Tuesday, December 22, 2015

My kid's top 15 things of 2015

2015 was our boy’s fifth year of existence, and one in which his pop culture palate continued to broaden in directions both expected and not. Here are a few of the bits of art and other ephemera that caught his eye over the past year.

My Neighbor Totoro
Conventional wisdom would suggest that kids raised on the hyperkinetic action of modern American cartoons would be bored stiff by the comparatively gentle, introspective work of filmmaker Hayo Miyazaki. The boy, though, adores the work of Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, and a good number of his friends and classmates seem to agree. My Neighbor Totoro is his resounding favorite, so much so that we dressed as a family of Totoros for Halloween and got a Totoro cake for his birthday party. My wife and I couldn’t be happier that he loves this melancholy story of mysterious forest spirits helping two young girls cope with personal trauma in post-war Japan, as it’s quite simply one of the finest works of art of the 20th century.

(Hipster bonus: The boy considered it a positive when we explained that a lot of people might not know what his costume was but those who did would probably like it a lot.)

Batman: The Brave and The Bold
We watched a lot of superhero shows this year. A lot. And honestly, I enjoyed just about every minute of it. Before 2015 my knowledge of the DC Animated Universe began and ended with my much-loved Batman: The Animated Series. Now I’ve seen the justifiably venerated Justice League and its slightly inferior successor Justice League Unlimited, the curiously underrated Superman and the criminally overlooked Green Lantern: The Animated Series. And some Marvel stuff too.

Green Lantern might be my favorite of the bunch, but the boy was most taken with Batman: The Brave and The Bold. That makes sense, as the show specifically aims to recapture the fun and nonsense of old school comic books, before “dark and gritty” became the default setting. Each episode finds Batman teaming up with one or more classic superheroes, ranging from big names like Aquaman and Green Arrow to relative obscurities like the Metal Men and B’wana Beast. It’s good-natured, goofy Silver Age entertainment that takes itself just seriously enough maintain a genuine sense of adventure.

Art Baltazar and Franco
I’m a little bit torn about the state of kids’ superhero comics. On the one hand, I recognize that the abundance of material specifically aimed at younger readers is part of a massive marketing maneuver aimed at hooking kids early and establishing them as customers for life as the characters “grow” along with them. On the other hand, there are a lot of really good kids’ comics out there right now. Having grown up in the era when comic companies were determined to rebrand as “not just for kids” by making all of their comics very much inappropriate for kids, I’ll take this trade-off.

Art Baltazar and Franco are arguably the most prolific team working in all ages' comics today, and for good reason. These guys know how to make comics for young readers, whether they’re reimagining the DC Universe as a bunch of Little Archie-esque ragamuffins in Tiny Titans, creating a new but familiar universe of superheroic funny animals in Aw Yeah Comics, scaling the sprawling expanse of the Green Lantern universe down to a child-friendly scope, or any of the other dozen or so comic projects they’ve cranked out over the past few years. The boy generally prefers finding new material to revisiting old favorites, but these are stories he’ll gladly read over and over.

“Punk” and “Rock”
The boy has gone through a number of favorite songs over the course of the year, the earliest being The Ramones’ “Rock 'n' Roll High School.” Our discussion of that song led to an explanation of punk rock in general, which led to the boy declaring any song he liked to be “a good punk song,” provided it was loud enough and reasonably fast-paced. That included actual punk acts like Rancid and MU330 as well as broader-reaching stuff like Bob Dylan and Doomtree. As the year wore on he shifted to “Rock” as his default terminology, which made more sense when he started digging on Queen and T. Rex but still didn’t quite cover his fondness for club bangers.

Other individual favorite songs for the year include “Last Song About Satan” by Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, “Game On” by Waka Flocka Flame, “Blitzkrieg Bop” by The Ramones, “We Will Rock You” and “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen, the African folk song “Funga Alafia,” "Time Bomb" by Rancid, “The Great Defender (Down at the Arcade)” by Lou Reed, the theme from My Neighbor Totoro, “Hey Bulldog” and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" by The Beatles, “Aquaman’s Rousing Song of Heroism” from Batman: The Brave and The Bold, and “Jingle Bells.”

