Monday, December 29, 2014

The top 7 pop culture items my son introduced me to in 2014

My son turned five last week. It’s a good age, as all of his ages to date have been. My wife and I have had fun introducing some of our favorite things to him, but it’s been just as much fun watching him discover his own favorites and letting him share them with us. Here are seven of the coolest things I discovered in 2014 that I probably wouldn’t have without the boy’s guidance.

How to Train Your Dragon (Film)
One fateful family movie night in early fall, the boy requested a rental of Dreamworks' well-regarded How to Train Your Dragon. He's not one to get fixated on any one pop culture item (my slightly smug condolences to all the families who've endured several dozen viewings of Frozen in the past year), but every now and then he latches onto a serious favorite. We've seen How to Train Your Dragon several times over and How to Train Your Dragon 2 twice in the theater. My wife and I regularly snuggle up with him on the couch to watch the Cartoon Network TV adaptation, which is entertaining enough that none of us like to miss an episode.

Plot-wise the original movie is nothing all that new - misfit kid bonds with a misunderstood animal and teaches his elders to reconsider their outdated traditions - but it's visually lovely (famed cinematographer Roger Deakins was an advisor on both movies) and full of appealing characterizations and rich world-building. I love how the films and shows avoid Disney-style anthropomorphism and let the dragons behave like pets and wild beasts. I’ve seen enough superfluous, wacky sidekicks in the past five years that  watching an animal be an animal feels almost revolutionary. It's certainly struck a chord with the boy. I can't remember the last time one of our imaginary games didn't involve some manner of dragons.
How to Train Your Dragon (Books)
As much of an imagination-starter as the movies and shows have been, they don't hold a candle to Cressida Cowell's series of adventure books. The boy made the leap to chapter books this year, so we naturally had to check out the source material for his favorite movie. Turns out the books are goofier, grosser and considerably darker than the films (and given the last third of How to Train Your Dragon 2, that's saying something). The names and basic personality traits of several major characters are the only threads that really tie the two together. While these dragons are markedly more anthropomorphic than their animated counterparts - they speak "Dragonese" and display human emotions - they’re still a far cry from Disney.

The ongoing saga of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, the misfit Viking boy doomed to be a hero, is fraught with horrors ranging from torture to witchcraft to slavery, and it's all fantastic. It’s little-kid high adventure that flashes me back to my favorite books from my own boyhood. Since October the boy and I have read nine of the series' eleven books (a grand total of something like 2700 pages). Every night I'm just as eager as he is to find out what happens next. 

I think the boy’s favorite feature of the series is the detailed profiles Cowell compiles for the various dragons. He can rattle off the names and defining traits of dozens of dragon species, from the Poisonous Piffleworm to the Brainless Leg-Remover to the Seadragonus Giganticus Maximus. He’s also invented a number of his own dragon species, which he describes with clinical precision and a perfect imitation of Cowell’s prose style. That’s a mark of some good kid-lit right there.

I was never much of a gamer - if it doesn't have Mario or NBA basketball players in it, I probably haven't played it - but it's a fact of modern-day parenting that video games are as much a part of today's pop culture childhood as VCRs were part of mine. With that in mind, we've let the boy explore some age-appropriate gaming on the tablet and computer. The biggest hit thus far has been Machinarium, an eerily beautiful puzzle and adventure game from the independent Czech studio Amanita Design. It's the deceptively simple story of a spirited little robot trying to rescue his friends from a group of robo-thugs who have taken over their metal-strewn home town. I say "deceptively" because I'll be damned if I can figure out half the puzzles. That's my science-minded wife's department. She and the boy have spent any number of hours huddled around her Surface tablet cracking codes and solving problems for their robot buddy. I'm content to just look on and nod as I watch the twin marches of time and technology troop on by.

Was (Not Was)
This one is kind of indirect, but I’m counting it anyway. During a conversation about dinosaurs this summer I naturally started singing “Walk the Dinosaur,” which naturally led me to show the boy the video on YouTube, which naturally led to me wondering about the rest of the Was (Not Was) catalog, which naturally led to me discovering that Was (Not Was) is a pretty good band. They pull off ‘80s funk about as well as anybody not from Minneapolis, and their oeuvre is both smarter and much more extensive than their several-hit-wonder reputation might suggest. The boy, of course, just likes “Walk the Dinosaur.” That’s cool too.

The Iron Giant
I picked up Ted Hughes’ children’s book (originally titled The Iron Man in the UK but changed for its American release for obvious reasons) at the library knowing only that it was written by Sylvia Plath’s husband and that Brad Bird made it into a beloved movie. It’s a fun, pleasantly melancholy book, particularly considering that Hughes wrote it largely to comfort his children after their mother’s suicide. I’m especially fond of the early going, when the Iron Giant mostly shambles about the English countryside eating metal. I’m less enamored of the closing chapter, where the Giant saves the Earth from an invading space bat, but of course that’s the boy’s favorite part.

The movie is as good as advertised, deftly transforming Hughes’ shaggy story into a moving Cold War meditation filled with lush hand-drawn animation and excellent voice acting. Bird wisely substitutes an overzealous military official for the space bat, creating a fantasy that blends smoothly with real-life fears and wonderments. It’s also a good way to ease kids into an awareness of Vin Diesel, a knowledge base that will be increasingly vital as they approach adulthood.

