Amen.

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Ruh Roh

I have always been a loud critic of the notion that violent media is corrupting our youth. It struck me as nonsensical, like saying Jodie Foster is a bad influence because some unstable man became obsessed with her and shot the President.

This believe was unwavering for over a decade. I wrote an original oratory on violence and censorship and competed with it in high school speech. Every school shooting, I would roll my eyes and expect the blame the media defense to get traipsed out unfairly.

Then my ten-year-old nephew, who plays entirely too many seemingly violent video games for my taste, offered me his review of “The Adventures of Tintin” after we watched it over my holiday vacation:

“That movie was boring. Tintin didn’t even shoot anybody. Every time a bad guy came near him, even though he had a gun, he ran away.”

And, for the first time, I began to doubt that I was entirely right about the subject.

In Media Resistance

Most of my peers will tell you they find my personal taste in pop culture somewhat suspect. I tend to prefer the classics and old movies over today’s fare. I love “Veronica Mars” exponentially more than “The Wire”. And I think “Empire Strikes Back” is far and away the worst of the first trio of Star Wars movies.

That last one is unusual, I realize. This flick is easily the most lauded of the bunch while my favorite, the Ewok bonanza that is “The Return of the Jedi”, is cited as the weak link.  Here is my personal beef with Empire–the in media res-ness of it all precludes me for citing it as a good singular film, because it is so reliant on New Hope and Jedi to be successful.  I feel the same way about the middle Lord of the Rings film, The Two Towers. It is easily my least favorite and it is mostly because I can’t fully appreciate it without seeing the film that came before it and the film that comes after it.

I hate books split in two, like the final Harry Potter films.  If we can cram “Gone with the Wind” and the New Testament into a singular film, we can do the same with a young adult novel.  To me, this inability to contain a singular story in a singular text means you probably should have opted to make a miniseries instead of a movie.

I realize Star Wars is a tribute to the serials of the Golden Age of cinema where the standard means to view movies was to go once a week, seeing installment after installment.  I wish we had short films and serials so we don’t have to see the hoardes of bloated children’s books that can be read in eight minutes blown into two hour films.  Unfortunately, that isn’t the way the movies work anymore, save for the occasional shorts before Disney and Pixar films.

So, one of my beefs with movies today is this insistence on serializing everything.  I am willing to make the occasional concession for certain event pictures like LOTR or Harry Potter flicks that can manage one book in a single movie.

These days though, I feel like everything I try to watch is so serialized that, unless I am willing to fully commit from the jump to a very close reading of all the texts as a singular entity, I am not going to get a lot of enjoyment out of it.

Which brings me to “The Hobbit”. Blame ego or capitalism, but somehow Warner Brothers greenlit a project that extends a 320-page book into three films each likely running nearly three hours in length.  In order to do this, helmer Peter Jackson went to the appendices and a less popular tome, The Simarillion, to add things to the films.  The kinds of things only hard core Tolkien fans even bothered to read.

I took my ten-year-old nephew with me to see the first installment of “The Hobbit”, thinking it might be a good way to get him into the mythology so I can eventually introduce him to the movies or the LOTR book trilogy.

Instead, I spent almost three hours getting the death stare from the kid, as he was bored out of his mind.  Hell, I was bored too. The difference was, I had a clue what was going on. My nephew went into the film blind and, as a result, he stumbled through the entire thing.  There was an extended sequence where Gandalf confers with Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), and Sarumon (Christopher Lee). All of them were characters in the LOTR trilogy and we were given some clue who they were in “The Hobbit”, but the kid didn’t really get what they were talking about at all because he hadn’t seen the other movies.

Let me reiterate that, chronologically speaking, what happens in LOTR happens after the story that transpires in “The Hobbit”.  So please explain to me why it is necessary for my nephew to watch almost nine hours of plot that hasn’t even happened yet in order to understand the standalone novel for children?

This isn’t a complaint specific to “The Hobbit”.  We are at a cultural point where “nerd” aesthetic prevails.  "The Hobbit" is a blockbuster designed for uberfans with less than subtle winks, nods, and hat tips to the other texts in the Tolkien oeuvre and, in order to really get the intended level of enjoyment from any singular piece, you have to commit to watch everything.

A few years back, my cousins talked me into seeing “Spiderman 2” one summer.  I haven’t read Spiderman comics, nor did I have any interest in seeing the original.  I thought, “This is a comic book movie designed to appeal to the masses, how complicated can it be?”

Call me an idiot, but I was completely lost the entire time.  I would constantly lean over and ask questions like, “Why is Spiderman’s friend out to get Spiderman?”  As an audience member, the expectation was I should have done my homework before going to the movie.  The only point of entry was to start at the beginning.

