Brainwashing in the High Schools (1958)

E. Merrill Root
Devin-Adair Co.

Many were shocked last month when the textbook adoption committee in Texas voted to remove Thomas Jefferson from High School history readers in order to place greater emphasis on George Washington (and others). As it so happens, however, the political right appears to have been seething about Jefferson for almost a half-century. Root's book examines 11 American History textbooks circulating in the late 1950s, finding them all to be enemies of private property, decentralized government, and other tenants of basic conservatism. Weirdest of all is a content analysis, complete with comparison chart, demonstrating the total line count in each book devoted to Washington and Jefferson (the final tally: Washington (109)/Jefferson (155)). Quoting a British historian, Root notes that "the truth in history resides in proper proportioning." Washington, as the more "conservative" founding father, is thus getting the shaft from Jefferson the "liberal" since TJ receives 40% more coverage in these books. This is particularly insulting, Root argues, inasmuch as Washington "abandoned more and risked more" than Jefferson in participating in the Revolution. Plus, Root observes, Washington was just generally a more interesting, colorful, and dynamic individual. The only possible explanation for this disparity: liberal brainwashing.

I have to say I find this entire flap over Washington v. Jefferson rather confusing. As I recall from the olden days of High School history, everyone was taught that both GW and TJ were terrific guys who each did terrific things. I had no idea that an entire community existed out there convinced that Washington doesn't get his due (after all, he's still called--despite a billion arguments to the contrary--"the father of the country," plus he's on the goddamn one dollar bill, clearly the best bill to be on if your main worry is national exposure. What more could you want?).

Essential reading for anyone attempting to gain insight into the American Right's constant sense of beseigement.

The Twisted Drives of Victoria McCall (1967)

Tony Trelos

Victoria McCall wasn’t like other girls.  She was fat. She also had a storm of passion waiting to be unleashed.  It didn’t happen until she dieted.  Then nothing could prevent her unnatural fling… 

Best just to go straight to the plot here: Vicky lives with her mom who is frequently abused by the strange men she brings to the house.  To escape this harsh world, Vicky eats a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and has become rather heavy.  When not eating, she fantasizes about becoming a beautiful starlet—the kind of woman to whom she is increasingly attracted. After catching mom in bed with a particularly disgusting guy, she runs away from home.
Happily she meets a dyke named Toni on the subway and accepts an invitation to live on her houseboat.  Vicky is in love, but dares not say anything.  When she finds Toni in bed with another woman, she has to run away again. 

A year later, Vicky is back.  Dieting and exercise have transformed her into a bombshell, and she uses her new allure to get a high-paying gig as a topless dancer in a swinging New Jersey cabaret.  Here she becomes the “property” of Ronnie, the club’s “butch in disguise” owner.  Things are going pretty good until Vicky decides to see what sex with a man might be like, perversely picking one of the same men who used to beat up her mother.  Ronnie finds out, they get in a fight, and Vicky quickly leaves in the escort of a rich older lesbian from Manhattan.     

But Vicky soon gets bored with her new lover and all her snooty, artsy, intellectual friends.  Then one night at a particularly boring party, Vicky thinks one of the men is hitting on her and so she decides to take him into a back room to seduce him.  But—in a scene ripped right out of Now, Voyager—it turns out this man is actually a psychiatrist who has been invited to the party to evaluate Vicky’s growing malaise. Yep, Vicky sure is screwed up, opines Dr. "Get Your Hand Off My Junk." Humiliated and angry, Vicky has no choice but to run away once again. 

Cut to a seedy bar somewhere in the Village.  The bartender, whom we haven’t met before, has just sold the joint and can’t wait to get away from all the “degenerates” that hang out there every night.  Someone comes in looking for “Vicky,” whom the bartender only knows as that sweet but sad fat girl who has been a regular for the past couple of years, turning tricks with anyone at anytime for a ten-spot. Nope, he hasn’t seen her.  Then a policeman comes in.  They just pulled a woman out of the river—a suicide.  “Fat girl.  Really big.  Her name’s Vicky McCall.”  THE END.   

Oddly, this book is available as a $2 buck download, which means someone had to scan The Twisted Drives of Victoria McCall page by page. Why someone would invest the time and money to do so remains a mystery.    

So there you have it.  I’ve read them so you don’t have to (except for Pardon My Body, which was too horrible to finish).  You’re welcome. 

Pork Revulsion Quotient

Burger King has recently introduced "BK Fire-Grilled Ribs" at selected restaurants, presumably as a seasonal competitor to McDonald's infamous salt-barge, McRib.

Nutritionally, the McRib and a 6-Rib serving of the BK product are roughly equivalent.  Let us then consider them side-by-side to see which is ultimately the more revolting.

Year of Origin: 1981 (intermittent since mid-1980s)
Mascot: Demented Scottish Clown who, like the Highlander, appears to possess eternal life.
Meat: Pork
Modality: Pork pieces compressed by a mold to resemble "de-boned" ribs.  Placed on bun with pickles, onions, and copious amounts of smoky high-fructose sauce.
Historical Fantasy: Apparently meant to evoke a "pulled pork sandwich," once ubiquitous to the diet of working men in the early and mid-20th century.
Primary Appeal: Sugary BBQ sauce coats slab of fat and salt to stimulate primeval memories of calorie storage once linked to the triumphant slaying of a great beast upon the plains. 