Local Current
One of the many things I love about Minnesota is that it’s one of the few places in America that would have a 24-hour radio stream dedicated solely to local music. I’d listened to Local Current on my computer here and there in the past, but it wasn’t until we bought a new car with HD radio capability that I really dug into it, and it wasn’t until the boy responded enthusiastically to the playlist that it became my default radio station. For whatever reason, Minnesota music speaks to him in a way other formats don’t. We tune in every morning on the way to preschool and chat about the different artists and song styles. So far he seems especially fond of Lizzo, Bob Dylan and Doomtree (I’ve caught him wandering around the house singing “Doomtree Bangarang, Doomtree Bangarang” several times). As a bonus, our Scion's dashboard display of the song title and artist name is proving to be a surprisingly effective tool for beginning reading.

Japanese Monster Movies
I’ll own up to something embarrassing: before this year, I’d never watched an entire kaiju movie without the protective sheen of Mystery Science Theater 3000. I’m not sure how that happened, as those movies fall perfectly within my sphere of interests, but there you have it. Fortunately, this summer’s Godzilla remake generated some heavy buzz around the preschool water cooler and the boy started asking all sorts of questions about Godzilla’s origins, motivations and enemies. I’m enough of a trash film buff that I could give him semi-informed answers on those topics but eventually it was time to brave the movies themselves.

I decided to ease him into kaiju films with Gamera, the giant flaming turtle known as a “friend to all children.” We started with Gamera vs. Barugon (a subtitled print which I read aloud to him) then moved on to the truly bizarre Gamera vs. Guiron (aka Attack of the Monsters), in which the titular hero rescues two Earth children stranded on a distant planet populated entirely by two attractive young cannibal women and their pet monster. After that we worked our way into the genuine article with Godzilla vs. Monster Zero and the marvelous Mothra vs. Godzilla, easily our favorite of the bunch.

As much as the boy digs his Japanese monsters, he’s understandably bored by much of the perfunctory human-oriented filler material wedged in between creature battles (heck, who isn’t?), so it made for a nice compromise when we discovered Hanna-Barbara’s short-lived ‘70s Godzilla cartoon on Amazon. That’s his favorite incarnation at the moment, but I’m sure we’ll get back to the movies in the near future, probably next time Mommy is out for the evening. Mommy does not care for giant rubber monsters.

Friday, October 31, 2014

What Bela Lugosi can teach every artist

Bela Lugosi was destined for immortality from the moment he donned the Dracula cape and arched his eyebrows for Tod Browning's camera. But thanks in large part to Tim Burton, the last two decades have seen Bela achieving a second everlasting life as the pitiable and desiccated muse of Edward D. Wood, Jr. Casual fans could be forgiven for believing that Martin Landau's portrayal of Lugosi writhing in a wading pool with a rubber octopus in Bride of the Monster was an accurate depiction of Bela hitting bottom, but truth be told, Bela's career had dipped lower than that any number of times. 

I've watched a lot of Bela Lugosi movies over the years. The Ed Wood movies are certainly in the lower tier, but at least they're made by a director with a distinct personal style and, more importantly, a genuine appreciation for Lugosi's talents and place in cinema history. 

Compare that to, say, William Beaudine, an insanely prolific, zero-budget hired gun who cranked out endless, soulless genre pictures. Beaudine directed what I would classify as the true low point of Bela's career, 1952's Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. Lugosi's star was long since descended by '52, but this movie has so little going for it that I don't question the producer's decision to slap the star's name in the title and cash in on what little bankability he had left.

Actually, Bela isn't even the star of the movie that borrowed his name. He has fairly limited screen time as the mad scientist who torments co-leads Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo, a real-life comedy duo whose entire shtick was doing a passable impression of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Mitchell and Petrillo's subsequent lives and film careers are fascinating in their own right, but they're beyond excruciating in Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, playing a nightclub act stranded on a remote tropical island populated by friendly, grotesquely stereotyped natives and one rogue geneticist who's determined to transform Mitchell into an ape.

It's an icky, unfunny wallow in undistinguished, undignified filmmaking, but you'd never know it to watch Bela's performance. Bela gives it his all, playing the role with all the sly intensity and creepy charm that marked the best work of his younger days. Obviously he had to know he wasn't involved with any kind of masterpiece - this was a star vehicle for a professional Jerry Lewis impersonator, for heaven's sake - but it just wasn't in Bela's nature to half-ass it for a paycheck.

I've seen Bela waist-deep in all manner of dreck, be it playing fifth or sixth fiddle to the sub-vaudevillian antics of the Ritz Brothers in The Gorilla, toddling behind Basil Rathbone as a mute manservant in The Black Sleep or lurching around the city stealing spinal fluid in a ludicrous hairy mask in Beaudine's The Ape Man. (Side note: Bela Lugosi appeared in an inordinate number of simian-themed movies.) He got handed scripts possessed of not an ounce of imagination: he was repeatedly asked to rehash Dracula with diminishing returns and made at least four movies wherein he played a scientist driven mad by the death of his wife. It's safe to say that the vast majority of Bela's résumé was irredeemable garbage.

