Monday, March 24, 2014

Adios, Everybody!

If you're reading this, then my blog has gone into hibernation mode. There have been 10 months of my writings from website whose plug was unceremoniously pulled out of the blue. That I was able to save my writing--and share it here--has been a joy.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

President Strangelove

or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bushes

I von an Oscars 2003. You party vit me?
It was 19 March, 2003, and I had traveled to Los Angeles, where, being concerned about such things, the townspeople were abuzz at the prospect of having the Oscars cancelled; secondary was their concern about the forthcoming, doubtless very brief occupation of Iraq, for being a place whose more-than-occasional bread and butter was made by sequels, Gulf 2 promised all the same quick mechanized victories as the first, but given the advances in technology, the cinema haute couture recognized this skirmish to be more of a television production (indeed, one wonders if this is the quickly marketed response to Waugh’s comment that he does “not expect to see many travel books in the future,” (qtd in Fussell 215).  Throughout the day, concerns continued at the frightening prospect that Mr. Bush’s war would prevent the Academy (here used to refer to the film league rather than the higher Academy explored soon enough in this essay) from giving out awards.  (Incidentally, they were not prevented; the dead Conrad L. Hall, the rapper Eminem, and the convicted statutory rapist Roman Polanski all won, though none were present at the ceremony.)  Yet as day turned to night over the Pacific, and as the first wartime night in a decade settled over the Atlantic and Potomac, the President spoke to the nation.  I turned to my traveling companion and smugly said, “Here’s the start of the Bush 2004 Presidential Campaign,” and, alas, I meant it!  Such was my ignorance, an ignorance which has been so rightly fixed by the perspective of those who have traveled more and written better than the meager offerings of this writer, for by exploring the conventions used by the giants who have come before me, I have been able to understand how they achieve their pursuits of clarity, of vision, and of the honest truth of Mr. Bush’s war.
It was with Byron that I realized the great truth of what Hollywood types may have called Gulf 2 but I prefer to call The Great and Holy War Against the Aggressors Who Perpetrate General Evils (though I shall henceforth refer to it as Mr. Bush’s war, for the sake of maximizing these few pages with literary reflections).  Byron saw that the first notable feature of Iraq was “the Mosul pipe-line,” followed most secondarily by a Baghdad which he described as “desolation increased” (46).  Byron further explains that it was “little solace to recall that Mesopotamia was once so rich, so fertile of art and invention, so hospitable,” and that the entire region has had but one “prime fact,” and that from the thirteenth century when irrigation systems were destroyed, “and that from that day to this Mesopotamia has remained a land of mud” (46).  How silly I was to doubt our appointed leader, for Byron’s frank talk about this insignificant place, with its “mud-coloured” people who wear “mud-coloured” clothes topped off by a “national hat [that] is nothing more than a formalised mud-pie” (sic, 26) shows to me how right and just we of peach-colored skin (or, perhaps in the case of our British allies, snow-colored skin?) were to brandish flags over statues and claim the land for ourselves.  (Indeed, had one thought that Byron hated the place by using the word “mud” nine times in a single paragraph, then we should be very grateful that Iran was designated as a member of the catchily-named Axis of Evil, for his traveling companion Christopher called Iraq “a paradise compared with Teheran.” (47) With such words one certainly can hope that Mr. Bush’s war can become a global venture.
Surely, those inclined to say their nays will cry out such vague arguments as “But Iraq had no connection to the 9/11 attacks!” or “Were there not intelligence lapses concerning the existence of weapons of mass destruction in the country?”  I am of course reminded of the subtitle of the Twain book here explored, which is “The New Pilgrims’ Progress” (emphasis mine).  Surely those filled with piety and having lived lives of virtue are best set to become the newest pilgrims, and Mr. Bush highlights this fact.  Now, naturally, the existence of a few paltry sums of oil do sweeten the deal, but this is a war of enlightenment.  Twain noted that “the Koran does not permit Mohammedans to drink” but that “their natural instincts do not permit them to be moral” (368).  Perhaps this is owed to some sort of geographic flaw, for Twain too comments on “the God-forsaken barrenness and desolation” (455) and “leagues of blighted, blasted, sandy, rocky, sun-burnt, ugly, dreary, infamous country” (456) whilst in the region.  Indeed, the verbiage that this master author implies, certainly, that the territory is so in need of metaphorical white picket fences and curtains in the windows that he can but muster rather clunky language.  Language indeed, for he finds himself frustrated at one point that his guide cannot stomach the “unspeakable humiliation” (381) at being renamed, as all guides on Twain’s journey are, Ferguson.  (One is of course reminded of the impartial need by stabilizing forces in the American frontier to take Native American children, ship them from their ancestral lands, and send them to English-only schools in a modestly successful attempt to purge from them their wicked heathen ways.)  Twain punctuates his point by noting that such renaming “can not be helped.  All guides are Fergusons to us.  We can not master their dreadful foreign names” (sic, emphasis mine, 381).  Dreadful indeed, for who among us longs not for the day when the weary names which so confuse us can be replaced; who among us does not look eagerly for the day when the far-flung corners have such easy and convenient names like Georgetown, or Donaldsville, or Arbusto? 
Arbusto!  Whats that mean in English?
Indeed, Swift too sees so clearly the natural state of things in the grand alliance with the British who have been so kind as to help here and there in Mr. Bush’s war.  Was it not Swift, who in his wonderful metaphor, described those whom might fall under the helpful thumb of the Empire, as “human Creature[‘s] not six Inches high, with a Bow and Arrow in his Hands, and a Quiver at his back?” (5*)  Indeed, does not his Gulliver first gaze upon the fertile and quaint land of Lilliput and describe its cuteness for a quite short paragraph, then feel the press “by the Necessities of Nature” and then discharge his “Body of that uneasy Load?” (6)  I must stress that I do not mention Gulliver’s movements in order to be cheeky; rather, that in the ways of war I merely mean to point out that Swift recognizes, as do our leaders, that sometimes one must get one’s hands dirty.  But such is the way of spreading enlightenment; indeed, we are reminded that all are naturally inclined to be shown the way, for already in Lilliput “the Learned among them confess the Absurdity of [their burial] Doctrine; but the Practice continues, in Compliance to the Vulgar” (36).  The lesson taken is that the process has already started; we simply are speeding the process up, as one might use and need oil to lubricate a squeaky wheel.  But who can best do this?  Ah, once again, Swift’s glorious words provide us the right light.  This member of the British Isles casts his gaze to a “course [that is] East North-east” (60) and his metaphor becomes an America whose power compared to our wee British friends is like that of a man “as Tall as an ordinary Spire-steeple” who takes “about ten Yards at every Stride” (61) compared with a normal man.  (How right indeed Mr. Bush’s war must be when one views Swift’s metaphor as some sort of Christian Paul Bunyan!) 
Together... forever!
Given the obviousness to Swift of this partnership which, of late, has so helped to reshape lands in our Anglo-American (but, naturally, mostly American) image, one cannot help but be relieved that travel literature makes so clear the case for what can complimentarily be called recent Yankee imperialism.  Fussell seems to chunner and chunter a bit, saying that after the Great War “the British did awake… to a different world, one in which the idea of literary traveling must seem quaint and a book [or essay?] about it a kind of elegy” (227).  Perhaps such was the case many years ago, but how lucky we are, as thinkers, as writers, and as Americans, to have been given such a wonderful opportunity by Mr. Bush to travel of late—and to share it with our Anglo friends!  Indeed, all the authors that have been explored in this modest essay have shown me the ill of my ways, that the notion of dogged determination to reconstruct crude, backwards lands is not new.  I am struck, in fact, at a bit of a metaphor of my own: just as America is the more powerful child of its British parent, just as America is the rough-and-ready cowboy to the British sense of reserved elitism, and just as America is the younger, and more successful product of the traditions and ways of the British Empire, so too is the happy, smiling partnership between what those in the know refer to as Forty-Three and Forty-One, or the junior and senior Bushes.  Indeed, in summation I must reflect on the just ways in which the words of the authors quoted above have so improved my perspective.  Believing, as I once did, that there was no precedence, or justice, or explanation for Mr. Bush’s war, I see now that Byron and Twain and Swift and Fussell knew, each in his own time, that there is precedence and justice and explanation.  In closing, how grateful I am to them for fixing my view from someone who was once left lost, but now is quite right. 
Works Cited
Byron, Robert. The Road to Oxiana. New York: Oxford UP, 1982.
Fussell, Paul.  Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars. New York:
            Oxford UP, 1980.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels and Other Writings. Random House, 1958.

