Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day

What better way to spend Memorial Day than watch the remaining episodes of HBO's "The Pacific" on my DVR? To be honest, when my most difficult decision is what relic of the 1980s or 1990s to revisit for one of my posts, it's difficult to imagine the sheer magnitude of what American soldiers have sacrificed during the history of this republic. But that is precisely why we have this day, Memorial Day, to honor their service. So, today, we pause to reflect upon their commitment to our nation and the bravery they have exhibited both in war and peace time.

Incidentally, depicted above is the cover of the first issue of The 'Nam, a comic about the Vietnam war published by Marvel Comics in late 1986. Because of my father's service in that conflict, I began to collect this series soon after its release to learn a bit more about it. I have been meaning to revisit it, as well, as I know that its issues have been collected in a series of trade paperbacks. So, dear readers, look out for a review of that series on the horizon.

Tenth Anniversary: "Survivor" Premieres (May 31, 2000)

Ten years ago today, on May 31, 2000, the very first episode of "Survivor" aired on the CBS television network. Surely, no one knew then how much a part of the culture this reality show would become and that it would still be on the air a decade later. Watching that first episode this past week, so many years after its initial airing, it's astonishing how primitive the game is compared to its modern counterpart. It's not unlike watching those old black and white silent films from the 1910s, in that you know you are watching something influential and groundbreaking for its time, but its innovations have so much become a part of the culture and improved upon in the mean time that it is almost tedious to watch in its first incarnation. But as a cultural artifact from the first half of 2000, it's fascinating to revisit, both because television has changed, but so too have we as television viewers (and for that matter, as Americans). Plus, the first episode becomes an origin story of sorts for many of the traditions and contestant mistakes that have become such a part of "Survivor" the television program and the game itself.

The show begins by depicting the sixteen anxious contestants throwing supplies off a boat in the South China Sea. The program's host, a very young looking 37 year old Jeff Probst, explains that the contestants are divided into two tribes (Tagi and Pagong) and that they are to set up camp on the beaches of a nearby island. The contestants leap into the sea and the game begins in earnest.

This being the first episode, Probst pops up a few times to explain the set-up, rules, and conventions of the game, but much of the action focuses on the contestants' interaction with one another. (Contestants who survive well into the season, like Colleen Haskell, Jenna Lewis, Greg Buis, Gervase Peterson, and a number of others, receive very little screen time, as the emphasis must be upon those whose departure is a bit more imminent.). There are some basic character moments, such as the brief depiction of a praying Dirk Been (shown above), a twenty three year old from Wisconsin and the fifth contestant to be voted out. We also see much of Richard Hatch, who we know would go on to win the game with his series of Machiavellian machinations. He, a corporate communications consultant, initially quibbles with truck driver and Tagi tribemate Sue Hawk (who lectures him that what works in the corporate world will not work on the island).

Hatch (depicted above in the red hammock) does attempt to use some corporate speak to his advantage. In so doing, he convenes the Tagi tribe and acts as if the game is a corporate team-building session. (This does not go over well with those assembled, who just seem bored by it.). But Hatch also knows what will make good television: In one private interview, he claims to have already written himself a check for a million dollars, while in another, he admits that he is concerned what might occur if his level of arrogance is discovered by his fellow tribe members.

Meanwhile, at the Pagong tribe, sixty four year old Kansas real estate developer B.B. Andersen (who would last just one more episode) finds a water map and consults with twenty-nine year old Ramona Gray (the fourth to be voted out of the game). They agree that their strategy should be "not giving up the secret of the water supply," although that tactic, if ultimately carried through, was unsuccessful for either. (B.B., for his part, wears what appears to be a home-made shirt featuring a collage of photographs of what must be his extended family members.).

B.B.'s exit from the game is heavily foreshadowed by a number of mistakes he makes. He spends a good bit of time complaining that there are a lot of "lazy people" on his tribe and that they "can't have lazy people" in the game. He gets into an argument with his fellow tribe mate, Gretchen Cordy, who believes he is working too hard and suggests that he take a quick break for fifteen minutes. He declines her suggestion and insists on continuing his attempts to build the tribe some type of structure to inhabit. But his younger tribemates do seem to like the curmudgeon in their midst; they even nickname him "Viagra." Ew.

Back at the Tagi tribe, seventy-two year old Rudy Boesch understands his dilemma. He notes that the hardest part about the game is "hanging out with young kids" when he, a former Navy SEAL, doesn't "even know what MTV means." But unlike B.B. in the Pagong tribe, Boesch knows that it is he who must fit in with the younger group, not vice versa. Twenty seven year old attorney Stacey Stillman (depicted above) has other ideas for Boesch: his ouster from the game. She is unappreciative of his age and prickly demeanor, but he would outlive her in this game.

