under the power of this radiating skull of evil.