Saturday, August 30, 2008

Why Mikey can't read

I don't know why I haven't been able to read this summer. It's not the high-tech gadgets filling the house, like the HD TV or the Nintendo DS or the Wii, because I'm still spending the same time reading--usually from 10:00 to 11:15 p.m, in bed--that I have been for the past several years. I'm just not able to finish anything I start, especially fiction. Serious fiction (Crime and Punishment, Don Quixote, Babbit), recent literary fiction (recent well reviewed books such as Fellow Travelers by Thomas Mallon, or Netherland by Joseph O'Neill), and genre fiction (mystery, horror, fantasy) are all proving to be indigestible. All I'm finishing are fairly undemanding non-fiction books, mostly about movies or music.

I just finished The Lost Spy, about an American who was a spy for Russia in the 30's, and found it an empty experience. The author, Andrew Meier, admits that not much is known about the guy, Cy Oggins, so most of the book comes from three sources: Oggins' son, who never really know his father, a former radical who knew Oggins in passing and mentioned him a few times in his memoir, and some censored Soviet archives. It's odd to read a book about a spy and get absolutely no sense about his espionage activities. To the author's credit, he mostly doesn't try for fake reconstruction scenes, but that leaves a huge gap in the middle of the story: what was this guy doing for ten years for Stalin's spy service in America, Germany, France, and China?

I enjoyed more Donald Bogle's Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams, about Black Hollywood in the classic movie era, and how even supporting actors like Hattie McDaniel and Stepin Fetchit, who were never given the chance to star in their own vehicles, were still in demand enough to be able to live in high style. I just bought The Underground City, a "lost" classic novel from the 50's by H.L. Humes, founder of the Paris Review, about Communists and Resistance fighters during and after the Second World War. It's a huge book and the first few pages aren't exactly engrossing, but I'll plug away for a while in hopes that I can say I read at least one "beach book" this year, even if I never even saw a beach.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Politics, blah, blah, blah

WARNING: Mild Political Content!

I don't often get political here, except as the media artifact under scrutiny demands, but I thought the first paragraph of Mark Danner's review (in the New York Times) of the recent book The Way of the World, by Ron Suskind, about our post-9/11 situation, really said in a nutshell what's wrong with our political system here today:

"Scandal is our growth industry. In our era, revelation of wrongdoing leads not to definitive investigation, punishment and expiation but to ... more scandal. Permanent scandal. Frozen scandal. The weapons of mass destruction that turn out not to exist. The torture of detainees who remain forever detained. The firing of prosecutors, which is forever investigated. These and other frozen scandals metastasize, ramify, self-replicate, clogging the cable news shows and the blogosphere and the bookstores. Unpurged and perpetually unresolved, scandal transcends political reality to become commercial fact."

Corruption and wrongdoing in the highest places are not exclusive to the 21st century, nor to any one political party. But in the past, there was genuine outrage about such matters, among the people and the press and the politicians that led to action. Now, we don't even get the appearance of action. Just "frozen scandal ... unpurged and perpetually unresolved." How goddamned depressing.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Olympics, blah, blah, blah

I have never been particularly athletic, though I am generally fit, and in better physical shape now in my 50's (God, that hurts my eyes to see that number applied to me) than I was in my 30's. I have also never been interested in sports; high school gym class was rather nightmarish for me, though I was OK at tennis, wrestling, and very basic gymnastics. So I don't get excited about the Olympics. But still, every four years, I get caught up in Summer Olympics fever. Of course, I am drawn to displays of the mostly undraped male form (diving, gymnastics), and once I sit down in front of the TV to distract myself with these events, I usually get wrapped up in the competition and wind up sticking around longer than I intended.

Same thing this year, and I've wound up with the same complaint about TV coverage I've had most years: tunnelvision. Because the diving and gymnastic events were usually taped and edited for showing later, we ended up not seeing very many of the competitors. We always see the Americans, and I fully understand that. In men's diving, the Americans were never near medal contention, but we still saw every one of their dives, and I don't begrudge them that attention (especially since David Boudia and Thomas Finchum were cute as bug's ears and, er, quite fit--of course, every person who jumped into the water in the Water Cube was freakin' fit). But NBC wound up focusing only on the athletes who would wind up in the medal zone and rarely showed anyone else. For quite a while, a German diver and a Cuban diver were in the top 3, but we never once saw them dive because they wound up without medals, and they didn't have tearjerking inspirational stories to tell, like Russian Dimitry Sautin, above, practically a decrepit old man at 34.

Lucky for us, Canadian eye-candy man Alexandre Despatie and sweet, gay Matthew Mitcham (at right) were frequently on camera. But still, it would have been fun to see more of the competitors, especially since NBC had umpteen hours to fill on their various cable outlets. Most frustrating was the NBC/Universal HD channel, which ran coverage most of the day, and after the first few days, it always seemed to consist of softball, soccer, and boxing. All day and night long. I have to say that the Olympics looked wonderful on our HD TV, but I sure wish we'd have gotten to see more of the competitors in the events we wanted to see.