Also on the Tagi tribe is 63 year old Sonja Christopher, an eccentric musician who takes with her to the island a ukulele. She suffers some type of injury or minor scratch, which her tribemate, Dr. Sean Kenniff, attempts to repair. She also sings a song called "Bye Bye Blues" about pharmaceutical anti-depressants. Quirky, and older than average, her days were numbered.

Typically, reward and immunity challenges are done separately, but the first episode featured a joint challenge, in which the winning team would be awarded both immunity from tribal council but also 50 waterproof matches (which must have been of great utilitarian value to the newbies).

The challenge itself was pretty basic by "Survivor" standards. Each team must take a raft to from the water to the beach, and along the way, light various torches and then, their respective side of a fire spirit statute. The catch: each tribe member must have one hand on the raft at all times. Introducing the inaugural challenge, Probst warns the contestants not to put him "in the position of having to make a judgment call" about their compliance with the challenge rules. This is an amusing remark, as these days, Probst isn't the least bit shy about doing just that.

Ultimately, Pagong prevails over Tagi, much to the disappointment of Kelly Wiglesworth (depicted above), who would come in second place in the game. There is much celebrating by the members of Pagong (including a very happy Colleen Haskell, whose excited dancing about can be seen in the background in the aftermath of the challenge).

In typical "Survivor" fashion, the loss by Tagi leads to much scurrying about and politicking by the members of the losing tribe. Boesch contemplates the beginning of an alliance with Hatch (although there is not much discussion generally of the value of alliances). Stacy attempts to recruit others to vote for Boesch, while Sonja seems unaware, for the most part, of her fate.

At tribal council, Probst coins a number of phrases that he will use for the remainder of the series, including the statement that at the council "fire represents life." Commenting upon what other tribe members are thinking, Probst asking Sonja, "How are you holding up physically?"

Nothing good can follow that framing of the issue by the host.

In the end, Sonja draws four votes, Rudy gets three, and Stacy gets one from Hatch (who comments that he chose her for "subtle reasons," though he is not entirely certain what they are). Stacy comments that she voted for Rudy because he is an "ornery guy, [who] doesn't really help that much, [and] for a navy seal doesn't know how to start fire."

Some dramatic close-ups from the very first tribal council (including Sue immediately after the vote is announced and Stillman and Hatch during an early part of the proceeding):

But Sonja is not bitter. Leaving the group, she says, "Go get 'em, you guys." A 2008 piece by Joanna Weiss of Slate analyzed Sonja's ultimate fate in the game:
At first glance, Sonja seemed a lovely addition to the mix of islanders: an artsy senior citizen who played the ukulele, she had a bright view of human nature and, unlike some of her playmates, was genuinely nice. Sure, she had a fateful stumble during the first immunity challenge, but her true vulnerability ran deeper. This was an island of snakes and rats, and Sonja's guileless personality made her seem impossibly weak. In a scene midway through the first episode, Sonja played a cheerful ditty called "Bye-Bye Blues" for eventual winner Richard Hatch. He applauded her gamely—he probably even meant it—but you know what he was thinking: bull's-eye.
The episode serves as an interesting snapshot of America (and Americans) in early 2000. It was a time well before that year's divisive presidential election, more than a year before 9/11, and long span of time before the rise of social media. These contestants were certainly not the breed of would-be stars and starlets desperate to use a reality show to advance an acting career (that would come later); this group of sixteen just seemed to be a gaggle of randomly assembled Americans (none of whom had the advantage of previously watching the game they were playing). That lack of knowledge was deadly to some in the game, as none of them, at least in that first episode, seemed to appreciate the power of voting blocs and alliances. (Boesch spoke of a budding alliance between he and Hatch, but they voted differently at tribal council.).

The direction and camera work have also advanced considerably since that first episode. (In fact, it's initially jarring to see an episode not filmed in HD). These days, the show is far, far superior in quality, both with respect to its direction and cinematography. Those advances are readily apparent when viewing the first episode, which is not nearly as ambitious in that respect.