Despite all of that, I could not point you to a weak Bela Lugosi performance. Even in the direst of cinematic circumstances, Bela threw his heart into every vaguely drawn part. He played to the rafters, exuding menace and charisma as he glowered over long-forgotten actors many degrees his inferior. By all accounts he resented the hell out of his typecasting as a horror movie heavy, but he never let that distaste leak through to the screen. He did his damnedest to make sure people left the theater muttering, "That was an awful Bela Lugosi movie" and not "Bela Lugosi was awful in that movie."

Compare that ethic to any number of Lugosi's b-movie counterparts over the ages. Bela was far from the only trained, talented actor forced to slum it in terrible genre films. Lon Chaney, Jr's late-career performances (Spider-Baby excepted) range from bored to embarrassed. John Carradine never failed to deliver the bombast, but many of his low-budget roles were scarcely more than disdainful paycheck cameos. Vincent Price was dependable but prone to slipping onto hammy autopilot. Donald Pleasance occasionally roused himself for a sketchy role, as in Raw Meat, but more often than not just looked irritated to be wasting his talents on such trash. Of all the great names of bad horror, only Peter Cushing comes close to Bela in his dedication to craft in the face of adversity. But even there, Cushing's screen persona was far more mannerly, his menace much quieter. Even in the depths of dreck like The Blood Beast Terror, which found him wrestling a bloodthirsty humanoid moth-monster, Cushing was allowed his dignity. He was certainly never left to stumble around a papier-mache jungle while being outsmarted by Sammy frigging Petrillo and Steve Calvert in a gorilla suit.

But Bela was, and he squeezed every drop of lemonade out of every bag of lemons Hollywood handed him. Granted, he had a notorious opiate addiction driving him to take work wherever it was available, but he could have easily phoned in his performances in those low-grade cheapies and no one on set would have said a word about it. But he never did, and that's remarkable.

That's why I count Bela Lugosi as one of my greatest inspirations. I've been writing for money and pleasure for my entire adult life. In that time I've been asked to write all manner of things that do not interest me in the least, and plenty more things I might initially have dismissed as "beneath me." I'm the first to admit that I've made some unadvisable choices in my writing career, but I can't come up with many examples of me not putting my best effort into a project. Whether it's a feature for a national publication, a concert blurb for a local magazine or even a casual tweet on a Wednesday night, I try my hardest to make sure it's the best piece of writing I can muster.

Some of that is probably because I still believe - perhaps foolishly - that I'm a writer on the rise and every piece of work I put out to the world is a potential audition. I'll be interested to see whether I can sustain this attitude if and when I find myself irredeemably over the hill and past my peak, as Bela surely realized he was by the time he was paired up with Petrillo and Mitchell, or when he was "rescued" by Ed Wood.  It's one thing to give it your all when there's a promise of greater things shimmering on the horizon and quite another when all is lost and the art is truly just for the art's sake. Should I ever come to such a turn, I can only hope that I manage to do it as gracefully as Bela Lugosi.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

John Sebastian at Woodstock: Peak hippie

When you think of Woodstock, any number of iconic musical images leap to mind: Jimi Hendrix electrifying the national anthem, Sly Stone taking everybody higher, Country Joe McDonald spitting curse words that still carried some shock value, even Sha Na Na pioneering ironic anachronism to the delight of the of the hippie hipsters. One performance that failed to enter the national zeitgeist, though, was that of one John B. Sebastian. And that's something of a shame, because John Sebastian's performance at Woodstock may be the moment when America attained maximum hippie-dom, for better or for worse.

Maybe more so than any of his contemporaries, John Sebastian could only have been a product of the 1960s. He was an unapologetic dork who somehow maintained a certain level of counterculture cred throughout his tenure with the Lovin' Spoonful, despite specializing in catchy, frivolous folk-pop tunes that made his Tin Pan Alley forebears sound edgy. Heck, one of the heaviest numbers the Spoonful ever laid down was a blues-rock track urging parents not to buy their children unfashionable eyeglasses.

Obviously when the newly solo John Sebastian made his unexpected entrance at Woodstock, the crowd couldn't have been anticipating anything too hard-hitting. Coming on the heels of a scabrous Country Joe performance, the prospect of Mr. Sebastian's lighter stylings probably felt like a welcome breather. No one could have known they were about to be swept under the most powerful wave of '60s stereotypes ever to hit the stage.

Let's start with Sebastian's stage banter, as captured on the Woodstock soundtrack album. Just before firing up a pleasantly gauzy rendition of "I Had a Dream," an audibly excited and unmistakably intoxicated Sebastian looks to the crowd and yelps:

"Far out... Far around! Far down! Far up!"

That’s John Sebastian in a nutshell, addressing a half-a-million strong crowd and using a once-in-a-lifetime pulpit at his generation’s defining music event to launch a volley of weak wordplay straight from the dad-joke handbook. But that’s not all. He follows up his multidirectional treatise with a truly inspired run of stoner babble that would make the most hardcore drum circles blush:

“I'd like you to hear a tune about... I guess about those discussions I was talkin' about that I seem to have had in so many small circles of friends around living rooms, around pipes when they weren't sellin' no papers on the street and we weren't walkin’ around this beautiful green place, smokin' and, uh, not bein' afraid. This is about... all of us. I love you people."