Twain, Mark. Innocents Abroad: The New Pilgrim’s Progress. Hartford, CT:
            American Publishing, 1869.  Digital Edition. Scituate, MA: Digital
            Scanning, 2001.

* All quotes from Swift hereby use his capitalizations unless otherwise noted.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Shadow, a Superzero

The pop-up matchbook.  Wild.
The man with mystical powers to make himself unseen, able to see into the hearts of men and darkly do good in the spiraling world of the 1930s: its quite a concept.

How apropos that our question-creating machine spit this one forth today, replete with the picture of 1994's The ShadowThis was a movie that I drooled over ahead of its release; I had the teaser poster, with its "who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men" poster on my wall; I savored every tv commercial for it (including a great one that I remember running during the M.A.N.T.I.S pilot).

Why was I so eager to see this movie?  In the year previous, I had discovered old time radio shows (then available on cassette tape by a few vendors).  The Shadow in its original radio form was a bit crude, as it was produced in the mid 1930s; the golden age for radio production being, in my estimation, from 1945 until the end of the 1950s.  Nonetheless, it was enjoyable, with a pre-Citizen Kane Orson Welles and Agnes Moorehead and the strange, almost otherworldly commercials for Blue Coal. 

I distinctly remember seeing the Alec Baldwin starrer with my brother and uncle, in a theater which is now an IHOP.  It had the pedigree of a winner: July 1 release, ample marketing campaign, Alec Baldwin 4 years removed from Red October and two years removed from Glengarry Glen Ross, a Jerry Goldsmith score, and supporting roles filled by Jonathan Winters, Peter Boyle, and Tim Curry.  Oh, and did I mention that Ian freakin McKellan is in it too?  All of that mixed with the luxurious production design and Russell Mulcahy's impressive action resume and care for a throwback, 1930s sensibility was sure to make this film a winner.


You know that sinking feeling that you can get watching a movie when you see that it simply is not working?  The one that is a result of a fundamental lack of the parts jelling?  That was watching The Shadow

It starts with a mumbo-jumbo backstory of Baldwin's Lamont Cranston in Tibet, where he learns to cloud men's minds.  So where does the bad guy come from?  The same school of thought-blocking, of course.  And its with that baddie, Shiwan Khan, that the movie creaks with its "Ah-so, meeestah Shahdow-san" use of an Asian baddie.  The Peter Boyle character, a cabbie named Moe Shrevnitz added to the radio series later in the run, feels shoe-horned in and the Jerry Goldsmith score quickly turns "craaaaazy' with its ethereal, zither-esque motif.  The production design falters under its own weight, turning from epic to feeling patently inauthentic--like they've updated the storefronts on the Universal backlot.  Fun fact: they did.  I also remember being very struck that the Shadow seems to be connected to everyone, in party by a system pneumatic tubes by which he can communicate with his agents.  It's almost a metaphor for the film: large, but not quite logical.