How different the game is now; these days, it's populated by students of the show like Russell Hantze, super-fans who bring with them to the island an institutional knowledge of what came before. Further, as the series has progressed, the producers have opted to select a higher percentage of hotties and beefcakes, many of whom are the least interesting of the bunch.
Some other fun thoughts upon watching the program;
  • Stacey Stillman, eliminated in the third episode, would later sue the show and its producers. In early 2000, when the program was filmed, Stillman was a young California attorney who had become licensed to practice law just over a year before filming in December of 1998. She is now a managing associate in the Silicon Valley office of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, L.L.P., and of all things, she has represented Facebook.
  • The lovely Colleen Haskell (pictured above) would become enough of an "America's Sweetheart" to land a role in the 2001 Rob Schneider movie, The Animal, but would ultimately vanish from the pop culture landscape. Rumor has it that she was asked to return for the all star edition of "Survivor" in 2004, but she declined. Alas.
  • Sue Hawk, Richard Hatch, and Rudy Boesch did appear on "Survivor: All Stars" in 2004. An awkward and troubling altercation between Hawk and Hatch resulted in Hawk voluntarily removing herself from that game. (They had mostly smoothed over their differences by the time of the reunion show in 2004).
  • Sean Kenniff would try to reinvent himself as a journalist and commentator, but how anyone could take him seriously after he adopted that ridiculous alphabet voting strategy later on in the game is beyond those of us here at Chronological Snobbery.
  • Where to begin with Richard Hatch? His post-"Survivor" career has been engulfed by legal problems. A good rule of thumb: If you win a million dollars on a popular television program, be certain that you report it as income to the Internal Revenue Service.
  • Probst have proven himself to be a fine reality show host. Sure, he seems to favor the strong alpha-males in the competition, but he injects just enough personality and commentary into the show without it seeming as if he is trying to be the show's star.
The day after "Survivor" premiered, on June 1, 2000, Sonja, as the ousted contestant, appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, a clip of which is below. (It's interesting to watch, for at that time, Stewart had only been the host of that program for about a year and a half.).

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Sonja Christopher
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We here at this site did not watch this first episode of "Survivor" when it first aired. In fact, in the summer of 2000, we weren't watching much television, but we caught the fourth episode (airdate June 21, 2000) after a neighbor remarked that he personally knew one of the contestants. After that, we were hooked on the series, so much so that we began to follow the speculation about the winner online. In this, the first season, the ultimate winner was named at the final tribal council, rather than live on the night of the series finale. Thus, the winner was a known quantity, and theories abounded about who it might be. (A particular favorite site was the original Survivor Sucks site (see more here), which offered some theories, many later disproven, about who might be the next to go. Remember the Gervase X theory?). Whatever the case, we've watched the show on and off in the last decade, sometimes skipping a season, but always returning (although we were disappointed to see Russell Hantze lose two seasons in a row).

You can see the first ten minutes of the first episode here:

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Off Duty XX

Even the Man of Steel is occasionally affected by the burdens of his daily toil. Far less a man than he, we here at Chronological Snobbery must take today off. Hey, it's a holiday weekend.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Concrete Blonde - Bloodletting (1990)

Released twenty years ago today, on May 29, 1990, was Bloodletting, the third studio album by Concrete Blonde (who is now touring to celebrate the album's twentieth anniversary). The album contains "Joey," the band's most popular song. I became familiar with Concrete Blonde later in 1990 when their cover of Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows" appeared on the soundtrack of the teen film, Pump Up The Volume (a film responsible for introducing me to a number of bands, in fact). From then on out, I've been a follower and fan. Happy anniversary.

Pink Floyd - Pulse (May 29, 1995)

Fifteen years ago today, on May 29, 1995, Pink Floyd released its live album, Pulse. To this day, this is a difficult album for me to listen to because it was played at a friend's memorial service that summer. The friend, born just a day before me, died too soon in the summer of 1995 in a tragic accident. He, like me and so many other of our friends, was a great fan of music, and the last album he purchased before his untimely death was Pulse. His family, knowing of his love for music, opted to play the album at his memorial service to illustrate his fondness for music. Now, when I do listen to this album, I always think of him and that sad day. May he rest in peace.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Eddie Presley (1992) (Featuring an Original Interview with Writer/Star Duane Whitaker)

If you've heard of the film Eddie Presley, it may because of its connection to icons Quentin Tarantino or Bruce Campbell. If the presence of those two actors in this flick brought you to it, though, you're in store for a charming, though melancholy, indie feature. Today, we here at Chronological Snobbery look back at this 1992 film, and in so doing, we feature an original interview with Duane Whitaker, the film's star and screenwriter (as well as the author of the play upon which the film was based). Directed by Jeff Burr, the film features Whitaker as the title character, a troubled Elvis impersonator who sacrifices much of himself and his life for his dream. In so doing, he loses his wife and family, suffers a traumatic breakdown at a burger joint, and finds himself committed to a local mental institution. This is his life.