And the thing is, you can believe he really does love all us people, both those gathered at Yasgur’s farm and by extension the rest of us theoretically listening at home somewhere in the future. (In his defense, to the extent that he needs one, Sebastian has since said that he wasn’t expecting to play at all and was wrangled onstage by the show’s disorganized organizers not long after smoking a ridiculous amount of weed and popping a pill of unknown origin – although not, as listeners might reasonably presume, dropping any acid.) You could make the case that John Sebastian at Woodstock, or at least his stage persona, was one of the purest embodiments ever of the hippie philosophy.

Of course, there were plenty of problems with the hippie philosophy, as evidenced in the most famous segment of Sebastian’s Woodstock set, the performance of “Younger Generation” featured in the concert film. 

Resplendent in his tie-dye jacket, bleached-out jeans and sandals, Sebastian delivers what initially comes across as a sweet if idealistic dream of eliminating the generation gap and treating children as equals. But it doesn’t take long for the scenario to slide into extremes.

And I know he’ll have a question or two
Like, “Hey Pop, can I go ride my Zoom?
It goes 200 miles an hour suspended on balloons
And can I put a droplet of this new stuff on my tongue
And imagine frothing dragons while you sit and wreck your lungs?”
And I must be permissive
Understanding of the younger generation

Now I’ll admit on the surface that looks a lot like John Sebastian is advocating letting little kids try hallucinogenic drugs, but… Well, I can’t actually come up with a but. He’s totally endorsing adolescent acid trips, and the crowd seems to be with him on that topic. After completely blanking on the next verse and enlisting the audience’s help in remembering his lyrics, Sebastian doubles down on the “more drugs for kids” message:

And “Hey Pop, my girlfriend’s only three
She’s got her own video phone and she’s taking LSD
And now that we’re best friends she wants to give a taste to me
But what’s the matter, Daddy?
Why you lookin’ mean?
Could it be that you can’t live up to your dreams?”

At this point Sebastian has moved into openly fretting that he won’t be cool enough to let his theoretical pre-schooler drop acid with his fast-living toddler girlfriend. But don’t worry – he quickly tells the crowd that, “No, it’s not true, because we’re doin’ it!” Thus reassured that they won’t subject their children to the same nightmare of a drug-free early childhood that their parents put them through, the masses give Sebastian a hearty farewell as he ambles off into the gathering dusk.

Now clearly I’m being a little unfair here. Those were different times, and the light of modern context makes a lot of previously acceptable things look rather untoward. Truth is, I kind of love ‘60s John Sebastian and his dweeby sincerity. For all the eye-rolling hippie-isms, it’s oddly refreshing to see someone so cheerfully dedicated to a mostly noble, mostly doomed movement.

Still, John Sebastian at Woodstock is as good an illustration as any of why punk had to happen.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

On 'Toys,' Robin Williams and the birth of a cinephile

1993 was the year I decided to become a cinephile. I’d always loved watching movies with my family like any kid, but now I was a teenager and a regular reader of Roger Ebert’s column in the Thursday newspaper. I made up my mind that I was going to start seeking out movies that challenged me and gave me insights into truly appreciating film. That wasn’t the easiest thing to do in Sparta, Wisconsin in the mid-‘90s. We had three decent video shops and the usual array of gas station and supermarket video sections, but classics and under-the-radar titles were hard to come by. In lieu of critic-approved, capital-A “Art Films,” I made do with whatever offbeat or indie flicks (Miramax productions, mainly) made it to my local shelves. Early in high school I claimed Spike Lee’s Crooklyn as my favorite film. I’d go to bat for Mixed Nuts as the most underrated film in the Steve Martin canon. I was almost certainly the only 15-year-old boy in Wisconsin who went to sleep beneath a poster of the Ted Danson coming-of-age dramedy Pontiac Moon every night.

But before any of that, there was Toys. Toys wasn’t an indie movie by any means. It was intended to be a holiday blockbuster for the whole family. In that regard it was every bit the failure it was always doomed to be. It’s just too damn weird an endeavor to have been embraced by the public at large. It’s borderline unthinkable that a day-glo story of a manic man-child and his cognitively disabled sister fighting to save a toy factory from a military takeover would even make it past a table read, let alone be granted the budget to realize a litany of massive, surrealist sets and a cast of top-tier stars, but such was the power of Barry Levinson in the early ‘90s. The result was a ludicrous mélange of lunatic designs and ideas with the unhinged energy of Terry Gilliam, the unlimited budget of Steven Spielberg and the unfortunate sentimentality of Chris Columbus.

It also had LL Cool J disguised as a sofa.

I first saw Toys at my pal Nathan’s house, viewed on his parents' dying VCR. The tracking was shot and the color faded in and out, no way at all to watch a movie that depends so heavily on a striking color palette. Nonetheless, I was mesmerized. It felt like something that shouldn’t exist, and I was delighted that it did. I watched it again with my own family at my first opportunity and was again enthralled with the churning, multicolored gears; the indoor roller coaster hallways; the life-sized dollhouses and mechanical duck crossings and endless, billowing fields of grass. It wasn’t like anything else, and where I came from anything that wasn’t like anything else was something worth loving.

And the cast. The cast of Toys is something else. Michael Gambon. Joan Cusack. (Never better – I had such a pubescent crush on her in this movie.) LL Cool J. Donald O’Connor. Jack Warden. Robin Wright. Yeardley Smith. Debi Mazar. (Remember Debi Mazar?) Shelley Desai. Jamie Foxx. Wendy from Wendy and Lisa. And of course, at the core of it, Robin Williams. How could the motor-mouthed man-child heir to the world’s most whimsical toy company have been played by anyone but Robin Williams?