Revulsion Quotient: 9
Attempt to simulate former presence of extracted "ribs" in compressed slab only draws greater attention to the unholy compression of indeterminate pork scraps.  Especially terrifying if viewed without the sauce.

McRib without the sauce...too naked, too real, too horrifying to contemplate.

BK "Fire-Grilled" Ribs
Year of Origin: 2010
Mascot: Monarch of a kingdom that venerates meat. Currently appears as an uncanny prowler in the night.
Meat: Pork
Modality: Pork ribs subdivided by bone saw into "bite-size" riblets.
Historical Fantasy: Evocative of "down-home" comfort food and the manly art of outdoor grilling.
Primary Appeal: Retention of bone gives product a more "natural" quality, fooling consumer into believing meal is somehow less deadly than the McRib.

Revulsion Quotient: 7
Leaving the bone in the product signifies a more natural harvesting of the pork, but the barren presentation of the pig's segmented ribcage in a greasy cardboard box evokes harrowing images of the abattoir, one accelerating production now that BK is in the rib business.

Final Thought:  McRib's horror resides in the gap between obvious mass processing and a feeble attempt to reintroduce some remnant of porcine morphology in the mold template, a gesture that ultimately cultivates suspicion, anxiety, and revulsion in those consumers unable to maintain the illusion of integrated taste and form.  BK "Fire-Grilled" Ribs, on the other hand, produce a more paradoxical horror.  In this case, the presentation of a more "natural" food item only draws attention to the sheer scale of slaughter necessary to furnish each franchisee with dependable product.  Ribs, typically served in small quantities at cookouts and specialty restaurants, become in a "fast-food" incarnation uncomfortably linked to the horrifying spectacles associated with industrial farming.  BK only exacerbates this horror by presenting the ribs, not whole, but in dissected segments that bespeak a further inscription of mechanical violence. 

bon appetit!

Mega Snake Progression

Thrift archeology suggests another video store has recently gone bust in Chicago, affording the opportunity to stockpile a number of promising titles at $1 per DVD. Given the fierce competition for our leisure dollars these days, the buck-DVD is a fairly solid investment.  Even if the movie proves utterly unwatchable, the disc itself can still be used as a coaster or to help stabilize a wobbly table.  You really can’t lose.

Although you can come close.  First up in the rotation is Mega Snake (2007), a made-for-tv film about a remarkably large snake. Commissioned by the Sci-Fi Channel, the film provides additional evidence that the cable network's primary mission is to cultivate a new "Golden Age" of shit. The network even appears to have its own house auteur, Tibor Tak√°cs, who in addition to directing Mega Snake has also given the world NYC: Tornado Terror (2008), Ice Spiders (2007), Kraken: Tentacles of the Deep (2006), and best of all, Mansquito (2005).  The last film has also been released as Mosquito Man for those not adept at neologisms.

Of course, there is really only one reason to watch a film titled Mega Snake, and that reason would be to see just how “mega” Mega Snake actually is.  Some actual real-world snakes are already 20 feet long, so one assumes "Mega Snake" would be bigger.  And he is.  Although, sadly, he never quite achieves the size and menace promised in Sci Fi's advertising campaign. There is no strafing of Mega Snake by fighter jets, nor are any large urban centers under threat. 

"Mega Snake" actually begins life humbly enough as "Regular Snake," kept in a jar by a Native American mystic-wrangler named “Screaming Hawk.”  He keeps this particular snake in a jar because (1). it is extremely dangerous; and (2) legend has it that this type of snake once ate many of Screaming Hawk’s ancestors.  Screaming Hawk also informs us that the snake must not be fed any living creature or else it will begin growing exponentially.
Hearing this lore, an ambitious young pentacostal leader really, really wants that snake, presumably so he can handle it during Sunday services. Perhaps he believes God has grown tired of his flock simply going through the same routine each week with rattlers and copperheads, and so introducing a new super-dangerous snake might be a great way to renew their faith. It's never really explained.  In any case, when Screaming Hawk refuses to sell the ancient ancestor-eating snake, the young pentacostal steals it and we're off to the races. 

Is there really anything else to discuss?  In the interests of time, I have prepared a chart demonstrating the subsequent progression of the film.  Below we see the sequencing of Mega Snake's victims and an index of his exponential growth. 

I know some readers are wondering if there is any place for romance in Mega Snake.  Well, yes, there is.  Our main protagonist is the brother of the pentacostal who initiates the entire mega fiasco.  He has three problems to resolve: 1). he renounced his religion as a child when he saw his father bitten and killed by a snake; 2). he remains deathly afraid of snakes; 3). he has a girlfriend who is losing patience with his inability to commit to their relationship. "Mega Snake" swallows the girlfriend whole during the final carnival sequence.  Facing his fears, our protagonist goes in after her and then cuts their way out of the snake's belly, thus conquoring his fears, saving the couple, and killing Mega Snake all at the same time.  As in Jurassic Park (1993), this dangerous encounter with a giant lizard makes him realize he is ready for marriage and a family. 