It's like a bat... man.
So what was the impact of The Shadow on geek culture?  I'd say for one it set back the cause of that sort of film.  It desperately wanted to be the next Batman franchise.  Look at the fingerprints: 1930s property that has been dormant; charismatic playboy by day, masked dark hero by night; lead actor played by the comic-resume-but-turning-dramatic male lead;  blonde female lead; a familiar-yet-unfamiliar city, and the Jewish comic relief (Batman's Robert Wuhl versus The Shadow's Boyle).  At this point, the Batman franchise wasn't even the Batman franchise.  We were entering the glut of excess, where studio executives envisioned the film/toy/bedspread/cereal box empire... with no care to the movie in the middle.

When it came to geek movies of the 1990s, studios needed their bacchanalia of Batman codpieces, zany Phantoms, and yes, lousy Shadows.  They needed to swear off the fat of pulp stories, so that, six years later, the same pulp sources would start to be treated earnestly and seriously.  It started with Bryan Singer's X-Men starring, ironically, the very same Ian McKellan who had moved from comic boob in The Shadow to a metaphorical Malcom X.

Thus is the legacy of The Shadow: necessary tomfoolery before the serious work began.

Monday, February 24, 2014

In Praise of "Who"

Not my grandma. 
So Grandma is from England, and despite the decision by my grandparents to not impose a strong cultural imprint upon their scions, a fair amount of the English bits have stuck.  I'm well versed in Shakespeare (my whimsical essay entitled "Zounds!: How Four Plays by the Bard Influenced Batman and Robin" being a cheeky college hit), the Beatles, tea (my favorite being Earl Grey, hot), and I've seen a genuine Officer of the Order of the British Empire perform on stage--twice (that's a knight to you common folk, and 'twas Sir Patrick Stewart performing Dickens).

Yet there's always been one area of Britannia that has tended to allude me: its television.  In my mind, most British television that has made its way to our shores was made very inexpensively (cheap sets, poor camera work, and, most naff, shot on videotape).  Yes, many a fine American program was shot on videotape, but never to the benefit of the show.  Indeed, many a late evening BBC-to-PBS program that we watched at Grandma's was basically like this:

(Yes, I've just made a sly LOST reference there.) Sometimes, if there was a laugh track, you'd know it was supposed to be funny.  Other times... perhaps it was silly, perhaps dramatic.  If the costumes were fussy, you could assume it wasn't funny.

Yet, at least the contemporary and historical offerings were earnest, albeit poorly produced by American standards (though admittedly much better acted).  There was a third category that never made sense to me: Doctor Who. I watched parts of a few episodes as a kid, usually with my uncle.  It never, ever made any god damn sense.  Not only was there the standard cultural barrier, but the god-awful effects turned the show into a veritable fever dream.

Atrocious effects, atrocious sets, strange situations, and plots making absolutely zero sens: that's what Doctor Who was to me when I was but a boy.  It worked out rather well: during the 1980s the show petered out and was cancelled... and ended up being some in-the-past cultural footnote.  

Or so I thought.

Roberts in Doctor Who.
I do vaguely remember when Fox tried to semi-reboot the series in the mid 1990s.  I say semi-reboot because series had already established that the Doctor can die and come back in another form, allowing for a new actor and new personality to portray the character in a continued continuity.  I skipped Fox's TV movie (a failed backdoor pilot), sensing that certain Fox stink to it.  I'd only learn later that the network took this quintessentially British show and gave it an American baddie in the form of Eric Roberts and shot it in Canada.  My case of the mehs only continue when the BBC formally rebooted the show in 2005.  After all, state-side, it was wholly ignored; it aired on the Sci Fi Channel 18 months after showing up in Britain.  By the time it was an American cable hit (eventually and logically making its way to BBC America--duh), it was already past me.  Where to start with a series that literally has more episodes than Star Trek, and has been on so long that some episodes have been lost to time?  

It's back! 
Luckily, the answer was, as it is with many things, Netflix.  In addition to a varied mess of older Who tv movies (or serial episodes put together as a TV movie?), it has the modern series.  It's clearly delineated:  it's called Doctor Who and it starts in 2005 and it has a bunch of seasons.  

And you know what?  It's bloody bril!  The first episode, "Rose," is a bit sluggish (as pilots are oft to be), but it does a great job spelling out the basics of the series: the Doctor travels through time and space with his companion (this time, for now, Rose) in a time machine that looks like a police call box on the outside, and a steampunky alien control room on the inside.  

It's that simple.  It's that easy to watch... provided that you just open your mind (though not like Cathica in "The Long Game," certainly!) to such things: as the end of the world in 5 billion AD as witnessed by, among others, tree people; aliens who kill Tony Blair in order to take over the world while wearing human being skins and farting excessively and to their great relief; characters with names like "the Mighty Jagrafress of the Holy Hadrajassic Maxaraddenfoe;" and a boyfriend replacement made of plastic. That last one isn't what you think it is, either; batteries not needed, as it's not a mechanical John Thomas.

The best thing about Doctor Who is that its one giant roller coaster. In one episode, it's ghosts and Charles Dickens; in the next, there's a giant head that talks a bit; after that, there's going back in time for Rose to see her father die, then Rose and the Doctor go back in time to see Rose see her father die.

Hardly being a shite-hawk, Doctor Who is quite appropriate for every cultural toff among us.

Look up!  It's the Mighty Jagrafress of the Holy Hadrajassic Maxaraddenfoe!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Whip Out Your "Spaceballs"

It's a metaphor.
Love, sweet love, is about exuberance!  About excitement!  About the impossible... made possible!  Thus I can only write of but one geekly love, one whose example shines, to paraphrase the Bard, like a star to every wand'ring ship.

The answer is Lonestar.  The film is Spaceballs.  The love is Vespa.  It... is... magic.