Late 1992 was pretty close to peak Robin Williams. He’d redefined Disney movies earlier that year with Aladdin and had already cemented himself as a dramatic actor with Dead Poets Society and The Fisher King. He’d anchored a high-profile flop with Hook, sure, but he was only a year away from the zeitgeist-smasher of Mrs. Doubtfire. America was on the back end of a solid 10-year stretch wherein Robin Williams was comedy. I was a little too young to have memories of his coke-fueled standup heyday but I’d grown up loving him as a movie star. It was the early ‘90s. Who hadn’t? For as out-there as the movie is conceptually, Toys finds him giving a quintessentially Robin Williams performance, all funny voices and rapid-fire babble sprinkled with earnest monologues. Somehow Williams never overpowers the movie the way he could at his most unfettered (although he does cross over into irritation at times - when he manages to wedge in both his Michael Jackson and his Gandhi impressions, for instance). Maybe it’s because Levinson is throwing just as much brain candy at the walls as Williams is and the two creative forces balance each other out. Any which way, I count Toys as one of the best uses of Robin Williams ever.

For whatever reason I’d always glommed onto Williams’ least-loved roles. If you’d asked me in 1993 to name my three favorite Robin Williams movies, I’d have told you Toys, Popeye and The Survivors. It’s probably been 20 years since I’ve seen The Survivors so I can’t tell you if that one holds up – although it’s hard for me to imagine that Robin Williams and Walter Matthau as hapless survivalists circa 1983 would be anything but funny – but the other two are still at the top of my list. Robert Altman’s Popeye has undergone a critical redemption in recent years and finally gets some of the praise it so richly deserves – seriously, Williams as Popeye is some of the finest casting in Hollywood history. Poor Toys, on the other hand, is remembered primarily as Barry Levinson’s greatest folly, to the extent that it’s remembered at all.

Watching it again two decades later, on the day that Robin Williams died, I can understand some of the animosity. It’s sometimes mawkish, sometimes heavy-handed, sometimes outright annoying. The blending of childlike wonder and adult themes is uneasy and occasionally a little creepy. But by god, it’s just as weird a beast as it was in 1993. There’s nothing safe about it. It’s visually creative and stimulating to an insane degree, especially for a pre-CGI movie. The story goes surprisingly dark but never sacrifices a genuine spirit of whimsy. The sets are astonishing. Joan Cusack is still a revelation. And Robin Williams is a force of nature, bouncing off the walls both figuratively and literally in a performance that seriously could not have been given by any other human. It’s a movie that failed at so many of the things it set out to do but succeeded in teaching me the power of a beautiful failure. For all its flaws, Toys was essential in making me a lover of cinema.

Plus the soundtrack features a pretty cool Thomas Dolby song. 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Putting Weird Al's "Word Crimes" on trial

Weird Al Yankovic clearly struck a chord with the nation's English majors when he released his "Blurred Lines" parody video "Word Crimes" earlier this month. The deftly worded excoriation of people who use poor grammar and punctuation on the internet racked up nearly five million YouTube views in its first two days and was disseminated by high-profile sites from Pitchfork to the Washington Post. A lot of the song's leverage also came from self-proclaimed "grammar nerds" sharing it in their Facebook and Twitter feeds, often (in my experience, at least) accompanied by a comment about the poster's own frustration with dimbulbs who don't know when to add an apostrophe to "its."

Decrying the decline of spelling and grammar is a refrain as old as the internet, or at least the social components thereof. Online defense of the King's English is swift and frequently vicious. Any slight typo that slips into a publication is met with a flurry of "Don't you people employ a copy editor?" comments. A simple "there/their" mix-up is grounds for dismissing a poster's entire thesis, however cogent it may otherwise be. Even in a character-restrained environment like Twitter, using texting-inspired space-savers like "ur" or "thx" can be enough to earn a block from certain folks.

The disciples of "Word Crimes" no doubt see themselves as important gatekeepers, a bulwark against the dumbing down of our collective discourse. But are online displays of bad grammar really symptoms of creeping stupidity? Or is it just that everybody has a different skill set? Sure, there are plenty of lazy or willfully ignorant writers on the internet, but there are also scads of legitimate excuses for having poor grammar, including reading disorders, English as a secondary language, lack of access to quality writing instruction, or just plain not having a knack for words. 

Given the choice, a lot of those people probably wouldn't put their writing on public display, but in the social age that's often the only viable way for them to stay connected to their friends and family. It isn't necessarily that language skills have declined so drastically in recent years. It's just that we're seeing more language from people who used to have the option of keeping that particular shortcoming to themselves. I personally know a number of very intelligent but grammar-challenged people who are reluctant to post anything online for fear of the mockery that will inevitably come the first time they confuse their plural and possessive forms.

If Weird Al had made a video shaming folks who don't get trigonometry or who have a poor understanding of personal finance, would it have gone as smugly viral as "Word Crimes"? If so, an awful lot of grammar nerds would find themselves on the receiving end of the same condescension now being heaped on people who struggle with the rules of writing. I count myself among the fortunate folks who have a natural aptitude for the written word, but I'm the first to admit that I have grievous failings in plenty of other areas of scholarship and communication. That doesn't make me stupid, and the same goes for people who don't grasp the function of quotation marks.