But all of that is his back story. When we first meet Eddie, he is a sad sack of a security guard trying to keep alive a dead-end relationship with an unfaithful waitress at a downtown diner. He lives in his van, which he parks on the street in the areas of Los Angeles the local chamber of commerce doesn't likely promote in its literature. His superior at the security guard company, Joe West (the late Lawrence Tierney, who would appear that same year in Reservoir Dogs), is out to get him. He has no mail at his post office box save for bills, and he has no messages from his answering service (which he must check from a pay phone). It is, in many ways, a sad film, which is to say that the viewer is affected by Eddie's plight. He is deserving of some level of sympathy, and the viewer is left to wonder, will he find his redemption? Still, he has some level of support from his friends, including Nick (Willard E. Pugh), Scooter (Ted Raimi), and Becky (Harri James), a chatty and nervous brunette who has a not-so-subtle crush on Eddie.

But his lifeblood is the King. He is a once and future Elvis impersonator, so dedicated to the King that he legally changed his surname to Presley as the ultimate homage. He hopes to resurrect his show business career, and in fostering that ambition, he relates to Elvis and his 1968 comeback special, which Eddie believes silenced the critics who believed that Elvis was finished prior to that triumphant return to the national stage. So, Eddie bides his time, waiting for his comeback.

Eddie's luck seems to change when he is offered a gig by Doc (the late Roscoe Lee Browne), the proprietor of Doc's Back Door, a night club featuring variety acts. Eddie's naive enthusiasm for the task at hand is both admirable and pitiable. He relishes the opportunity to return to the stage, and in so doing, he prints homemade fliers, which he hands out to any and all on the streets of L.A. A later montage reveals the fate of many of those fliers, including some that have been thrown to the ground or in public trash cans. His friends from work become his informal entourage, but his waitress girlfriend elects to work at the diner instead of attend the gig.

The gig, unfortunately, does not go without a hitch. The opening act, a magician, crashes and burns in a dramatic fashion. Eddie, for his part, confidently takes the stage in his jumpsuit and performs a rendition of "Dixie" which impresses the audience, many members of which may have come to the show with low expectations. Unfortunately, just as things are going so well, the fates intervene, and Eddie's performance tape, which hosts his background music, warps and becomes unplayable. Left without music to support his act, he is initially frustrated, but then uses the opportunity to confess to the audience his troubled past and his fondness for the King.

The 1967 film Clambake was his first introduction to Elvis, and after seeing that film at the theatre with his mother, he was hooked. As an adult, he opted to close his profitable pizza franchise in order to form an Elvis tribute act. This did not go well with his parents, or his wife, who opts for divorce. Despite losing a significant amount of money in that divorce, he formed a band, but it fell apart when he could no longer pay its members. He then carried on as a true solo act. Somewhere along the way, he even put out a vinyl single, the A-Side being an original composition, "That's What The King Means To Me," with "Hound Dog" as the B-side. Ultimately finding himself depressed, he suffered an emotional breakdown in a fast food restaurant, which resulted in his being committed (black and white flashbacks of which are peppered throughout the film). His wife then obtains a restraining order against him, which prevents him from seeing his young son. Broken and beaten, he ends up where we find him at the beginning of the film. All these difficult facts he relates to those assembled at the gig at Doc's, and it is powerful testimony indeed. It is then that the film ends with Eddie where he belongs: on stage.

Like many low budget independent films, there are some uneven performances. But Whitaker becomes Eddie, a figure who knows that many might consider his dream silly. He knows that friends and co-workers cast him in disdain. But he doesn't care about their ridicule. As he tells the crowd at Doc's, he is doing what his heart says is right, and that can't be wrong. Though he was committed, he finds his prior life of restless toil to be crazier than the pursuit of his dream.

Some other points of interest:
  • As aforementioned, Tarantino and Campbell make very, very brief cameos as orderlies at the mental institution to which Presley is committed in a black and white flashback. Later promotional materials attempt to capitalize on these very brief appearances by these cult favorites. As noted below, outtakes from their scenes appear on the special edition DVD.

  • Someone involved in the production obviously likes "Bewitched." There are multiple references to Paul Lynde and Eddie's dressing room at Doc's featuring a handwritten note scrawled above the mirror: "Agnes Moorehead is God." On that series, Moorehead played Endora, while Lynde played Uncle Arthur.

  • Eddie is apparently a fan of Gore Vidal. In his van, he keeps a paperback copy of that author's 1985 novel, "Lincoln."