Naked in Hollywood (1962)

Bob Lucas
Lancer Original

Not Naked Hollywood, which was a book of photographs by the famed Weegee, but Naked IN Hollywood, which is offered here as career advice for young starlets. Carla--who actually is only briefly "naked" (for an audition with an elderly gay director--which somehow makes it okay)--wants to turn her good looks into fame and fortune. She accomplishes this by befriending various hangers-on at the margins of the industry--agents, bodyguards, tv actors. Miraculously, Carla gets quite far without actually bedding anyone. All indications point to a standard tale of lurid casting-couch adventures, but overall the book is less interested in sex than in describing the state of the film industry in the early 1960s. Characters complain about the ubiquity of television, the decline of the studios, the inner mechinations of the ratings system, etc., etc. Author Lucas, as it turns out, was the editor of a movie magazine published in Manhatten and a frequent source for entertainment coverage in Black Digest and Jet. He also had plans to write a novel titled The Split-Level Plantation, but I can find no record of this book's existence.

"Zaat" and the Poetics of Despondent Indifference

Essential to the romance of low-budget cinema is the belief that everyone is trying as hard as they can, from the director to the grips to the extras to the guy baking weenie-rolls in the honey wagon.   Sadly, however, evidence often suggests that the arduous demands of film production can prove just too difficult, breaking the spirit of cast and crew to the point that everyone simply gives up and throws in the towel.   Even if the movie is “finished,” so to speak, signs abound as to the obvious fatigue and despair that gradually overtook the project.

We have such a film in Zaat (1975).  Written and directed by Don Barton and shot at various “resort” locations across Florida, Zaat might best be described as an aquatic revenge monster-movie (briefly interrupted by a time-killing hippie sing-a-long).  First, a little background:  at some point in the mid-1960s, a vat of “walking catfish” got loose somewhere in Florida’s Broward County.  Native to Southeast Asia, “walking catfish” are about a foot-long and--as the name implies--can temporarily emerge from the water to waddle across dry land (usually in search of more water).  They are, quite frankly, an abomination, and it is difficult to judge if their existence should be more troubling for Creationists or Evolutionists.  If God made them, then God is clearly just trying to fuck with us.  And if they evolved from some random mutation, then truly the universe is a vacuum devoid of any apparent design or meaning.

While bad news for Florida, this walking catfish invasion was no doubt good news for followers of monstrous cinema.   The 1950s had for the most part already exhausted the menagerie of objectionable creatures that might run amok on celluloid: spiders, ants, wasps, crabs, lizards, preying mantises, and even a poorly exposed Gila Monster had all already made their bids for global domination.  What a Godsend, then, to suddenly stumble upon a creepy fish able to flop out of the water and wriggle across dry land.  The beast's uncanny locomotion presents a direct challenge to human reason and security: Why does this exist?  What does it want?  Why doesn’t it just stay in the water?  Could it make it from the creek to my house, kill me in my sleep, and then return to the water before being noticed? 

I’m sure this was in everyone’s mind when Zaat began principle photography—we’re really going to be at the forefront of the walking catfish hysteria soon to sweep the nation.   Of course, transforming a foot-long fish into a bonafide movie monster is no small challenge.  How to do it:  Matte shots?  Stop-motion?  Man in fish suit?  And how to motivate the creature's "origins:"  Toxic spill?  Alien invasion?  Superfood debacle?  Zaat opts for the time-honored conceit of the mad scientist obsessively devoted to a pointless and seemingly circular task—in this case, transforming himself into a walking catfish so that he might exact revenge on all the scientists who never believed in his formula for turning men into walking catfish (“Zaat,” by the way, is the name of this formula: Z sub A, A sub T). 

Like so many terrible horror movies, Zaat goes a good 10 minutes before we encounter any sync-sound.  In the meantime, we are treated to a rambling interior monologue as the scientist walks around his laboratory scientifically observing various squids, crawdads, and octopi, all the while extolling the virtues of sea creatures over the fundamental loathsomeness of humankind.  The scientist’s goals are simple: 1). Transform self into a walking catfish; 2) kidnap a sexy girl and transform her into a walking catfish; 3). Deposit his “Zaat” serum in the lake to transform regular catfish into an army of giant warrior-fish; 4) conquer the world.

After hoisting himself with a block and tackle into a portable swimming pool laced with his serum, the transformation from man to fishman proceeds quickly.  And here is where we begin to suspect that the filmmakers simply lost heart during the production, realizing at this precise moment—perhaps the first day of the shoot—that they simply were not up to the technical demands intrinsic to their ambitious premise.  When “Zaat” emerges from the water, he doesn’t look so much like a “walking catfish” as he does the Gorn from Star Trek, "aquafied" by having a little fake seaweed and algae draped around his neck and joints.   Worse yet, the actor within this “catfish suit” does little to “sell” his performance as a walking land-fish; rather, he strides about the set as if he were casually making his way to the porta-john between takes.   Fifteen minutes into the film and all of us, on both sides of the screen, realize that we are doomed.

The results are so dispiriting, in fact, that the filmmakers obviously felt the need to address our disappointment directly in the script.  Zaat looks into a mirror to see himself for the first time.  In what I believe Christian Metz would label a parallel achronological syntagma, the filmmakers quickly intercut between “Zaat” looking in the mirror and stock-footage of an actual walking catfish, illustrating both the desired model of reference as well as the overwhelming failure of its realization.  

Rather than work harder to create a more convincing catfishman illusion, however, the despondent producers simply insert a line of dialogue intended to erase our disbelief through the most feeble powers of suggestion.  “Nothing at all like the catfish!” says Zaat, who like the viewer is apparently disappointed in his make-over.  “But it’s beautiful,” he adds, implying that if he’s not bothered by it than neither should we.  Moving on.