I don't want to bag on Weird Al too hard here. "Word Crimes" seems generally good-natured and spotlights some of the sharpest wordplay of Mr. Yankovic's career. What's more concerning is how the song has validated and brought to the forefront a mean-spirited strain of privilege-dripping pedantry. Sure, there's some merit to the grammarians' hullabaloo - it's hard to think of a valid reason to use textspeak outside the confines of texting or Twitter, for instance - but for the most part it's an argument that places form above function. Heck, I've known storytellers who can bring a room to tears with a piece that barely resembles English on paper, and I've edited essays by award-winning authors who still begin every paragraph with a superfluous "So." I've also edited more than a few technically perfect pieces that wound up being too godawful dull to publish. If writing can be both imperfect and effective, what's the benefit in punishing every minor infraction?

Besides, do those of us who excel at writing really want everybody else climbing into the same boat? We're lucky enough to have a fairly rare skill that gives us an edge in many facets of life. Why not take pride in that rather than scorning those who don't? When I go out to a nice restaurant, the chef doesn't come to my table and belittle me for not being able to cook as well as he does, nor does he follow me home to mock my meager attempts at preparing my own dinner. There's a silent contract in place that I appreciate his artistry on its own terms and he respects that I'll do the best I can with what I've got. Nobody needs to accuse anybody of food crimes (which, come to think of it, sounds like it should be a Weird Al song title).

Let's all lay off the grammar-shaming and appreciate "Word Crimes" as Weird Al's cleverly written poke at an eminently pokable Robin Thicke song, not some sort of manifesto for folks who know their plurals from their possessives. Or better still we could skip ahead to "Foil." Mocking conspiracy theorists via a Lorde parody is the kind of shaming everybody can get behind.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The ‘Star Wars’ saga: a running commentary by my 4-year-old son

Right up top, let me say my wife and I aren’t those parents who foist all their old childhood favorites on their kids in the interest of nostalgia. Yes, Star Wars was a huge part of my childhood. I was an American boy in the 1980s, so how could it not be? But I swear our son came by his fascination with Star Wars organically, mainly by browsing books in his preschool library. The Lucasfilm marketing juggernaut is an unavoidable force, and its target audience begins pretty much in the womb. He started picking out Star Wars books every time we went to the library, asking to play various kid-oriented Star Wars games on the computer and generally geeking out as much as someone who hasn’t seen the source material possibly could.

Last month we decided he was finally capable of handling the movies – he knew every plot point of them already – and thus we all settled onto the couch for a family trip through the Lucasverse. The films didn’t disappoint, but they did inspire a lot of questions and commentary from the boy. I’ve trimmed down his more or less nonstop verbal barrage to a few pertinent points that I think capture the Star Wars experience through my son’s 4-year-old eyes.

"When will Governor Tarkin be in this?"
Having read up on the Star Wars universe extensively, the boy was excited to finally meet all the classic characters he'd grown to love from a distance – Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca, R2D2, and every kid’s favorite, Grand Moff Tarkin. I don't know why Peter Cushing's evil bureaucrat made such a pre-screening impression, but the boy spent much of the film's first 20 minutes wondering about his whereabouts. But hey, if he digs Peter Cushing, he and I have a whole lot of low-grade monster movies ahead of us.

"It's weird that Jabba the Hutt is in this."
Jabba the Hutt was, oddly enough, the boy's gateway to Star Wars. His preschool library contains a Clone Wars tie-in book called Watch Out for Jabba the Hutt. Minus the context of Jabba's villainy, the boy deemed him "cute and cuddly." By the time we watched Star Wars, he knew enough of the series' continuity to understand that Jabba was not supposed to make an appearance until Return of the Jedi. Of course, George Lucas changed all that when he slapped a digitized Jabba on top of the actor who played the cruel crime boss and inserted a long-deleted scene back into the 1997 special edition. It's a wholly extraneous scene that functions mainly as fan service – it’s patently obvious that Harrison Ford is meant to be talking to a human being. I was happy that its incongruity stood out even to a first-time, pre-adolescent viewer.

"Is that a Light-Sider or a Dark-Sider?"
The Force splits the universe into a pretty clear-cut dichotomy of good and evil. That seems to be a comforting concept for a four-year-old just starting to appreciate that life traffics mostly in scary shades of grey. Hence, he required near-constant confirmation of every minor character's allegiance.

"Biggs will be OK, because he will become Lando."
A while back at an antique shop we picked up a Star Wars picture novelization that included a story thread that got deleted from the movie, in which Luke has a philosophical conversation with his childhood friend Biggs, who is leaving Tatooine to join the Rebellion. Biggs eventually dies while flanking Luke in the attack on the Death Star, but the boy was unconcerned by his passing. See, in his first appearance in the book, Biggs wears a cape and has a dark moustache. When we meet Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back, he also wears a cape and has a dark moustache. That's enough of a resemblance for the boy to chalk it up to what I assume is some manner of Force-related reincarnation. I choose to think that's a refreshingly colorblind point of view.