Chapter books
Reading just clicked for the boy toward the end of last year, and his skills progressed at an alarming rate from then on. He’s currently immensely proud of himself for being able to read chapter books unassisted, as well he should be - he recently brought home Flat Stanley from school and read it to us in one sitting just to prove he could. He's read a few more Stanley adventures since then, along with things like Roald Dahl, the Super Pets series and the Harry Potter knock-off Secrets of Droon books. Still, we try to keep him mindful that things won’t always come quite so easily to him, and that no good will come of getting cocky about his skills. I well remember breezing along through elementary school and then running smack into the brick wall of multiplication tables. That hurt on several levels

Melanie Watt
Despite his much-vaunted fondness for longer tomes, the boy still loves a good picture book as much as the next kid. His tastes range from the thoughtful, elegantly illustrated work of author-illustrators like Graeme Base and John J. Muth to the wackier antics of folks like Chris Monroe, Michael Ian Black and Mac Barnett. Melanie Watt stands out as his favorite by virtue of two wonderful series: the fussy, elaborately detailed misadventures of Scaredy Squirrel, and the treacherous meta-text of Chester the mutinous cat. All of the above get my hearty endorsement.

Monsters Ate My Birthday Cake
I see video games as the biggest pop cultural chasm between the boy’s generation and mine. I grew up in the early days of NES, when gaming systems were still something of a luxury item. Nowadays they’re as much a fact of childhood as TV cartoons, if not more so. While we do have a semi-functional GameCube and PS2 in the basement, the boy’s gaming is mainly tablet- and PC-based. He gravitates toward problem-solving games that lean heavily on logic and pattern recognition. Needless to say, that means Mommy is his usual gaming buddy.

They’ve defeated a good number of opponents this year in titles ranging from the delightfully low-key Draw a Stickman to the endlessly obnoxious Plants vs. Zombies. I think the biggest hit was Monsters Ate My Birthday Cake, a cool bit of problem-solving from Cartoon Network. As a guy who’s not so hot with cause-and-effect, the logical intricacies of this one sometimes makes my head hurt, but it’s probably a good sign that the boy gets a blast out of rational thinking.

The Wizard of Oz, but not that one
We made a lot of family visits to Oz this year via all kinds of media. We’ve listened to L. Frank Baum’s original novel on Audible, read almost all of the fantastic Marvel Comics adaptations, read a few of Baum’s sequels, and attended Children’s Theater Company’s extravagant stage interpretation of the MGM movie. We haven’t, however, engaged with Oz’s most famous incarnation, the movie itself. Despite thoroughly enjoying the multitude of horrors served up by Baum (not to mention potential trauma-fonts like the Justice League facing down the dread Cthulu in an effort to save the soul of a rampaging zombie), the boy is convinced Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West will be too scary for him to deal with. Much as I dig the technicolor Oz, I’m perfectly happy to stick to the Baumverse for the time being.

Boxy Mouse
I’ll admit it made me rather proud that my five-year-old had a favorite local graffiti artist. I suppose Boxy Mouse isn’t technically graffiti, but the curiously cubic rodent’s visage decorates more than enough Twin Cities light posts and news boxes to qualify as a street art icon. The boy has loved going Boxy-spotting for years and has amassed a sizable collection of his buttons. His mom picked him up a framed Boxy Mouse portrait for his birthday, which now decorates his bedroom wall.

We Bare Bears
I’m a firm believer that children’s television is the strongest it’s ever been. I’ve seen a lot of top-notch shows over the past six years, and this new Cartoon Network offering is one of the best. It’s a simple story of three idiosyncratic bears living in a cave outside of San Francisco and doing their best to cope with this modern world. It’s a rare combination of hip, heartfelt and hilarious that qualifies as appointment TV for every member of our family. Ice Bear is among the five best characters on television right now.