Do we not aspire for love to cross betwixt two houses?  Does not Lonestar, the scraggy Solo rogue of the universe, speak to the American image of being a self-made and independent man?  Does not Vespa, a princessly example of the haute femme, speak to the queenly manner that most men see in their ladies?  And does not such a mixture, that of rogue and royal, remind us of the pitfalls of courtship?

All relationships have their trials.  For some, it is moving to follow a job; for others, it is a change of independence; others still have their mountains to climb.  In Spaceballs, the love between our heroes is an interplanetary manner, what with the evil President Skroob trying to suck out all the air breathed by the lovely Druish folks on the planet of Druidia (or, as Vesba says, Dru-id-ee-ah).  In order to find their true love, Lonestar and Vespa cross hot desserts and cold space.  Together, they are strong than before; Lonestar finds his place in the universe (conveniently, he's a prince) and Vespa learns to handle a gun and sing slave spirituals.

Though for all these platitudes... let us be honest.  The emotion of love is the greatest of components for happiness, but... how does one put this delicately... is not Lonestar a man?  Does he not have manly needs?  Luckly, the film addresses this by way of... THE SCHWARTZ!  There are those who have misread the Schwartz to simply be a one-for-one copy of Star Wars' the Force.  Alas, alas! that such simple minds dare tackle great cinema!  Is not its writer/director/producer/co-star Mel Brooks of the Jewish persuasion?  Is not "schwantz" the Yiddish word for penis?  (Wikipedia says yes!)  Thus then, we see how fully Spaceballs treats love not only as an emotional act, but as a physical one as well.
"Look! It's a romantic comedy!"

Valentine's Day might be past us, but every day can be a day of love.  Treat yourself, treat your sweetie... pop out the Spaceballs for a few hours and see what happens.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Two Ships in a Small World

It's all true.
I'm sure I wasn't old enough to appreciate it: at the age of 8 or 9, receiving a first kiss on my cheek on the front steps of Calvary Church.  It meant very little, in the grand scheme of the great wide world, but it left my cheek warm and my heart beating, the way only, perhaps, a first kiss can.

Her name, which I have changed for reasons which will become obvious as this story goes on, wasn't a particularly lyrical one.  To call her Rosie Mae Marks is an improvement.  I suppose we were in the same Sunday school class--that must have been how we knew each other before whatever evening church function facilitated the kiss beneath an enveloping, starry sky.  She was the middle of three sisters--girls that my family knew in the way church families become once-a-week friends.  Rosie had an older sister, lovely with glowing apple cheeks, named Leia.  (It was around this time that my brother and I discovered Star Wars; we got quite a kick out of her name.)  Rosie had a younger sister as well, and the ten-and-twenty plus years that span this story have erased her true name from my memory; we'll call her Molly.  Molly was, as I recall from those church days, one of those plump, cherubic girls of about 5 who could truly and objectively live up to the adjective "cute."

The three Marks girls seemed like a hopefully mirror to my own family, what with two girls the ages of myself and my brother, and the big sister I had always wanted.  Add to that the fact that their father had a very, very impressive job: he owned a fishing boat.  Not a boat from which one casually fished, mind you.  It was a boat from which fish were commercially harvested.  It was named, in fact, "Rosie Mae;" Mr. Marks would captain the trawler out of Point Pleasant inslet every day, on the search for a bounty from the sea.  The job seemed important and romantic--man at one with nature, being part of the circle of life, being amidst nature.  It seemed like wholesome, honest work done.

That the boat was named for his middle daughter struck me as oddly unfair to the other two, particularly when I was 8 or 9.

The name stuck with me.

We weren't at the church for more than 4 or 5 years as I recall, the product of my mother's constant look for "the perfect church" and her strange resistance to the truth of church matters: any congregation of humans will include imperfection.  Yet, as it turned out, we lived in the same down as the Marks family.  And Rosie, having been in my Sunday school class, also logically turned out to be in my grade at school.  In middle school, we must have passed each other in the hall, or perhaps had the same gym class.  If so, I don't remember it--but I did always remember her.

As the classes got harder and we children became young men and women, wewere necessarily and eventually moved into future paths.  I was en route to an academic existence.  In high school, I had honors classes; Rosie took to wearing her hair long and mussed, to wearing strange knit hats and ducking out at lunch to the nearby shop which, being one hundred and one feet from the school, was a legal haven for smokers of all sorts.

Our paths continued to diverge, of course.  Perhaps she would have faded from all memory... if not for the strangest of turns.

My senior year, I rather stepped into a new direction, and with it came some new friends.  One was named Becky, who seemed to have a very lackadaisical home life.  Not without structure, of course, but no real oomph to it all.  Hers was the house where one could easily have 10 people over for moderate-to-heavy drinking, with mom and dad for the night but vaguely supportive of a small, quiet, no-driving get-together.

Life for Becky's father was, as it turned out, not easy.  That spring he revealed he had been cheating on his wife (and by emotional extension, his daughters) with another woman.  Pain, anger, grief welled up in the family, as can be expected in a time like that.  What happened next was not expected: a month later, he went over his mistress' home, took out a revolver, and blew his brains out all over her kitchen table.  Words, doubtless, do not suffice to describe the exponential growth of pain, anger, and grief experienced by Becky, her sister, and their mother.  Yet, as time went on, the remaining family grew closer, as can be expected.

One August evening, a few months after my high school graduation and many weeks after her father's suicide, Becky and I found ourselves parked (platonically, thank you very much) at the Point Pleasant inslet.  We were there for lack of anything better to do, and having a fine time talking about nothing.  Becky, doubtless, was smoking; I, doubtless, was trying to avoid it.  Boats, large and small, were in the inslet.  Pleasure craft were coming back from a day of sun-baked frivolity. Party boats, filled with paying customers out to fish in the ocean, were on their way out.

