To Seduce a Nation (1984)

Lindsey Williams
Worth Publishing Co.

More evidence that the "Tea Potters" have been a-brewin' and a-stewin' for a long time now, just waiting for their day in the electoral sun.  Anyone with the taste and refinement to be reading this blog probably hasn't fallen for the Tea Party line that their movement is only about government spending, that there is no "social agenda" behind all the funny hats and not-so-funny signage.  But if you need more convincing, here is the book for you.

Baptist minister Lindsey Williams lays out the history and the problem.  This country, he argues, was founded by hard-working, extremely religious pilgrims who despised laziness and frivolity. When it came time for the Revolution, the founding fathers were smart enough to realize that all democracies will eventually fail because the "wealth-consumers" will always outvote the "wealth-producers." Politicians will thus start pandering to the welfare leaches (like FDR did for widows and children during the Depression) until the nation approaches bankruptcy, a process made worse as vast legions of "Bureau-Rats" become dependent on the public coffers for a living.  This is why the United States Constitution calls for a Republic and not a democracy.

But somehow millions have come to suck at Uncle Sam's red-white-and-blue teets anyway.  Who is the enemy and why did this happen?  She's on the cover, the "whore of Babylon," and in the American context she consists of three components: 1) religious Babylon--America is now full of non-Christians; 2) political Babylon-- a false interpretation of the First Amendment as the "separation of church and state"...not true, remember those pilgrims?; 3) monetary Babylon-- America has unwisely abandoned the Gold Standard.

Williams goes on to make the favorite argument among this crowd that one shows obediance to God by resisting all laws that are not Constitutional. Chief among the unconstitutional things that must be destroyed is the Federal Reserve.

With its "original intent" approach to both the Bible and the Constitution, the book provides fascinating insight to that segment of the population that looks to textual stability and moral certainty as a means of resisting the inexorable process of social change.  Eve ate an apple, the "founding fathers" hated the rabble, FDR was an effete Satanist, and that's that.  No matter what challenges face the nation in 1984 (or today for that matter), they can only be solved by the literal interpretation of words written in the late 18th century. 

Chillingly, Williams ends by laying out his three-part program for "taking the country" back.  Step one: take over the House of Representatives.

Field Notes on Midwestern Birds of Prey (n.d.)

Steve Anderson and Hal Koller
Eagle Valley Environmentalists, Inc.

Guide to the suprising number of birds in the American Midwest capable of bringing death from above to small rodents.  These include 10 owls, 9 hawks, 2 eagles and a turkey vulture.   Notes are provided as to how to identify each subspecies, along with information about migration patterns, hunting practices, and mating activities.

I find myself particularly haunted, however, by the drawings provided by illustrator Lenny Lichter, especially a trio of owls.  Look at these owls.  Look into their eyes.  If you were a mouse, you'd be dead by now.




Conquering the Hosts of Hell (1977)

Win Worley
H.B.C. Publications, Inc.

Personal accounts of Satan's defeat as secured by Southern Baptist minister Win Worley, a read that is at once hilarious and horrifying.  Before offering these testimonies, Worley surveys the current challenges facing the demon-caster in the late '70s, including witchcraft, "the curse of Jezebel" (i.e. women), succubi, incubi, subliminal advertising, cults, etc.  While these may seem like the usual suspects on the Southern Baptist front, Worley throws in the wild card of claiming anaesthesia and blood transfusions can cause demonic possession:  "I cannot say with certainty how it is accomplished, but in some susceptible individuals, it is possible for demons to transfer through the bloodstream.  I do not pretend to know how this happens, but there are cases of dramatic and awful personality changes following a blood transfusion which are obviously demonic in nature."  Later Worley warns us that hospitals are full of demons who have vacated dead bodies and are waiting for new hosts--these demons are fully capable of entering the body through a surgical incision.  Again, the year is 1977. 

The "testimonies" are similarly depressing inasmuch as many of the people saved by Worley were clearly borderline psychotic.  I suppose one could argue that if Worley's demon-driven vision helped people live happier more productive lives, there's really no harm done in the end.  But reading through the testimonies, there is an overwhelming vibe that most of these conversions were the result of emotional instability, and in some cases, actual schizophrenic episodes.  A survey of pre-conversion difficulties: depression at army boot camp; growing up in a hotel full of prostitutes; sexual abuse; allergies to cats and detergent; inability to concentrate in dentistry school; paranoid-schizophrenic diagnosis; apparitions caused by over-interest in astrology; early hair loss (attributed to a "baldness demon"); "worldly" atmosphere of a college art department; flirtations with Communism and Nazism; overly strict Jewish parents combined with an unhealthy interest in the Moody Blues.

After next Tuesday, many of these people will apparently be in positions of power in the United States Congress.  Cheers!

Space Prison (1958)

Tom Godwin
Pyramid Books

Let's all go to Space Prison, shall we?  The worst reprobates of the universe, crammed together in the Big House on Taljare-8.  A space mess hall where prisoners bang their space trays and space cups on the table to protest the horrible space gruel.  Hiding a space spoon in the cell to start digging a tunnel to the outside. The space-grudges...the space-shanking...the interspecies homoerotic space tension! Beings of all sizes and shapes bound together by the code of intergalactic crime: murder on an outworld colony...robbing a space transport of its rare metals and spices...check-kiting on Rigel 14.  This is going to be a great read...

But alas, Space Prison is only another rip-off perpetrated by the publishing industry of the sixties.  This book was actually published originally as The Survivors, and there are in fact no recognizable prison conventions to be found anywhere.  Here's what wiki has to say about it:

It was published in 1958 by Gnome Press in an edition of 5,000 copies, of which 1,084 were never bound. The novel was published in paperback by Pyramid Books in 1960 under the title Space Prison. The novel is an expansion of Godwin’s story ‘Too Soon to Die‘ which first appeared in the magazine Venture.”