Looney Tunes
Would that my artistic career ever produce anything one-tenth as timeless as Looney Tunes. By this point my generation has seen all of these 60-plus-year-old shorts so many times that it’s easy to forget their raw power. Spend a few minutes on a couch next to a five-year-old straight-up howling with laughter at Roadrunner and Coyote and it’ll all come rushing back.

Loving things that you later realize are terrible is an important rite of childhood passage. I’m happy that the boy has found one of those in this profoundly lazy Adam Sandler/Chris Columbus collaboration. A movie about a team of losers battling giant retro video game characters from outer space actually had potential to be a decent bit of dumb fun, but it’s evident that nobody here (except maybe the graphics department) cared enough to put in the effort to do anything more than was necessary to make a profit on the rental market. It’s a sloppy, unfunny and weirdly misogynistic movie, but it does have some pretty cool video game battle sequences, and that’s all that matters to the boy. Much as I don’t like exposing him to the concept of a world where Kevin James could become President, he’s fascinated by old-school video games (he adores the Pixels version of Q-Bert) and his taste in things is generally good enough that I’m not too concerned. Plus Pixels’ utterly predictable use of “We Will Rock You” got him interested in Queen. That’s a pretty solid byproduct.

The Back to the Future Trilogy
Neither my wife nor I were exactly diehard Back to the Future fans, but we were both pre-pubescents in the mid-1980s, which means the Marty McFly saga was more or less hardwired into our consciousnesses. Through a stroke of fortuitous timing, the boy happened to be home sick on the much-ballyhooed “Back to the Future Day” - the day in 2015 to which Marty travels in Back to the Future Part II - which led to my wife queuing it up on Amazon, which led to him watching the entire trilogy over two days and devouring every pseudo-scientific scrap of it. I’m pretty certain he has a better grasp on the capabilities and limitations of the time-traveling Delorean than do I, and he even pointed out a couple of plot holes that never occurred to me.

The Snow Queen
I’ve somehow become a gainfully employed theater critic in the past few years, which means the boy sees far more live theater than I could have conceived of at his age. We had a good year of theatergoing, taking in everything from everything from big-budget stage productions to traveling puppet shows to a bunch of genial millennials frolicking around with a parachute. The one he talked about the most was an adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen that he saw at Saint Paul’s Park Square Theater on a Sunday date with mommy. I’m a little envious that I missed such a memorable show, but I’ve heard enough about the mysterious queen, the singing peasants and the hilarious reindeer that I almost feel like I was there.

The Creeping Terror
The boy has never seen Vic Savage’s bottom-of-the-barrel 1964 sci-fi flick, but he does love to hear me describe the trash films on which I squander so many of my precious hours. “This is like The Creeping Terror” has become his shorthand for anything slow-moving or tedious. It’s probably my favorite of his many antiquated pop culture euphemisms, narrowly edging out “This makes no sense, like T. Rex words.”

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The MST3Konundrum: A trash film aficionado at the crossroads

I can’t say for certain when I first became a fan of “bad” movies. There were a lot of potential gateways back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, from the vintage Bela Lugosi clips spliced into Muppet Babies to the release of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood to the sci-fi sampling of bands like Man or Astroman? Heck, even Seinfeld had an early plotline about a screening of Plan 9 from Outer Space. But the real keystone for me and most of my generation was Mystery Science Theater 3000, or as it was frequently known at the time, “That cable show where the little shadow guys on the spaceship make fun of old movies.”

My family didn’t have cable, so MST3K was something of a forbidden fruit to be gobbled up on trips to my grandparents’ house or in stolen moments in friends’ TV rooms. When Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie unexpectedly turned up for a brief engagement at a movie theater 45 miles from my house, I cleared my weekend schedule and made it to three out of four late-night screenings. I was excited moving into my college dorm because I’d finally have a cable hook-up on which to watch MST3K, then crushed when I discovered my college’s cable package didn’t include the Sci-Fi channel.