So too were the trawlers.  She pointed one out in particular: the Rosie May.

"You graduated with Rosie May Marks, didn't you?" she asked.

I said I did.

"Her father is a fisherman.  That's his boat.  He's got a wife and other daughters..."  This much I knew of course.  I wondered if she was reflecting on her own father, who had himself a wife and daughters.

Yet at that particular moment, the strange turn was taken.  Becky continued in a hazy sort of voice. "My mom and I have been talking a lot since... you know, my dad.  She said that when she was 18, she dated Mr. Marks.  This was before he met his wife.  She got pregnant.  You know, from him.  They decided to give it up for adoption."

Becky took a drag on her cigarette.  "So I guess I have some half sister out there, somewhere.  My mom's first kid.  Mr. Marks' first kid.  A kid no one knows about."

I suppose Becky could have met her half-sister a dozen times over.  Perhaps I have.  Perhaps Rosie Mae has as well.  None of us would have known it.  Perhaps that speaks to us living in a cold, distant world.  One daughter has a fine, upstanding father... until his sexual indiscretions catch up and it ends with a funeral. One daughter has a fine, upstanding father... until his sexual indiscretions get retold on a black August night and it ends with no consequences.

Perhaps I have a grim sense of connectivity, though, for I don't see it as an example of a callous existence.  There is something reassuring about knowing Rosie May as a child, and vaguely as a teen... and seeing her father's boat heading out into the ocean this very day.  Thinking of his secret child.  His family, incomplete.

It is, after all, a small world.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Spin Off It, Happy Days! Eyyy!

"These days are ouuuuuuurs!"
I hated Spider-Man 3 and, between you and me, will only see The New Adventures of Old Spider-Man (or whatever the new one staring Friend From Social Network is called) if the PhGeek crew goes along.  It is, you see, podcast fodder, and a chance to hang out.  Furthermore, it seems that Sony has decided to follow Paramount's Star Trek model: keep squeezing blood from the stone.  But is it too soon?  Perhaps--though it isn't my hundreds of millions of dollars, and the fact that I'm vaguely open to seeing it (at the movies, on iTunes, or as a freebee Redbox rental) suggests that it isn't too soon.

What would have been too soon is the spinoff--and worse, a concurrent spinoff.  The greatest offender of this?  None other than... HAPPY DAYS.

That's right: the cheery show upon which I grew up watching the syndicated reruns; the show that painted its smiling picture of midwest, mid-century Americana.  It was, during its time, a hit-making machine, whereby any possible show was connected to it for spinoff glory and gold.  Consider, if you will, that Happy Days was on for eleven seasons.  How many spinoffs could come from that?  The shocking answer: a whopping seven series, though, as you'll see below, the number might rightly be called eight.  Blood from the stone?  How about separating the stone into little pieces, then getting blood from the stone?

Ice pop this time, next time....
The first spinoff was Laverne and Shirley, and it certainly didn't spin very far: whereas Happy Days took place in late 50s/early 60s Milwaukee, both Laverne and Shirley live in... early 60s Milwaukee.  Indeed, the connection between the two shows was organic, as the gals were friends with Fonzie, and easily introduced on the mothership show.  Further, appearances by Fonzie et al were made exceedingly easy, given that they were in the same local (and indeed, next door neighbors on their sound stages).  The show lasted 8 seasons (albeit without Shirley, but still called Laverne and Shirley, for most of the last season).  Ironically series finale was a backdoor pilot for an unproduced spinoff... of a spinoff.
The second spinoff started to stretch things.  It starts with a freshening premise: Happy Days season 5, needing a new idea, takes a twist on My Favorite Martian with "My Favorite Orkan," in which Mork from Ork visits chaos upon Richie... albeit under the "and you were there, and you were there" hook of it being all a dream.  The character was so popular that the spinoff Mork and Mindy was created... this time setting the show in the contemporary 1970s, thereby closing the door to cross-series interaction--or so you'd think.  With the creation of the show, a new scene was shot to be added to reruns of "My Favorite Orkan," explaining that Mork would be going to 1978 to continue his research.  In essence, more Mork was retconned into Happy Days.  Further, Mork went back to the past in a later Happy Days episode... to facilitate a clip show.   Mork and Mindy lasted four seasons; interestingly, it was the #3 show on television in its first year.

The third live action spinoff (why live action?  Just wait, dear reader....) was the ill-fated Joanie Loves Chachi, of which neither she nor we did.  It seemed well stocked, for not only did Joanie Cunningham and the proto-Fonzie and cousin-of-the-same Chachi make the leap from the mothership to a new show, but so did Chachi's mother Louisa and stepfather and owner of Arnold's drive-in, Al.  Yet lest Scott Baio be nailing a decade's worth (or two) of Playmates or playing Charles, ever in charge, he's not much of a draw.  The show lasted two seasons--which is to say, a scant 17 episodes en toto.  The mothership-to-spinoff characters were returned to Happy Days the following and final season.

Fourth, we come to Out of the Blue, whose existence as a spinoff seems debatable--if one cares to debate it. First, a description from its Wikipedia page: "The series stars Jimmy Brogan as Random, an angel-in-training who is assigned to live with (and act as guardian angel for) a family and work as a high school teacher." Yes, I'm sure it's as awful as it sounds.  Further, it seems that somewhere along the way, its spinoff launch went sour.  The second episode of Happy Days' seventh season is called "Chachi Sells His Soul," wherein he interacts with sed angelic Random.  The only problem is that Out of the Blue, as a series, started over a week earlier.  The show lasted one season of 13 episodes... of which 9 were aired.