What do we get instead of space prison?  Earth is locked in a deadly war with the Gerns.  A transport ship attempts to sneak a colony of earth people to another planet in anticipation of the impending Gern victory.  But the Gerns intercept the ship and quickly divide the humans into two camps: the "Acceptables" (bound for enslavement as research scientists on the Gern home world) and the "Rejects" (summarily herded onto a landing vehicle and then ditched with a few supplies on a god-forsaken planet).  After that, the story is one of survival rather than incarceration, as the Gerns have put the Reject-humans on a planet that has huge extremes in weather and two terrifying adversaries:

1.  the prowlers: wolf-panther badasses that rule the planet and are unwilling to accept the intruding species.

2.  stampedes of blood-thirsty unicorns that can stomp and rip a man to shreds.

Space Prison is a somewhat difficult novel to follow in that each central character dies after about 40 pages, handing the narrative baton to the next ruler of the human colony.  I'm guessing the author was at one time a geology major in college, as much of the story involves search parties looking for iron deposits that might be exploited to build a new spaceship for escape (the logic here was unclear.   The colony can barely survive from year to year foraging for herbs and unicorn meat, so it isn't exactly apparent how they will find the time and resources to construct a space ship).

The ultimate goal, after surviving, is to take the battle back to the Gerns.  Part one of a series, apparently.  I doubt I will read part two, unless of course I am tricked once again.

Don Draper’s Imaginary Decision Considered Objectively

A lot of people have been squawking the past week about the season finale to Mad Men, apparently upset that Don Draper has “chosen” Megan over Faye.  The general line appears to be that by proposing to Megan, Don has  “regressed” in a program of personal actualization and/or redemption that has, for some, become the central through-line of the series.  The enlightened position is that Don Draper must be “reformed” in some way, even if such a reformation merely recapitulates the even more suspect ideological logic of the romance novel (“bad boy” redeemed by the love of a good woman) that critics used to find equally loathsome.  Don and Megan’s engagement is thus a betrayal of some kind, both to Faye and the audience.

I am somewhat confused by this response.  I will admit I missed a couple of episodes this season, so maybe I didn’t see the surprise preamble in which Matthew Weiner appeared on screen to announce the series would be changing focus from a melodrama to a didactic parable of modern masculine redemption set in the 1960s.  I’m not exactly sure what these people expected (or more accurately desired).  Was Don supposed to marry Faye, quit advertising, and then run some kind of male-sensitivity seminar at the local Ramada?    If he did, would we still watch every week?  Is there so little self-knowledge in this segment of Mad Men’s audience that they have completely disavowed the show’s appeal to a complicated fantasy of an earlier socio-sexual imaginary?

If you want to get angry, get angry that anyone had to make a “choice” of any kind in this scenario.  Mad Men is politically “bad” in some sense because it paired Don with the young French hottie over the age-appropriate professional peer, and yet there is little interrogation as to the imperative of heteronormative monogamy that demands Don must legally pair up with something in a skirt by season’s end.  If one is going to play the weird game of judging fake people living in cartoons of distant historical eras by the yardstick of contemporary gender politics, shouldn’t we be more riled by the unexamined logic that all of them—Don, Megan, and Faye—can only be happy if they get married and squirt out a few more Nassau County trust fund kids for the 1980s?  Don Draper is an incredibly handsome and fairly creative man with an apartment in the Village in 1965.   As long as we’re all going to share how imaginary Don’s imaginary choice has impacted our own structures of real desire, then let me say how much I feel betrayed and aggrieved Don isn’t burning his suits, putting on a black turtleneck, and using his semiotic skills in the service of the Situationist International. 

But that would be a different show, as would be the series proceeding from Don achieving some kind of emotional maturity by marrying his evil doppelganger in the “let’s hoax people into buying shit they don’t need” industry.  Why don’t we just cut to the chase and move the storyline all the way to 2010 with Don, now a widower in a nursing home, explaining to all his blue-haired admirers about what a womanizer he used to be...that is until he met Faye, who "completed" him in such a way that his show got immediately canceled.

Again, it is silly to continue arguing along these lines inasmuch as the characters on Mad Men are not actually real people and the things that happen to them are of no real consequence in the real world (in a related development, I am really pissed that whoever is writing that Haiti disaster show decided to give everyone cholera this week—bad move, I say).  But, I can play that game as well as the next person overly invested in confusing story-bait with actual day-to-day human interaction, so speaking as someone who is often asked to perform the role of a male in real life, let me walk you through the objective textual evidence that demonstrates Megan was the perfect and inevitable narrative destiny for a hallucinated white-collar executive pretending to live in our imagination of ‘60s Manhattan. 

I think we can best do this by considering the two narrative product lines offered by Faye and Megan, and why Megan according to all wholly objective criteria is the better choice. 

Hair color: 
This may seem like a superficial place to begin adjudicating the crucially important decision of with whom Don Draper will chose to have a fictional relationship, but in many respects, hair color holds the key to the narratological-ideological overlay guiding Don’s imaginary penis.   Put simply, brunettes are empirically, demonstrably sexier than blonds.  That’s just the sad truth for any of us who have hair that reflects more light than it absorbs.  Yes, many blonds have been celebrated for their purported sexiness over the years, but it all pales before the dark locks of the mysterious brunette.   Generations of painstakingly verified sexual research, data gathered in real life and then transported directly to the screen, demonstrates that dark hair equals enigmatic depth and erotic unpredictability.  Blonds, on the other hand, are generally all surface--earnest and well-meaning perhaps, like Faye, but ultimately much less interesting.  We may discover next season that Megan is bat-shit insane, but it will most likely be a thrilling madness of carnal abandonment rather than the neurotic repression of the classic “Hitchcock Blond” that is Betts, and by hair-color extension, most likely Faye as well. 