I’ve always been passionate about my favorite art, but not many shows spurred me to that kind of dedication. What was it about MST3K that inspired such fervor? Well, for one thing, it was funny as heck. It was a kind of funny I’d never seen on TV before, yet it seemed oddly familiar. When I learned that MST3K was a Minnesota production, it all made sense. On its surface the sense of humor embodied by Joel Hodgson and the show’s writers was gentle, laconic and borderline corny, but concealed just beneath the surface was the melancholy acidity of a darkness that dared not speak its name. That was the same Minnesota sensibility I’d been drinking in at family gatherings my entire life. It was amazing to see it channeled into something so strange and singular and broadcast for an international audience.

It was the comedy that drew me into MST3K in the first place, but it didn’t take long for me to develop an appreciation for the movies that made the whole thing possible. Much like the sense of humor, the movies mocked by the crew were unlike anything else on my television. MST3K was my first exposure to the weird world of low-budget filmmakers like Bert I. Gordon, Coleman Francis and even Roger Corman. The La Crosse, Wisconsin area didn’t have a “midnight movie” host like Svengoolie, but even if it had, the MST3K repertoire went beyond the usual public domain monster movies and mad scientists, pulling in Italian apocalypsploitation, Japanese kaiju, educational film strips, James Bond knock-offs, biker flicks, kiddie Christmas movies and much more.

At some point I realized I was getting as much pleasure out of the movies themselves as I was from the riffing. Eventually that led me to start seeking out “bad” movies on my own. At my current stage in life, a solid 90% of my cinema intake is stuff that the average viewer would understandably shut off five minutes in. In the past couple of years, I’ve discovered a number of groups of like-minded people both online and in real life. It’s been a lot of fun swapping trash titles with oddballs on Letterboxd, keeping tabs on the Weird Wednesday lineup at Alamo Drafthouse and ducking into my local Trash Film Debauchery and Tape Freaks screenings. As I’ve gotten to know more of these z-movie devotees, I’ve discovered a curious phenomenon: quite a few of them hate MST3K.

I have to admit, I sort of get where they’re coming from. If you’re a fan of something, it’s understandable that you’d resent it being known primarily as the butt of a joke shared by thousands of philistines. In a particularly heartfelt review, for example, Letterboxd user pd187 declares Coleman Francis’s much-maligned The Beast of Yucca Flats “evocative desert noir” that’s “close to a masterpiece for real” before concluding that “mystery science theater is garbage for idiots.” My pal Joe, a sometime MST3K fan and as dedicated a cinephile as I know, recently punctuated a rave review of Rondo Hatton’s The Brute Man with “I don’t know what the inhabitants of the Satellite of Love had to say about this movie and I don’t want to know.”

I haven’t seen The Beast of Yucca Flats or The Brute Man minus the riffing, but I do appreciate many if not most MST3K targets on their own terms. Even the legendarily bad Manos: The Hands of Fate stands as a uniquely realized piece of outsider art. If someone knocked, say, Gamera or Bloodlust or The Crawling Eye as objectively bad films in private conversation, I would be quick to leap to their defense. Yet somehow, I don’t have a problem with them being lampooned on MST3K. I think that’s largely because I sense a genuine affection behind the mockery.

The invective hurled by Joel, Mike, Tom and Crow, especially in the show’s Comedy Central years, feels rooted in an appreciation of the oddness and ambition that got these movies made. You don’t come up with a sketch like “Peter Graves at the University of Minnesota” if you don’t love Peter Graves movies on at least some level. The sheer breadth of knowledge that went into the average episode of MST3K, with non-stop references to pop culture history, scientific ephemera and barely scrutable in-jokes, pegs it as a labor of love.