Later, Zaat leaves his lab to begin his rampage of bottom-feeding revenge.  Like any walking fish would, Zaat opts for the stairs, and so the camera follows him across the lab and holds steady as he exits frame via the staircase.  But the camera lingers even after the creature is gone, drawing attention to a lonely paint can perched atop what appears to be some kind of fuse box or utility cabinet.

As the paint can demands our attention, both through the framing and the extended duration of the shot, we can’t help but think it will prove pivotal later in the movie.  But no, it does not.  Ultimately it stands as yet another mute witness to the unrelenting apathy of the filmmakers, too defeated apparently to even bother cleaning up the set before rolling film. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a shot more aggressively unaestheticized than the one above--stray paint can, dirty wall smudge, cylindrical flotation device, and rusted light switch presented as a study in filthy nonchalance.   Was this can of paint used in prepping the set?  The wall smudge says no.  Or was it a can that occupied the space well before the film crew arrived and remained long after they left?  We will never know.

Most pathetic of all, finally, is a prop that might best be described as Zaat’s “chore wheel.”

Like any fiend bent on world domination, Zaat hopes to remain on schedule.  To ensure the timely implementation of his plan, Zaat has taken care to illustrate his month-by-month program on a large zodiac disc of some kind.  Below we see his agenda items for March:

In another symptom of group depression, note how the "art director" has rendered “Transform Self” into the less legible and perhaps meaningless, “Transformation Self.”  And yet apparently no one on set had either the energy or the pride to revisit this prop (shot, it should be noted, in an extreme close-up that makes the careless incompetence all the more obvious).  One might think that even the least ambitious filmmaker would have opted here for rub-on transfer type, if only for the “month” designations that circle the wheel as a standing template for Zaat's personal data. But no, the art director has simply written the world “March” with no real effort at properly measuring or spacing the letters, accented by an “r” so poorly executed as to seemingly issue from a foreign alphabet.  Astute viewers may also notice a similarly childish rendering of Florida at the bottom left of the frame haunted by the half-erased words “Atlantic Ocean”--notations that apparently once helped this scientific genius remember where he was and by which body of water. 

Incredibly, once his transformation from man to fish is complete, Zaat returns to the chore wheel to cross out this accomplishment with a red marker.  Transform into fish.  Check.

It appears Zaat’s chore wheel is not only a ridiculous and wholly unnecessary addition to the laboratory, but also the default “script supervisor” for the entire production.  Indeed, as Zaat repeatedly returns to the wheel over the course of the film, it is difficult to know if he is a diabolical villain monitoring his progress or a confused cast member trying to remember what has and has not yet been shot.   For all the viewer knows, the wheel may even have been a pre-production chart that somehow ended up on camera.  When Zaat prepares to kill his disbelieving rivals, for example, we first see their “headshots” affixed to the wheel—remnants perhaps of their initial audition.

As further evidence of Zaat’s ambiguous conflation of pre-production materials and principle photography, we later see the creature pausing to “storyboard” his own narration even as the film approaches its final showdown.  When the first Mrs. Zaat reacts poorly to the serum, Zaat realizes he needs to find a new woman to turn into a catfish companion.  Zaat takes pen to paper to quickly sketch his new object of desire—the beautiful marine biologist sent by the government to aid in Zaat’s capture.

The sketch completed, Zaat proceeds to hammer the portrait to his wheel.  Is this a device to help the viewer better understand what will be at stake in the film’s climatic final act?  Or is it merely the director’s primitive way of reminding the cast and crew what remains to be done before their collective nightmare of collaborative shame can come to an end?  Perhaps it is a little bit of both.  Here.  This is what we'll do.  This is what we'll shoot next and then we'll be done.  Then we can all go home and take long showers and never speak of this again. 

Many low-budget “bad” movies make you feel an odd sympathy for all involved.  But again, that emotion can only be sustained if one maintains the fantasy of extraordinary effort on the part of the filmmakers.  Zaat, on the other hand, is so lackadaisical in its failure, so casual in its atrocities, you can only feel personally insulted.  How could so many care so little about so much?  How could a film be more confrontational in its mournful indifference?  How hard would it have been to at least pretend to try to care?

Pardon My Body (1952)

Dale Bogard

Don’t kick yourself for not sending a card, but last year was the 60th anniversary of Harlequin, the press that has been best known over the years for its line of romance titles.  Turns out Harlequin published a much more diverse range of genres in its early years, including a few crime pulps.  As part of the anniversary celebration, Harlequin reprinted six of these titles last year. 

Pardon My Body seemed like a good place to begin.  I mean, come on, pardon my body!  Starts out okay:  a guy is driving around one night minding his own business when suddenly he finds a nymphomaniac passed out in the middle of the road (hence, "pardon my body").  Who can’t relate to that?   But then the story devolves into a rather boring account of what I think the gumshoes used to call “leg work.”  As sometimes happens in a really terrible book, I hit that point where I realized I had been “reading” for 20 or so pages and had no idea what was going on anymore.  Case closed, whoever you are, I’m going to go make a sandwich.   

I wanted to give another title in the series a chance…but then I found this little nugget over at the Harlequin website.  

Remember, our intention was to publish the stories in their original form. But once we immersed ourselves in the text, our eyes grew wide. Our jaws dropped. Social behavior—such as hitting a woman—that would be considered totally unacceptable now was quite common sixty years ago. Scenes of near rape would not sit well with a contemporary audience, we were quite convinced. We therefore decided to make small adjustments to the text, only in cases where we felt scenes or phrases would be offensive to a 2009 readership.