ADVANTAGE: TEAM MEGAN

Nationality:
Megan is, of course, French (Canadian).  She is French (Canadian) in the 1960s.  She is French (Canadian) in an era when being French still meant you had access to sensual and sexual knowledge that would kill the average American man.  Don Draper is no average man.  He deserves a French (Canadian) wife. Megan’s French-Canadianicity, meanwhile, also allows for expanded business opportunities.  Don’s work at SCDP cannot help but benefit from fictional trips to a stylized 60’s Paris Toronto, then still an epicenter of international design and artistic innovation.  Who knows, perhaps in a flattering gesture to Mad Men’s target demo, Don can run into Godard McLuhan (or a close facsimile thereof) to discuss the ethics of the image in consumer capitalism.  Faye, on the other hand, while offering some potential strategic synergy for Don’s business, is just as likely to be a source of complication and conflict.  Really, why would someone want to be TV-married to someone who simply replicates all your own plots? 

Red = secondary revisions based on my own apparent secondary revision of Megan's French-Canadian heritage.  I am also aware that Toronto is in Ontario and not Quebec, but McLuhan strikes me as the most fitting Canadian analogue of Godard circa 1965. 

ADVANTAGE: TEAM MEGAN

Breeding Stock:
Many are upset that Don opted for someone much younger than himself.  But consider the following: Don Draper is a man’s man, an alpha male of the first order.  Painfully handsome, he had the smarts to escape from the boondocks, outfox Uncle Sam to get out of Korean, and then rise from haberdasher to the executive class under an assumed identity.  He is an extraordinary specimen of manhood, and as such, his seed must be spread as freely and copiously as possible.  While a couple of more little Drapers are probably possible with Faye, Megan is poised to produce an entire basketball team of achingly gorgeous boys and girls to supplement the genetic line he has already produced with Betts. 

ADVANTAGE: TEAM MEGAN 

Parenting Skills:
One of the ongoing issues in Mad Men is the rampant “evil mothering” of Betts, who appears hell-bent on transforming Don’s adorable daughter Sally into another frigid she-beast haunting the Westchester bridge circuit.  Megan, by contrast, is quite proficient at wrangling children, both physically and emotionally.  Really, after Megan proved so adept at soothing runaway Sally’s abandonment complex—in stark contrast to Faye’s “I built a career rather than competent mothering skills” awkwardness—was there really any doubt Don would choose her?  The trip to California only cemented this advantage, Megan proving herself capable of keeping the rugrats out of Don’s hair while he attended to his important man business—hauling them back and forth to the swimming pool, teaching them adorable French songs, and still having the time and energy to go clubbing for a night at the Whiskey a Go-Go.  The “milkshake” scene sealed the deal.  An accident that previously would have caused months of brooding and ill-will in the Draper household is literally rewritten here as “there is no use in crying over a spilt milkshake.”   We know how Betts would react in this situation.  Faye no doubt would have asked everyone how they felt about the spilling of the milkshake.  Megan just wipes it up and moves on.  

ADVANTAGE: TEAM MEGAN

Profession:
Megan is merely a secretary, while Faye is a Ph.D. who has established her own successful career as a market researcher.  But as anyone with a human soul recognizes, market research is a horrible, shameful profession, worse even than pimping, drug-dealing, or loan-sharking.  If the scene with Faye pretending to befriend the steno pool at Sterling Cooper so as to extract skin care data from them didn’t chill you to the bone, perhaps you’re not human either. 

But what of Don?  He’s involved in advertising, and that’s really no better, right?  That’s true.  But Don has been the breadwinner in his family, having to support Betts and 3 hungry children, so he is to be excused if he must behave unethically from time to time in order to earn a living.  Faye, meanwhile, is certainly attractive enough to have earned the attention and wedding ring of a well-off man.  There’s really no need for her to work in the first place, thus making her zeal in contributing to the further alienation of mankind under consumer capitalism all the more horrifying. 

ADVANTAGE: TEAM MEGAN

So as you can see, Faye never had a chance.  And certainly none of this could have been a surprise to anyone.  From the moment Peggy’s lesbian gal-pal and her Warholite crew came up to reception for the explicit purpose of checking out Megan’s radiating hotness, there was little doubt she was to be Don’s seasonal destiny.   Remember, in television, like high school, the hottest guy and hottest girl always somehow find each other. 

And finally, for all those who think this was a “misstep” of some kind, just look at how much vitriolic discussion it has provoked over the past week.  Face it, you got played like a well-greased fiddle, a point that should have been obvious when the outrage over Don's choice was already written into the story world as auto-critique.  Why else were we given the scene of Peggy and Joanie smoking cigarettes and bitching in the wake of Don’s big news?

 But don’t worry.  As this is a MELODRAMA, logic dictates that Don and Megan—no matter how well-suited for each other—will be dodging monkey wrenches left and right next season, punished for not embodying a structure of desire judged acceptable by Mad Men’s contemporary audience.  Still, we should remember that the primary function of Mad Men is not to "reform" Don, but is instead to compel people to keep watching Mad Men every 8 months.  Melodrama, after all, is about caricatures placed into violent collision.  Given the unpleasant reminder that Mad Men is more Peyton Place than Fredrick Wiseman, can anyone really say they would rather spend next season watching Don and Faye embark  on a boring voyage of emotional stability and mutual respect?

Cats in Pictures: How to Photograph Your Favorite Feline (1965)

Jeanne White
Chilton Books

A book purporting to instruct the reader on the finer points of photographing cats, but really, just another excuse to look at pictures of cats engaged in cute and amusing hijinx.

Intriguingly, as this was written in the dog-dominant '60s, author White must first make the case that 70% of cat owners are "families" and not "spinsters," thereby sanctioning the reader's presumed interest in photographing and appreciating cats as completely normal and not at all sad or pathetic. 

The secret to a good cat photograph, we are told, is the ability to understand how cats will react in certain situations.  The formula is thus to put the cat in a "situation," provoke it somehow, and then photograph it.


Another good trick is to pose your cat with a prop.  White even recommends that you canvas your neighbors for interesting items in which you can place your cat.  "Who knows what souvenirs  from their travels may be tucked away in some corner that might better be used in a photo with playful kittens!"  One can only imagine the unfortunate reader of this book who became even more stigmatized in the neighborhood as the weird cat lady/guy by going door to door in search of useful objects in which to pose little Mittens.  