It is a problem we frequent;y encounter with the programs from the so-called “Golden Age of Television”. You can’t start “The Wire” five episodes in.  And if you don’t closely watch all of the episodes in chronological order, you are not going to enjoy the episodes much at all.

It is to the point where I am resistant to even jump into a show like “Modern Family” midstream for fear I’ll be too behind to enjoy it.  Whenever I recommend a show to friends, the first question is almost always, “I have to start from the beginning, huh?”

This is a new phenomenon. We never used to say, “Oh ‘Full House’ is great, but you really need to start from the beginning to see how Michelle develops as a character.”

“The Wire” creator David Simon even went so far as to say he disliked television recappers because it would be unfair to judge his show “Treme” only by its parts and not its whole season.

Um, David Simon, you’re cool and all, but no. I judge television by the episode, I judge movies and plays by the acts, and I judge albums by the song.  If too many pieces of the puzzle suck, I’m not sticking around to put the rest of it together.

And this is where I keep running into trouble.  There are several shows and texts I have a passing interest in. I don’t want to fully commit to reading all 100%, I am mostly looking for a pamphlet or a newsletter to give me an idea of how this show is going to be.

Instead, I am faced with a decision “Do I want to spend 30-40 hours effectively majoring in "Mad Men” or not?“  The shows I am so drawn to that I am willing to make a commitment like that are few and far between, yet most every "great” show on TV these days requires that level of viewership to really enjoy. But if there were a means of engaging with these shows on a more passive level that doesn’t privilege this extremely close reading to the point that casual viewership is not a possibility at all, I would be down.

I didn’t used to think “The Dick Van Dyke” show was one of the top three television programs ever created.  I used to be a casual viewer who caught an episode or two on Nick at Nite in my youth and guffawed once or twice a show.  As I grew older, I started taking in more of the program, watching it chronologically, and I found I enjoyed it on an entirely new level.  The film and TV scholar in me saw how progressive and innovative the program was for its time, appreciated how the characters developed, and gave the show a much closer reading than before.  

Now, I hold this show up as the paradigm of what great television is–something that works on the micro level of entertaining single episodes and the macro level of extending themes and developing character and story arcs along stretches of several weeks’ worth of shows.  It is why I will always say shows like “Lost” and “The Wire” are good, but not great.  Great shows have points of entry beyond Episode 1.  Great functions on multiple levels for a wide array of viewers. Great does not make you wait ten weeks to appreciate what you are watching right now. 

Like I said, there is a place for serialization in modern media.  But there should be a place for shows that are incredibly well-written and not heavily serialized as well.  Serialization is not a requirement to make good television.  This so-called Golden Age may make you think otherwise, but there are plenty of times where dragging things out and forcing people to take in something in its entirety versus picking and choosing pieces means you are leaving people out in the cold altogether.

Five Reasons “Murder, She Wrote” Is Awesome and I Don’t Care What Y’all Say

So I get a lot of flack from people because my taste in popular culture might suggest I am in the ballpark of 87-years-old.  By and large, I am more inclined to like classic movies than newer ones (I would guess my top ten has two movies made after 1990).  The same goes for TV. Those crazy kids claiming “The Wire” is the best show ever are not only laughable, but have clearly never seen The Dick Van Dyke Show. And they most certainly are missing out on the awesomeoness that is “Murder, She Wrote”.

The general knocks against this delightful Angela Lansbury vehicle which ran for 12 seasons on CBS are twofold. 1: It is boring and benign, designed to amuse old people and 2: Anybody still residing in the fictional town of Cabot Cove or friends with Jessica Fletcher would’ve headed for the hills long ago after how many murders she has been present for.

While this show is preposterous, so is just about everything else on TV.  According to twitter, “Homeland” might even beat this thing fro least plausible show ever.  As for boring? Aw. Hell. No.

So here are five reasons why you just don’t get it and “Murder, She Wrote” is awesome.

1. This show never even pretends to be plausible in the slightest. They own how absurd the plotlines are and try to outdo themselves with each episode. Once Jessica was appointed emergency interim Congresswoman for the fine state of Maine after the sitting Congressmen died under suspicious circumstances. Not only did this woman go to DC and serve in Congress, she solved a murder and got back to the debate floor in time to give a rousing speech in opposition of a new coastal cannery.

A few weeks later, Jessica’s uncle died and she inherited an ownership stake in an NFL team. Did she sell? Oh no, she headed straight for stadium ready to suit up and coach them to the Super Bowl.