  • Daniel Roebuck plays Keystone the Magnificent, the inartful magician who opens for Eddie at Doc's. Roebuck would go on to play Jay Leno in the 1996 HBO movie, The Late Shift.

  • Clu Gulager plays a wonderfully sleazy, bottom feeding talent agent who offices out of Eddie's girlfriend's diner. Throughout the film, he attempts to prey upon young, naive would-be actresses.
In December of 2007, before this site went on an extended hiatus, Whitaker was kind enough to submit to a brief email interview with this site. In it, he noted as follows:

1. What is the primary difference between the film and the stage show on which it is based?
The play was a one man show that just started with the performance. The tape breaks and he kind of just ends up spilling his guts. It was written about my frustration of where my acting career was at the time. It was something I had been thinking about for a long time and when I sat down to write it -- it just kind of spewed out. The third act of the film is pretty much the play, Not exactly -- but a lot of it is in there.
2. What do you think became of Eddie Presley? What would he be doing in 2007?
I always thought it was a hopeful story. He says, "There will always be a place somewhere for Eddie Presley to do a show . . . ." I would think he would still be doing what he loves -- hopefully he would be more at peace with himself.
3. How does this film fit in with the wave of independent films that were coming onto the scene in the early 1990s? Do you consider it a part of that movement, and if so, why?
I guess it would be part of that movement. It kind of got lost, though. It played some festivals including the first South By Southwest festival in Austin and then ran on the Sundance Channel before anyone had the Sundance Channel. Until the DVD release, very few people were aware of the film. I'm happy it's out there now for anyone who does want to see it.
4. How did Quentin Tarantino and Bruce Campbell come to play the role of the mental institution orderlies?
Bruce and Quentin were both knew the director, Jeff Burr, I believe. If I remember, it was going to be Quentin and Sam Raimi but Sam got a cooler gig and Bruce was nice enough to step in. Stuff that was cut from that scene is on the DVD extras -- pretty cool.
The second DVD includes 37 minutes of deleted scenes as well as 12 minutes of black and white outtakes from the mental asylum flashback sequence, which includes footage of both Campbell and Tarantino. Some screen captures from that footage are found below:

Speaking of Tarantino, you've probably seen Whitaker in action before and didn't know it. In Pulp Fiction, he played Maynard (depicted below), the pawn shop owner who, along with Zed (Peter Greene), take Butch (Bruce Willis) and Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) hostages for their own nefarious purposes. Maynard dies at the hands of a katana-wielding Butch.

Whitaker would go on to write and star in From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money, a sequel to the film written by and starring Tarantino.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Daniel Johnston Frog Mural in Austin, Texas

Depicted above is the (somewhat) famous "Hi, How Are You" frog mural done by Daniel Johnston on the side of a building in Austin, Texas. Originally, the building whose brick exterior played host to this mural was Sound Exchange, a now defunct record store at the corner of Guadalupe and 21st Street. However, like so many familiar Austin haunts from the 1990s, Sound Exchange folded in 2003, and the space was purchased shortly thereafter by a franchise of the Baja Fresh chain of Mexican restaurants. The question: What was to become of the mural? The community mounted a grass roots protests to preserve the mural, which had initially been threatened with destruction. Well, as you can see from the photograph above, the new owner, after some level of controversy regarding the mural's fate, built around the mural, preserving it for all to see. (In fact, according to this 2004 press release, the owner did it at his own expense.). By 2008, though, the Baja Fresh chain had folded, and now at that location is Crave Thai and Sushi Bar (which likely did not face any controversy because the previous owner had already spent the money to preserve the mural).

I myself must have walked by that mural dozens and dozens and dozens of times in the 1990s, even before arriving in that city for college. (Even in high school, when I would visit Austin, I would always hit Sound Exchange, Inner Sanctum, and Tower Records, all of which are now gone). I remember reading about the controversy in 2004, and I wondered then how well the community would support the chain restaurant that had ponied up the money to preserve it. These days, though, the mural of a relic of an Austin which no longer exists, but for in the minds of its current (and former) citizens who are at least a decade older than the undergraduates who walk past it every single day. A funny aside: Years and years later, long after I had left Austin, I was walking down the street in another state which I was visiting on business. Some young hipster hands me his first generation iPhone (which was then new) and asks that I take a photograph of he and a scruffy fellow standing somewhat near him. I look at the man, and it is none other than Daniel Johnston. I took the photograph and went along my merry way. I later learned that he and his band were playing a local venue in that city that night.

For more on the mural, and its history, see here, here, and here.

Above: A view of the mural from Google Maps Street View. (Click to enlarge).