After that, White basically provides information about lenses, lighting, depth of field, etc. that would apply to any object, feline or no.  In the cat psychology department, however, we are told cats do not appreciate a "hail-fellow-well-met" approach, and that not treating them "gently" during their photog session will result "in a picture of a peeved pussy!"  And no one wants that, at least in this context.

If you're particularly good at photographing cats, White advises,  you might consider selling your photos at local gatherings of cat enthusiasts.

If you send out a lot of photos to cat magazines and photo contests, meanwhile, you are advised to keep a loose leaf notebook notating where each photo is and when it was sent.  If you don't hear about your cat photo submission in over a month, "a letter listing pertinent facts and inquiring if pictures have been received is in order."  This advice no doubt made the author a favorite among the editors of the nation's leading cat and general interest monthlies of the era.

Alright, you've read this far, so clearly you want to look at cats.  Here are some of the more interesting shots from the book (note: when in doubt as to how to photograph a kitten, stick him into something). In the spirit of the genre, I have added my own humorous captions that attribute human thought and motivation to each cat or kitten.






"Hey, look at me, I caught a fish, which is good because, like all cats, I really enjoy fish. Yay for me. "











"Go F yourself," said the sleepy little kitten to the people who stuck him a coffee cup. 











WTF?







Before the almighty and ineffable God Lucifer and in the presence of all Demons of Hell, who are the True and the Original gods, I, Mittens, renounce any and all past allegiances. I renounce the false Judea/Christian god Jehovah, I renounce his vile and worthless son Jesus Christ, I renounce his foul, odious, and rotten holy spirit.
I proclaim Satan as my one and only God. I promise to recognize and honor him in all things, without reservation, desiring in return, his manifold assistance in the successful completion of my endeavors.



 Additional Cat Photography Mystery:  If you will examine this photo closely, you will notice that the previous owner of this book, for reasons unknown, supplemented a cat ear on the left kitten with some detailed blue ink work. 

Terrifying Creatures of a Bygone Era


    

   Egg Carton Bunny
     Terror Factor: 7

     Bunny cruelly deprived of characteristic 
   ability to hop
    












"Leaf Man"
Terror Factor: 8

Man with leaf body a poignant reminder to children of their inescapable mortality. 











"Clothespin" Dog
Terror Factor: 8

Imagine if the family dog had legs that could be peeled like a shrimp



 

 






Screambox
Terror Factor: 6

Harmless beanbag competition becomes exercise in existential alienation.

 









Paper-Strip Man
Terror Factor: 9

Dances on your head while asleep





Our Delinquent Children (1946)

C. Logan Landrum
Institute of Crime Prevention

Popular lore has it that juvenile delinquency only became a recognizable problem in the 1950s, stirred up in the wake of Marlon Brando's iconic performance in The Wild One (1953).  Truth is, however, that young punks were causing trouble for decades previously, making the reform of wayward youth a Progressive priority since the turn of the century.  Countering the many stories of young bootstrapism by Horatio Alger was The Jack Roller: A Delinquent Boy's Own Story (1930), an "autobiographical" account of a young man's criminal initiation on the streets of Chicago in the twenties.

A pocket-sized 26 pages, Our Delinquent Children appears to be a pamphlet that teachers, social workers, and other civil employees could distribute to concerned parents.  Delinquency, we learn in 1946, is already a terrible problem and getting worse.  80% of boys appearing in court are charged with stealing.  Girls don't steal, claims Landrum, but are typically brought to court for "running away, insubordination, and sex offenses."   Somewhat predictably, the "causes" of delinquency are mostly Mom's fault:  "working mothers" and homes broken by divorce and/or desertion.  The overcrowded  living conditions associated with poverty are isolated as another cause.  All of Landrum's data, it should be noted, derives from a study of delinquency conducted in Macon, Georgia. 

There would soon be a tide of these delinquency studies, leading to an entire genre of filmmaking that for the most part simply translated these facts, figures, and theories to the screen.  Crime in the Streets (1956), for example, stars John Cassavetes as a young tough living in precisely the conditions described in Our Delinquent Children.  On the verge of graduating from petty crime to murder, Cassavetes is saved in the end by the persistant and consciencious efforts of a local social worker (James Whitmore) who won't give up on him. 

Of course, in today's era of fascistic neo-liberalism, we have at last found the courage as a society to give up entirely.  If the "delinquent" are to be "reformed," somebody will have to first figure out how to make a profit from it. 

Recent Trends in Vehicular Cat Humor

Anyone who has ever let a cat loose in a speeding car knows that it is a situation fraught with both humor and terror.  It’s funny because the cat, accustomed to performing a cool mastery over all he surveys, suddenly finds himself riding an adrenaline spike of panicked incomprehension.  Where am I, why is everything moving so fast, and why am I about to hurl?  These are the amusing questions we image kitty asking himself as he hunkers down on the floorboards making that yowling sound that portends Satan’s imminent materialization in the glove box.  This is hilarious, of course, because as humans we have a superior knowledge of the situation, and as the “winners” of the evolutionary sweepstakes, we are entitled to take occasional amusement from the frantic confusion of our hapless companion animals, especially ones that devote so much time to implicitly mocking our Darwinian “victory” by eating and sleeping all day. 

Of course, if terror-cat is not immediately returned to his carrier, inverted laundry basket, or leg chains, he will in his agitated state eventually worm his way under the accelerator and/or brake pedal, as if to say, “so you think this is funny, dipshit?  How ‘bout I kill us all by forcing you to rear-end that truck carrying the giant sewer pipes?  By my count I have 5 maybe 6 more lives left, see if I give a f*#k. You think we have some special relationship, but any idiot can be conned into feeding me and shoveling my shit, especially after I’m way famous at the pound as the adorable survivor of that horrific pile-up on the beltway.”  Suddenly you are riding the adrenaline spike, imagining your embarrassing obituary circulating among family and friends: smug college-graduate boasting of self-proclaimed above-average intelligence killed after small mammal defeats restraint protocols, opens car throttle to maximum, forces Toyota off bridge and into ravine.