"What did Yoda say?"
The boy came into the series with a pre-abiding love for all of the iconic Star Wars characters, but one of the biggies didn't live up to his expectations. My son is not a Yoda fan, largely because he usually has no idea what the heck the diminutive Jedi Master is saying. Turns out "guttural Grover with inverted syntax" is not a universal language, at least not for 4-year-olds.

"Yes! That will teach you!"
This was the boy's exuberant response as Boba Fett went flailing to his ignoble demise in the Sarlac pit. He did not take kindly to Mr. Fett facilitating Han Solo being frozen in carbonite. I was actually a little unnerved by how upset he got with the Dark Side, sometimes openly rooting for their deaths. The kid just hates evil, I reckon.

"That Ewok is having fun!"
Y'know, grown-up nerds can bag on the Ewoks all they like, but so long as kids' eyes light up at the sight of a furry little warrior whooping his way through the forest while barely clinging to a hijacked speeder bike, they're OK in my book. While I'm at it, the conventional wisdom that Return of the Jedi is a lackluster final chapter to the series is hogwash. That movie is fantastic.

"Why do so many people get their hands cut off?"
Obviously I was aware of the parallels between Luke and Anakin Skywalker each losing a hand, but until I watched all of these movies in a compressed time frame I never noticed just how many hands get chopped off over the run of the series. Luke, Anakin, Count Dooku, the Hoth Wampa, General Grievous, that dude in the cantina – it has to be an average of at least two hands per movie. George Lucas's severed-hand fetish is even more pronounced – and more unsettling – than Quentin Tarantino's foot thing.

"Jar-Jar Binks is always so silly."
This is one point of divergence for us. The boy had generally positive reactions to Jar-Jar Binks, adolescent Anakin Skywalker and The Phantom Menace as a whole. I suspected going in that I –along with most of the movie-going public – might have been too harsh on Episode I when it came out, but I quickly learned that if anything, I'd been too easy on it. That movie is garbage and there is no good thing about it. Still, the Star Wars marketing folks have done a good job of cementing it in the canon. For younger viewers, characters like Qui-Gon Jinn and Jar-Jar Binks are every bit as much a part of the saga as are, say, Lando Calrissian and Boba Fett.

"Anakin has really nice hair!"
That's the nicest thing anyone has ever said about Hayden Christiansen's performance.

OK, that's the easy joke, but I'll admit I was actually rather impressed with Christiansen's Anakin Skywalker on this viewing. Sure, he's over the top a lot of the time, but no more so than the role demands. On the whole, it's a nicely old-fashioned performance filled with the kind of outsized intensity and emoting that would be right at home in the serialized space operas that inspired Star Wars in the first place. I'd chalk up Christiansen's truly egregious moments – and there are a number of them – mainly to George Lucas's writing and directing.

"I wonder what Obi-Wan is up to."
This was probably my favorite comment of the series, delivered in the middle of yet another interminable exchange of purple passion between Anakin and Padme. I really liked Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith this time around, the former especially, but the general contempt for George Lucas's attempts at romantic dialogue is well deserved. The boy was right – no matter what Obi-Wan was engaged with at that moment, it had to be more interesting than that.

“Oh no.”
A quiet, pained whimper at the moment when Anakin officially switches allegiance from the Jedi to the Dark Side. A cool thing about watching movies with a kid is bearing witness to pure, visceral reactions that we old folks have been trained to suppress. It’s heartwarming and heartbreaking to see a melodramatic movie moment warm and/or break someone’s heart.

"I'm happy that Darth Vader turned good again because he didn't want to fight his son."
On second thought, this was probably my favorite comment of the series. The boy is young enough to get excited about stories where good wins out in the end, and the added sheen of a restored parent-son relationship seemed to make him particularly happy. Granted, that puts a lot of pressure on me not to become a universally recognized embodiment of evil, but I knew going in that parenthood would involve some sacrifices.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The mistrial of Lou Reed's "The Original Wrapper"

No one can say Lou Reed didn’t provide his critics with plenty of easy targets. I’m the kind of fanboy who can give you at least a half-hearted defense for every punching bag from Metal Machine Music to Lulu (although I’d have to strain myself a bit to rally for Hudson River Wind Meditations). One point where I’ve always rolled over and admitted defeat, though, is the much-maligned “The Original Wrapper” from the equally spurned Mistrial album.

If you don’t know “The Original Wrapper” by title you might know it as “that Lou Reed rap song.” That’s an accurate description on the surface. It was 1986, and hip-hop had the zeitgeist by the throat, especially in Lou’s New York. America was starting to see the first wave of weird and cynical rap cash-ins: advertisements playing on the inherent “hilarity” of unhip white people trying to rap, Super Bowl champions gleefully looking like hip-hop dweebs, whatever the hell Dee Dee Ramone thought he was doing. In that context, Lou Reed jumping onto the rap bandwagon makes a certain amount of sense.