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! (1987)

There were rings of coolness in the late 1980s in elementary and middle school, and the highest level of coolness included those who happened to own the Nintendo Entertainment System video game, Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!. Without a doubt, this video game cartridge, for the Nintendo (and perhaps other platforms, but I don't know) was the gateway to conversational coolness back then. If you owned it, you were set. Mere mention of it bestowed upon the speaker cool points, which were, as we all know, desperately needed back in those days. Why?

Well, for one thing, back in those days, Mike Tyson was invincible. He'd not yet been beaten by Buster Douglas, he'd not yet illustrated his mental issues by biting off anyone's ear, and he'd not yet become the pop culture punch line that he was in last year's The Hangover.

But there's more: To own this video game was one thing. To actually reach the final level at which you could square off against Mike Tyson himself, well, that was quite another. There was no Internet available to look up a cheat code to reach the level. Without such a cheat code, you had to earn your right to fight Mike. And if you made it there, if you happened to make it there, you were typically slain quite quickly by Tyson and without any sympathy whatsoever.

But he could be beaten. It was possible. The fates occasionally allowed for it. The gamer playing this game assumed the role of Little Mac, and to reach Mike Tyson, you had to fight a number of opponents, from the easily beaten Glass Joe, to more formidable opponents, like Piston Honda, Bald Bull, Soda Popinski, and King Hippo. But if you reached, Tyson, well, then, you were the master. Beating him gave you bragging rights at school like no other.

Those were the days.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Hell to Pay - The Jeff Healey Band (1990)

Released twenty years ago today was Hell to Pay, the second studio album by the Jeff Healey Band. Healey, of course, is remembered not just for being a hell of a guitar player, but also being one hell of a guitar player who happened to be blind. I must confess that this record came to my attention sometime in 1990 for one reason and one reason alone: its inclusion of a cover of The Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." Learning of that, I quickly bought the record, and I dug it. But I've not thought about it in years and years and years. In fact, I did not learn until my preparations for this piece that Healey passed away in 2008 from cancer. Rest in Peace.

Kurt Cobain and Hands Across America (May 25, 1986)

Twenty four years ago today, on May 25, 1986, Kurt Cobain was arrested for vandalism. What might have gotten Kurt so riled up on that Sunday? We can only speculate.

A theory: As fate would have it, Hands Across America, that ill-conceived do-gooder event, was held that same day. Remember that? It was a charity event, the goal of which was to have a human chain from one coast to the other, with all participants joined by holding hands. Surely, Cobain, the then would-be punk rocker had no patience for such displays of insincerity.

Well, it's just a theory.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Braveheart (May 24, 1995)

Released fifteen years ago today, on May 24, 1995, was Braveheart, the film directed, produced, and starring Mel Gibson, then a huge, huge Hollywood star. The film won Academy Awards for both Best Picture and Best Director, as well as three other Oscars for this and that. But was it deserving of those accolades then, and does it hold up now, a decade and a half later?

In 2010, it's hard not be at least a bit cynical about Braveheart, with its simplistic and historically inaccurate plot, its cartoonish villain King Edward I (played by Patrick McGoohan of "The Prisoner"), and its uncompromising hero protagonist, William Wallace, whose political ideology, as depicted by Gibson, seems to be merely shouting the word "freedom" to the masses. Any hero who struts about spouting platitudes like "Every man dies, not every man truly lives" risks losing the sympathy of the cinema-goer, who may well root for the evil king after that.

The direction by Gibson is okay, I suppose, and there are some beautiful shots of Scottish landscapes. But the battle sequences have nothing on the later work of Steven Spielberg, or even Peter Jackson (who was creating fictitious warfare from alternate universes). Watching some of the staged cinematic battle, I wondered if Gibson's philosophy was to simply take a few random wide shots of the chaos, and then, every few seconds, intersperse a staged swing of the sword by Wallace or some other heroic Scotsmen, and then repeat that process again and again. That sort of back and forth cutting doesn't really do the entire battle justice; rather, it seems that there was little thought to the choreography of the battle as a whole. They are hardly epic scenes.