Dogs appear to enjoy being in the car.  In fact, dogs appear to enjoy being wherever we are, even if it’s an STD out clinic.  As they will gladly eat their own shit, dogs are also incapable of humiliation.  More evidence that dogs aren’t really funny.  The best one can hope for in dog humor is an inopportune humping or a klutz like Beethoven digging up a stuffy neighbor’s prize flower garden.  Dog humor is the humor of small children, wholly mediocre, unexceptional small children.  Skeptics might point to the MGM Dogville comedies of the early 1930s in which a cast of actual dogs performed parodies of recent motion pictures.  To this I would say, imagine how much more hilarious those movies would be if they featured cats.  Cats are Keatonesque in their stolid endurance of life's ongoing indignities.  Dogs, on the other hand, evoke the sentimental claptrap of Chaplin.  Somebody has probably already made that distinction.  No matter.  It is worth making again.  

The poetics of feline humor figure in two recent high-profile Hollywood comedies, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) and The Hangover (2009).  Each features a comic set-piece involving the protagonist(s) trapped in a car with a large and ferocious "big cat."  

As the demands of aesthetic evaluation compel a rendering of judgment on all things belonging to recognizable categories, we are forced to consider which of the two films is the more successful in bringing “trapped in a car with a cat” humor to the big screen. 

Talladega Nights: the Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)

The set-up:  Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) is a top NASCAR driver who loses the ability to compete after a bad accident at the track.  Under the tutelage of his long absent white trash father (Gary Cole), Ricky embarks on a series of “training” exercises to regain his racing chops. In one such exercise, Ricky must drive a car while locked inside with a wild cougar.

Choice of cat:  Why go big?  For the humor to work here, the chosen cat must be truly terrifying.  The scene might have worked through a logic of multiplication, if say Ricky Bobby’s father had challenged him to drive with a “messload o’ housecats” in the passenger cabin, but this would have required Ferrell to play the scene more as an escalating annoyance, batting away tabbies and torties as he attempted to keep the car on the road.  The invocation of a cougar here is also appropriate in that cougars did at one point roam the hills of Appalachia and the American south, its inclusion here supporting the movie’s subtle history lesson on the origins of NASCAR culture.  A lion, for example, while perhaps more terrifying, would not carry this echo of regional authenticity.  One can even imagine that an unlucky moonshiner in the 1930s did once discover a cougar in his backseat, leading to a local legend that somehow eventually made its way to screenwriters Ferrell and Adam McKay.

Execution: Much of the humor here stems from knowing in advance that the cougar is already in the car.  Ricky Bobby must steel himself for his encounter with the ferocious animal, which we assume will not go well.  This prelude is made even more amusing by Ricky Bobby locking eyes with a prosthetic cougar head that follows Ferrell’s every move before he gets into the vehicle (right).  The inevitable cougar attack itself proves somewhat anti-climatic.

The Hangover (2009)

The set-up:  In Vegas for a wild bachelor party, a trio of man-boys awake with no memory of the previous evening and a tiger inexplicably locked in the bathroom of their hotel suite.  Later, they discover the tiger actually belongs to boxing legend Mike Tyson, who under threat (and execution) of violence demands they return it to his compound.  After dosing the tiger with left-over Roofies, the trio begin driving across town to take him home.  The tiger awakes prematurely and comically terrifies all involved.

Choice of cat:  Feline choice here is largely motivated by plot and setting. A story of Vegas, the film really only has recourse to lions or tigers.  Of these two species, tigers are by far the more terrifying.  While male lions might be the “king of the jungle,” they often appear slow and soporific.  They might kill you, but they just as easily might lie back down for another nap.  Tigers, on the other hand, seem dedicated to remaining in a constant state of lethal aggression.  Tigers are so magnificent, in fact, that they reveal the domestic house cat for the evolutionary prank that it is. 

Execution:  The Hangover, which overall is a very fine comedy offering, loses some points here for the execution of the gag.  The tiger in car scene is staged so that the viewer is the first to realize the tiger has regained consciousness.  We see its head rise up from behind the seat as the man-boys continue their conversation, oblivious to the impending mauling.  However, given that the movie has already established that it will proceed as an escalating chain of unfortunate complications, we are well aware that the tiger will wake up even before the boys get it into the vehicle.  There are really only two ways out of this conundrum, neither of which is very appealing: (1) In a switcheroo, they could have discovered that some other animal had unexpectedly found its way into the car, perhaps a monkey, or bat, or another equally inconvenient creature; (2)  They might have found themselves inflicting further harm on the tiger, thereby incurring future comically violent repercussions from the volatile Mike Tyson—but this cruelty to the tiger would have done much to diminish our sympathy for their plight.   

Final Analysis:  The clear winner here is Talladega Nights.  More uneven overall, perhaps, the film is clearly superior in staging its “big cat” encounter.  Much of this superiority, no doubt, stems from the cougar enjoying some degree of agency, in as much as it seems to relish the prospects of ripping off Ricky Bobby's face.

A Historical Note:  I would be remiss here not to mention the continuing influence of Toonces the Driving Cat, a beloved recurring character on Saturday Night Live who made 12 appearances between 1989 and 1994.  Toonces, if you will recall, was capable of actually driving a car, but “not very well.”  Evoking the somewhat common experience of witnessing erratic cat behavior in a moving car, Toonces is funny not simply because he can drive, but also because his focus and attention to the task is in such contrast to the typical cat-in-car scenario.  In a second reversal, of course, each Toonces' sketch ends with an inevitable reaffirmation of the initial hazard, the cat driving himself and everyone in the vehicle off a cliff.

I don’t know who Nick Swardson is or why Comedy Central has entrusted him with a series, but he continues the legacy of Toonces prop/cat comedy in "Wheelchair Cat: Trust Fund Kitty."  In what will apparently be a recurring bit, "Wheelchair Cat" tells the story of a cat who inherits 10 million dollars and is then paralyzed when a jealous human relative attempts to run him down with a car.  Now confined to a wheelchair, the cat spends his time getting high and clubbing every night with a bevy of beautiful women, firing off various obnoxious retorts through a "Stephen Hawkings" voice computer.