Still, I’ll acknowledge there are some legitimate knocks to be made against the show’s handling of its movies. Probably the biggest is the editing. Even though the show aired in a two-hour block, making time for commercial breaks, host segments and short films usually meant that the feature’s run-time was trimmed down considerably. In some cases that was arguably doing the movies a service - if you’re not a regular viewer of trash cinema, you have no idea how much mind-numbing padding got stuffed into the movies of the drive-in era. Often, though, that meant cutting material that might be important to the film. Most notoriously, the MST3K version of The Sidehackers deleted a brutal rape and murder scene that was the catalyst for everything else that happened in the movie. It feels somewhat dishonest to mock a movie’s incoherence when you’ve actively made it less coherent.

And then there’s the meanness critique. As much as I think MST3K originated from a place of love, sometimes the barbs got pretty harsh. There are multiple accounts of the Satellite of Love crew drawing the ire of their riff targets. It’s one thing to hear possibly apocryphal stories about big fish like producer Sandy Frank or actor Joe Don Baker grumbling about being ill-treated by TV puppets, quite another to learn about the genuine hurt feelings at a cast screening of MST3K’s take on the homemade dorkery of Time Chasers. Kevin Murphy says no less an icon of empathy than Kurt Vonnegut once gently upbraided him for belittling the efforts of artists just trying to do their best.

I absolutely don’t want to start yet another Joel vs. Mike argument (for the record, I prefer Joel by an inconsequential margin), but I do feel like the show got meaner once Mike moved from the writer’s room into the host’s jumpsuit. As I said before, even when he bared his sardonic teeth, Joel always gave the impression of being a genuine fan of these films. Mike, on the other hand, seemed more interested in putting them in their place. It’s no accident that the motto of Mike’s post-MST3K project Rifftrax is “Because some movies have it coming.” I hold that Michael J. Nelson is the most purely funny person ever involved with Mystery Science Theater, but having read his Movie Megacheese book, I came away with the impression that the guy just doesn’t much like movies unless they’re Jackie Chan vehicles or Roadhouse.

To me, the difference between Joel and Mike is the difference between gently chuckling at a sad-sack friend and pointing and laughing at the neighborhood weirdo. I can certainly see why you’d take issue with that, especially if you happen to be fond of that weirdo. I know I’ve cringed when Rifftrax has taken on movies I genuinely dig, like Death Promise or Attack of the Puppet People. On the other hand, some of the films pilloried on MST3K come awfully close to being objectively bad. Watching The Creeping Terror on its own is a painful slog (although I still have a certain affection for it), and I don’t know if I could even bring myself to attempt the confounding mess of Monster a-Go Go un-riffed. There’s almost zero artistry to a dreary, uninspired Jaws cash-in like Devil Fish, but Mike and his robot friends manage to mine whatever fun there is in the thing.

As a genuine lover of low-grade cinema, I think it’s possible to appreciate both the films and the mockery thereof. I may enjoy the heck out of something like Beginning of the End, but I can’t pretend there’s nothing funny about Bert I. Gordon attempting to pass off grasshoppers crawling across a Sears Tower postcard as a giant insect attack on downtown Chicago. And then there’s that gateway effect I mentioned earlier. Given my general proclivities, I probably would have stumbled into the world of trash cinema sooner or later, but MST3K gave me an easier in-road than I ever would have found poking around the dustier corners of my local video shop.

A fair number of the movies spotlighted on the show would likely have remained in obscurity if not for the exposure they got from their MST3K roastings. Perhaps movies like Manos and Pod People and Space Mutiny would have found tiny cult audiences on their own, but they certainly wouldn’t have become the iconic items they are today. And somewhere down the line, we cross over from laughing at these films to laughing with them. Ask any MST3K fan for an opinion on Zap Rowsdower, the mullet-sporting, denim-draped anti-hero of The Final Sacrifice, and you’ll get not scorn but genuine affection. We love Rowsdower in all his bizarre Canadian glory. Heck, we even put him on our t-shirts. Even the MST3K haters would have to admit that’s a far better fate than languishing unwatched and unloved in the VHS bin of some resale shop.