2. This show was willing to tackle just about any political or hot button issue imaginable.  Jessica once got trapped in a women’s prison during a riot and the episode was a lesson in systematic corruption in correctional facilities.  She helped Ruskies defect because they love democracy more than Communism.  She gets embroiled in a political situation with East Germans, and she addresses feminist issues week in and week out.

3. Have you seen the guest stars on this thing? In the aforementioned football episode, Jessica is wooed by Dick Butkus and befriends quarterback Bruce Jenner and his darling, deaf daughter.  Courteney Cox plays Jessica’s niece in a two-parter  where Jessica travels to a circus and solves a murder designed to look like an accidental death by elephant trampling. Plus you’ve got recurring sheriff Tom Bosley (who sports one hell of a Maine accent) and Boston PI Jerry Orbach.  Jeff Conaway recurs as her nephew-in-law who once led a double life as a male exotic dancer.

4. I hope it goes without saying that Angela Lansbury is an American treasure.  She can be funny, she can be bawdy, she can be dramatic, she can kick ass.  My favorite Jessica Fletcher moments though come in the beats leading up to scenes. Jessica gets out of a cab, pays the cabbie, and adds something, “and I will be sure to send you that bunion ointment. We handcraft in Cabot Cove and it will fix your feet in no time.” Then she will go into an office and lay the smackdown on a corrupt CEO about how he will turn himself in to authorities.

5. While I admire the kitschy camp of this show most of all, I am going to be completely honest with you here. Some of the storytelling is mindblowingly progressive, groundbreaking, and good.  Here is a great example.  John Astin (best known as Gomez Addams of “The Addams Family” TV show) was a recurring character the first two seasons of the show.  He is a selfish real estate agent whose character type is best described as a trickster. He isn’t a full-blown villain, but he pops up from time to time with selfish motives that advance the plot.  Even though he can be annoying, he is that harmless neighbor most every show in the 80s possessed.

Then the John Astin character murdered an old woman.  Astin gets named substitute sheriff at the top of the show after current sheriff Bosley says it is time to retire. The first two acts of the show, you see Astin comically sputter and struggle as the murders begin to unfold.  Then we get to Act Four and the show hits you full force with the revelation that Astin is the killer.  He offers a heartfelt, deeply saddening confession.

Where else does this happen?  Kimmy Gibler never ups and shoots a guy on “Full House”.  "Northern Exposure" doesn’t suddenly have a recurring character rob a house.  But “Murder, She Wrote” is ballsy.  It is like “The Wire” in that respect. Jessica aside, no one is really safe. Anyone can go at anytime.

So, in a nutshell, this show rocks my world. And I want it to rock yours too. So I think I’m try the occasional installment where I break down an episode. “Murder, She Recapped” if you will. Hopefully it will convert some of you Fletcher haters.

Nitpickers

Over the course of our four-year friendship, BJ Nemeth and I have probably spent a good nine hours of our lives, at least, debating the best way to abbreviate “big blind” as a unit of measurement.  

Whenever I think about what differentiates me from BJ the most when it comes to personalities, I think of this statement I told him in regards to this ongoing argument:

“You know BJ, the biggest difference between us is that you take pride in caring about this minutiae. And I hate myself a little bit that I can’t help but care so much.”

Cover Me: Blind Melon Does Schoolhouse Rock

Providing more evidence that I am Generation Xer in a Millenial disguise, one of the first albums I became genuinely obsessed with was Schoolhouse Rock Rocks!, a series of Schoolhouse Rock covers by rock bands.  Better Than Ezra handled “Conjunction Junction”, Moby took “Verb: That’s What Happening” and made it his own.  My favorite Skee-Lo song is still his “Mr. Morton”, and my personal favorite of the covers is probably Pavement’s take on “No More Kings.”

I elected to showcase Blind Melon and their “Three Is a Magic Number” though because 1. It is kitschy and catchy all at the same time and 2. I really would guess more of you know Blind Melon over Pavement as well as “Three” over the American History ode to democracy.  The whole album is freaking awesome though, so enjoy this and I advise checking out more:

Sashaying Down Memory Lane

So I finally got around to watching “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” this weekend.  While there is certainly a diatribe to be written about why it took me so long to see such a charming musical, this isn’t that diatribe.

This is a diatribe about dance competitions.  Let me explain how these two things relate:

While watching the movie, I came to this scene.  It is one of the pivotal points of the picture. The Texas A & M Aggies defeated the Texas Longhorns in their yearly brawl. The prestigious alumni of the event plant to reward the seniors with a trip to the titular whorehouse.  This is the song they sing about how excited they are for the night:

As I watched the opening verse of this song, a thought came over me. “I know this song. Where do I know this song from?” I haven’t seen the show, “Aggie Song” isn’t exactly a standard in the Broadway catalog either. I knew it was from my childhood, but I couldn’t fathom how this song about going to sleep with prostitutes would’ve come up.