Whatever the quality of the writing for each individual installment of "Wheelchair Cat," the bulk of the humor obviously derives from the strength of the cat's performance (above).  As anyone with even a passing familiarity with cats understands, they do not appreciate attempts to force them into certain situations, behaviors, or outcomes--be it taking a pill, using a scratching-post, or remaining encased for hours in fake cat suit.  As the photo still above illustrates, much of the humor here is in seeing just how little the cat enjoys having his head poked through the top of this elaborate prop.  So, even if the lines given to a cocaine-snorting playboy tomcat are less than funny from week to week, the ongoing assault on this orange Tabby's time, will, and dignity remains a source of foolproof comedy gold.

Anyone who wants to see "Wheelchair Cat" in its entirity can do so here:

Wheelchair Cat: Trust Fund Kitty

For additional driving cat fun, check out the video below:



thanks Moya!


Apartment Party (1966)

Gerald Kramer
Midwood Books

Tony and Mario are brothers.  After their father dies, Tony goes to work as the manager of a swanky Italian restaurant in Manhattan to help support the younger Mario in finishing college.  But Mario is more interested in girls.  Lots of them.  Tony, meanwhile, is engaged to the lovely Gina. 

One night a fat guy with a blond hooker-type comes into the restaurant to recruit Tony to run his joint, The Inferno Club, a place where the waitresses all wear devil costumes that are one-size too small.  At first Tony hesitates, but after consulting Gina, he agrees to the new job.  He is sure he can avoid becoming mixed up with the "Devilettes" and they could use the money for getting married.

A few weeks later, the beautiful Laurie shows up to apply for a Devilette job at the club and Tony senses he is doomed, that he will have Laurie no matter what the consequences.  In the meantime, Laurie fights with fellow Devilette Jessica for the attention of a schlub who is soon leaving for Hollywood to work on a sword and sandal film.  

Mario has so much sex that he flunks out of college.

Tony finally hooks up with Laurie.

Gina can't find Tony.

Mario and Tony's mother has a heart attack and dies.  

Mario starts to work at the Inferno Club, against Tony's objections.

Laurie finally outwits Jessica and leaves with the Hollywood schlub, leaving Tony high and dry.  When he tries to reconcile with Gina, he is told she left for Florida and not to bother her.

In the end, Tony and Mario are still working at the Inferno Club, bringing home new Devilettes almost every night.  But in the end, we sense that Tony is not happy with this life.  Does he still miss Gina?  Does he feel responsible for his mother's heart attack?  We may never know.


How to Beat Personality Tests (1975)

Charles Alex
Arco Publishing Co.

A guide to performing well on personality tests--commonly administered by prospective employers in the '60s and '70s--that begins with the surprisingly refreshing premise that all such tests are fundamentally idiotic.  Author Charles Alex thus promises to coach the reader in how to "perform" a proper personality in order to ace the test and land the job.

Here are two easy ones:

Lots of people have it in for me.       TRUE      FALSE
I think of suicide.                               OFTEN   OCCASIONALLY   NEVER

If you check "true" on the first question, or "often/occasionally" on the second, "you will be disqualified outright."

Alex also warns the reader to look out for "truthfulness" questions, items designed to see if the subject plans on faking his exam.

I have liked every man I have ever met.    TRUE     FALSE

If you answer "true" for this item, the assessor will simply assume you are lying and will score you accordingly.

You are also advised to demonstrate an interest in religion, but not an overly active interest.

I am an atheist.          YES      NO

If you answer "yes," you will be judged a "non-conformist" and "intellectual," both of which constitute obvious grounds for "disqualification."

I read the bible daily.      YES    NO

If you answer "yes" here, you signal that you are "excessively" concerned with religion.  So, though you might be tempted to think this makes you look good, it's actually a red flag.

Alex also gives you clues to ferret out those questions designed to discover if you might be psychotic.  Most of these are obvious, like "I have communicated with God:  YES   NO."  Others less so: "I have read the works of the Marquis de Sade: YES  NO."

Advice is also offered on how to pass "open ended" questions, figure drawing exercises, and "ink blot" tests.  Intriguingly, the advice here is to seem as boring and gender normative as possible.  If asked to draw a human figure, for example, Alex reminds you to draw someone of your own gender.  If you are a man, you should draw a "normal" looking guy in a suit (that takes up the entire page---drawing a tiny person means you might be a psycho!).  Incredibly, if pressed to draw a second figure of the opposite gender, a man is expected to draw a woman in the nude.  No advice is given to women in this situation, perhaps because the idea of female job applicants sketching out dinguses was just too disturbing for the author to contemplate.

 
If asked to write a story to accompany a picture, Alex advises saying as little as possible.  If pressed by the examiner, expand the tale only a little bit at a time and be sure not to demonstrate any actual creativity as this will be interpreted as a sign of homosexuality!  In fact, Alex recommends throughout that men should never demonstrate an interest in art or culture of any kind...only sports.

More depressing evidence of how our society kills us all a little more every day.

Burdened White Men

Most fair-minded people would agree there is no human tragedy more compelling than white middle-class men confronting the horrors of middle age.  I’m sure people of other genders, races, ages, and class positions have their own problems, but as decades of cultural production have generally avoided addressing the interiority of these other populations, the dilemmas facing impoverished Asian-American teenagers or elderly Latina millionaires remain for the most part off the radar, unless of course their stories somehow impinge on the fate of white middle-class men approaching middle age (as in a comic inability to park a car or a peculiar accent that prevents tidy transactions at the dry cleaners).