Perhaps one of the narrative mistakes was to attempt to tell a full origin story of Wallace, a historical figure whose true origin and family life is mostly unknown (save for an inaccurate historical poem which served as the basis for screenwriter Randall Wallace's script). The film starts in his youth, during which his formative experiences include seeing the aftermath of the English king's treachery and the ultimate death of this father and brother at the hands of the English. Young Wallace falls in love Murron MacClannough (Catherine McCormack), who he secretly marries in order to prevent an English lord from claiming a right under the curious doctrine of jus primae noctics (which, essentially, means that the governing English lord can sleep with any bride in the region on her wedding night). But their secret marriage does not last long; Murron is executed by the English after an altercation with an English soldier. The sudden loss of his love drives Wallace to join an already brewing rebellion against the English king. (Curiously, in his later and very similar film, The Patriot, it is again the loss of a loved one, and not politics, that causes Gibson's protagonist to enter into an armed uprising against the English.). The rest of the film is battle after battle and scene of purported political intrigue after scene of purported political intrigue. Historical figures who were never in the same room somehow find each other and interact as friends, enemies, or lovers. (You can't help but roll your eyes when Gibson's Wallace somehow beds Princess Isabelle (the lovely French actress Sophie Marceau), wife of Prince Edward, son of the film's villain, King Edward I). All of this is done in the name of drama. Perhaps Gibson wanted to craft an "epic film," but unfortunately, an epic is not just a period piece with a running time approaching three hours.

Certainly, it's difficult to watch the film now and not recall the countless parodies and satires that have been staged since the film's release a decade and a half ago. To boot, watching Gibson in this role, one cannot separate Gibson the actor from Gibson the drunken kook:

Gibson's off screen antics of the past few years really have thwarted his ability to occupy a role, even those that he took and performed many years before those antics. Perhaps it's unfair to judge a 1995 would-be epic by the subsequent misbehavior of its star, but it can't be helped.

Watching the film again, I couldn't quite put my finger on my misgivings with the script, then I turned to Wikipedia for a bit of context: Screenwriter Randall Wallace would go on to pen 2001's disastrous Pearl Harbor (starring Ben Affleck) as well as write and direct the mediocre Gibson flick, We Were Soldiers in 2002. He wrote songs with Richard Marx in 2008. There you go.

In sum, the film is dated, overly simplistic, and cliche-ridden, not unlike most films Gibson has done since 1995. It's a shame, really, because Gibson was once a likable and bankable star, but now, he's just a paranoid parody of himself who has gone too far off the reservation. When he decided that he wanted to be a "serious film-maker," that was the end of the Gibson we knew.

Braveheart is where all of that began, meaning that today is not much of an anniversary.

Oh, well.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Now, I Shall Vanish From The Internet Until "Lost" Has Aired

Erin Farley of Oregon has the right approach to watching the series finale of "Lost" tonight:
Erin Farley has her plans for Sunday all laid out. Two hours before the last episode of “Lost” is broadcast three time zones away, she will shut down her home Internet connection. TweetDeck? Off. Facebook? Off. Her cellphone? Stashed out of reach.

“I’ll turn off the whole Internet just to avoid having anything spoiled,” said Ms. Farley, a 31-year-old freelance writer in Portland, Ore. “I don’t want to ruin the surprise.”
That's an excerpt from this article by Jenna Wortham from Friday's New York Times.

This is the best way to handle tonight's finale, and I plan to adopt that approach, as well.

Until tomorrow, dear readers.

Lost - The Series FInale

(September 22, 2004 - May 23, 2010)

Tonight sees the airing of the two and a half hour series finale of TV's "Lost," and you can bet I'll be watching. (I'm not certain I'll catch the two hour clip show beforehand, but I'll stay tuned for the special post-show wrap-up hosted by Jimmy Kimmel and featuring most of the cast.).

"Lost," to me, is a perfect example of how television has evolved as a storytelling medium. When I was growing up in the 1980s, there were few television producers that saw their programs as an opportunity to tell a single story over the course of twenty, or even a hundred, hours. These days, however, showrunners share stories over the course of a single episode, but arcs also span an entire season, or as in the case of "Lost," an entire series. This trend has made the viewing experience all the more satisfying and rewarding, and it should be encouraged.

"Lost" has always been a show about characters and their evolution, and the manner in which the storytellers play with the concept of time has been fascinating. During the first several seasons, we learned about who the characters were through a series of flashbacks. Then, in a twist, we began to learn where they would end up through a series of flash forwards. The penultimate season played with time all the more, hurling characters back into the 1970s and allowing them to participate in, and perhaps even cause, events in the future (but in their subjective pasts). What better way to explore the concepts of fate and free will?

Back in my long ago college days, a film professor of mine commented upon the concept of "post hoc reconstruction," namely, a narrative conceit that requires the viewers to order and put together the events of a narrative after it has been viewed. At the time, the term was used in reference to Pulp Fiction and its series of out of temporal order vignettes. But so too does "Lost" require this of the viewer, meaning that in addition to entertainment, it is also a neat puzzle of sorts to be solved (both between episodes as well as the vast expanses of time between seasons).