But I don’t think that’s quite what Lou was doing. Sure, taken at face value, “The Original Wrapper” looks like an unwieldy attempt by a middle-aged white guy to either ride the latest trend or mock it. The Guardian called it “a gob-smacking misfire from a man occasionally seen to be the epitome of art-rock cool.” A Dangerous Minds blog takes it as Lou laughably and semi-defensively laying claim to the title of “one of music’s original rappers.” The AV Club’s Jason Heller hyperbolically calls it a "complete annulment of everything that ever made [Lou] cool" and accuses him of "making fun of rap while he's trying to ride on its coattails." Even a comparatively charitable observer like City Pages' Nate Patrin calls out Lou’s "half-assed rhyming" and "a beat that sounds like public-domain music you'd hear at the beginning of an infomercial for exercise equipment." No less a cultural titan than myself once mildly lambasted the song in print, griping that "Reed delivers a monotone ramble on AIDS, yuppies, Jerry Falwell and other hot-button issues of 1986, all the while employing waffle-making as some sort of inscrutable metaphor."

Now, though, I think all of us were selling “The Original Wrapper” short. There’s simply no precedent for presuming that an artist as savvy and iconoclastic as Lou Reed was just surfing trends, selling out or being generally clueless. Show me even one other example from the man’s artistic career of that happening and I’ll concede your point. (His weirdly infamous Honda commercial would only count if he’d written an original song for it.) On the other hand, there is plenty of precedent for Lou mocking the state of the arts via expert – and often misinterpreted – mimickery. Look at his notorious “I Wanna Be Black,” a scathing satire of the type of white “fucked-up middle-class college student” who idolized black culture yet limited his view of it to what he saw in Blaxploitation films and heard on R&B records. Lord knows that profile could fit plenty of Lou’s musical contemporaries, particularly the British blues kids who mined a romanticized culture for derivative sounds. That song makes a lot of listeners uneasy because the satire cuts so cleanly that it’s hard to hear that Lou is mocking the commodification and media packaging of black culture, not the culture itself. He does the same thing more subtly with the iconic “Colored Girls” of “Walk on the Wild Side.” I’d say that their inclusion, and especially Lou calling attention to their race, is a dig at bands like the Rolling Stones trying to pump up their soul cred by occasionally employing Bona-Fide Black People.

Maybe the most direct parallel with “The Original Wrapper” is “Disco Mystic” from The Bells. It’s a fairly straightforward disco track, although decidedly darker-toned than most of the genre. For more than four minutes, Lou’s band throws together saccharine string riffs and an almost sarcastic guitar, with Lou occasionally jumping in to grumble, “Disco…Disco mystic.” I’ve heard people dismiss it as a weird attempt at making an actual disco-punk track, which makes zero sense in the context of the wildly non-commercial environs of The Bells. For me, this is Lou commenting on the creative bankruptcy and numbing repetitiveness of the current trend, all while cockily showing everybody that he could do it too if he ever wanted to.

There’s some of that in play in “The Original Wrapper,” but the target is different. Rather than rap music itself, Lou is mocking the eagerness of the media to co-opt this hip new trend. The lyrics are layered with the hypocrisies and evil banalities of politicians and media types who see hip-hop as a way to raise some revenue or score political points. As I see it, the song’s title and refrain (“Hey pitcher, better check that batter / Make sure the candy’s in the original wrapper”) make for a conveniently punny warning not to be sucked in by corporate repackaging of hip-hop culture.

As for the content, this isn’t exactly Public Enemy, but it’s an overtly political song that presages the social commentary of Lou’s universally heralded New York. It’s not a coincidence that Lou released this song as a single alongside “Video Violence.” Both songs condemn the crass packaging and marketing of violence by Reagan-era greedheads who simultaneously painted themselves as moral guardians (“Classic, original, the same old story / The politics of hate in a new surrounding”) and skewer the supposed high ground taken by religious conservatives (“Reagan says abortion’s murder / while he’s looking at Cardinal O’Connor / Look at Jerry Falwell, Louis Farrakhan / Both talk religion and the brotherhood of man / They both sound like they belong in Tehran”). The rhymes are clunky and the message preachy, sure, but I could point you to half a dozen KRS-ONE songs from the era that fit the same bill.

Also like KRS, Lou challenges the critics who’d class hip-hop as lowest common denominator vulgarity and overstuffs some verses with polysyllabic verbosity. “Don't mean to come on sanctimonious / But life's got me nervous and little pugnacious / Lugubrious, so I give a salutation / And rock on out to a beat really stupid” doesn’t really roll off the tongue, nor is it especially solid rhyming, but it serves its tongue-in-cheek purpose.

The production on the single version really is as bad as its reputation, a dorky, cheap-sounding collision of tinny beats and amateurish scratching. It's interesting, though, that the song improves markedly in most of its other incarnations, including the rockier version featured on the Mistrial album. Take a listen to that or to any of the live renditions I've linked here. Different production doesn't transform "The Original Wrapper" into a great song, but it at least elevates it to mediocrity. Heck, the 10-minute live version above turns into a pretty sweet jam that one could almost call Velvet Underground-esque.

I’m not going to pretend that "The Original Wrapper" is some kind of unfairly slighted masterpiece. It’s too broad and goofy to be especially effective satire. I’m not sure I’d even know it was aiming for hip-hop if not for the title. The production is hopelessly dated in a uniquely ‘80s way and the lyrics sometimes dissolve into gibberish. It’s probably best described as a not particularly successful experiment that’s very much of its era. Yet still I feel compelled to defend it, because it’s neither the colossal misstep nor the tone-deaf trend-hopping it’s made out to be. It’s a weird, misunderstood song that happens to be not that great but at least takes a stab at doing something interesting. As with most things in the Lou Reed canon, that’s more than enough for me.