One might think that the national tragedy of aging white boomer men (followed closely by the “ain’t gettin’ any younger” Gen-Xers) would merit the sobriety afforded by television drama, a form that seems ideally suited to capturing the various humiliations now attending a social formation that once dominated almost every aspect of cultural production in the USA.  But truly this trauma of dispossession is so profound that conventional dramatic treatment would be too intense, too difficult to process.  Brothers and Sisters has struggled valiantly to narrate the unique challenges facing rich white people, and Men of a Certain Age took a stab at dramatizing the fate of men transitioning from the stars of history to mere extras in a Flomax commercial.  But for the most part "serious" television has been a dead end in this respect, no doubt because TV drama itself is a dying form beloved primarily by aging white boomer men.  I predict that when Mad Men finally catches up to Woodstock, it will signal a terrible sociological syzygy that not only extinguishes, once and for all, every “classic rock” station from coast to coast, but also guides a trembling hand at HBO to sign the first contract for a reality series in which contestants compete to lick celebrity toilets. Days later I predict Daniel Tosh will stage a bloodless coup at The Daily Show, displacing a generation of critical irony with a 40 year reign of riffing snark delivered without any discernible perspective or agenda.  It will be a brave new world.   

In the meantime, however, the aging, white, male, and middle-class among us are fortunate that television comedy has never been more courageous in narrating this sense of collective generational doom.  In fact, the fall TV season has provided an embarrassment of riches as a number of thirty and forty-something comics confront the pain of growing increasingly white, paunchy, and irrelevant. 

When Louie premiered a few months ago (it just finished its 13 episode original run on FX, but is now popping up in reruns across the schedule), eagle-eyed obsessives might have noticed that star Louie C.K. not only wrote and directed each episode, but also took a credit as film editor.  Having seen the complete run, this additional duty now makes more sense.  As the series unfolds, Louie gradually transitions from a familiar “stand-up sitcom” toward something more akin to a low-budget diary film cut into 13 half hours.  Whereas Jerry Seinfeld, still the holder of this generation’s bra$$ ring of comedy, has greeted middle age by bankrolling a sanctuary for good old-fashioned wife jokes, Louie documents the quotidian routine of a B-level comedian (in terms of exposure, not talent—just to be clear) living and working in New York City. 

In more narcissistic hands, this might have veered into annoying “insiderism.”  Unlike the navel-gazing horror of Studio 60, a show that asked us to honor those entrusted with writing the nation's dick jokes as heroic gods on high, Louie thankfully focuses on relatively common human misery, treating the world of professional comedy as little different than any other craft-based occupation.  In fact, even though "Louie" is a reasonably successful member of the entertainment industry, supporting himself through stand-up, television, and occasional movie roles, one episode features his babysitter suddenly exploding into tears as she contemplates just how bleak and depressing his future will be as a 42-year old divorcee with two kids.  In another bit, he's lucky enough to hook-up with a 26 year old hottie who has a fetish for "older" men.  Rather than signaling a return of youthful virility, however, the evening concludes with Louie bringing her to a climax by shouting out signposts of his generational decrepitude ("I can remember when people still smoked on air planes!" he shouts).  

There are a number of random black-out bits peppered through the series, but overall the episodes advance a rather leisurely portrait of midlife reassessment in the wake of divorce.  The first season concludes, finally, with an unexpectedly poignant plea for the virtues of acceptance and resignation, an ending that nicely reasserts the program's ambition to be something more than a string of jokes about weight gain and hair loss.

Equally ambitious, albeit radically different in tone, is Eastbound and Down, which has just returned to dissect the vulgar pathos of masculine sociopathology for a second season.  The first series documented the descent of Kenny Powers (Danny McBride) from once famous hot-shot ballplayer to lowly gym coach in his old hometown, a fall made even more poignant by Powers’ absolutely delusional belief in his continuing awesomeness, talent, and fame.  The setback is just temporary, he tells anyone who will listen, and soon he fully expects to be back in the bigs mowing down the opposition and shouting his famous catch-phrase ("I'm Kenny Powers and you're fuckin' out!").  Whereas Louie opts for an "indie" vibe, McBride and co-creators Jody Hill and Ben Best have designed Eastbound as a tantalus-like opera of spiraling degradation.  The more Kenny Powers tries to reclaim his masculine pride and prowess, the more diabolical the forces that conspire to pull him even deeper into abject humiliation.  As the second season begins, for example, Kenny is living in exile in Mexico--surviving as a cock-fighter, getting wasted, and apparently masturbating nightly to a yearbook picture of his ex-girlfriend. That's already pretty sad, but within the first hour, Kenny's prized fighting cock ("Big Red") is dead and he learns that his ex, with whom he almost reunited at the close of the first season, has gone through with her half-hearted marriage to the twerpy principal of their hometown junior high school.  Let’s see Mad Men take Don Draper that far down the chain of androcentric despair.

If Eastbound and Down were simply about beating up on Kenny Powers, who remains oddly sympathetic despite burning through life as a testosterone tornado that emotionally destroys everyone in his path, the series would get old quick.  Luckily, the show is smart enough to link the fate of the mulleted, super-awesome, and sociopathic Kenny to a parallel crisis in America’s collapsing confidence and identity.  Like John Rocker, the now retired baseball pitcher who once famously complained about all the "foreigners" on the 7 Train to Yankee Stadium, Powers as pitcher and as American is a man disjointed from time, a relic of pre-9/11 swagger that has no place in the New World Order.  In a rather glorious set-piece from the new season, Kenny makes his debut pitching for a terrible team in the Mexican league.  As part of his agreement, he demands the team owner mark this momentous occasion with fireworks and confetti, Powers entering the stadium and taking the mound draped in the Stars and Stripes, flipping off his new hometown fans for no other reason than Kenny's belief that it conveys his indomitable winning attitude.  In the mostly empty stands, the “crowd” looks on in boredom and confusion, much as they do at the UN. 