And, while I'm complaining, it's a shame that NBC never bothered to let us know that the Australian Mitcham, a surprise gold medal winner, had a male partner in the stands. We saw lots of moms and dads and sisters and girlfriends, but don't dare let it slip that the openly gay Mitcham had a pround male partner in the stands sitting next to his mother.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Overexposed music, good and bad

PowerPop's list query this weekend was for "actually good" pop songs that, thanks to overexposure, you are so tired of, you never want to hear again. The poster's #1 choice was, oddly enough, the Beatles' "Hello Goodbye" which hardly seems overexposed to me (what about "Hey Jude" or "Strawberry Fields Forever" or "Yesterday"?). The more predicable #2 song was "Stairway to Heaven." I'm so out of the loop that the #7 song, "Disarm" by Smashing Pumpkins, is one I don't even know.

I thought it would be easy to come up with a top 10 list of such songs for myself, but the more I thought about it, the harder it became. The wonder I've discovered is that, if I think a song is truly great, I seem not to tire of it, no matter how much it's played on the radio, in movies, in ads, or in the aether of pop culture. By gum, I can still stand to hear "Stairway to Heaven" once in a while. Same with others I thought I'd gotten tired of but hadn't, like "American Pie," "Hey Jude," "Smoke on the Water," "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," "Born to Run," "Layla," "Let's Get It On," "Free Bird," and any song on Fleetwood Mac's Rumours album. And as I write this, I'm cranking up the radio for my umpteenth hearing of "Tears of a Clown."

I can only think of a couple of songs that fit the bill for me, songs I like and think are "actually good" but which I have flipped away from when they've come on the radio: "Mrs. Robinson" by Simon & Garfunkel, Prince's "1999," and most of the songs from Michael Jackson's Thriller. I'm not sure why those don't work for me anymore. More often, I find that an album or artist from a given era no longer holds up for me: Cat Stevens' Catch Bull at Four was once one of my top 10 albums of all time, but now I can only listen to certain songs from it. The weaker songs are more obvious to me now, and rather grating (like the interminable "folk song" about the one night stand that results in a kid with a moon and star on his head). Same for the last two Beatles albums, Abbey Road and Let It Be--let's face it, you only listen to "Sun King" or "Octopus's Garden" or "For You Blue" because you're too lazy to move the needle..., oops, I mean skip the track.

Here are the songs I almost always turn away from, most of which I never thought were "actually good" songs to start with:

"Brandy" by Looking Glass
"Come and Get Your Love" by Redbone, which is in every 70's movie ever made since the 90's, and the otherwise fine summer series Swingtown... which leads me to...
"Fly Like an Eagle" by Steve Miller (though I can still listen to his "Swingtown")
"Wonderful Tonight" by Eric Clapton (and about 75% of the stuff that soft-rock stations play during their "love song" evenings)
Anything by Mariah Carey, except her Christmas song

It's easy coming up with crappy songs I want to avoid for the rest of my life, but the good songs seem to be able to survive the overexposure.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Susan Sontag's revenge

Over on my Moviepalace blog, I've been reviewing a handful of films which were released on DVD as part of a series of "Camp Classics" sets, which set me to pondering the idea of "camp" or a camp sensibility. My dissertation, which never got beyond an opening chapter, would have dealt briefly with the idea of camp as it applies to "gay culture" (another wildly broad category), but the Warner Home Video Camp sets don't include any movies that strike me as especially gay in concept or appeal, except inasmuch as any films with muscle heroes (see Reg Park, a frequent Hercules in the 60's, above) and sweaty gladiators always have some gay potential, from the 30's Tarzan films to the recent 300.

So what is meant today to call something campy? Susan Sontag, who wrote the seminal work on the subject, "Notes on Camp," says in a nutshell that "the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration." It presents itself seriously but its audience can't take it seriously--which explains why, for me, DeMille's The Ten Commandments is a perfect piece of camp: it is outrageously over-the-top in almost every way it can be (script, sets, narrative reach, and especially acting), but I suspect DeMille meant every frame of it to be serious.

Sontag also notes that "camp is esoteric--something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques," and again the DeMille film fits: I, my partner, and several friends have, for almost 20 years running, watched the movie at Easter/Passover and always take great delight in camping it up along with the actors. We play a drinking game that involves the line "So let it be written--so let it be done"; we moan, "Moses! Moses! Moses!" along with Anne Baxter; we yell out "The obelisk of my jubilee" in Fat Albert voices and anticipate Nina Foch's warning to Judith Anderson, "Your tongue will dig your grave, Memnet!"; we freeze-frame the fabulous moment when Yul Brynner enters a room flicking his cape over his shoulder like a runway diva; and we enjoy the bare, oiled chests of Brynner and Charlton Heston which are constantly on display. Others take the movie much more seriously: some love the movie as the ultimate Biblical epic, and others call it a ridiculous, overlong costume drudge. We, approaching it as perhaps the ultimate camp experience, could be said to hold both beliefs. (See the photo above of the Burning Bush Jello treat one of our friends whipped up one year for our viewing party.)