No wonder Pardon My Body was so terrible.  Thank you, Harlequin, for completely negating the entire purpose of reprinting these books.  I agree it’s totally unacceptable to hit a woman, but if I was going to pummel one with cruel mockery, it would be the editorial schoolmarm who decided that a gangster slapping a cocktail waitress around is somehow more offensive than a company churning out a half-century of pornography designed to enslave women in the fantasy that they might one day be transported to a fundamentally impossible emotional universe.  Which is worse?  To encounter an ugly convention of the post-war pulp in its period context, or to read the more “modern” Harlequin titles that promise a handsome Italian surgeon will suddenly materialize in the kitchen to save you from all the half-finished wine coolers, stray candy wrappers, and Shiztu fur that covers the apartment?

Washington Square (1880)

Henry James
Penguin Classics

Wealthy physician does all he can to dissuade dubious suitor from marrying his unattractive, dim-witted daughter. The physician's sister, polluted by years of reading romance plots, does all she can to thwart her brother's will. No marriage takes place and everyone ends up, years later, alone and wretched.  Meanwhile, the narrator demonstrates repeatedly that he is much smarter than anyone else in the story.

Sarcasm Recognition Protocols

The following comes to us from  Once the robots learn how to insult us and undermine our confidence through sarcasm and irony, we truly are doomed as a race. 

Scientists devise algorithm to detect sarcasm 

(Jerusalem) A computer algorithm capable of identifying sarcasm in written text has been developed by Israeli researchers.

The novel formula could pave the way for more sophisticated communication between humans and computers – the Holy Grail of artificial intelligence. 

Devised by computer scientists at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the algorithm has been programmed to recognise sarcasm in lengthy texts by analysing patterns of phrases and punctuation often used to indicate irony. 

In tests on 66,000 product reviews posted on the Amazon shopping website, the algorithm had an impressive 77 per cent success rate in picking out sarcastic comments – arguably higher than some humans.  The researchers "trained" the algorithm to recognise sarcasm by teaching it nearly 5,500 sentences from Amazon reviews that human volunteers had marked as either sarcastic or non-sarcastic. The sarcastic phrases from the pool of Amazon reviews used for the research included "Great for insomniacs", "Are these iPods designed to die after two years?" and "Defective by design". From its learned list of sarcastic phrases, the algorithm was taught to recognise patterns of words commonly used by writers to show that they do not mean to be taken literally. 

The academics write in their study: "We found strong features that recognize sarcastic utterances, however, a combination of more subtle features served best in recognizing various facets of sarcasm." The algorithm's detective skills were then tested on tens of thousands of other Amazon reviews which had also been tagged for sarcasm, or otherwise, by human readers. It produced accurate answers in 77 per cent of cases. 

In addition to producing an algorithm with a remarkable success rate, the researchers also drew some intriguing conclusions about why people use sarcasm online. They noticed that the Amazon products that attracted the most sarcastic comments tended to be those with mainstream popularity – such as Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code, and the Amazon's Kindle e-reader. The academics write: "We speculate that one of the strong motivations for the use of sarcasm in online communities is the attempt to 'save' or 'enlighten' the crowds and compensate for undeserved hype." 

The authors of the study, Oren Tsur, Dmitry Davidov and Ari Rappoport, say that sarcasm recognition could one day be used by review aggregator websites such as Amazon to decide how reviews and comments should be ranked. 

But they offer no clue as to whether the algorithm can detect the irony of their paper's title: "A Great Catchy Name: Semi-Supervised Recognition of Sarcastic Sentences in Online Product Reviews."

Getting Even with the Answering Machine (1985)

John Carfi and Cliff Carle 
CCC Publications

Written when interacting with an answering machine was still a novel and potentially anxiety-ridden exchange, Getting Even with the Answer Machine arms its reader with page after page of hilarious things to say if no one picks up the phone. The “funny responses” appear under different genre headings:

Famous: “Hi, this is Marie Antoinette. What a funny message! I laughed my head off!”

Rated PG: “Hi, is this Mr._____? This is your dentist calling. I wanted to remind you that Wednesday at 5 o’clock I’m supposed to drill your wife.”

Phoney Solicators: “Hi, this is the organ transplant bank. Your brain is ready”

Tricks ‘r’ Us: “Hey ________, how would you like to go to a free rock festival? Meet us at 6 o’clock outside the Geological Institute.”

Thinkettes: “Just wondering—if you eat a TV dinner and throw it up, is it called bad reception.”

And so on….

Incredibly, despite the level of joke-writing here, the book really does seem to have been aimed at adults (or precocious children willing to work blue). Uniformly terrible except for one joke that achieves, in spite of itself, a type of surreal genius:

“Hello. This is Santa Claus. I’m calling to tell you that I won’t be stopping by this year. I joined ZZ Top and I’m going on tour.” Hilarious!