David Cross’ new series on IFC, The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, is also centered on the figure of the aging American idiot, in this case a temp employee who unexpectedly finds himself in the United Kingdom supervising the marketing of a new energy drink (Thunder Muscle!).  I’ve always found Cross’ "political" stand-up act a little overly didactic. His explicitly leftist humor works better in skit and character form, probably because Cross has more appeal illustrating American stupidity rather than lecturing us about it directly.  Cross has thus played a variety of self-deluded idiots over the years, perhaps most famously the mincing Tobias Funke in Arrested Development.  While Todd Margaret, so far at least, appears less directly concerned with mid-life masculinity, Cross’ character does have the potential (especially given the title) to descend into the most bitter and abject emotional void of the three (in fact, as the two shows proceed, it will be interesting to see who blinks first in terms of “redeeming” their much abused star, the creative team behind Eastbound or Todd Margaret.  Suggestively, TM has somehow found in Sharon Horgan an uncanny British analogue of Catherine Keener, who will no doubt be dangled as the love of a good woman that might “save” TM from himself—I mean, I hope not, but TV is in the end TV, and it is doubtful even Cross would completely annihilate his ugly American doofus, no matter how much he is personally embarrassed by this country).

Ostensibly a “fish out of water” set-up, Todd Margaret is particularly elegant at lampooning that oddly American desire to “fit in” with British culture--like a little brother who, even in adulthood, continues to look to his older sibling for praise and acceptance.  Much of the humor issues from Todd’s painfully misguided attempts to adopt British accents and idioms, thinking this will help him charm the locals into buying his deadly toxic energy drink.  In a deft bit of casting, Blake Harrison (the one kid who inexplicably always somehow gets laid in The In-Betweeners) appears here as a wiseass Iago, egging Margaret on to even more embarrassing spectacles of cross-cultural stupidity.  

White, balding, paunchy, clueless, pathetic, morose.  Taken together, Louie, Eastbound, and Todd Margaret paint, in varying shades, a rather desperate picture of a certain type of American masculinity in the early 21st century.   The series also demonstrate once again that the most interesting work on television these days, at least in terms of tone and style, is coming from comedy.  I like Mad Men as much as anyone else in my tax bracket, but in the end I could care less what actually happens to any of the characters on that program.  With Boardwalk Empire, meanwhile, HBO's hour-longs creep ever closer to Merchant-Ivory territory, having nothing to say or do other than pursue a course of relentlessly fetishistic art direction. Perhaps it's the smaller economies of scale that allow these writer/performer's to have a more substantial impact on the overall look and feel of the series, but these three comedies--each in a very different way--strike me as having infinitely more potential to actually accomplish what television drama once sought to do: create a narrative story world capable of eliciting at least some modicum of affective investment. 

Sugar Toothless

video

I will not assert that the interpretation of dreams due to dental stimulus as dreams of masturbation (the correctness of which I cannot doubt) has been freed of all obscurity.  I carry the explanation as far as I am able, and must leave the rest unsolved.  But I must refer to yet another relation indicated by a collquial expression.  In Austria there is in use an indelicate designation for the act of masturbation, namely: "To pull one out," or "to pull one off."  I am unable to say when these colloquialisms originate, or on what symbolisms they are based; but the teeth would very well fit in with the first of the two.

Sigmund Freud
The Interpretation of Dreams

The Car Thief (1972)

Theodore Weesner
Random House

I'm happy to report that slogging through stacks of old, orphaned books has at last paid off with a real gem.  The Car Thief apparently sold nearly a half million copies when first published in 1972, but damned if I had come across it before.  The back cover of the paperback features one rave review after another, making this book's relative obscurity now all the more curious. 

With the opening of the new school year, 16 year-old Alex Houseman begins stealing cars for reasons even he doesn't really understand.  Mostly he just drives around Detroit and nearby small towns in Michigan, hanging out in front of other schools and other diners.  Sometimes he drives by the house where his little brother now lives with their mother.  Back at home, Alex shares a life of day-to-day instablility with his alcoholic father, an auto worker who vacillates between drunken neglect and sentimental regret.  Eventually the law catches up with Alex and sends him to a boy's home to await an important court hearing--one that could either send him back home to Dad or down to the real jail in Lansing. 

As we approach the end of Alex's trials and tribulations during his junior year,  there is the sudden realization that the novel is really about something else entirely--but I won't spoil that for anyone who might actually want to seek this out and read it.

A very sad and somewhat spooky book--highly, highly recommended to anyone who at some point in his or her life ever just drove around aimlessly for lack of anything else worth doing.  

Cannibal Killers (1993)

Moira Martingale
Carroll & Graf Publishers

Everything you wanted to know about your favorite cannibal-killers, narrated alongside anthropological speculation about vampirism and lycanthropy as myths linked to ancient bloodlust.  All the heavy hitters in 20th century anthropophagic psychopathology make an appearance: Peter "the Dusseldorf Vampire" Kurten, Albert Fish, Joseph Kroll, Ed Gein, Ed Kemper, and Jeffrey Dahmer.  A few more obscure cases are also explored, including the truly bizarre story of Issei Sagawa.  A Comparative Literature Ph.D. student in Paris in 1981, Sagawa murdered and then ate Renee Hartevelt, a fellow student from Holland who Sagawa had ostensibly hired to tutor him in German.  After his arrest, Sagawa was judged insane and sent to a psychiatric hospital in France.  Within a year, however, Sagawa's influential father arranged for his son to transfer to a hospital back in Tokyo.  By 1985, Sagawa was released from psychiatric care and  apparently went on to become somewhat of a minor media celebrity in Japan--writing rather lurid books about his exploits in Paris, doing TV interviews, and even appearing in a magazine spread about a restaurant specializing in BBQ. 

Two other facts worth noting:  When police finally captured Albert Fish--still the reigning champion of American psychos--his psychiatric evaluation was assigned to Fredric Wertham, later to be famous for his campaign against "excessive" violence in comic books.  Also, there was apparently a man in Scotland in the 16th century, Sawney Bean, who raised a family of almost 50 dependents in and around a cave near Galloway, all of whom lived on human flesh.  So, that was something I didn't know before.

Toward the end Martingale attempts to convince us that sadistic serial killing and thus probably also cannibalism is on the rise (the book appeared right after Dahmer's arrest), but in truth, cannibalistic murder sprees appear to be extremely rare. Either that, or cannibals are getting better at not getting caught. Probably not worth worrying about, however.