The recent Camp Classics DVDs are being marketed that way because there is an audience out there for such films, but few of them strike me as "real camp." The Colossus of Rhodes is a fairly well-made cross between an overdone Biblical epic and an Italian Hercules movie (two genres which contain more than their share of camp artifacts), but in my eyes, it never goes over-the-top enough to be campily enjoyable. The lead actor, Rory Calhoun, is bad but not juicily so; there are many sweaty men fighting or getting tortured, and there are women done up in flashy 60's makeup, but even these elements aren't, in Spinal Tap lingo, turned up to eleven. The same applies to Land of the Pharaohs, though the very presence of Joan Collins is, I suppose, enough to edge the film closer to camp territory.

The Big Cube, part of a "Women in Peril" camp set, is much closer to being a true campy film: an aging Lana Turner, near the end of her career, is enjoyable as she overdoes her damsel in
distress role (and, most crucially, never seems to know that she's overdoing it), and the addition of LSD to the mix of Hollywood melodrama and romance guarantees some (theoretically) unintended chuckles. But it's become too easy to apply the word "camp" to anything that seems bad or overdone, and that does a disservice to movies and to camp followers. I warn you, I may have more to say on this soon!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Killer sheep! Impenetrable accents!

Saw the 2006 New Zealand horror comedy Black Sheep over the weekend. I'd never heard of it, but when I was the DVD box picture, of a cute but bloody guy getting his cheek bitten by a sheep, I thought it might be fun, and it is. Henry (Nathan Meister, the cover guy) comes to his brother's sheep ranch to clear up some business and discovers that the brother has been conducting uncontrolled genetic experiments which lead to a strain of mutant killer sheep. The sheep have a taste for human flesh, and if they bite you, you eventually become a monstrous were-sheep. Henry (who has a sheep phobia), a lovely environmental activist named Experience (Danielle Mason), and a moderately hunky farm worker (Tammy Davis; yes, that is the man's name) try to stop the monster strain from spreading.

The film is fairly low budget, but looks good, at least partly because of the gorgeous New Zealand locations. The actors' accents were thick, so we turned on the subtitles, but seeing lines before I heard them ruins the comic timing of the punch lines, of which there are many. The film also made me think a bit about genre. It is definitely comic in tone, at times feeling like Shaun of the Dead, but it's not exactly a parody (as the excellent Shaun is). The genre conventions are all there but not really to be made fun of. As Don noticed, it's like a slightly more expensive Sci-Fi Channel made-for-cable movie (see Kaw) with lots of jokey dialogue. None of the sympathetic leads are ever really in fatal peril. The effectively creepy sheep are a mix of real animals, animatronics, and puppets, and for the most part, the effects work well (though in most close-ups, the sheep head puppet work is obvious). Scenes of a horde of sheep racing over the hills are well done, I assume with some digital work, and shots of sheep eating human guts and feet and such are both nauseating (the movie is not rated) and funny. The over-the-top moment near the end involves a killer sheep gnawing on a human penis while it's still attached to a human, which should be enough to tell you if you'll enjoy this movie. I did.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Dog days potpourri

No dogs will be mentioned in this post, but it does feel like the dog days of summer here, with lots of sun, very little rain, and humid days with highs between 85 and 90. That means lots of time spent at home in the living room with the TV on (Who am I kidding? We don't need the excuse of dog days to stay at home and be couch potatoes).

Watched First Snow, a movie recommended by a couple of friends. Guy Pearce is a slimy flooring salesman (he's slimy, not the flooring, as far as I can tell) who runs into a fortune teller (J.K. Simmons, at right) who gets a few wild predictions right. When Pearce hunts him down again, Simmons implies that Pearce won't live long, but has until the first snow. First, Pearce goes a little nutty--he's got problems with a live-in gf, a pal who he screwed in a business deal, and a long-lost partner in crime who may be back to get revenge over a perceived betrayal. Then, on Simmons' advice, he decides to use what little time he may have to set things right with the world. What had been building into a tough little neo-noir becomes an episode of My Name Is Earl. This film could have used a strong stylist at the helm (at times, it reminded me of the Coen Brothers' Blood Simple, but with little sense of style) and a better script. As it is, I didn't care about any of the characters, least of all Pearce. But Simmons is a joy to watch, as always; he's one of those character actors who may never get an Oscar, but will almost always be the best thing in any movie he's in.

Watched Night of the Comet, an 80's sci-fi zombie comedy of which my partner Don had fond memories. It wasn't bad, though it's most fun as an 80's period piece. A comet sweeps past the earth, killing most of the population by turning them to red dust (yes, there's a poster for the great Gable/Harlow flick Red Dust in the background of a scene). Anyone who was protected by steel was saved, and a good chunk of folks, apparently stuck somewhere in between, are being turned into George Romero zombies. I was expecting a flat-out comedy, and, though it has its parodic elements, it plays out more like Romero-lite. Favorite line, no contest: teen girl to her miserable single mom about a jerk she's dating, "You were born with an asshole, Doris, you don't need Chuck!"

Coming soon: Larry Sanders, Wii sports, campy muscle movies, and the skull of the Marquis de Sade!!