The Devil's House (1974)

Julia Tremonte
Pinnacle Books

Young couple considers moving to the New England countryside to escape the hustle and bustle of New York City. Husband enthusiastic, wife less so. Turns out husband has already bought a weird old house in the woods, which makes wife mad, but then "her sense of betrayal faded away as she thought of how she would rearrange the furniture in the house and add little touches of her own." Weird neighbors visit: "by the way, did you know a Satanist once lived in your house who murdered a young girl and upon his arrest and execution vowed to return for revenge?" Wife soon left alone while husband is at work. Voices in basement. Shadows and figures seen, culminating in fainting spells. Bedridden wife begs husband to break lease and return to city. Neighbors return near Christmas time and discuss pagan origins of the holidays. Kindly country physician visits to nurse wife back to health. Husband away again. Wife finds old letters in attic, including one from the girl who had been murdered by the Satanist. Hears strange noises emanating once again from basement. It's a Satanic ritual. Stabs hooded Satanist with kitchen knife. It's her husband! Husband and weird neighbors are all descendants of the Satanist--they picked her many years ago for this sacrifice. Suspicious physician arrives just in time with police. Wife wonders what it would be like to married to a country doctor.

God Drives a Flying Saucer (1969)

God Drives a Flying Saucer (1969)
R.L. Dione
Bantam Books

The title says it all really. Part of a cycle of books in the late 1960s and early 70s purporting to interlink and explain the mysteries of the ancient world as a function of extraterrestrial intervention (the most famous of which remains Erich von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods). Dione's shtick is to meld UFOlogy with Biblical doctrine, claiming that God is not a supernatural being but rather the most technologically advanced entity in the universe. All the miracles of the Bible thus have their foundation in weird astroscience. Good news! There is still a heavenly afterlife, but it has nothing to do with disembodied harp-playing. Instead, we become "electro-magnetic beings" (an idea bouncing around since about 1800) and vicariously "tune in" on the mental/emotional lives of those still alive (which doesn't seem heavenly, to me at least, so much as kind of sad and sick). There's also a "hell" in which God forever tunes your spiritual frequency to those experiencing pain and suffering on earth or elsewhere. Who decides where you go? Techno-cybernetic "guardian angels" record every moment of your life on "monitoring tapes" (because the most advanced technological being in the universe apparently still has a contract with Ampex).

How "Lost" Must End

Let me preface this by saying I have only seen 3 hours of Lost.  While many might say this disqualifies me from making an assessment as to how the series should end, I would argue the exact opposite.  Since I have no real investment in the story or any of the characters, I think I speak from a position of impartial objectivity.  I have in mind only the legacy of television as an historical institution.  So many series end badly, we need a finale that will last the ages—especially now that “big event” broadcasting is almost wholly extinct.  And let’s face it, no matter what happens, most fans of Lost are going to be madder than wet hornets when their collective chain gets a final yank in a couple of weeks.  So why not bring in a complete outsider to craft an ending so ridiculous and utterly frustrating that it compels everyone involved to acknowledge that the series, like all multi-season network television, has been treading water for the past five years?  Master plan?  If you believe that, then perhaps I can interest you in a cave with a map on the wall promising to show the location of the next clue as to who killed Laura Palmer.

First, let me recap the three hours of the series that I have seen.  I watched the two-hour premiere way back when, so I know the show is about survivors of a plane crash stranded on a remote island beyond time and space and basic GPS technology.  I also know through cultural osmosis that all kinds of freakish things keep happening to the survivors—unexplained plumes of sentient smoke: spontaneous bear sightings: various other weird scenes inside the gold mine.  Then I saw the episode last week where C.J. from The West Wing conked a woman on the head with a rock, stole her newborn twins, and then raised Cain v. Abel so that at least one of them would agree to devote his entire life to protecting a cave full of some kind of otherwordly light.  So that’s what I have to go on, but I think it’s enough. 

My finale begins with one of the most astonishing sequences in the history of television.  A survivor stands near the mystery cave, pondering its deeper meanings and complex implications.  Suddenly, a basketball flies out of the light at almost supersonic speed and lands at the foot of the amazed survivor.  Soon after, who should emerge from the cave but Meadowlark Lemon, famed point guard for The Harlem Globetrotters?  The survivor is completely stunned, and Meadowlark himself seems a little anxious, but he carefully retrieves the ball without saying a word and hurries back into the cave. Roll opening titles. Commercials.  When we come back, the survivors file into the cave with great awe and solemnity, perhaps to the strains of “The End” by the Doors, only to emerge on the other side within the story-world of The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island (1981).  In fact, they arrive exactly at that climatic moment in the original made-for-tv movie when the Globetrotters are about to play a team of robots for the fate of the island.

Whoa, that’s really stupid you’re thinking. The vogue for comparing Lost to Gilligan’s Island peaked long ago.  And no one would stand for such an insulting hybridization of distant historical genres.  But hear me out.  It’s actually a much more complicated and brilliant ending, I promise you. After the survivors arrive, we subsequently discover that Gilligan and his pals don’t live in “another dimension” or in a “time-warp” or anything that corny.  No one is already dead or living in cathode purgatory.  Gilligan, the Skipper, the Howells, the Professor and Mary Ann are all flesh and blood people just like the survivors.  But we discover that Gilligan’s Island itself is actually a land mass located directly underneath the Lost island…but upside-down and inside the Hollow Earth!!!  

As this mind-blowing concept may be too difficult for some to visualize, I have taken the liberty of providing an artistic rendering of my plan below:   

Once the initial encounter takes place, preferably in the first fifteen minutes or so, the rest of the finale becomes a “first contact” narrative as survivors and castaways compare notes on their two worlds.  Thus we discover that the castaways of the U.S.S. Minnow never were of “our world” in the first place, but instead live in the highly similar yet just slightly-off “Inner World” on the other side of the earth’s crust (see diagram).  We have The Beatles.  They have The Mosquitoes.  We have Marilyn Monroe.  They have Ginger.  In their world, Hamlet still exists…but it’s a musical!   