Least, but certainly not last (why not last? Just wait, dear reader...) is Blansky's Beauties, which has quite the sloppy little start.  First, a bit about the show.  The show's premise was the Blansky was a den mother of sorts to a bevy of Las Vegas showgirl beauties.  Yes, I'm sure it was thrilling.  A week before the show aired, title character Nancy Blanksy appeared on Happy Days.  Not so difficult, is it?  The only problem is that her own show took place in the late 1970s--thus without the virtue of Mork-esque time travel, the show spun off without aging 20 years.  This sloppy time warp continued: the motorcyclist and ladyfriend of Fonzie named Pinky appeared in Blansky's Beauties, albeit with 70s hair but no aging; further, Arnold of Arnold's drive-in, became a series regular here--again, having not aged at all.  Lastly, while not strictly sloppy time travel, two actors from the show would move to Happy Days, albeit as different characters... including Scott Baio, who turned into the afore-metioned Chachi.

And now we have completed the live action spinoffs.  But wait, there's more: the wonderful, strange world of Happy Days ANIMATION.  There were three shows... which sound like less, but were not.  First is the innocuous-sounding The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang, featuring the voices of the Fonz, Richie, and Ralph.  And more.  As per the Wikipedia article, "The cartoon added an anthropomorphic dog, Mr. Cool, and a girl from the future, Cupcake, to the cast as they travel through history in a time machine, trying, as narrator Wolfman Jack put it, ' get back to 1957 Milwaukee.' Let's just repeat that, shall we?  They take the gang from Happy Days and add... Mr. Cool, a dog, and Cupcake, a future girl.  It's an embarrassing notion.  It lasted two seasons and 24 episodes--not a bad run for animation before syndication and cable. 

But that wasn't the end for animated Fonz, nor for Mr. Cool.  But first, we must turn our attention to the animated Laverne and Shirley, in which they joined the army.  Anthropomorphicism ruled, for the ladies served under the command of Sgt. Squeel, a talking pig.  That series lasted one season and 13 episodes... but still, spinoffs did not end!

Finally, truly, we come to an odd creation, an hour-long creation called Mork & Mindy/Laverne & Shirley/Fonz Hour, made up of two parts: Mork and Mindy's animated adventures (called simply Mork and Mindy), and a second half called Laverne and Shirley with the Fonz).  In the latter portion, Fonz and Mr. Cool are part of the army motor pool.  At long last, talking pigs and dogs were serving in the army.  Sadly, and oddly, the latter portion didn't last too long, as the actress playing Shirley left both her animated and live action realm, shuttered the animated series after 8 episodes.  However, the animated Mork & Mindy lasted 24 episodes... leading the whole entire hour to recycle its second half for a total of three cycles.

And that seems like the best way to end the topic of excessive spinoffs: with an animated hour, itself a spinoff of... how many spinoffs? The animated hour came from two other animated shows, each, as wells at the Mork animation, sourced from three main shows, two of which were spinoffs themselves from Happy Days....

But did I mention that, strictly speaking, Happy Days was a spinoff?  The unsold pilot for New Family in Town aired on Love, American Style under the title Love and the Happy Days... which was spun-off to become... Happy Days.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Magic, Still Kicking

When I was but a boy, middle school started in 5th grade.  Things were different in Memorial Middle School: an earlier start time, gym every day, and a new type of health class.

Gone was the in-class instruction done by a short haired woman teaching from a cart: now, in the big leaves, was instruction done in the health room by a short haired woman teaching from a cart!  The message had changed too.  We no longer talked about having lots of veggies and how cigarettes can make your lungs turn black.

Instead, there was a new whisper in the wind: s-e-x.  And, in the early 1990s, there was a new crypt keeper in town: AIDS, which, as it turned out, wasn't just for those types anymore.  Anyone could get it.  Get it and die.  AIDS, we were told by the curly-haired health teacher who smoked cigarettes by the carton in her car, would take you from the prime of your life and wipe it all away... to nothingness!  And who was the poster child for such loss?

Irving "Magic" Johnson.  He was, we were told, perpetually about to die.  Coincidentally (or not), white, upper middle class health teachers also found in him the perfect stereotype of lust: an inner city black man whose aspirations were always physical.  (No matter that grew up in a stable, two income, two parent home in the state capital, nor that his goal when entering college was to get a degree.  Such things were not a concern to health teachers at the time.)

Now, because health teachers are generally the least ambitious of the entire profession ("Oh, I want to talk to my coworkers today.  Dodgeball, everyone!  Tweet!"), we heard the same message each year: Magic Johnson Will Die!  Soon!!  To be fair, there was precious little in terms of AIDS research at the time.  This was, if you'll remember, a time concurrent with Ryan White and the start of public figures wearing red ribbons; a bit of confusion was to be expected.

Nonetheless, here we are an astonishing twenty one years later.  Middle school me would doubtless be surprised to hear that Magic is alive.  He did not die during the 1992 NBA All-Star Game (where he played, despite numerous players being concerned about him being either gay or about to spontaneously shoot AIDS upon then), but rather one the MVP and the game. He has been a partial owner of the Lakers, in charge of his own $700 million dollar business called Magic Johnson Enterprises, and now is part of the Dodgers ownership group.  (Perhaps Admiral Piet can supply the figures as to how many other baseball teams have partial ownership by a black man, a further note on how things have changed since 1947.)

It is probably fair to say that at age 59, Magic Johnson will likely die somewhat earlier than would have been his appointed time, and that it will likely be due to having contracted HIV.  (Back in those heady days of middle school, a minor distinction was made between HIV and AIDS, as when you caught the former, you'd catch the latter soon enough, we were told.)  Nonetheless, his life has been far from the racially-tinged story of woe told over and over to me and my middle school peers.

Hop on your Delorean and go ask me at age 11.  If you told me he was still kicking in 2012, I'd say it was like magic.