Sure, there has always been the mystery and mythology of the show, and that too has been fun to watch unfold. But as many canceled copycat series learned, all of that is nothing without the character development. Sometimes, "Lost" characters could no longer evolve and served no other narrative purpose; but no one could argue that the producers were shy about dispatching them. (Thankfully, though, they never took out the lovely Evangeline Lilly, who as I noted here not too long ago, never really diversified her career beyond this popular television series.). Unafraid of bold narrative choices, and resistant to a stale status quo, the show took risks.

But tonight, all of that comes to an end. To be honest, I haven't a clue how it will all end (despite my previous speculation on that subject). I suspect, though, that showrunners Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof have a few tricks up their sleeves, and no doubt, they've learned from the mistakes of and reactions to other series finales, such as "The Sopranos" and "Battlestar Galactica." (It helps, also, to know that no series finale could ever be as good or emotionally satisfying as that of HBO's "Six Feet Under," which aired just five years ago.). I doubt any of us will be able to avoid the news stories, summaries, blog entries, and general speculation to be published on the web immediately after the finale tonight and well into this coming week. But at this point, with just two and a half hours left in the series, I can say it's been a fun ride.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Best of Shaquille O'Neal

Though not an Ultimate Collection compilation, The Best of Shaquille O'Neal suggests that there was once some inquiry into his preexisting discography to determine what songs, if any, merited inclusion in a greatest hits collection. One wonders how that decision making process occurred. Was it by committee, or did a single record company employee select the tracks he or she deemed appropriate for inclusion? Did O'Neal have such a collection of hits spanning so many albums that the record buying public needed his greatest works to be condensed into one disc? Surely not.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Thirty Years Ago Today: The Empire Strikes Back (May 21, 1980)

Much, probably too much, will be written about today's thirtieth anniversary of the second installment of the original Star Wars trilogy. (The lovely Whitney Matheson of USA Today's blog, Pop Candy, was talking about the anniversary as early as last month.). But, as a blog dedicated to pop culture nostalgia, Chronological Snobbery must pause to ask: Is there a better component of the original Star Wars trilogy than its second chapter, 1980's The Empire Strikes Back? The answer: No, and that's an objective, not a subjective, statement.

Directed by Irvin Kershner, and starring most everyone from the original trilogy, Empire illustrated that the initial Star Wars concept could become a dark and epic cinematic masterpiece. That film has aged well, better than its predecessor in fact, because it takes itself just seriously enough and respects its audience. Characters mature, plot interests are served, and the narrative is bolstered by character, not special effects. From the slow burning passion of Solo and Leia, to the climactic battle between Luke and Vader, this is Star Wars at its best. Its darkness, coupled with its cliffhanger ending, make it fine cinema indeed. Lucas has never equaled it (though the first act of Return of the Jedi does come at least somewhat close).

Sadly, beginning with Jedi, the franchise slipped into producer George Lucas' mad obsession with marketing and his awful desire to place cinematic technology far, far ahead of the storytelling. That approach, of course, culminated in the wretched prequels and the near destruction of any fondness my generation had for the original films. Even before the prequels, though, Lucas couldn't resist the urge to tweak Empire, well after its release. In 1997, he soiled Kershner's austere vision with his overcooked, overdone special edition, released in theatres with superfluous digital nonsense. That attempt to "improve" the film simply cluttered the previously haunting mise-en-scene of the original 1980 version. Lucas, of course, purports that he always intended the films to look as they do in the 1997 special edition; he was simply waiting for cinematic technology to catch up to his vision so that he could accomplish that feat. Whatevs. (An aside: We should probably read the decline of the Star Wars franchise as an endorsement of the skills of producer Gary Kurtz, who produced the first two films, but left after a falling out with Lucas, whose stewardship of the franchise to date has turned the properties into rot.).

Much has changed in movie making and marketing since 1980. These days, Lucas seems more concerned with selling soda and lunchboxes than telling tales (or at least, profiting from the sale of soda and lunchboxes so additional monies can be sunk into special effects technologies which can be utilized to distract cinema viewers from an utter lack of plot in a film by Lucas). Unfortunately, that may well be his legacy. But for me, a child of the 1980s, I remember the trilogy and my great fondness for it as it existed prior to 1997, before the dilution of Empire. It is that film which celebrates an anniversary today; it is that film that I celebrate. Alas, there is very little in the Star Wars universe that came after 1980 worthy of any celebration whatsoever.