To really sell this ending, the visual styles of the two worlds need to retain their integrity.  On the Lost side (“outer earth”), the style would remain high-end Panavision location-shooting in Hawaii.  On the “Gilligan-Inner-Earth” side, meanwhile, the producers must reproduce the high-key tropical sound stage ambience of the original series, explaining it as the function of the bright light issuing from the earth’s “inner sun.”  Here we also discover that this inner sun is the source of the mysterious light leaking out of C.J.’s cave.  

Still not trippy enough for you?  Consider this.  As many will no doubt recall, Gilligan and the other “castaways” are no longer stranded in The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island (having been rescued in an earlier made-for-tv movie, Rescue from Gilligan’s Island [1978]).  In a somewhat inexplicable bid for traumatic mastery, they now run a vacation resort on the very island that trapped them for all those years.  But, as the Wiki Gods inform us,  “a corporate raider has a plan to bamboozle the owners (Gilligan and his friends) into signing over ownership to him, as the island contains ore which provides large sources of energy.  Eventually Gilligan and the Skipper uncover the conspiracy, and it results in a basketball game between the Globetrotters and some robots” (Italics mine).

So here’s the deal: We find that this mysterious “ore” is the source of all the apparent miracles on Lost, bringing everything to a most satisfying conclusion—especially when the Globetrotters trounce the robots in the final showdown and thereby secure the destinies of both worlds-- inner and outer earth.  Realizing that help will never arrive in “our” world, the Lost survivors decide to settle down in the bizarro and strangely shadowless civilization of “Inner Earth.” Roll final credits.

How is it that the Harlem Globetrotters are able to exist in both worlds?  That’s a mystery best left unanswered, a gift to the fan-fic community that can then dedicate itself to accounting for this puzzling duality.  

If that’s still too “literal” in terms of ending all of the various enigmas, there is also a back-up plan.  As we approach the final ten minutes of the series, the surviving cast members gather around some semi-mystical object descending from the sky that promises to reveal all. The light gets brighter and brighter until the entire screen goes blank. We slowly fade back, only now the image is in fuzzy black and white. As the picture gradually coheres, we find Dobie Gillis and Maynard G. Krebs in bed together.  Dobie reads a book.  Krebs, utterly baked on beatnik reefer, stares blankly into a snow globe.  The camera pushes toward the snow globe to reveal...a polar bear under a palm tree!  Fade to black.  

Yes, I realize the actual finale is already in the can and there’s no time to act on my ideas.  And yes, I realize Lost has so over-inflated itself at the mytho-poetic tire-pump that it couldn’t possibly stage such a sublime last-second gamechanger.  But, like castaways on a desert island, those of us who still have hope for more insane forms of television can always keep searching the horizon for some form of deliverance, however unlikely.

To My Son, The Teen-Age Driver (1964)

To My Son, The Teen-Age Driver (1964)
Henry Gregor Felsen
Bantam Books

Henry Felsen wrote several boy meets car novels for teen readers in the late 1950s and early 1960s, most of them cautionary tales about the hazards of not respecting cars and the road. Here he gets most direct, writing a just over 100 page "open letter" to his teenage son about the wide world of cars. Felsen opens with a brief chapter of sentiment about watching his boy become a man (given the AC/DC-ish title: You, Who Are About to Drive). After that, "Dad" addresses all your likely assertions (oh teenage wiseacre) and demonstrates why you are an idiot and he is Dad. Don't be a careless driver, but don't be too careful. What would you do if a truck was coming straight at you? Be careful of rented U-Haul trailers--they are used by people unaccustomed to pulling a heavy load. Don't run from the police...ever! Much of it reads as if you are taking a driving test with your father, with you driving and him walking you through all the things that might kill you as you motor down Main St. Best advice of all, in a car and in life: "Don't make a bet you can't afford to lose."

Hamburger Hallucinations

(above) Details from a McDonald's "Space Explorer" Coloring Calendar for 1983, featuring the rather unfortunately named technological innovation of "Rub 'n Discover."  Children are encouraged to "rub" various blank spaces in the calendar to "discover" that the residents of McDonaldland are capable of selective invisibility and constant surveillance;  (below) A cheeseburger hovering over a creek.

Sigfried and Roy at the Mirage (1991)

Sigfried and Roy at the Mirage (1991)

Souvenir program for Sigfried and Roy's show at The Mirage in Las Vegas. Copiously illustrated with shots of S &R donning various combinations of capes, metal feathers, scepters, and bondage gear. Roy meditates atop a flaming pyramid. "We are not meant to say the great things we can do," they advise, "We are here to show that wonderful things are happening." Michael Jackson concurs in a somewhat ironic pull quote: "Nothing's impossible, nothing's concealed, everything is for real." At home, S & R are shown eating lunch with a nun. Products on offer include: a Sigfried and Roy Sport Bottle for $5 and a stuffed white tiger cub for $10.