Monday, January 20, 2014

You Can't Take the Sky From Me

I know how difficult it must be to get a television show on the air.  It seems most shows start with a low number of people--say anywhere from 1-5--who are the voice of the show.  They love it as a child, and their vision is one of perfection.  Then in come the others; sometimes its the moneypeople, sometimes the network brass, sometimes other, more vaunted producers.  But to actually get a show on the air, particularly one that has a unique vision, is increasingly rare.  That goes double for network TV.  So to triumph over those odds must be a special achievement indeed.

Then the network mishandles your show and kills it.

That's the story of Firely, Joss Whedon's scifi/western love letter to the very best of TV.  It was a nearly perfect show for network TV in so many ways.  A nice, big cast, sufficiently multiracial.  An incredible main setpiece: the namesake-class ship Serenity featured the bridge, living area, cargo bay, and more all on a larger film soundstage, allowing for the entire set to be connected as one home for the show.  Despite its scifi set-up, it was also equally dedicated to its western--which is to say American folklore--background.  Our hero, Mal Reynolds, was more solo space cowboy than Han, but somehow sadder and more alone. The list goes on, because it's a great cast of a characters: a priest, a prostitute, a dim-witted gunman (of sorts), a doctor, a girly-girl engineer, and the mysterious young lady.

Yes, on the one hand, it sounds like Ford's StagecoachBut that's the point! Firefly was America--it was meant to be us!  It was meant to capture our world and transport it to another time and another place, and in that time and place we could find ourselves.

The entire series consists of 14 episode.  There are a few in the beginning that are a tad wobbly, as the show finds its feet ("The Train Job" comes to mind.")  There are a few in the middle which are good, silly fun ("Jaynestown" comes to mind.)

Yet after that middle, the show finds its brilliance.  "Out of Gas" is an incredible episode--essentially a flashback pilot episode, except it takes us before the series started and shows us how everyone got to where they are.  "Objects in Space" is the series finale.  It's surreal and strange and wonderful.  It's heartbreaking, because its the last of the show.

Now yes, yes, I can hear the naysayers: but it got its second chance.  It got its movie--a movie which did alright, but not enough to justify more TV or more movies.  To that, I have no answer.  I'm no Hollywood beancounter.  I watch smart TV.  It's usually entertaining (Survivor), it's often depressing (The Walking Dead), but its always smart.  Looking at the renewal plight of Alcatraz, I know that part of the problem is that too few of us watch smart television; that's why The Voice is a smash hit, and Mad Men is a boutique show enjoyed by 2 million people.

All I know is that Firefly represented a dream--not just a dream of Joss Whedon to transplant the Western motif into space, but a dream about the kind of television that should be on.  And there's the great irony: that TV is ultimately in the hands of those beancounters, people more loyal to corporate bosses then creating great dramatic presentations.  There is, I suppose, a certain irony in Firefly's lyrics, since all we're left with us the great sky-dream of the show:

Lost my love, lost my land
Lost the last place I could stand
There's no place I can be
Since I've found Serenity

And you can't take the sky from me.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Knight Industries Two Thousand

Robot friend. It's something that has been considered ever since the Čapek brothers first stared throwing around the word robot. Yet there are a few things to consider before picking your robot friend.

First, let's not forget the basic point of view when it comes to technology in general and extrapolate towards a robot. Why did the VHS format overtake the superior Betamax system in the battle for home video systems? Pornography was more available on VHS. What helped fuel growth of the internet in the 1990s? Ever-increasing pornography. Why would a robot friend in human form be any different--would not it be used for the same lascivious purposes? Indeed, this has already been foretold in the... un-landmark episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled "The Naked Now." Made effectively drunk by a virus ripped off from the original Star Trek, Tasha Yar ensnares the android Mr. Data. She inquires if he is fully functional in every way. He replies in the affirmative, and lasciviousness ensues. At any rate, a robot must not be in too familiar a form.

So then we should have a robot which is a bit more mechanical looking. But what about it's internal security? I'm a fan of the film Lost in Space, perhaps because it has the two things that make Heather Graham great (hint: it's not her ability to deliver dialogue and look emotive). At any rate, the robot, called Robot, was an imposing creation that could mind the environmental controls, wheel about on cool treads, shoot a laser beam, AND declare "Danger, Will Robinson!" The downside though was its security. Once reprogrammed by that pesky Dr. Smith, the robot (or Robot, if you prefer the proper noun) attempted to shoot and kill the family. Same thing with Johnny Five from Short Circuit--too much "I want to kill you" and not enough "I want to help you fold laundry." (A brief digression: isn't Short Circuit 2 superior to the original?)

Let us then get the meat and potatoes of it all: our robot friend must be thoughtful, intelligent, human-sounding, not in human form, and non-lethal. I'll add to it that if the robot friend is of appropriate intelligence, there should be some sort of space made to prevent it from interrupting when you're in your bedroom with that hot girl who can fix cars and complain about Michael Bay (see Sam Witwicky vs Optimus Prime). Thus we come to the greatest of all possible robot friends: KITT from Knight Rider. His intelligence and wit will keep one thoroughly occupied and amused--and, for long car rides, he'll both drive and play chess with you. Also, like any good friend, he'll make sure you're safe. Bullets are no problem (tires included), and he comes with wifi, video chat, and a sun roof. KITT is kind and inquisitive, but not in an annoying Mr. Data sort of way; can one imagine asking KITT how long it will take to get to Albuquerque and being told "4 hours, 8 minutes, 15 seconds"? Of course not--he'd say "A little over 4 hours, Matthew."

KITT: the robot I'd recommend.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Wither Thee, Pizza?