Then I had the moment of realization: A group of girls in my old dance studio once did a tap dance to this song.

The details quickly came back to me. They wore plaid shirts, cowboy hats, and white pants. Halfway through the song, I kid you not, the gals ripped their pants off, revealing leotards and suntan tights underneath.

I am not entirely sure their ages at the time, but my guess is they were between 14-17 years old. They were the oldest girls in our competition group, while I was the youngest by a margin. If you are unfamiliar with the reality show “Dance Moms” on Lifetime, you probably don’t know that competitive dance is about one step removed from child beauty pageants. In our competition circles, girls would do their routines for a season, dolling themselves up at local and regional events to win a spot in Nationals, held in the redneck mecca, Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

At first, this seemed harmless enough. My sister and I both loved dance and showed a fair amount of promise at it, so when the dance studio decided to form a competition group, we got invites. Even without my two front teeth, six-year-old me was actually pretty cute and I racked up a few trophies with my ballet dance to “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” from the musical “Oklahoma”.

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The next year though, you will see that the perils of competitive dance were starting to become more apparent. Keeping with the “ballet dances from popular musicals” theme, I did a number to “Meet Me St. Louis”, complete with parasol.

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I hope you can see how much make up I am wearing. This was during the period in the early 1990s where Kentuckians still hadn’t figured out that blue eye shadow should not be slathered on, and instead applied multiple layers of it preferably in a color identical to your outfit. This is also during the time where fire engine red was the lip color du jour, even if it clashed with your naturally red hair.

I look like I am enjoying myself and, at the time, I was. However, there were some far-reaching effects of this year of my life. First, I can’t really watch “Toddlers and Tiaras” or “Dance Moms” cause it is less “let’s point and laugh at the buffoons” and more “there are a disconcerting number of similarities between yourself and Honey Boo Boo.” Second, I can’t own eyeliner and whenever someone tries to apply it on my face, I have some sort of optical seizure. Our dance studio secretary, Miss Eleanor, did our make up for these things and her approach towards the cosmetic arts bore a strong resemblance to Mimi from “The Drew Carey Show”. Imagine a face like that coming at your eye with a sharp pencil and you can see why eyeliner might give a girl the heebie jeebies. By my last year of competition, I was developing into quite the little princess.

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My friend Erin and I did a rather precocious duet to a song called “Polka Dots, Checks, and Stripes”, a children’s music anthem to the importance of individuality as well as the fun one can derive from mixing patterns in your wardrobe.  We actually did remarkably well with the routine, winning our category with ease every time and frequently getting in the top three for overall duets/trios, besting kids much older than us.  In a particularly fitting turn of events, the same dance teacher who thought it a good idea to choreograph a tap dance to a song about men eager to get their procreating on would frequently complain that the other trio of girls our age at the studio got snubbed for their jazz dance to “2 Legit 2 Quit” (Hey Hey!).

This photo was taken at awards, which means it was hours after we actually performed and I still appear to have more make up on than I wore to my senior prom.  I am also wearing a hat with a ribbon hot glued to it.  And that writing on the hat? That is done with sparkly puffy paint.  Please also observe the liberal use of the splatter paint technique too.  And the cuffed jean shorts.  I am a walking tribute to all that is wrong with female fashion in 1993.  Erin is sporting a perm, something she was told to get because our hair needed to match.  There was also quite a hullabaloo around the fact Erin was about six inches taller than me.

The following year, the dance studio broke the two of us up for those very reasons.  Erin was paired with another, taller girl with blonde hair and they did a duet to the Michael Jackson song from the movie “Free Willy”.  In order to find a girl anywhere close to my height, I was forced to partner with a seven year old.  I was 11 at the time.  We did a number to “Wherever We Go” from “Gypsy”.  

You know, the movie about the stripper with a heart of gold?

It was about then that I started to get burnt out on competitive dance.  My mom, who is the absolute antithesis of a stage mom, was also getting tired of the travelling, the costumes, the classes, and having to do things like hot roll her already curly-haired daughter’s hair.  

She drew the line when I was recruited to be in a company number of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”.  Less than two years removed from my father passing away, the dance teacher with the Whorehouse tap dance routine told me I was going to play a zombie–effectively a dancing corpse.

My mom was quick to point out the potential psychological harm of making her daughter dress up like a decomposing corpse and prance around so soon after her father’s death and I was demoted to a bat instead.

I quit before I could ever learn exactly what kind of glittery hair and make-up would go with the bat costume.  I also never learned what kind of glittery made-up person I might have turned out to be.