The Croquet Player (1937)

The Croquet Player (1937)
H.G. Wells
Bison Books

Echoing H.P. Lovecraft's interest in "ancestral dread," this story concerns a doctor (and his psychiatrist) who have come to believe that a small village in England, Cainmarsh, is under some form of curse. Also like Lovecraft, Wells ties this sense of dread to anthropological excavation--making the recently unearthed skull of a cave man a focus of ongoing contemplation and horror. The psychiatrist explains his theory to the book's eponymous narrator:

'A century or so ago,' he said, 'men lived in the present far more than they do now. Their past went back four or five thousand years, their future hardly went as far; they lived for now. And what they called the eternities. They knew nothing of the remote real past. They cared nothing for the real future. That'--and he nodded at the cave-man's skull, 'just wasn't there. All that was buried and forgotten and out of life. We lived in a magic sphere and we felt taken care of and safe. And now in the last century or so, we have broken that. We have poked into the past, unearthing age after age and we peer more and more forward into the future. And that's what's the matter with us.'
"'In the marsh?' said I.
"'Everywhere. Your vicar and priest know that by instinct though they don't know how to express it--or anyhow they don't express it as you and I do. Sometimes it's nearer the surface in the marsh--but its everywhere. We have broken the frame of the present, and the past, the long black past of fear and hate that our grandfathers never knew of, never suspected, is pouring back upon us. And the future opens like a gulf to swallow us up. The animal fears again and the animal rages again and the old faiths no longer restrain it. The cave-man, the ancestral ape, the ancestral brute have returned. So it is. I can assure you I am talking realities to you. It is going on now everywhere. You have been in the marsh. You have felt them in the marsh, but I tell you these resurrected savageries are breathing now and thrusting everywhere. The world is full of menace--not only here.' He stopped short and his spectacles flashed as he looked at me and then stared again out of the window. 

Of general interest to anyone with a modernity fetish.

How to Kill a Dog Carefully

Movies from the studio era try so desperately to project a sense of coherence that it’s always a treat to see one that goes completely off the rails.  Such is the case with Calling Dr. Gillespie (1942), a film from the B-unit at MGM starring Lionel Barrymore, Philip Dorn, and Donna Reed.  The nice white-haired man that TCM keeps locked up in their studio year-after-year tells us the movie was originally meant to be the 11th installment in the Dr. Kildare series so popular in the 1930s.  After completing principle photography, however, MGM summarily dumped Lew Ayres (who played Kildare) after he made public his status as a conscientious objector in WWII.  The film apparently was re-cut to bring Kildare’s mentor Gillespie (Barrymore) to the forefront, while Dorn was added as Dr. John Hunter Gerniede in the hopes no one would notice that “Dr. Kildare” was no longer in the Dr. Kildare series (the poster at left captures this strange subterfuge: "A NEW chapter in America's best-loved series" 100% Kildare-free).

Tough sledding, as they say.  But even worse, by bringing Gillespie (essentially “Old Man Potter” from It’s a Wonderful Life, played here as a lecherous but loveable physician) into the lead, the typically light and spare comic touches offered by Barrymore across the series instead become a central focus, unexpectedly making Calling Dr. Gillespie the first (to my knowledge at least) medical-mystery-suspense-comedy ever to focus on a serial killer.

Yes, a serial killer.  For in this installment, old man Gillespie must counsel a young woman engaged to a young man who shows all the signs of entering “dementia praecox."  “Your son is a mental case,” he tells the boy’s parents at one point, bad news for them but hilarious for us as the diagnosis rolls off Barrymore’s crusty old tongue.  Dorn as Gerniede, meanwhile, is just itching to try all of the new psychiatry stuff he’s been reading about, and so the movie unfolds as a pre-Spellbound search for the meaningful trigger behind the symptom (spoiler alert: we discover train whistles make the young man homicidal—although in a wonderful example of the film's narrative incoherence, we never learn about the original trauma that caused this reaction.  But in the final analysis, I think this is a much more satisfying blockage than Hitchcock's characteristically tidy psycho-summations). 

But it gets worse.  I can only imagine the script and editing departments at MGM as the producer waltzed in one day to make the following announcement: “The new “Dr. Kildare” movie no longer has Dr. Kildare in it, so all of his footage has to be taken out.  Instead we’re going to foreground Gillespie and introduce Dorn as a new sidekick.  Also, it's going to be more of a comedy now, even though it's about a guy on a homicidal rampage.  Oh, and one more thing, a cute little dog is brutally murdered in the opening 5 minutes of the picture, so you’ll have to get around that.  Now get to work!”

It is a task that seems like a dare between two drunken screenwriters.  “I bet you can't write a light-hearted character-based comedy…with a serial killer in it…and with an adorable dog killed in the opening scene.”  “No problem,” says his friend, seconds before falling into a pool of his own vomit on the floor of Musso Franks.

Don’t believe me?  Below are a series of stills from the remarkable “hey, I think my boyfriend might be insane because I just saw him kill a dog for no good reason” scene that opens Calling Dr. Gillespie.  Cruelty to animals was a Production Code concern, of course, and so the scene is handled with utmost “be carefulness.”  Still, after seeing this sequence, imagine the heroic effort of trying to steer this already battered ship of a movie toward curmudgeonly comedy. 

They seem so young and in love.  I wonder when Dr. Kildare will show up. 

Oh look at that adorable dog. The future sure looks bright for this smart young couple.

Boy, he doesn't seem too happy that she wants to postpone the wedding until the school year is over. 

Where the hell is he going?  Why did he pick up that rock? 

Man, that is one adorable dog.  Oh look, he wants to play.  That should cheer the guy up. 

What is she screaming about?  Dear God, he's not going to throw that rock at that dog is he?  

Great Scott!  He is throwing a rock at that dog!

And now ladies and gentlemen, stick around for the comic antics of Mr. Lionel Barrymore!