Arguably the best in town.
I feel for those whose pizza experience is limited to Dominos, Pizza Hut, and Papa Johns.  You see, when it comes to the food once called a "circular Italian food object" by future Oscar winner Tim Robbins in the weighty film Howard the Duck, I've been blessed.  In my hometown, there are a number of real pizzerias, with real people making real food.  (Spoiler: all the Dominos dough everywhere is trucked in, having been made in a factory.)  Growing up, there were two titans of pizza; both were manned (literally--with no female workers during my childhood) by manly men born in Italy and transplanted to coastal New Jersey.  Both were owned by men with thick accents, who's voices spoke of authentic Italian cuisine.  (Yes, fine, pizza as we know it is actually American.)  Sadly, now are both in decline.  Why?

Let's start with Pat's Pizza, having been created and owned by Pasquale, a thin, smiling man whose teeth showed much metal and a heart of gold.  His was the pizzeria where the many workers were always happy to make a standard pie with toppings; or a Sicilian pie, square and squat in its own sheen of grease; or a sub (aka the hoagie or grinder); or mozzarella sticks.  To enter into the store was to hear a delightful din of workers talking, of the television set showing either the news or football de Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio. The only way to not hear such a din was to go most evenings, or any weekend day or night.  The crowd, pressing to the door, could make space in front of the counter a tight proposition.  Those of us in the know knew to bypass the line and stand towards the back of the crowd near the counter area.  Invariably, you'd catch the eye of a worker who would ask, "Whadyaget?" and you'd be back in your car, hot pie next to you, before the newbies knew what was what.

About four years ago, tragedy struck.  No, Pasquale didn't die, nor was there a fire.  Rather, the eponymously nicknamed owner of Pat's Pizza retired, with the intention of taking all his marbles and going back to Italy.  Signs of change had been in the air for a while: about two years prior, his daughter had started to work the register and phone (a female! behind the counter! la liberazione delle ragazze è arrival!).  His daughter, una principessa italiana who started working there while attending high school in town, was always efficient and cordial, but clearly lacked the enthusiasm of... of what?  Of taking pizza orders all day?  Of the family business?  Perhaps she lacked the enthusiasm of a future prospect: being behind the same counter for a generation and beyond, just as her father had done.  But I digress: one day, a sign was posted, saying goodbye from Pat and his family.  Shock went throughout the town.  A coworker and I literally sat in her office and pondered a world without Pat's Pizza.  

As it turned out, Pat's Pizza wasn't closing: instead, our English-as-a-second-language friend Pasquale had written the sign to say goodbye from his family's ownership of the business.  (Apparently neither the daughter nor the sons relished a prospect of food service for a lifetime.)  Pat's Pizza is still there, and probably the best pizza in down. Still, it's a bit different somehow... it lacks a certain pizazz.  Was there some post-Pasquale tweak in the recipe?  Or does the lack of that metal, toothy smile have some subtle effect when one chows down at home?

This is all contrasted by the rival pizzeria, Vesuvios.  It is co-owned by a mousy, mustachioed man named Dominic and his burly, loud, bulldog-faced roommate.  What is the name of the latter gentleman?  I don't know.  Such is the terror that one has with the man, having grown up going to his pizzeria.  One does not name the four horsemen, beyond their vocation; nor does one name the giant pizza-making Italian.  

The menu and Vesuvios is simple: they make pizza.  They put toppings on it.  They sell fountain soda--the same four flavors for my whole life: Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, root beer, and orange soda.  That's it.  Either Dominic or the Giant makes the pizza, standing at the counter and throwing the dough.  As a child, it was an endlessly fascinating thing to watch.  More recently, I just scurry in and out, lucky to have gotten a pie without being yelled at.  Case in point as to their customer service: last winter, as a terrible snowstorm was descending on us, I ordered a pie.  It was to act not only as dinner, but as lunch the next day; further, it was to be a stopgap just in case we were snowbound a few days and our refrigerated food needed to stretch a tad more.  I walked to Vesuvios; on a clear day, it takes five minutes.  With the snow, it was doubled--but still better than driving.  When I walked in, I was covered with snow, and Dominic and the Giant just stared at me--as though I was the jackass for braving the storm to their pizzeria which was open during the blizzard.  (The snow ended up being so bad that their sign, aloft for 40 years, was torn down.)  

The interesting thing is that it was around that time that their pizza started to decline.  At first, I wasn't really aware of it.  We don't get pizza that very often, and when we do, it's generally split between a few different places.  (A third pizzeria, Cuzzins, is our go-to place when we are inclined to use a debit card.  Neither Pats nor Vesuvios takes cards, though the latter has a paper sign posted saying "CASH ONLY. No credit cards or checks.")  Most recently, the pie has been smaller than usual; it no longer touches the sides of the box.  The cheese somehow seems to float on the sauce, rather than encapsulate the tomato paste.  It looks hastily-made, as though the disdain that the Giant clearly has for all who walk through the door is starting to show in his vocation.  Perhaps Dominic and the Giant are merely tired of their decades in the business, going from the downstairs pizzeria to their upstairs apartment.  (Read into that what you may, though as good Catholics from il paese de il papa, I doubt there is much inespresso amore fisico.)  Perhaps I've just hit them at a tired stretch: this is the time of year when, rather surprisingly, they shutter the business for two weeks in order to go on vacation to their homeland.  

Believe in a pizza future? Yes we can!
Nonetheless... it does make me truly a bit wistful to think that these two pillars of pizza, Pats and Vesuvios, have fallen into relative (the former) or perhaps true (the latter) decline.  Pizza--great pizza--is a wonderful culinary treat.  Simple pizza, your Dominos and Pizza Huts and Papa Johns of the world, is a tasty treat... but food, not a meal.  If we can't count on our local, Italian-run pizzerias to bring us the very best in "circular Italian food objects," what can we count on?  It calls into question democracy and security and gravity.  

Wither thee, pizza?